Questions for Amos Oz

By Anjum Altaf

Here are two disappointing questions with which Amos Oz, the grandfather of Israeli peaceniks, began a recent interview:

QUESTION 1: What would you do if your neighbor across the street sits down on the balcony, puts his little boy on his lap, and starts shooting machine-gun fire into your nursery?

QUESTION 2: What would you do if your neighbor across the street digs a tunnel from his nursery to your nursery in order to blow up your home or in order to kidnap your family?

The way this comes across is as if everything was going along swimmingly, we were the greatest of friends, and suddenly I discover you are sitting in your balcony pointing a machine-gun or digging a tunnel into my nursery.

Clearly that’s not the way it is.

Leave aside the contentious history stretching back decades about who’s sitting in whose balcony at the end of the tunnel. A few weeks ago three Israeli boys were kidnapped and murdered. In a law-abiding society one would expect a search for the kidnappers and murderers. One would not expect an exhaustive retaliation against all those in any way related or connected to those suspected of the crime.

Try and imagine this in any other country that aspires to be judged as civilized. This kind of response would be inconceivable and unacceptable. It would be a throwback to at least a hundred years in the past.

Therefore, might one conclude that the motivation was not to bring murderers to justice but something else? What that might be we could leave to the analysts. It could be a political calculus aimed to alter the trajectory of some dynamic in favor of another. But it could also reflect the belief that fine distinctions are no longer relevant, that all Palestinians are murderers and that all unborn Palestinians are potential murderers.

I hope you would agree that such a belief is to be resisted, that its encouragement is to be resisted, that its spread contains the seeds of the kind of madness we have witnessed and suffered from in the past.

In Pakistan, we have seen some factions of the Taliban training children as suicide bombers. Some groups in Hamas might be doing the same in Gaza. But can that justify eliminating all the children who might possibly become suicide-bombers in the future?

We had asked this question earlier in the context of the Taliban in Pakistan:

The Americans and the Pakistanis are at war with Baitullah Mehsud. Assume that Baitullah Mehsud is guilty of war crimes. Does that justify the killing of Baitullah Mehsud’s wife as the Americans have done with a missile strike?

One central question is clearly that of collateral damage and the extent of it that can be plausibly justified. Is it justifiable in the present conflict in Gaza to consider all Palestinians, or all Arabs as some have done, as terrorists and thereby acceptable as collateral damage? If not, should there be sanctions on those propagating and encouraging such a view?

This is not to say that such a situation may be inconceivable. John Gray, in his review of Amartya Sen’s The Idea of Justice, presents the following moral dilemma:

On any reasonable view, Allied saturation bombing of German cities in the Second World War inflicted severe injustice on civilian populations. A Nazi victory, on the other hand, would have spelt the complete death of justice in Europe. Leaving to one side the case that Allied bombing made that dreadful outcome less likely – despite clever-silly arguments to the contrary, I believe it may have helped – there is here an intractable moral dilemma. However one describes this dilemma – as a quasi-utilitarian trade-off between injustices of differing degrees of severity, or a tragic choice in which the injustices involved were of such different kinds as to be incomparable – one thing is clear: a readiness on the part of the Allies to sanction grave injustice was a precondition of any kind of justice surviving in Europe, and perhaps the world.

The question is whether the intentions and actions of Hamas can be considered equivalent to those of Hitler with the same potentially catastrophic outcomes for the region and the world to justify recourse to the kind of saturation bombing the Allies rained on German cities? Once again, an honest answer would have to make fine distinctions of scale and balance of power.

In Pakistan, we have seen how cynical and calculated manipulation of the tribal areas and its people over decades has evolved into the problems we face today. I was at a meeting once when a representative of the state was asked why the areas had remained so undeveloped and underserved half a century after the creation of the country. A lack of financial resources was the proffered answer. Could any semi-intelligent person take that answer seriously? No resources for a population of no more than three million people in a country where billions of dollars in assistance have disappeared and billions of Rupees in taxpayer money have been consumed by little-used motorways?

Is that really the way towards inclusive development or even, to be cynical, to buy peace? Isn’t Gaza like the tribal areas in Pakistan, just even more bottled up because of inability of the residents to escape their misery? Is there a real argument that reasonable, serious people were not able to think of a better way to buy peace in Israel?

It would be difficult to make such an argument honestly and therefore one has to ask what has been driving the decisions of the leaders who wish the best for Israel. Here, for consideration, is the answer offered by Ron Rosenbaum for what might have motivated Hitler:

Hitler didn’t lose the war. Not the war Evans argues was most important to him: the racial war. Hitler won that war. Six million to one. Yes, he committed suicide at the end. (And yes, 50 million others lost their lives so he could win the part of the war he cared about most. Collateral damage.)

Thinking about that suicide now, in the light of 9/11 and the subsequent exaltations of suicide bombing on messianic, theological grounds, does in fact offer a radical new way of characterizing Hitler. In retrospect at least, it’s tempting to argue that Hitler was, if not the first, then by far history’s greatest single suicide bomber. He blew up Europe to kill the Jews in it, even if it meant killing himself and tens of millions of others in the end.

