Canada and the War against Hamas

On Monday, I had the chance to speak with Melanie Joly, Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, during a roundtable at my shul. A few weeks earlier, I had a similar meeting with Prime Minister Trudeau. This post is my attempt at some reflections on those meetings as well as on Canada and the war more generally.

The question that underlay many of the comments to the Prime Minister was one that I asked Minister Joly directly. “Beyond a greater distribution of humanitarian aid, knowing what we know about Hamas, if you were Prime Minister of Israel, how would you fight this war differently?”

Like many countries, Canada has been critical of the way in which the war has been conducted. Indeed, Canada did not speak up for Israel against the ICJ genocide charge, choosing rather to wait for the court’s findings. Yet, Canada correctly and consistently exerts that Israel has a right to defend itself. What goes unstated is the manner in which Israel should or may exercise this right. It is all well and good to say that Israel has a right to defend itself in a general sense, but what does that mean in practice?

“War is hell,” to use the famous words of William Tecumseh Sherman. That fact is both tragic and inescapable, as are the deaths of civilians, including children, in warfare, and especially in the urban warfare that Hamas has forced upon Israel. The language that Canada uses in its official statements (as has Antonio Gueterres) with respect to civilians caught in that hell of war is that their protection must be “paramount.” It is a term that I find highly problematic because it creates an expectation that civilians should never die as a result of war. And when, inevitably, civilians do die their deaths are seen as murder (or, if the death count is high enough, genocide). Such a perspective will not change the nature of warfare, but it will cause increased animosity toward identifiable groups. It will lead to hate crimes. “Paramount” is irresponsible and dangerous.

Civilians of course do have wartime legal protections. Beyond conducting itself in line with these protections, Israel, I think, is also bound by Jewish laws and values with respect to warfare, which, like their secular counterparts, include civilian protections. But it is winning the war within certain restrictions that is paramount, not the protection of civilians. For if protecting civilians were paramount, in the sense of paramount as “supreme” or a value that trumps all other values, then war itself, beyond the trench warfare of yesteryear, would be outlawed. Because modern warfare will sadly and inevitably include civilian harm.

But war in and of itself is not outlawed. Civilian harm is understood as legal and indeed moral provided a) the decision to go to war is legal and moral (jus ad bellum) and b) the war is conducted in a way that is legal and moral (jus in bello). No one is disputing the former and few are going into detail about the latter.

Some, including some within the Jewish community, have declared that there is no, indeed there has never been, a military solution to this conflict. If follows then, both legally and morally (if not also strategically), that there must be an immediate ceasefire. For if the goals of war cannot be achieved at least in part militarily, then endangering the lives of civilians (not to mention soldiers) would be unacceptable.

Fortunately, most of the general population in North America knows close to nothing about warcraft. Few have served in the military or studied warfare and our lived experience is only of wars overseas. Unfortunately, this results in a populace that speaks confidently about something of which we know little.

More unfortunate though is that the declaration that there is no military solution to a particular conflict incentivizes terrorists to continue to engage in the sorts of behaviors that lead to just such a declaration. The terrorists of the world are watching. If the result of taking hostages and utilizing human shields is that the international community declares that there is no military solution (a declaration that should by logic be followed by a ceasefire), then taking hostages and utilizing human shields is exactly what we will see more of from terrorists. And, in case it doesn’t go without saying, we want fewer terrorists acting with less terror and not the opposite.

Clausewitz famously described war as a “mere continuation of policy by other means.” I’ll add, war should also be a last resort. But for a state to maintain any semblance of deterrence against an enemy such as Hamas, war must sadly remain an option. By openly declaring that there are war conditions that an enemy can (in our case scandalously fairly easily) create, we allow the death-cult terrorist organizations an opening to have their demands met simply by taking hostages and then hiding behind civilians. That is not a world in which I want to live.

The world in which I do want to live is one in which the laws created in the wake of World War Two are reconsidered to address realities only partially imaginable to the crafters of the Geneva Convention. An enemy whose strategy is to endanger as many civilians as possible and whose goal is to murder as many people – soldiers and civilians – as possible.

What haunts me though, and for this I don’t have a good response, is a statement made by a friend of a friend. They (I don’t know the individual’s gender) said that we all have a number. Meaning, we all have (or should have or will have) a number of tolerable civilian deaths above which we think Israel must cease its military operation. The question is not then a matter of whether Israel should or should not engage in further (or past) military action. Rather, it is a question of the degree and length of that military action. Importantly, that number, whatever it may be, does not cease to exist even if Hamas’ Health Ministry is an unreliable source for counting the dead (it is) and even if their numbers include over 10,000 Hamas fighters killed (they do) and even if they take into account civilians killed by misfired Hamas rockets (they are). It may be harder to determine when the number is reached, but the number exists.

