The fallacy of moral equivalence

Rarely does the photo, four columns wide, of a dead baby appear on Page 1 of The New York Times (May 17). The sorrowful death of Layla Ghandour became, for the Times, “fodder for competing narratives.” But the dead Palestinian baby is grist for a newspaper eager to blame Israel first.

The accompanying article was written by Times Cairo bureau chief Declan Walsh. He told the poignant story of an 8-month-old Gaza girl with sparkling eyes (that he never saw). Held “in the arms of her grandmother when a cloud of tear gas engulfed them” at Monday’s Gaza protest, when fifty-plus Palestinians were killed as they attempted to breach the border with Israel, Layla seemed to have inhaled “acrid gas.” Dying several hours later, her story “shot across the globe, providing an emotive focus for outrage” – not directed at the politically zealous family members who brought her there with appalling disregard for her fragile health, but – predictably – at Israel.

Layla’s photo was taken by Gaza photographer Mahmud Hams, who described his specialty as “shots of children crushed in the rubble. Parents weeping beside lifeless little bodies. Death. Destruction. Funerals of men, women, children, sometimes very young children.” It is, by clear implication, always Israel’s fault. Walsh describes “the pressures of life” in Gaza under “an Israeli blockade” that contributed to Layla’s death.

But he inadvertently describes a family’s tragic, zealous dysfunction. Layla was dozing at home when the call sounded from a nearby mosque that a bus awaited passengers heading to the Gaza border fence. Her 12-year-old uncle, assuming that her mother was already on board, took Layla with him. Later that afternoon, when she began to cry, the boy carried her toward the border to find her grandmother, who was busy shouting at Israelis across the fence. Tear gas fell nearby; an hour later Layla died.

In Gaza, Walsh notes, “the rules of grief” transform private suffering, to say nothing of family history, into a political frenzy. An uncle, who belonged to the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, died fighting Israelis soldiers. Another uncle died while throwing stones at them. The day after Layla died her father marched to Hamas’s fiery tune, carrying her body wrapped in a Palestinian flag while leading a crowd chanting slogans about “Israeli blood lust.” Layla’s death parade, Walsh notes, was designed to win “international sympathy.” And the Times took the bait.

Measured by expansive Times coverage, Hamas’s “dead baby strategy” (as Alan Dershowitz aptly labeled it) succeeded. Layla’s mother insisted, “The Israelis killed her.” But, as Walsh reported, the family acknowledged that Layla had congenital heart disease, a hole in her heart. And the Gaza health ministry admitted the next day that it did not yet know the cause of the baby’s death.

An Israeli soldier, writing in The Times of Israel (May 17), addressed his “moral humane friends” and “those good and moral Zionists who fear that the many Palestinian victims may be our fault.” Kinley Tur-Paz, founder and CEO of the Kibbutz HaDati Educational Network, wrote of his experiences during recent IDF reserve service on the fence separating Israel and Gaza. His response to Israel’s critics is based on “firsthand knowledge. . . I was there.”

Tur-Paz knew that he was at the border to help prevent an invasion of thousands of Gazans that “would be perilous, mortally dangerous,” to Israeli communities. Had “terrorists disguised as civilians” – and there were dozens of them, by Hamas’s admission – entered Israel, the only choice would have been “to target every single infiltrator.” For that reason, Israeli soldiers were ordered “to prevent infiltration . . . using live ammunition only as a last resort.”

Citing their “efforts not to kill and to only injure” their attackers, Ur-Paz recognizes that sixty-two deaths is an “enormous number.” But “every bullet and every hit is carefully reported, documented and investigated.” The IDF, he asserts, makes an “enormous effort to protect Israel’s borders while minimizing injuries and loss of life on the other side.” Israel’s cause, he believes, is “morally just.” He concludes: “We do not rejoice when we must go to war, but we also don’t go like sheep to the slaughter. Not anymore.”

Layla Ghandour is the tragic victim of her family’s fervent complicity in the Hamas attempt to destroy Israel. No moral equivalence there.

Jerold S. Auerbach is author of the forthcoming Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel 1896-2016, to be published this summer by Academic Studies Press

About the Author
Jerold S. Auerbach is author of Hebron Jews: Memory and Conflict in the Land of Israel (2009). His new book, Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel 1896-2016, will be published in February by Academic Studies Press.