This letter was submitted by Jaclyn Berg.
At the present moment, there is a cacophony of desperation, violence and hatred alongside a resounding silence from those who don’t know how to respond. The thin line between grief and Islamophobia, between resistance and antisemitism, is being too easily crossed by some and so terrifying to encounter for others that they avoid speaking at all.
Hannah Arendt – a German-American Jewish-born political theorist – wrote in “Responsibility and Judgment” that “Acceptance of lesser evils is consciously used in conditioning government officials as well as the population at large to the acceptance of evil as such…Politically, the weakness of the argument has always been that those who choose the lesser evil forget very quickly that they chose evil.” This rings true today.
Over 13 years of study have shown me that those who value the lives and dignity of all humanity cannot depend on nation states to act in the interests of all humanity. Nation states and their militaries long ago took up the argument of the “lesser evil” and thoroughly convinced the people that this was the only way to seek justice and, maybe – someday in an undetermined future – peace.
Now many across the world either aggressively support or silently accept violence and massive loss of life, wrongly believing it’s necessary, that it will somehow make everything right.
While those seeking to bring about the real justice of freedom, equality and education access to necessities like food, water and healthcare have been forced to do so outside the boundaries of nation states, or accepting military violence in order to reach the oppressed and suffering. Perhaps nation states have done more harm than good, and the world would be better without them.
In a country where we’re not even taught our own history, we’re being asked to learn the history of others who often feel remote from us. We’re being asked to face the history of nations, which includes the history of our own, and to choose in a situation that affects many lives across so many borders and identities that it can feel that no matter what you do or say, someone is going to be hurt or offended. Perhaps most importantly, in the absence of knowledge about this history, we’re being asked to simply choose a so-called ‘lesser evil.’
There are those in media and governments trying to convince us that anyone who points to the thousands of murdered civilians in Gaza and demands a ceasefire is somehow supporting terrorism. Or that those desperately wanting their kidnapped loved ones returned safely are somehow in support of genocide.
They are trying to convince us that we cannot mourn for the civilians killed in Gaza and the West Bank AND the civilians killed in Israel.
But above all, they are trying to convince us that we don’t understand enough to know what’s right – that we have to choose a side of one nation or the other, or that we have to accept death as necessary for justice. They continuously appeal to arguments of the ‘lesser evil,’ constantly drawing us away from our shared humanity, as if we can’t say, “I don’t know the answer to how it got this way or what the solution is, but I do know that murdering innocent people is wrong.” But we CAN say that. We should be able to say that.
As a historian, I know that Israeli and Palestinian people have deep and ancient roots to that land, long before nation states ever existed. I know that Jewish, Muslim and Christian people have deep cultural and religious roots to that land as well – again, long before nation states existed. But as a philosopher, and more importantly, a human, I know that there is not, and never will be, a military solution to the question of whose land it is. I know that the murder of over 10,000 people in Gaza, and the genocidal violence happening right now, is not self-defense, no matter what ‘lesser evil’ argument is used. I know the deaths of those innocent people will not mean justice for the 1,400 innocent Israeli civilians murdered.
In truth, we are being asked to hold the grief of thousands of lives lost, to hold space for those who are angry, afraid or in mourning. We are being asked to do the seemingly impossible task of facing the tragedy of the worst parts of human existence and respond without adding to it. We are called to respond to a moment of incredible violence with love and shared humanity. If your heart feels broken and heavy, and your mind feels pulled in a hundred directions, I understand.
I want to appeal to that shared humanity to challenge the argument of the ‘lesser evil.’ To believe in the universal right of all people to live freely – free from the threat of violence, free to choose their own path in life, free to move through the world, free to express themselves – means that we should be opposed to anyone who tries to convince us that others are not fully human enough to deserve those rights.
We should be suspicious of those who claim that the deaths of others are collateral damage in the reality of war or a necessary sacrifice in the fight for justice. Belief in the universal right of all people to be treated with dignity and respect means that we can know that the actions of those doing the killing are wrong and that EVERY life lost has value and deserves to be mourned. Belief in that universal right means that we should all be able to demand, with one voice, an immediate ceasefire, an immediate opening of the border for aid into Gaza and an immediate return of the hostages taken by Hamas.
It is not easy to take a stand, in any situation, when there are so many quick to condemn anyone who does. It is not easy to raise a voice of love, peace and compassion amid so much hate, violence and callousness.
But history is watching.