Mon, Apr

How NOT To Write About the Middle East


GELFAND’S WORLD - Back in 2006, I was traveling in central Europe and made a stop in the German city of Wurzburg. Technically, it's Würzburg, with an umlaut over the first u, but the name would be pronounced something like Verts-berg in American. It is one of several cities which still show some medieval character. There is a long (very long) walkable bridge over the river Main, and other tourist-worthy sights.

But the one sight which I remember most strongly was in a side room of the old city hall. It was a mockup of the city that fit onto a tabletop. You might think of it as a diorama if you like that word.

It represented the condition of the center-city in the immediately post-war era of 1945. It did, indeed, include a small version of every building in the area, and it was striking indeed.

Except for one church, there was not a building left undamaged. For the most part, there were shells of the buildings that had stood there previously. The historical record shows that approximately 90% of the structures were destroyed by allied bombing in WWII.


There are two other relevant facts that history tells us about Würzburg. The first is this: Much of the destruction occurred on March 16, 1945, accomplished in a firebombing attack by 225 British Lancaster bombers that lasted for one 17-minute period. The resulting firestorm killed approximately 5000 people.

Two weeks later, on April 3, the U.S. Army attacked Würzburg and had it under control by April 5.

The other relevant fact is that following WWII, the U.S. Army occupied Würzburg for years, and even after Germany rejoined the civilized world, the U.S. Army continued to have a presence in Würzburg until 2008.

One other relevant historical fact: On nearly the same dates (March 9-10, 1945) the U.S. Army Air Force killed 100,000 people in the firebombing of Tokyo.

What does any of this have to do with the title of this essay, on how not to write about the Middle East?

Several of my fellow CityWatch authors have been chiding Israel for its invasion of Gaza and the resulting death and destruction. And they certainly have a point, as many Israelis and Americans point out. Children and innocent civilians are the victims when buildings collapse and when bombs go off in city streets. I suspect the result is a lot of mixed feelings, in that there is a sense of guilt over the needless deaths, combined with the countervailing feeling -- what can be done in response to the terrorist mass murder, and what must be done?

But there is an outrageous argument made by the anti-Israeli left. It's the one that uses the word Proportionality. The argument borrows a term from principles of international law. As used, it seems to imply that for every 1000 Israelis killed in a terrorist attack, there is some maximum number of Arabs that can be killed. The critics of Israeli policy are not wrong to raise the question, but I think they are being obtuse in failing to raise the other question -- the same question that American and British planners must have thought about, however fleetingly, in 1944 and 1945.

Proportionality: The death toll from the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was 2403. Should there have been some maximum number of Japanese who were killed in retaliation? Would critics of the time have scathingly used the term "revenge" to refer to that retaliation?

If we had applied the logic taken by critics of current Israeli policy to our situation in 1941, we would never have responded to the attack on Pearl Harbor by force of arms. Perhaps a stern note to their ambassador?

When Britain and the United States were faced with the existence of the Axis powers, they buried their dead and prepared for war. And implicit in their planning was their own version of Never Again. The allies had fought Germany in WWI, and they were determined that they and their children's children should not have to do so again. They did so by destroying Germany -- not only its ability to fight, but it's ability to live in civilized comfort. History tells us that the rebuilding of Wurzburg was accomplished largely by women who scavenged among the rubble in the immediate postwar months. The men were gone -- dead in the war or captured. It was not an easy life, and it was lived under the guns of the American conquerors.

There are two unhappy lessons from all this. The first is that the allied powers were able to rule over a defeated Germany because it was truly defeated, not only in its war making ability but in its will to resist. The American and British conquerors had made sure of this, not only in Wurzburg but in Dresden and Berlin and Frankfurt and so on.

The other unhappy lesson is that when national survival is at stake, proportionality doesn't count. The response to grossly uncivilized behavior by one side is, sadly enough, an equally uncivilized response by the other side.

What's curious is that the critics of Israeli policy are making the fine distinction that the October 7 invasion of Israel wasn't actually a threat to the existence of Israel, and therefore Israel should be bound by some rule of proportionality. I think there is some logic to the proportionality argument, but it is being applied wrongly in this case. There have been occasions when individual Palestinians have attacked one or two Israelis on their own. They do so out of anger and frustration and perhaps out of a murderous ideology, but they do not do so as an invading army. Under these conditions, the Israelis deal with them as necessary, but such attacks are not an excuse for a wholesale invasion of Arab territory. That is the situation in which some rule of proportionality is relevant.

But an armed invasion by large numbers of killers, coming to commit a massacre on civilians? The Israeli dead were a larger fraction of their nation's population than our dead at Pearl Harbor or in the September 11 attacks. The United States did not apply some illogical principle of proportionality in response to either of those attacks. It did what it thought it had to to make sure that never again would such an attack be possible.

The principle of Never Again is what applies in all of these cases.

The alternative argument is that Israel -- alone among the nations of the world -- should tolerate some continuing level of invasions and deaths among its civilian population. Perhaps, according to this argument, the Israelis get to do some retaliatory killing of their own. Those who like to make the proportionality argument can decide whether a ration of five-to-one is acceptable, or perhaps ten-to-one. Under this argument, the more Israelis the Gazans manage to kill, the more Gazans the Israelis get to kill.

The argument itself is barbaric.

The question for all those who want to criticize Israel is this: If Never Again is going to be the policy, how can it be achieved? If we were to apply the history of American and British actions in response to attacks by the Axis powers, then we would be justifying the complete destruction of Gaza and its semi-permanent occupation by a foreign power. Luckily for Gaza, the world has moved on from that mindset, and the Israeli heirs to the holocaust should be the first in line to reject it. Perhaps they will.

But the precondition is the guarantee that there will never again be attacks on Israel and its people from within Gaza. As of October 7, the Israeli government and its people have adopted a policy that Hamas itself must be destroyed, just as the WWII allies determined that there would be no Nazi Party in existence after the war. I do think that Israelis and Americans alike feel guilty about the destruction and killing in Gaza by Israeli forces. But for the critics, the question is not whether you feel sad about the killing, but what your proposed cure is going to be.

(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected].)