Correspondence following the Reply by Six Israeli Moral Philosophers to Their Oxford Colleagues
The atrocities perptraded by Hamas terroisits agasint Israeli citizens on the 7th of October of 2023 and the esuying Israel-Hamas war have attracked significant debate and attnetion from legal acadamics and philsophers. One such debate revolved around what has come to be known as the Letter of the Oxford Professors. This post aims to publish one minor – yet we think noteworthy – part of this ongoing debate.
On 20/10/2023 a group of over 40 Oxford academics, among them a significant number working in political philosophy and the ethics of war, published a brief “Open letter on the humanitarian crisis in Gaza” to the UK government, imploring:
“as academics who spend our lives thinking about events such as these, to see what, in the fullness of history, will be obvious to all: that Israel is today engaged in a morally disastrous exercise, and that those nations who give Israel cover to do so have innocent Palestinian blood on their hands. In the name of human dignity and moral decency, you must call for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza.”
This letter triggered several poignant responses. Initially, came the gripes of other UK philosophers who felt the brunt of Oxford’s sense of superiority, berating the signatories for helping themselves to an exclusive professional standing to criticize Israel as academics from Oxford, to the exclusion of all other UK philosophers.
But then came a sequence of more serious critical responses. First was a post by our own David Enoch, calling for more epistemic humility by academics who are (perhaps) experts on the general abstract principles of war, but are largely woefully ignorant of the complex factual realities to which they purport to apply those principles. A crucial comment, to our mind, in the current climate in which so many moral philsophers suddnely fancy themslves experts on modern warfare and tactis, national secuity, geopolitics, and on the middle east more broadly. Then came an even sharper response by Oxford philosophy Peter Hacker, referring to the Oxford professors as “all honorable men”, and ending saying that “they should to be ashamed of themselves”.
Finally, there was the open letter by 6 Israeli philosophers, including our own David Heyd, titled “A Reply to the Open Letter on the Humanitarian Crisis in Gaza" (versions in Enlgish and Hebrew). This letter went more deeply into the application of just war theory, taking issue with some of the substantive assertations of the Oxford Professors. There was also a piece in Harratz with more experts weighing in.
Following the letter of the 6 Iaraeli philosophers, one of its signatories, Haifa's Daniel Statman, corresponded with some of the signatories of the Oxford letter. Below is one such correspondence (12.11.2023), which we find further enriches the criticism and debate regarding the letter of the Oxford Professors.
Thank you for your detailed response. Indeed, we are in deep disagreement on many issues, and I’m not sure that I’ll be able to change your mind or the minds of the other signatories on many of them. But among academics devoted to honest understanding, we should always hope for genuine communication, and there is always value in at least clarifying the disagreements.
1. Is the war justified?
You talk a lot about proportionality to which I turn immediately, but there is, first, the more fundamental question of whether, at the ad bellum level, Israel was justified in going to war against Hamas. Neither the Open Letter, nor your message, refer to this explicitly, but their logic seems to entail that Israel had no right to go to this war in the first place and must stop it immediately.
Hence, if I get you right, in both your moral assessment and in your understanding of Int’l law, if a country suffers attacks similar to those of 7/10 by an organization like Hamas that explicitly calls for wiping out that country and killing its citizens, that is not a casus belli. For me, this is an implausible judgement, especially if one accepts (as I assume you do) that countries have a right to go to war for far less weighty reasons, like the protection of territorial integrity.
One response might be that although Israel has a just cause, the war violates the ad bellum condition of “reasonable hope of success,” because Hamas simply cannot be defeated militarily. Well, first, I don’t find this assessment very convincing. ISIS, for instance, has been thus defeated, so why not Hamas? Second, as I explain elsewhere, this condition is hardly ever (or never) relied on to condemn going to war by countries whose chances of victory were nil, or extremely low, e.g. Luxembourg in WWII, or Ukraine today. When Russia invaded the Ukraine, many observers estimated that Ukraine had no chance of enduring – but I can’t recall international lawyers suggesting that, because of that, Ukraine’s war was unjust or illegal.
