A child in Gaza leaves school surrounded by rubble, following Israeli strikes in 2009
A child in Gaza leaves school following Israeli strikes in 2009

Jonathan Glover is one of the world’s leading ethical and moral philosophers. He is a fellow of both the Hastings Center and the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics and teaches ethics at King’s College London. His latest book is “Israelis and Palestinians: From the Cycle of Violence to the Conversation of Mankind” (Polity)

Your 1977 book “Causing Death and Saving Lives” considers the moral questions involved in killing. What can moral philosophy tell us about Hamas’s attack on 7 October?

Having spent many years teaching philosophy, I wish I could cite a set of principles, emerging from centuries of debate and agreed to be the true foundations of morality. Part of the difficulty is that people’s values vary. And even when one society agrees, societies with different problems, histories or religions often disagree.

Teaching ethics is not preaching. Real philosophy teaching is Socratic. (“You say you believe in such and such a principle. But can you accept this consequence of it? Or should you revise your principle?”) We teachers don’t always persuade. And sometimes those we teach persuade us. But the results are not nothing. Most humans share quite a lot of their moral outlook.

Huge numbers of people coming from different societies or belief systems were appalled by the acts of Hamas on 7 October: by murderous sexual assaults on women, by hostage-taking or by murdering babies. We can appeal to how the terrorists see murdering Palestinian babies and children, and challenge the reasons supposed to justify treating Israeli babies and children differently.

Israel’s response has been the heavy bombardment of Gaza. What does Just War Theory tell us about the nature of that response?

As on other ethical questions, there is disagreement. But two claims have wide support. Responses must be proportional. And non-combatants should not be attacked. Few now thinking about a just war would disagree. I think that what Israel is doing in Gaza violates both. Proportionality: there is the huge disparity of numbers killed compared to 7 October. Civilian immunity: the bombing and cutting off electricity, water, etc. It is not only Hamas supporters who die when the hospital’s power runs out.

Those who are passionately committed to one side being right and the other wrong support their view with abstract choices about relative importance. Those who commit in this way to Palestine being right downgrade the relative importance of the obscene cruelty of 7 October. Those who commit in this way to Israel being right downgrade the relative importance of the hugely greater numbers of dead Palestinians compared to dead Israelis.

In your new book, you discuss the competing narratives about “homeland” held by Israelis and Palestinians.

One’s heart goes out to both sides. British duplicity promised the land to each [group].

Palestinians had never had their own self-governing state. Why should they have been driven out by force to make room for a Jewish state? Jews for centuries suffered pogroms, discrimination and humiliation in the states of other peoples. As [Theodor] Herzl, the father of modern political Zionism saw, they needed a state of their own. The only plausible location that – although remote in time – could draw on their own sense of identity was the Biblical one, mentioned every year [during Passover]: “Next year in Jerusalem”. After the Nazi genocide, who could refuse this?

The tragedy was that each people had right on their side. Neither could readily see the other side’s right because of the huge threat it posed to their own claims.

What is the psychology of backlash you discuss and why is it illusory?

In long-running cycles of violence, the psychology of backlash is central: “They started it, so we hit back.” But as in this conflict, each side can pick one episode out of many to show that “they” began it.

This thought is linked to the illusion of collective responsibility. Do all Palestinians support terrorism? Are all Israelis responsible for harm to Palestinians? Even supporters of Peace Now [a prominent Israeli peace movement]? Even the IDF soldiers of Breaking the Silence [an organisation founded by Israeli veterans who aim to expose the reality of conditions in Palestine], publishing dark truths about the Israeli occupation of the West Bank? Even Israeli babies and children?

For believers in collective responsibility, motives for retaliation are readily available. “They deserve it” – for driving us out of our land, or for their terrorist bus-bombings. “Our revenge is justified; we need to get even.” But they in turn will need to get even. These motives push toward the cycle carrying on indefinitely.

Alternatively, there is the idea that retribution has good consequences: “It will teach them a lesson not to do it again.” But it is striking how many Palestinians, after youthful experience of Israeli “retribution”, later became terrorist leaders. And if Hamas leaders behind the October atrocities thought they were teaching Israelis a desirable lesson, the huge number of Palestinians that Israelis have killed in Gaza shows how wrong this was.

Perhaps [Israeli Prime Minister] Netanyahu and his supporters think killing so many Palestinians in Gaza may teach those left alive a lesson about not repeating 7 October. But as the world watches the television reports, many will notice the faces of the children. Perhaps these months in Gaza are creating yet another half-century of mutual horror and cruelty.

You’ve written about Simone Weil’s idea of the need for roots. How do we balance such a need with what you describe in your book as “identity traps”?

Being rooted in a family, a nation or in shared values matters hugely. Not to be rooted in any of this, noticed or not, would for many be a huge loss. This supported identity is very different from what I called “identity traps”. By this phrase I meant that in a very long conflict, the contrast between us and the enemy can become central to how we see our own identity, making any peace or friendship seem a betrayal of who we are.

You use the philosopher Michael Oakeshott’s phrase “joining the conversation of mankind” to think about our shared humanity and illustrate this with an example of a deep friendship that crossed community divides.

Yes, my example is the friendship between [Palestinian-American intellectual] Edward Said and [Argentine-Israeli conductor] Daniel Barenboim, who together founded the West–Eastern Divan Orchestra [bringing Israeli and Arab musicians together].

Could you say more about how this sort of friendship might provide a model for escaping “identity traps” and finding a peaceful resolution to the Middle East conflict?

No peace is likely soon. The defeat of the Oslo Accords [the peace agreement reached in the 1990s] suggests this. The current atrocities by both sides hugely support pessimism. At this dark time, we should defer solutions, one-state or two-state. We should go back to simple things that might cross the barriers, like shared orchestras.

Even more important may be shared schools, letting children – and their parents – from both peoples make friends. Before leaders move to sign agreements, friendly human contact needs to grow. Those of us lucky enough to have friends in both peoples wish them well in this.

This article is from New Humanist's spring 2024 issue. Subscribe now.