Yishai Jusidman

Can You Hear the Runaway Trolley in Gaza?

Generated with AI ∙ February 19, 2024 at 4:42 PM
Generated with AI ∙ February 19, 2024 at 4:42 PM

On October 19, barely a dozen days after one of the most savage pogroms in recorded memory, the influential journal Artforum published an open letter co-signed by 8,000 artists, curators and artworld associates. They were, true to form, at the vanguard of protests about to spread worldwide. In their letter, the IDF’s incipient military response was presaged to befall on the Palestinians as a war crime, and they demanded an immediate ceasefire even before an Israeli boot stepped on Gazan ground. An adage from the BLM campaigns of 2020 was adapted to underline the letter’s purpose: “Silence at this urgent time of crisis and escalating genocide is not a politically neutral position.” And yet, notably, the letter remained mum as to the genocidal atrocities of October 7 that triggered Israel’s campaign.

The omission of Hamas’s then fresh carnage formulated, indeed, not a politically neutral position, insinuated as an antisemitic double-standard whereby crimes against Jews are deemed not worthy of mention. Mercifully, enough prominent players in the contemporary-art community replied with alarm to the hardly-veiled subtext of the letter, such that Artforum’s editor-in-chief soon found himself sacked. Not quite for peddling antisemitism though, but for not consulting in advance with the magazine’s publisher and senior editors.

The pernicious silence of the letter’s signatories bared out the slanted politics of the demand for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. And yet, politics aside, people of good conscience might still wish to think through the moral claims of that demand, since it has remained front and center in the world’s stage for the last four months. Contrary to international pressure, the IDF is about to enter Rafah in order to win Hamas’s surrender at last and retrieve its remaining hostages, hopefully with God’s help (see below).

The intimation of silence as indifference that contributes to a deadly outcome reminded me of the runaway Trolley Problem (TP), a speculative puzzle that incorporates inaction as a consequential option in a moral choice. In philosopher Philippa Foot’s original 1967 outline, a runaway trolley is on a downhill course about to hit and kill five people down its main track, yet the trolley can be diverted by its driver to a side-track such that one person on that track would otherwise be killed. What should the driver do? Divert the trolley to the side-track or avoid intervening at all? To what extent would the driver be held responsible by diverting the trolley or refraining from doing so? Much ink has been spilled over whether doing nothing amounts, in this case, to doing something.

Most people’s gut reaction to the basic TP is: Do something! Divert the trolley and save a net of four lives—all lives being equally sacred. For the protestors in pursuit of an immediate ceasefire in the ongoing Israel-Hamas war there’s no mystery either. Just as they professed not to remain silent, they would not remain inactive in the TP, or so by way of the following analogy: The runaway war-trolley is on a course that leaves thousands of Palestinians dead. It has got to be diverted to the immediate ceasefire track because the rising number of Palestinian casualties should be cut short at all cost. Even if, further down on the side-track, the cost will be a lesser number of Israelis being thrown under the trolley—which is what will stem from allowing Hamas to remain operational, as experience has demonstrated time and again. Following this train of thought, the TP may allow us to think through what’s morally at stake in the choice for or against an immediate ceasefire. Let’s dig further in…

By McGeddon – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Modified by Yishai Jusidman.
Licensor retains right not to endorse message of present use.

While the purported moral clarity of the demand for an immediate ceasefire might be validated by the basic TP, this mind-teaser’s simple, disinterested presumptions are often criticized —even lampooned—for being too fantastical. We never really make serious life-and-death calculations in a context-less vacuum. And when the context is Israel-Palestine, choices are hardly simple, let alone disinterested. Nevertheless, the image of a runaway war-trolley propelled downhill by Hamas’s pogrom suggests itself as a suitable figure for the confrontation Israel didn’t seek nor provoke, but must maneuver and resolve. Israel’s moral entanglement—of civilians being killed as “colateral damage” in its pursuit of Hamas terrorists—can still be addressed, in turn, with reference to a couple of subsequent elaborations of the TP that introduce added context. These are known as “The Fat Villain” and “The Close Relative”.