Another response, indicated by Jeff McMahan in correspondence, is that the war violates the last resort condition because Israel could have defended itself and its civilians without going to war by building better fences or improving the Iron Dome and so on. In my view, the 7/10 attacks show that Hamas had become very creative and inventive in finding ways to overcome Israel’s defense devices. Israel has been trying to contain repeated attacks by Hamas since it left the Gaza strip in 2005, but in each of the series of the armed engagements that occurred in the last 15 years or so, Hamas showed stronger and stronger capabilities. Note also that Iran, the most technologically capable power in the Middle East apart from Israel, is fully committed and has invested in ways to use the Hamas forces against Israel. The thought that Israel, or, for that matter, any other country, should be required to live under such threats is indefensible and grossly unfair.
So one HUGE disagreement between us is on the ad bellum level. You seem to believe that Israel had no right to go to war against Hamas and, therefore, that it must cease its fire immediately. For me, this war is a paradigm of a justified self-defense campaign. Israel is fighting to literally protect the lives of its citizens.
Finally, at some points in your reply, you give the impression that if there are violations of international law in the way in which a country engages in war, the war is illegitimate. But since all wars violate this law (or are you familiar with any that don’t?), that would mean that no war is legal, or that any side to a war that commits such violations must immediately cease its fire. The distinction between ad bellum and in bello enables us to evade this absurd conclusion; wars can be legitimate even if they involve – again, as all do – violations of IHL. I assume – though I’m just guessing – that most of the signatories think that Ukraine is morally justified in its war against Russia. And I suspect that they stand firm behind this thought although violations of international law are committed by Ukraine as well.
2. The proportionality constraint
You assert with great confidence that the collateral harm Israel is bringing about in Gaza is disproportionate, hence in violation of IHL. I find this confidence unwarranted. In an empirical study published in 2020, we show that, except for extreme cases, proportionality judgements are seriously indeterminate and unreliable. In particular, we show that even experts in the field (people who write and teach on the ethics and law of war) can't reach reasonable agreement as to what proportionality demands in practice. In a separate paper, we discuss the philosophical implications of this study. So I really don't know how you can determine with such certainty that Israel's attacks are disproportionate and hence "morally disastrous," especially given (as mentioned above) the gravity of the threats which Israel faces.
Moreover, even if you believe Hamas about the number of people killed by Israel, this number does not have names and does not distinguish between Hamas terrorists or activists and uninvolved civilians. Also, we know for sure that many civilians were killed by the mis-firing of the Palestinians themselves. Finally, those who infiltrated Israel on 7/10 included not only Hamas members but many hundreds of ordinary Gazans who were happy to join the carnival of brutality. So I’m at a loss to understand on what basis you managed to determine the number of uninvolved civilians that have been killed, which could then serve as the basis for the unequivocal accusation that Israel’s attacks are seriously disproportionate.
But let’s assume, just for the sake of argument, that you have a reliable way of knowing this and also a “calculus” for measuring proportionality – and that Israel fails the test. What exactly follows? Since Hamas hides in residential areas, including hospitals, mosques and so on, their bases mainly situated under these areas in well-fortified tunnels, war cannot be waged against them without causing what you conceive as excessive harm to civilians. Would this mean that, on your view, it is simply morally impossible to fight against Hamas? If so, that would undermine the Open Letter’s admission that Israel does have a right to self-defense (I’m assuming that such a right doesn’t merely amount to a right to run to a shelter every time Hamas fires missiles onto Israel).
This raises a dilemma which goes beyond the Israeli case. Assume country A is threated by genocide or severe oppression by country B. Assume further that country A can defend itself militarily, but the collateral harm to country B’s civilians would be excessive. I guess that, in your view, country A would be required to cease its fire and submit to the grim fate that is forthcoming to its citizens by side B. I see this as unreasonable AND I think that no country in the world would behave this way. (For more on this, see chapter 7 of War by Agreement).
Neither the Open Letter nor your message acknowledge the momentous threat posed to Israel currently from its northern border. As you surely know, Hezbollah has a HUGE arsenal of missiles and rockets, many of them GPS-guided, weapons that can reach any point in Israel. Iron Dome can’t deal with so many missiles fired simultaneously, which means that the casualties and damage among Israelis if such firing were to take place would be enormous. The only way Israel can attempt to deal with this threat is by making it clear to Hezbollah that it will respond “disproportionally,” even if this means largely destroying the Hezbollah neighborhood in Beirut, bombing bridges and infrastructure and so on. I assume that in your view such attacks by Israel would be illegal. So, once again, what, in your legal and moral opinion, is Israel to do if it is subject to such a deadly and destructive missile attack from Lebanon? The threat, I should emphasize, is not at all abstract: it could materialize any minute.
