The Dangerous “Moral Aestheticism” of Israel’s War Critics

If you are truly trying to apply fair moral standards to Israel’s conduct in war, however, you must, in the words of my high school math teacher, “show your work.”
January 31, 2024
Secretary-General of the United Nations António Guterres speaks during a UN Security Council meeting on the Israel-Hamas war at the United Nations headquarters on November 29, 2023. (David Dee Delgado/Getty Images)

What strikes me most about denunciations of Israel’s conduct in the war against Hamas is the lack of basic moral reasoning. People who should know better react emotionally to scenes of devastation in Gaza as proof positive of Israel’s guilt. Innocent people died, hence Israel is culpable. For example, UN Secretary-General António Guterres stated recently that “the onslaught on Gaza by Israeli forces over these 100 days has unleashed wholesale destruction … Nothing can justify the collective punishment of the Palestinian people.”

Secretary Guterres doesn’t ask and answer basic moral questions: What military action on the part of Israel was unjustified and why? Was at least some of the damage and carnage not committed by Hamas, which booby-trapped hundreds of buildings? Is Hamas at least partially culpable for using Gazan civilians as human shields? 

Has Israel lived up to its moral responsibilities in war? It’s a difficult question to answer because in many instances we simply don’t know enough. We do know that the IDF drops leaflets warning Gazans of impending attacks and that the military provided safe passage to more than a million people from northern to southern Gaza to avoid hostilities. But that doesn’t mean that the military has always been judicious. If you are truly trying to apply fair moral standards to Israel’s conduct in war, however, you must, in the words of my high school math teacher, “show your work.” Otherwise, you aren’t engaging in moral reasoning but in a kind of shallow moral aestheticism, confusing what looks bad with what is bad. 

The Book of Genesis offers a powerful allegory of the disparate moral and aesthetic sensibilities when Noah, lying drunk and naked, is, according to the rabbis of old, assaulted by his son Ham. The two other brothers, Yapheth and Shem, cover their father and look away. One common interpretation among the rabbis is that Yapheth acted out of the aesthetics of the moment and looked away in disgust at what his brother Ham had done, while Shem was offended on a deep moral level.

The Bible has a penchant for imbuing names with powerful meaning. Ham, which means “hot,” is heated by his unchecked evil inclination. Yapheth, which is derived from the word for “beauty,” demonstrates the aesthetic sensibility in his repugnance. Shem, which means “name,” names the immoral act. Jews, among others, are considered descendants of Shem, imbued with this moral sensibility. Hence the label “Semites.”

Years back, the TV show “Larry King Live” played host to a hilarious clash of moral and aesthetic sensibilities on the topic of meat-eating between renowned Jewish writer Jonathan Safran Foer, author of the book “Eating Animals,” and the now-deceased celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain. “There’s a certain kind of meat,” Safran Foer said, “which is produced on factory farms, that is in every single way unconscionable. It’s unconscionable to feed to our children because of health. It’s unconscionable because it’s the single worst thing we can do to the environment by a long shot. And it’s unconscionable because of what we’re doing to animals who are raised on factory farms.”

Bourdain countered: “My major area of concern is … supermarket quality, fast food quality, pre-chopped meat. The stuff they’re putting in these burgers would not be recognized by any American as meat. That said, I would counter Jonathan’s argument just with one word: bacon. It’s so delicious.”

While both Bourdain and Safran Foer were opposed to eating factory-farmed meat, Safran Foer, the Shem in the biblical story, is opposed out of a sense of moral duty, and Bourdain, the Yapheth, is opposed because it’s disgusting. Whatever one thinks of Safran Foer’s moral reasoning against eating factory-farmed animals, he was engaging in moral reasoning. Bourdain, for his part, was the very personification of the aesthetic sensibility.

In morally evaluating the Hamas-Israel war, political philosopher Michael Walzer states that “we have to think beyond our feelings and acknowledge that the suffering will continue until those who designed and began the war have been defeated.” But, he cautioned, “Israel’s high-tech army has clear moral responsibilities: to do everything it can to minimize civilian casualties. That means targeting as carefully as possible and accepting risks in gathering the information that makes targeting precise … But even if the IDF does all this and accepts the morally necessary risks, it will kill large numbers of civilians.” Walzer, in contrast to Secretary Guterres, is engaging in moral reasoning, even if the moral answers are hard to come by.

Another recent example of moral aestheticism is a New York Times opinion piece authored by Megan Stack, who lauds the South African case of genocide against Israel that was before the International Court of Justice. In recounting the horrors of the war, Stack states that “Israel did not promise, nor did it execute, a sharply targeted retaliation against Hamas … or a strategic hunt for the hostages … To understand this extraordinary spasm of violence as an act of national self-defense, you’d have to accept that Israel’s only chance for safety depends upon Gaza being crushed and emptied—by death or displacement—of virtually all Palestinians.”

But Stack doesn’t bother to mention Israel’s oft-stated war aim: to dismantle Hamas so Israel’s citizens from the south can return to their homes. The real moral question, which Michael Walzer poses, is “what contribution does destroying this target make to success in the ongoing battle or the longer-term military campaign—or to victory itself? Or to the deterrence of future conflicts?” To fairly evaluate Israel’s military actions requires one to understand what Israel is trying to accomplish. Stack’s failure to do so decontextualizes the destruction. It would be like surveying the devastation wrought by U.S. forces against ISIS (The U.S. reportedly killed nearly 30,000 civilians.) without referencing the American war aim to end ISIS’s murderous rampage through the Middle East.  

The moral aestheticism practiced by Guterres and Stack is appealing because it substitutes ill-formed impressions for critical judgment and relieves gnawing doubts. And while this lack of moral reasoning is not new, it’s gotten much worse with the now vogue leftwing ideological predilection to divide up the world into the powerful and the powerlessness. In this worldview, the powerful are presumed guilty and the powerless innocent. Once one determines that there’s something fundamentally wrong with Israel, he or she is free to hold the Jewish state alone responsible for the conflict and to ignore all exculpatory evidence. Hamas can’t be responsible because it represents the supposedly powerless party.  

And while this lack of moral reasoning is not new, it’s gotten much worse with the now vogue leftwing ideological predilection to divide up the world into the powerful and the powerlessness.

Not all criticism of Israel is so simplistic and some reproval does indeed apply sound moral logic. Supporters of Israel, like me, who take moral discourse seriously must be open to evidence that specific Israeli commanders acted with ill intent or failed to take adequate cautionary measures in protecting civilian life. In the course of a long war, it’s quite possible that Israel did not always act within the bounds of the just-war doctrine or the laws of war. But we can’t make those judgments without hearing the evidence and multiple accounts of the events. 

Unfortunately, the moral confusion about power and complicity, once confined to the extreme left, has caught on among the mainstream commentariat. Tired of contending with the bad optics of self-defense, these NGO leaders, opinion elites and journalists have resolved their conflicting impulses. Israel is guilty. Freed of all dialectical tension, they can now castigate Israel for its bad manners and the inherent repugnance of even the most legitimate self-defense. 

If such moral aestheticism continues unabated, how will any country ever fight a just war and keep its citizens safe? Or does this level of scrutiny only apply to Israel? 

David Bernstein is founder of the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values (JILV) and author of “Woke Antisemitism.”

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