Home News Kristof: Twenty ways to think through the moral tangle in Gaza

Kristof: Twenty ways to think through the moral tangle in Gaza


I’ve been on a book tour for the last few weeks, speaking around the country, and one of the questions I get asked most often isn’t about my book at all but along the lines of: What should I think of the war in Gaza?

The toxic public debate is dominated by people with passionate views on both sides, but most people I meet are torn and unsure how to process the tragedy that is unfolding. That makes sense to me, given how exquisitely complex real-world ethics are, as much as we may yearn for black-and-white morality tales.

With that in mind, I’d like to offer this highly personal road map for thinking about the war. Here’s a set of morally complicated, sometimes contradictory principles for a nuanced approach to sort out the issues.

1. We think of moral issues as involving conflicts between right and wrong, but this is a collision of right versus right. Israelis have built a remarkable economy and society and should have the right to raise their children without fear of terror attacks, while Palestinians should enjoy the same freedoms and be able to raise their children safely in their own state.

2. All lives have equal value, and all children must be presumed innocent. So while there is no moral equivalence between Hamas and Israel, there is a moral equivalence between Israeli civilians and Palestinian civilians. If you champion the human rights of only Israelis or only Palestinians, you don’t actually care about human rights.

3. Good for President Joe Biden for recently pushing a proposal for a temporary cease-fire that could lead to a permanent end to the war and a release of hostages; as he said, “It’s time for this war to end.” Let’s hope he uses his leverage to achieve that end. It’s also true that Biden’s failure to apply enough leverage over the last seven months has made the United States complicit in human rights abuses in the Gaza Strip, because it has provided weapons used in the mass killing of civilians and because it has gone too far in protecting Israel at the United Nations.

4. We can identify as pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian, but priority should go to being anti-massacre, anti-starvation and anti-rape.

5. Hamas is an oppressive, misogynistic and homophobic organization whose misrule has hurt Palestinians and Israelis alike. But not all Palestinians are members of Hamas, and civilians should not be subject to collective punishment. In the words of a 16-year-old girl from Gaza, “It’s like we are overpaying the price for a sin we didn’t commit.”

6. There was no excuse for Hamas attacking Israel on Oct. 7 and murdering, torturing and raping Israeli civilians. And there is no excuse for Israel’s reckless use of 2,000-pound bombs and other munitions that have destroyed entire city blocks and killed vast numbers of innocent people, including more than 200 aid workers.

7. When Israel began military operations after Oct. 7, it was a just war.

8. What starts as a just war can be waged unjustly.

9. Israel was entitled to strike Gaza after the Oct. 7 attack, but not to do whatever it wanted. In particular, there should be no argument about Israel’s practice of throttling food aid. Using starvation as a weapon of war against civilians, as the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court alleges Israel has done, is a violation of the laws of war.

10. Each side justifies its own brutality by pointing to earlier cruelty by the other side. Israelis see Oct. 7. Palestinians see the “open-air prison” imposed on Gaza before that. This goes all the way back to the displacement of Palestinians at Israel’s founding in 1948, the 1929 massacre of Jews at Hebron, and so on. Enough obsession with the past! Let’s focus instead on saving lives in the coming months and years.

11. Hamas’ brutality toward Israeli hostages, such as credible reports of sexual assault and starvation, is unconscionable. So is Israeli brutality toward Palestinian prisoners, such as CNN accounts that some Palestinians have had limbs amputated because of constant handcuffing.

12. War nurtures dehumanization that produces more war. I’ve heard too many Palestinians dehumanize Jews and too many Jews dehumanize Palestinians. When we dehumanize others, we lose our own humanity.

13. Zionism is not a form of racism. And criticism of Israel is not antisemitism. Both sides are too quick to fire such epithets.

14. Each side sees itself as a victim, which is true — but each side is also a perpetrator.

15. “Apartheid” isn’t the right word for Israel today, where Palestinians are treated like second-class citizens but can still vote, serve in the Israeli parliament and enjoy more political freedoms than in most of the Arab world. But “apartheid” is a rough approximation of Israeli rule in the West Bank, where Arabs have long been oppressed under a system that is separate and unequal.

16. “From the river to the sea” refers to the dream of a single state from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, encompassing what is now Israel and the Palestinian territories. The slogan as used by protesters can mean many different things, some peaceful and some the militaristic vision of the Hamas charter, while a parallel vision is in the original platform of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party. Hamas imagines a Palestinian state with no room for Israel, and Netanyahu wants perpetual Israeli sovereignty from the river to the sea to deny a place for a Palestinian state. I think that instead of either version of a one-state solution, a two-state solution is infinitely preferable.

17. Pro-Palestinian demonstrations have too often tolerated strains of antisemitism, which in recent months has shown itself to be stronger than many imagined. How can a movement that claims the moral high ground make excuses for any kind of bigotry?

18. Campus protesters would do more good raising money for suffering Palestinians rather than using it to buy tents for themselves.

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