4. The blockade
There are many historical details on which we disagree. I’m not sure it would help to go into all of them here. Let me just say a word about the control of borders and airspace which you mention. In my understanding, Israel would have been very happy to weaken or completely eliminate this control if it could trust Hamas (or whoever rules the region) not to use the open borders in order to improve its military capabilities. In other words, it’s only for security reasons that Israel controls the borders, the same reasons that made her invest billions of dollars in a series of underground and above-ground security fences between Israel and the Gaza strip. If Hamas had given up its aim to wipe out Israel and instead chosen to work for the benefit of its citizens, the border with Israel would have been open, thousands of Gazans would have worked in Israel as they did in the past, Israelis would do their shopping in Gaza and enjoy the beaches and so on. It is a simple historical truth that the blockade of Gaza came after Hamas started to shell and attack Israel from a Gaza where there was no Israeli presence. Without the blockade, Hamas would have imported even more sophisticated weaponry and weaponry-producing materials than they did under blockade conditions.
In your view, the causal order is reversed; the control of borders by Israel is not for security reasons but is an expression of Israel’s character as a “military and occupying power.” And why does Israel exert this power over the Gazans? Probably because of hatred, racism, or something like. The security concerns are for you just a cover-up. I suspect that even after the atrocities of 7/10, you still regard Israel’s control of the borders as unjustified. Again, I find this position utterly indefensible.
5. The normative implications of Israel’s past misbehavior
For the sake of argument, let’s accept your narrative about Israel’s multiple moral failures in its treatment of Gaza and the West Bank. Let’s even assume that if Israel hadn’t committed those failures, Hamas wouldn’t have been so powerful, or we would by now have a peace agreement with the Palestinians, or the events of 7/10 would not have occurred. What follows regarding Israel’s right to self-defense after 7/10? In my view, very little. Let me explain.
In conflicts between both individuals and groups, it is rarely the case that one side is completely innocent and the other completely blameworthy, especially if these are conflicts that go on for a long time. In assessing the morality of the conflicting sides, I think we should assign to each responsibility for its own failures. Thus, side A might be the one that unjustly started the cycle of violence, but if side B responds in a clearly unjustified way, then the responsibility for that lies on the shoulders of side B, and side A has a full right to defend itself from this unjustified threat. Jeff makes a similar point when he says that although (in his view) combatants of the unjust side have no right to kill combatants of the just side, if the latter commit war crimes, for instance, intentionally killing civilians of the unjust side, they are liable to defensive killing.
Back to Israel; even if it is the case that had Israel behaved in a better way in the past, the 7/10 attack wouldn’t have occurred, or Hamas would have been less aggressive, the responsibility for the 7/10 atrocities is on Hamas, and Israel has a full right to defend herself from the existential threat that is currently posed to her. I’m not entirely sure that we disagree on this, though your detailed account of Israel’s alleged unjust behavior in the past does lend the impression that, in your view, (a) Israel carries a lot (most?) of the blame for the rise of Hamas and, ultimately, for the 7/10 attacks, (b) therefore, Israel’s right to self-defense in the current situation is very much curtailed. If this is your view, I find it an outrageous case of victim-blaming.
6. On blaming
You say that it would be shameful for you to remain silent in the face of what at least prima facie looks like a violation of international law, namely, that what pushed you and your colleagues to write the Open Letter was your concern about such violations. But surely there have been many cases of morally disastrous policies and wars around the globe in recent years, much worse than those you attribute to Israel, yet nobody in this group initiated an Open Letter to the PM to protest about them or to offer policy recommendations (or maybe somebody did try to organize such a letter, but not enough people agreed to sign). I do not deny that you, R, and some of the others, might have protested against other violations as well. But, to the best of my knowledge, this is the first time in recent years (or maybe in many years) that a respectable group of academics, self-identified as such (“a group of academics who are scholars of political science, political philosophy, ethics, history, geography, law and the Middle East”) has gotten together to utilize its professional reputation as Oxford scholars in order to voice concerns and offer suggestions to the Prime Minister about a perceived moral disaster outside the UK.
