Peter Singer is out to lunch on Gaza

Yesterday, Peter Singer published this article discussing the morality of Israel’s recent war with Palestinians in Gaza. Normally, I am a fan of Singer’s work which usually contains a high degree of moral seriousness. However, in this piece, his moral seriousness is undermined by his uncritical acceptance of Israeli talking points:

“Israel, blaming Hamas, arrested hundreds of its members in the West Bank, though it has never explained the basis of its accusation.”

Why is Singer taking Israel’s word that the people it arrested are actually members of Hamas?

“The Israeli government may have seized on the outrageous murders as a pretext for provoking Hamas into a response…Hamas responded to the West Bank arrests with a barrage of rockets that reached Tel Aviv and Jerusalem”

This goes from mischaracterization to flat out lie. Hamas was responding not only the arrests, but several days of Israeli airstrikes on Gaza, which were a violation of the 2012 ceasefire it had signed with Israel.

“In firing rockets at Israel, Hamas invited a military response. A country subject to rocket attacks from across its border has a right to defend itself”

Unfortunately for Singer, this logic actually defends the Hamas rocket attacks, because its land was under attack by Israeli rockets.

“Hamas’s strategy of launching rockets from residential areas and storing them in schools”

While some rockets were found in schools, there is no evidence that this represents a “strategy”. The actions of the few, acting against the institutional norms and orders, don’t constitute an institutional strategy.

“Israel has legitimate military objectives in Gaza: to stop the rockets and destroy the tunnels.”

These are not legitimate military objectives. They are legitimate political objectives, which can legitimately be pursued militarily if there are no other means possible. However, Hamas has offered another means: stop the siege of Gaza. Which is, not incidentally, a crime.

Singer’s failure to overcome the media talking points on Gaza might tell us something fundamental about the gap between ethics and politics: perhaps ethics is asking difficult questions about right and wrong when the facts are not themselves up for question (or, when whether the facts are up for question is itself known, and becomes an ethical problem itself). Politics, on the other hand, is the world where ethically relevant facts are manipulated by public relations armies, which if they do their job right will result in otherwise good people affirming processes which are in fact unjust.

Singer is a decent philosopher, and he’s actually more politically engaged than average because he takes the uncontested but ignored facts about cruelty towards non-human animals and draws ethical implications from them. However, on political matters where it is already taken for granted by everyone that the lives at stake are valuable, he can not avoid the manipulative representations of power structures which results in blaming the victim, and representing the problem as the solution.

Perhaps the strangest thing about this article is, however, that he begins with a recognition of the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but then denies that it has any relevance to morally understanding the current conflict.

“Different answers to that question are possible. Some depend on answers to prior questions about the founding of the state of Israel, the circumstances that led to many Palestinians becoming refugees, and responsibility for the failure of earlier efforts to reach a peaceful solution. But let us put aside these questions – which have been explored in great depth – and focus on the moral issues raised by the latest outbreak of hostilities.”

Rather than ignoring context, and taking media talking points as a given, I would expect from Singer (and from any serious philosopher) an original interpretation of the situation on the basis of that context, and ideally one that uses thinking to break through media taboos which make our public discourse anemically ritualistic, and unable to hold power to account and stop the perpetual reproduction of injustice at which we sigh but fail to confront.

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