Gaza, Tribal Politics and Collective Guilt

By Joseph Levine

Israel’s current assault on Gaza has sparked controversy in the mainstream press. But for all their differences, critics and supporters share a fundamental assumption: that Israel, as a Western industrial democracy, accepts the Enlightenment idea of the absolute value of individual human lives, and recognizes the inalienable rights that stem from it. Against this background, Israeli officials are seen as facing a tragic dilemma: how to confront threatening forces who do not share these values – "Islamic extremists" — without sacrificing their own moral standards. Thus, supporters of the action in Gaza ask how else but with deadly military force can Israel protect its citizens from rocket attacks, while the critics insist that the bombing, with its high human costs, is anyway a poor means of ensuring Israel’s security. The critics, of course, are correct. But in their tacit endorsement of the "clash-of-cultures" frame, they let Israel off the moral hook. The current assault is not governed by a painful recognition of conflicting demands of human rights; rather it is animated by profound racism, tribalism, and the ancient doctrine of collective guilt.

To see why I say this it is only necessary to engage in a simple thought experiment. Suppose Hamas terrorists were hiding out in Tel Aviv (or Los Angeles, or London, for that matter — the exercise is equally illuminating applied to the U.S. and or any other "civilized" Western state). Would an assault of the sort we have seen against Gaza even be contemplated? Would Israeli officials grimly but dispassionately calculate the cost-benefit ratio concerning a massive aerial assault on Jewish neighborhoods? Would American and European officials condone such an attack? Would the pundits express their sympathy with Israel’s terrible dilemma? Of course not! The very idea of such an action would be recognized immediately as morally outrageous, and anyone who proposed it would be treated with contempt. You can hear the voices: What, are we just like Hamas? They don’t respect human life, but we do.

Except, of course, "we" — members of the self-consciously enlightened West — don’t – any more than "they" do. If we really acted out of the values we claim to espouse, then there would be no asymmetry in our reactions to the suggestion in the thought-experiment. Either we would acquiesce in the decision to sacrifice the people of a Tel Aviv neighborhood for the sake of the greater good, or – more likely – we would have to see Israel’s current assault against Gaza as morally out of bounds. The fact that the cases do not immediately strike us as parallel– a regrettable necessity in one case, a moral atrocity in another – betrays the existence in us of two very primitive, anti-Enlightenment impulses: racial/tribal chauvinism, and a belief in collective guilt.

The first one is obvious. If we are honest, we’ll admit that the men, women, and children of Gaza seem different from Israeli Jews and other "Westerners" – they are "Other," not fully human. We vehemently disavow such judgments, of course. But if we don’t believe it, what explains the result of the thought experiment? Why would we not be willing to kill hundreds of "us" in order to protect the rest, when we are prepared to kill as many as necessary of them? It’s simple: they just don’t count as much as we do.

But maybe not. Someone might object that there is a morally relevant difference between the two populations: because Hamas is a Palestinian organization, it is morally justifiable to put Palestinian lives at risk in order to protect Israeli citizens. But this objection simply lays bare the second anti-Enlightenment element in the modern Western psyche: the notion of collective guilt. But why should the mere fact that Hamas is Palestinian justify imperiling the lives of Palestinians who are not Hamas fighters, who are not personally responsible for the terrorist acts the organization commits? It is only if one believes that all Palestinians are made guilty in some way, simply by — how else to put it?  — being of the same tribe as Hamas. How else can one find a basis for distinguishing between potential victims who are innocent and Palestinian and those who are innocent and like "us?"

Collective guilt is a notion that is as morally primitive and abhorrent as any of the ideas supposedly espoused by "religious extremists." This is why collective punishment is prohibited by international law. Moreover, embracing the doctrine of collective guilt means abandoning the moral high ground. Terrorists always appeal to the notion in justifying the taking of life. Al Qaeda viewed the victims of the World Trade Center bombings as minions of the Great Satan, just as Hamas views its victims as collaborators in the occupation. If we wish to repudiate such thinking, we must not indulge it in ourselves.  

Once we give up belief in collective guilt and relinquish allegiance to the tribe, there is nothing left to distinguish the very real victims of Israel’s assault on Gaza from the imagined victims in my thought experiment. Indeed there is no morally relevant difference. Vociferous outrage is the only humanly decent response to Israel’s brutal assault. It is what’s demanded by those Western, Enlightenment values we all supposedly hold dear.

– Joseph Levine is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He contributed this article to

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