If this is the case, this is no less than amazing. Apparently, you (and your co-signatories) can be silent about horrendous violations of international law by other countries, peoples, or armed organization. It is just when Israel seems (mistakenly, as argued above) to violate this law, that you must respond.
Beyond many other possible causes that you might have wanted to write about in recent years – Assad's slaughter of 5 million Syrians, the war in Sudan with casualties running to the millions, the Iranian evil suppression of human rights and of women's rights; China's persecution of its minorities, China Tibetan occupation and genocide; and so on – consider the 7/10 events themselves. I could think of many points you might have wanted to raise in an Open Letter to the PM drafted, say, on October 8, when the scale and brutality of the Hamas attacks became clear. You could have expressed shock about the worst massacre of Jews since the Holocaust; talk about the importance of a coordinated struggle against all forms of anti-Semitism; emphasize the murderous and oppressive nature of Hamas; clarify that Hamas aims at wiping out Israel, not at advancing peace and co-existence; call for action against countries that support Hamas and Hezbollah; and so on. For example, Qatar has close relations with the UK, hosts major sports events, is deeply involved in direct ownership of English and European football clubs, makes major contributions to Western universities, and so on – while being a major backer of Hamas and sponsor of terrorism. Perhaps its role ought to be investigated, its influence curtailed, and the country be shunned, until it changes its ways? Yet, if I may guess, none of the signatories raised the idea of any such letter. Only when Israel responded militarily, just like any country in the world would have done, did you feel that you could not be silent.
I appreciate the fact that, unlike many morally corrupt critics, you do acknowledge, both in the Open Letter and in your message, the horrific nature of the 7/10 attacks. But this acknowledgement was not the point of the Letter. Its aim was to criticize Israel for its assumed immorality and to force upon her an immediate ceasefire which would grant victory to Hamas, encourage it to continue with its genocidal policy, show to Hezbollah that you can massacre Jews and get away with it, and leave us, Israeli civilians, waiting for the next catastrophe.
7. "Onslaught," "terrorism," and the problem of ill-chosen phrases
One of the main points in our reply was to protest against the expression ‘onslaught on the civilian population of Gaza’ in describing what Israel is currently doing. This expression entails that Israel is intentionally killing Gazan civilians, namely, is involved in mass murder, more or less on par with the killing carried out by the Palestinians on 7/10. You say nothing about this point, which leaves me wondering whether you retracted it or not. It seems, though, that you did, because, in your message, you speak mainly about proportionality (a term not mentioned even once in the Open Letter!). And indeed, none of the signatories who corresponded with us tried to defend the onslaught accusation, but, like you, complained about (alleged) disproportionality. One of them openly admitted that ‘onslaught’ was an ‘ill-chosen phrase’.
Once again, this is rather astonishing. Most, if not all, of those who drafted and signed the Open Letter did not think that Israel was intentionally killing Palestinian civilians, but they all signed a letter that said that she was! We’re not talking of a typo, or a failure in selecting the exact word to express some idea. To attribute ‘onslaught’ to somebody is totally different than, and ten times worse than, attributing to her responsibility for disproportionate collateral killing. And still, none of the 44 signatories, all well-experienced in careful reading of texts and aware of the power and significance of words, noted this, even those who do philosophy and law and are well-familiar with the distinction between intentional and collateral killing, in the context of war and in other contexts.
Unfortunately, this is not the only deceptive and harmful choice of words in the Open Letter. As mentioned in our REPLY, the letter also implies that Israel’s acts are instances of terrorism, which again entails intentionally killing the innocent. As neither you nor any of the co-signatories we corresponded with tried to justify the use of the term, I assume again that most, if not all of them, signed a document that blames Israel with terrorism – while they don’t actually adhere to this view. I would like to believe that these repeated efforts to blacken Israel were not intentional. But it’s a bit hard to believe that they were completely unmotivated by an overly negative attitude against Israel.
There is much more to say, but my response is already far too long. I doubt whether it will change your views about Israel or about the current crisis. But, as said earlier, maybe there’s value in clarifying where we disagree.