Prime Minister Trudeau stated that “the price of defeating Hamas should not be at the expense of Palestinian civilians.” Such words are intolerably naïve. Of course civilians will pay some price in this war, for that is the nature of all war. But what is the upper limit of one’s bid in this life and death auction? It is a number that exists, according to this tolerable-casualty-limit theory, even if we consent that every Israeli bomb and bullet was acceptable (if not required) from the perspective of international, Israeli, and Jewish legal norms and values. It is an expense measured in infrastructure destroyed, in limbs lost, in body count, that, at least according to my friend’s friend, is one that we all must calculate.

In addition to “paramount”, Canada is prone to state that the government “unequivocally” condemns Hamas for Oct 7. In diplomatic-speak, this means that there is no justification for anything that Hamas did, irrespective of whatever grievances, legitimate or otherwise, that they have. “Unequivocally” is a diplomatic knock-out. When a country unequivocally condemns something that sentiment can be expressed in one sentence. “Canada unequivocally condemns what Hamas did on October 7.” There is no need to say anything further because nothing else needs saying. “Unequivocally” is by itself the strongest possible language.

But most people don’t speak diplomatic-speak. Most people will judge the position of a text and the gravity of its message not by word-choice, but by word-count. A text that opens with an unequivocal statement condemning Party A followed by equivocal condemnations of Party B for the remainder of the statement (or interview, or tweet, etc), will be interpreted by the reader as a statement that is much more concerned about the conduct of Party B than Party A. “Hamas is bad. Israel should be good. Now I will enumerate all the things that Israel is doing that I deem to be bad.”

Though perhaps not intended these statements are their own version of the “soft bigotry of low expectations,” to use a borrowed phrase. We know they’re terrorists. Their terrorism is expected and therefore accepted. But Israel though. Israel is a liberal democracy. We expect better.

Canada is among many entities that has fallen into the word-choice/word-count trap. An easy way out would be regular and ongoing mention of the 50,000 rockets that have been launched at Israel since the start of the war or that at its peak there were 200,000 internally displaced Israelis or that Hamas according to its charter is not interested in a two state solution no matter how nice Israel is to them or that UNRWA not only employs Hamas members but is also responsible for the generations of hateful indoctrination that helped lead to Oct 7. But Canada won’t be noting those facts publicly any time soon. We will just continue to condemn the terrorism of Oct 7 “unequivocally”, while criticizing, at much greater length, Israel’s response to it.

What I fear we will also continue to see is police tolerance of protesters who disrupt the normal functioning of society. Canada has already made headlines internationally for the non-intervention of police at an event where protesters blocked the entrances to a downtown museum leading to the non-attendance of Prime Minister Trudeau and Italian Prime Minister Meloni. This is sadly but one example among many of the police’s practice of non-intervention in no-risk-of-injury situations. Charges are sometimes laid at a later date, but that is insufficient.

Politicians must be able to meet. Students and professors must be able to go to (and to leave from) class. Citizens must be able to participate in civic life. Protestors are welcome to stand on public property and scream. That is democracy. If they choose to escalate by blocking entrances and roadways, which is, in my eyes, a legitimate mode of peaceful protest, the police must step up and step in – and the protestors must be willing to accept the legal consequences that arise from such behavior. The alternative is life under mob rule.

Sidebar: By and large, the police have done a tremendous job in proactively protecting Toronto’s Jewish community since Oct. 7.

What the protestors could, but are not, protesting is the refusal of neighboring states, most especially Egypt and to a lesser degree Jordan, to take Palestinian refugees.

It is a false equivalency that Jew is to Israel as Palestinian is to the Arab world. Yet it is also not entirely untrue. There is kinship between Palestinians and Egyptians and Jordans. They see themselves as others see them: part of an extended Arab family. From its birth, Israel has welcomed Jewish refugees literally from around the globe (even as the individuals weren’t always literally refugees). Yemen, Ethiopia, Iran, Iraq, South Africa, Argentina, the Soviet Union, and beyond. They were not always treated as they deserved, but the borders were open. Israel sometimes even sent the plane.

Egypt, in contrast, is sending tanks. They are putting up a wall.

The explanation offered is twofold. First, there is fear that once they leave, these refugees will not be permitted back – a modern day Naqba. Second, “regional stability”. I have to imagine that assurances can be guaranteed from the Netanyahu government that anyone who leaves Gaza to temporarily resettle in an Egyptian refugee camp will be permitted to return to Gaza following the cessation of hostilities. This excuse strikes me as a fear that is historically legitimate, but that could be overcome in today’s landscape. Israel has no intention of resettling Gaza (despite what Ben Gvir may want). Doing so would be a political disaster. Even Netanyahu knows this. Palestinian civilian resettlement of Gaza following the war should not present unconquerable difficulties. Nor should getting guarantees from Israel that they be permitted to do so.

