Throughout the violence of the last three weeks in Israel and Gaza, one phrase has become ubiquitous among politicians and pundits. President Obama affirms his “strong support for Israel’s right to defend itself.” Secretary John Kerry states “Israel has every right in the world to defend itself.” Britain’s prime minister and foreign minister have both backed “Israel’s right to defend itself from attack.” The U.S. Senate unanimously passed a resolution that “reaffirms its support for Israel’s right to defend itself.” In op-eds and organizational statements and speeches, the phrase has become the preferred shorthand for signaling support for Israel’s campaign.
Writing in 1946, George Orwell argued that political speech is largely made up of handy phrases that we reach for almost by reflex. These phrases, he argued, “consist largely of euphemism, question-begging, and sheer cloudy vagueness.” They don’t explicitly mislead. Instead, they halt the thinking. “Every such phrase,” he wrote, “anesthetizes one’s brain.”
Orwell thought such phrases were necessary to “defend the indefensible,” and it makes sense that we turn to them so readily in times of war. Cliche implies the inevitable (“cycle of violence”); euphemism obscures the awful (“collateral damage”); question-begging absolves judgment (“it is necessary because there was no other choice”). Such phrases distance us from a world pre-made, unalterable. Amidst the horrors of war, they are a soothing balm.
The force of the phrase “Israel has a right to defend itself” stems from its conflation of a statement of general fact with support for a specific act: this bombing campaign, this ground incursion, this war. Its implication is that those who support Israel’s right to defend itself by necessity support this war, and those who do not support it deny Israel’s right to defend itself. It tethers support for a specific decision to support for an incontrovertible truth, and opposition to a specific decision with lunacy, irrationality, and, yes, anti-Semitism (for who would argue that the Jewish people, alone, do not have this right?).
But the right of self-defense is different from the claim of self defense. According to the model penal code, developed to standardize American law, the use of deadly force in self defense is only permitted after every other avenue to mitigate the threat has been exhausted. In these terms, the claim of self defense rests on demonstrating that, to address the specific threat of Hamas’ rockets and tunnels, Israel had no other option but to bomb the cities of Gaza in this way and at this time. In this framing the war is an act of protection born of anguished necessity. It exists beyond decision. As one tweet justified the bombing: “This is not politics. This is self defense.”
The claim to self-defense, however, begs the question: What other avenues were pursued to mitigate the threat? That question demands consideration of specific decisions at specific moments. To name only a few: Israel’s refusal, following the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation agreement, to allow funds into Gaza to pay Hamas employees; the rearrest, following the brutal murder of three Israeli teenagers, of hundreds of Hamas activists released in the deal with Gilad Shalit; the crafting of a ceasefire agreement that Hamas was extremely unlikely to accept (a partial opening of the border with Egypt may have been enough, we’ll never know); and, with each day, the decision to continue the campaign of bombing, despite the astonishing loss of life, and the potential reverberations of those deaths on the security of Israelis in years to come.
Each of these moments, and many others, offers a choice between options. And when there is choice, there is agency, and when there is agency there is responsibility. But to look upon the corpses of boys and girls, and consider how such carnage may have been averted? To ask if Israel, and those who support Israel, may have avoided such catastrophe? Repetition of the phrase “Israel has a right to self defense” stems this miserable tide. There was no choice, it counsels. This is not us, it consoles.
Orwell described the cliches of politics as “packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.” “The right to defense” is a harder narcotic. It eases the pain, but it is a poison. It eats at the notion that Jewish sovereignty could be about more than survival. That it might be about life — life with its choices and life with its responsibilities. In life we know that we can never be sure how our choices will unfold. Yet such choices are worth making because we recognize that a life of mere survival is hardly life, that we cannot become who we want to be without making choices whose outcomes we cannot fully predict.
We know the choices Israel will make to stop rockets, to continue the siege, to keep Hamas activists in jail. But what choices will Israel make to prevent these perpetual rounds of killing? To be a nation that does not live another generation ruling over others by the force of the gun? These are difficult questions, but they are the questions of a sovereign people. The catchphrase “Israel has a right to self-defense” renders these irrelevant, naive. This is its power, and this is its price.