In looking at two sets of suicide-bombers, is it conceivable we might be looking for the next-greatest ones in the wrong enclave? And could that enclave be a mental and not a physical one?

Anjum Altaf is dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.

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8 Responses to “Questions for Amos Oz”

  1. Kabir Mohan Says:

    I think that the main problem with Amos Oz’s questions is that they don’t acknowledge the fact that the founding of the Israeli state necessitated the dispossession of thousands of Palestinians from their homes. The whole analogy of “your neighbor’s house” is flawed. The root cause of the conflict is the Occupation (or even the Nakba of 1948), which has been going on long before Hamas. Also, the Palestinians in the West Bank are not shooting rockets at Israel, yet Israel continues to build more and more Jewish-only settlements on their land.

    Your point about “collective punishment” is very important. Without defending Hamas or the rockets that they fire at Israeli civilians, one needs to consider the proportionality (or lack thereof) of Israel’s response. A distinction must be made between Hamas and the residents of Gaza. Your analogy about Baitullah’s wife provides food for thought. I believe that there is no justification for going after the families of terrorists unless one has specific charges against them as well.

    The reference to the Pakistani case is also apt. Currently, the Pakistani Army is engaged in fighting the TTP in North Waziristan. However, it is not going after those residents of FATA who are not TTP. Neither is it going after the wives and children of TTP members. If it did so, it would deserve the exact same international outcry that there is against the IDF.

    I share your disappointment that even Amos Oz, who is considered to be on the extreme liberal end of the Israeli spectrum, would frame his argument in this disingenuous fashion.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Kabir: I didn’t wish to get into historical rights and wrongs on which people have entrenched positions. I wanted to highlight the moral issue of collateral damage and relate it to current parallels in South Asia and earlier examples from Europe so we could see things in perspective and engage in a conversation. This would ultimately transition to practical considerations of ‘Just War,’ something Professor Christine Habbard teaches the theory of at LUMS (a great course, I can add). I will try and see if she can comment though being a Kantian we can anticipate what she might say:

      ham ne to un se kaliiyaaN maangiiN theeN kaantoN ka haar mila
      (jaaney woh kaisey log they jin ke pyar ko pyar mila)

  2. ramblinginthecity Says:

    I happened to visit Berlin this summer where we reflected on the perils of fascism, racism and armchair intellectualism. I happened to return to an India charged with simmering communal hatred, racism and bigotry because closet hatemongers now feel safe in voicing their opinions with a right wing government at the helm. And then the bombing of Gaza began. Personally, while I read this blog and many other insightful and informative analyses from across the world, I ask myself- why is tolerance out of fashion, why are pacifists being pushed to the side, being labelled as inept and soft and naive and stupid and being asked to shut up? Do people not want to live safe and reasonably happy lives any more? Or is it that those who are already safe are stoking the fires, knowing that those who bear the consequences will be other, poorer, less empowered folks? My questions may seem simplistic, but do try and reflect- perhaps there is something wrong with a race that is so immersed in the pursuit of self-destruction!

  3. ijaz Says:

    A very pertinent and thought provoking article especially in the South Asian context, where , neighbors are poised not only with their children in and around their laps, but with nuclear weapons pointing at each other instead of machine guns!

    Amos himself does not have the answers, to the question he poses. He poses them to help us realize, the the difficulties of decision making in the context of security and survival.

    To understand him better, it will be useful to read the transcript of his interview as well….

    It seems that for ordinary people, on edge, historical explanations mean little. And an overwhelming majority of us are ordinary people.

  4. Anil Kala Says:

    There is no morality in politics but one expects leaders of evolved democracies would not indulge in Rambo like logic. It doesn’t work at all; to kill one real enemy you kill tens of innocents and it makes no policy impact on the enemy. Like you said the question is loaded, the neighbour is no ordinary neighbour and therefore the answer is ” I will do nothing for a while because I have already put up protective cover around the children knowing very well the intent of that neighbour … When the child goes off his lap I will shoot him through his head”

  5. Anil Kala Says:

    In stead of seeking Veto power status in UN India should ask for account of Veto powers …. was this given to them as a gift (apparently it was, nonetheless ) to perpetuate their national interests or to put some order in the world … Ask why there is Sudan, Somalia, North Korea, Palestine Ukraine and many other hot spots where innocents and children are dying like fleas so senselessly. Time for these super nations to give an account else we may as well fold up security council.

  6. Michael Stone Says:

    You can argue all day and all night and it doesn’t change a thing….the Israeli’s have offered peaceful co-existence in various forms….when they emptied Gaza completely they offered financial assurances to you araabs to help build a healthy society…what did the so called palestinians build????….rockets……and fired them over…”WE don’t want a slice…we gonna take the whole pie!!!”
    Hamassss & friends have told so many lies on line and to CNN they can’t keep track themselves…….

    The Damn Syrians have murdered what…. 120,000 of your people….do I hear any of you complaining???
    No Way…you all are used to that…it’s your history……What makes the Jews soooo special???

    Thats a rhetorical Q.!!!

    • Anil Kala Says:

      We are complaining, it just that you are not listening. Just because some blokes have killed 120000 folks, it is alright to kill a few hundred innocents?

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