As for “regional stability,” by this Egypt and Jordan mean that the absorption of too many Palestinians (or in this case even one Palestinian) will be destabilizing for their regimes. Jordan knows this from their lived experience and Egypt isn’t taking the risk. Indeed, Egypt could have received Gaza as part of their peace deal with Israel. They weren’t interested then, and they’re not interested now.

While I can’t blame a state for looking out for its own interests (irrespective of whether their concerns are well founded or not), I can’t stop thinking – How Are They Not Embarrassed? How Are They Not Ashamed? Their fellow Arabs are bombarded within earshot, and they won’t take a single child? Europe opened its doors to six million Ukrainian refugees. Over a million are still living in Poland. And Egypt turns the other way.

“Regional stability” is a coded term for ‘we think too many Palestinians will cause us problems.’ Zionist is a coded term too. When they say Zionist, we know they mean Jewish. To clarify, because many clearly missed that day in history class, a Zionist is one who believes in the legitimacy of a Jewish state in the historic land of Israel.

And if you believe in the legitimacy of Palestinian state, you should believe in the legitimacy of a Jewish state. If you believe in the legitimacy of Palestinian nationalism, you should believe in the legitimacy of Jewish nationalism. And the word for Jewish nationalism is Zionism.

Another term that requires examination is “indiscriminate”. Israel has been accused of indiscriminate bombing. Just because you don’t know why a certain place was targeted does not mean that it was targeted without purpose. Hamas lighting up rockets and hoping that they land somewhere in the vicinity of Sderot is indiscriminate firing. Israel shooting a rocket at a specific location is a country acting on intelligence against a specific military target (person or place). You are welcome to debate (based on whatever you happen to know about the given target and the reasonably assumed outcome of the rocket) as to whether that specific military action conforms to the rule of proportionality or any other law governing military action, but to throw around the term indiscriminate suggests military action without operational guidance and/or moral/legal grounding.

The IDF doesn’t drop bombs just for fun. Protest until your face turns red, assess the situation and claim that the damage caused by this or that rocket was not worth the value of the military objective, but don’t say that the bombing was indiscriminate. It’s false and it’s lazy.

And as for the term “genocide”, the Jewish people know all too well what genocide looks like. As unimaginably awful as it is to be a Palestinian in Gaza at this moment, there is no genocide there.

Nevertheless, in the minds of far too many, the stain of this term will be tattooed on the arms Jews and Israelis for many years to come. Sometimes, this stain will result in overt antisemitism; more often though Jews and Israelis will be discriminated against without notice.

A woman’s empowerment event is cancelled because pro-Palestinian protesters objected to the Jewish-Canadian speaker who served in the IDF thirty years ago. Next time, the event’s organizers, whose objectives have nothing to do with the Middle East and who personally may not care much about the region, will avoid inviting a Jew. After all, who needs the extra work? There are plenty of quality non-Jewish speakers out there.

Those on selection committees for medical fellowships, post-docs, and scholarships for graduate work will make the same decision. College newspapers considering whether to run a story about the break-in at the Center for Jewish Life that goes against the accepted narrative that Jews are aggressors and never victims will do the same. As will literary magazines determining whether to run a review of a memoir about life as a Jewish dairy farmer in Britain. So too will college administrators deciding how much to invest in Jewish life on campus.

Indeed, they already have.

Sometimes people in positions of power actually do hate Jews and Israelis. More often though, they will choose against Jews and Israelis because Jews and Israelis aren’t worth the hassle. The issue isn’t one of governmental discriminations – there will be no Nuremberg laws – rather it will be thousands upon thousands of individual decisions that will lead to the great downfall of Jewish and Israeli participation in civic life. The name for that shandah is systemic racism. And it will be everyone’s loss.

Two things will end this war. They are both in Hamas’ hands. Free the hostages and lay down your arms. The war could be over tomorrow.

Until then, I find hope in the over four hundred Muslim thought leaders from around the globe who recently gathered in my own city under the auspices of the Council of Muslims Against Antisemitism. Until then, though it may be Israeli munitions that kill, it is Hamas that bears the moral responsibility for the deaths of innocent Gazans.

For the sake of Israelis and Palestinians, I pray that the hostages will be released immediately and that Hamas will be no longer.

About the Author
Adam Cutler is the Senior Rabbi of Adath Israel Congregation in Toronto, ON.
Related Topics
Related Posts