During his Senate confirmation hearings last Thursday, Chuck Hagel had to face the usual mélange of Senatorial harangues, harangues so unfriendly that at least one Senator felt the need to apologize for them. For those keeping score at home, it’s worth noting that “Israel” was the single most mentioned topic, coming up no fewer than 178 times (by way of contrast, Afghanistan, where the U.S. is currently waging an actual war, got 38 mentions).
Hagel was not particularly articulate under fire, it’s true, but there were at least a couple of questions-cum-accusations that would have rendered the best of us mute. Such as this one, from Senator Ted Cruz of Texas:
A suggestion that Israel has committed war crimes is particularly offensive given the Jewish people suffered under the most horrific war crimes in the Holocaust. And I would also suggest that for the Secretary of Defense, or the prospective Secretary of Defense, not to take issue with that claim is highly troubling.
Because six million people died horrific deaths at the hands of genocidal maniacs 70 years ago, it’s offensive to even suggest that their latter-day descendants are capable of making immoral decisions in the course of war?
This is, frankly, the flip side of the “because Jews went through the Holocaust, everything they do as an occupying power is Just Like The Nazis” argument, and equally ahistorical and dumbfounding.
No, Senator Cruz, suggesting that the wartime behavior of Israel—a country made up of actual, real people, people who (like most people) are capable of both goodness and not-goodness—is somehow exempt from all scrutiny because Jews were once slaughtered is not only insulting to the intelligence and very humanity of Israelis, it’s just silly.
Not every terrible thing done in a war fits the legal description of a war crime (in my book, for instance, killing 20-year-olds in uniform is pretty terrible, but that’s just “war”), but some terrible things are—and it doesn’t matter who’s doing them. You don’t get points shaved off for being Jewish, is what I’m saying.
Has Israel committed war crimes? Without being a legal expert and without having access to the kind of research that a commission on war crimes would have to conduct in order to determine that with any degree of finality, I’m going to go with “probably.” I’m pretty certain that any group of people who has ever waged war on any other group of people has committed some war crimes. We wouldn’t need international legal instruments to protect folks if that weren’t the case.
But whether or not Israel actually has committed war crimes, to say that it’s offensive to even raise the possibility is to unceremoniously pluck Israelis from humanity and reduce them to a kind of action figure status: They look like people—and, hey! They even bend at the knees!—but they’re actually just objects to be admired and/or utilized, as the Senate sees fit.
Which, I will admit, is kind of how Congress as a whole actually treats Israel and the people who live there. But they don’t usually say so out loud.