As it turned out, in his remarks of October 24 to the UN Security Council, Secretary-General António Guterres declared that “the attacks by Hamas did not happen in a vacuum,” and then proceeded to conjure—unwittingly—the version of the TP that posits a villain to forfeit in lieu of the innocent lives. Guterres’s view of the war translates readily into a TP where the more numerous Palestinians at imminent risk down the trolley’s main track are portrayed as victims of the longstanding occupation perpetrated by the fewer but powerful Jews on the alternate track. Under Guterres’s guidance, the runaway trolley should be diverted to the alternate track not only in accordance with a crude utilitarian calculation, but as a matter of justice. However, a nagging question familiar to TP aficionados comes up: Would the “villainous” Jews on the side-track be killed as a means to saving the victimized Palestinians? Arguably so, and it must be pointed out that using another’s human life as a means to fulfilling one’s ends is a tacit Kantian no-no that should keep the driver from diverting the trolley. But this philosophical foible is beside the point here, if only because Guterres neglected to fully fill the vacuum in the picture. Had he been more forthcoming with his contextual provisions, he would have added (1) that the conflict is sustained by a century of Arab unbending, irredentist rejectionism, (2) that Gaza has not been occupied since 2005, (3) that there was a cease-fire effective since 2021 until Hamas chose to violate it and (4) that the Palestinians down the trolley’s main track are corralled there as human shields by Hamas, which is the effective villain here. Perhaps, then, it might as well be fair, and even just, not to divert the trolley after all. This consideration needs no Kantian mediation.

Once Guterres’s misleadingly sketchy demand for justice is discredited by the fuller picture of the war, the improved detailing also renders the war as corresponding to the other variety of the TP, namely “The Close Relative”. Its application here can be metaphorically drawn thus: Down the main track stands a crowd of rowdy Palestinians whom the Israeli driver of the runaway trolley recognizes from afar—they’ve had their sight set on his home for a while. The side-track may appear empty, but he knows that, should he divert the trolley, members of his own family will be thrown there by Hamas, and perish. The driver is pressed into making a fateful choice for a calamity bound to happen either way. In the face of it, most anyone in this driver’s shoes will not divert the runaway trolley: You save your family first. It may be less of a choice than an obligation, in particular for Jews, that echoes Abraham having been prevented from martyrizing his own son, not even as a means to honoring the highest and holiest of ideas. The driver decides to keep the trolley on its main track, as Kant, for other reasons, would also have it.

In fairness, as a reflection on and of the war, this adaptation of the TP needs to accommodate additional complications, some of which the thought experiment was not designed to deal with, at least not philosophically. For one, the driver has received a directive to remain on the main track and get the trolley to its destination: Hamas’s underground headquarters. Distressingly though, that route goes into tunnels without light at their end—hostages taken from the driver’s family are held there and a number of them will likely perish as a result of the trolley’s passage. He knows the trolley hurls toward close relatives on either track it ends up taking, some of whom will be martyred, as Isaac would, short of some divine intervention. Praying for one might be the only recourse left to the driver in this TP. Philosophy, it appears, is no consolation. Not even Kant may enlighten this driver when his choice is between allowing Hamas’s hostages to be killed now as a means to shielding future victims of Hamas, or preemptively relinquishing those future victims as a means to saving the present hostages.

The driver may be inclined to contemplate the depths of his lamentable conundrum while the rushing trolley rolls past the turn to the ceasefire side-track and his Palestinian neighbors on the main track are about to be crushed. The Artforum letter faction will again condemn the Israeli driver’s failure to deviate the trolley as being not politically neutral, which of course isn’t. But he cannot be accused of remaining silent: He is waving one arm out the window, blowing the trolley’s horn with the other, and pushing the little that remains of its screeching brakes, trying to get his neighbors’ attention and signal them to move out of harm’s way. Under the agonizing circumstance, at least this bit is, politics aside, morally right. Regardless, once the trolley gets to its destination and the driver’s task is fulfilled—at an inevitably harrowing cost to his kin—he will be summarily tried and condemned as a war criminal by the whole world, led by António Guterres and his skewed cronies at the UN, not least because the driver in the picture is the IDF.

About the Author
Yishai is a contemporary painter and occasional art critic, born in Mexico City, based in Los Angeles and soon migrating to moshav Tal Shachar. His artwork has been shown worldwide in prestigious international exhibitions. A recent series, "Prussian Blue", deals with the aesthetic challenges of Holocaust remembrance through art, and has been shown, among other institutions, at the Mishkan Museum of Art in Ein Harod in 2021. His writing has been published in Artforum, Art Issues, Los Angeles Times, Cleveland Review of Books, and more.
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