How rights make wrongs

There is no way to reconcile

  1. a right of existence of two "peoples" who view themselves as distinct and mean to maintain their distinctions;

  2. each people's "right" to national self-determination;

  3. every individual's right to full enfranchisement within their state;

  4. each people's, and every family’s, right not to be dispossessed of or forced from their own homes or lands;

  5. a right of any person, or the descendant thereof, to return to the particular geographies from which they or their ancestors were historically dispossessed

If you want to keep [1], [2], and [3], you must abrogate [4] and [5]. That's the two-state solution.

If you want to keep [3], [4], and [5], you must abrogate [1] and [2]. That's the binational liberal democracy solution.

The worst people on both sides of the conflict emphasize all of these rights at once.

Both Israeli settlers and from-the-river-to-the-sea Palestinians cede no ground on [4] and [5].

Likud and Hamas are entirely agreed in their demand for [1]. They are entirely averse to any kind of melting pot assimilation between the two peoples.

Neither side will accept as legitimate colonial rule by some third power. Neither will accept second-class status beneath the other "people”, whether de jure (as the stateless Palestinians have endured, but do not accept) or de facto, due to demographic outcomes under notionally equal suffrage.

Right [2] is nonnegogtiable, and right [3] is not consistent with [2] unless demographics can be engineered, which would contradict rights [4] and [5] and invite charges of ethnic cleansing.

There is, however, one right that maximalists on both sides of the conflict are mutually willing to compromise upon.

  1. The right of human beings to live in peace and safety, and not see their children murdered or made into murderers.

If none of Rights [1] through [5] will be ceded, then Right [0] must give way.

The worst people on both sides of the conflict emphasize rights [1] through [5] all at once.

And so has the “international community”, for decades.

Sanctimonious application of a human rights regime laden with internal tensions and contradictions guarantees that eventually some rights will give way. Maximalists can credibly condemn any proposed compromise as an illegitimate abrogation of rights, and so forestall any action they dislike that might reduce the tensions.

The predictable effect is that some of these rights will give way all at once, in a crisis, provoking what will correctly be perceived as a terrible injustice to one or both of the parties.

On Right [0] there has been a great deal of compromise already. Unfortunately that leaves partisans of both communities even more determined to exercise the other rights.

Right [0] is the only claim that ought ever have been codified into a universal human right. The rest are legitimate aspirations, but human beings and human communities have conflicting, mutually inconsistent aspirations that somehow have to be managed.

Canonicalizing a broad range of such aspirations into "rights" — which we sanctimoniously promise to uphold (but in practice uphold selectively, because they would be impossible to uphold universally, and of course our selection may not be even-handed) — has been a bloody, catastrophic, mistake.

Pluralism or magnanimity?

Tony Judt’s Postwar includes in its first chapter the following:

At the conclusion of the First World War it was borders that were invented and adjusted, while people were on the whole left in place. After 1945 what happened was rather the opposite: with one major exception boundaries stayed broadly intact and people were moved instead...

The term ‘ethnic cleansing’ did not yet exist, but the reality surely did—and it was far from arousing wholesale disapproval or embarrassment.


With certain exceptions, the outcome was a Europe of nation states more ethnically homogenous than ever before... The ancient diasporas of Europe—Greeks and Turks in the south Balkans and around the Black Sea, Italians in Dalmatia, Hungarians in Transylvania and the north Balkans, Poles in Volhynia (Ukraine), Lithuania and the Bukovina, Germans from the Baltic to the Black Sea, from the Rhine to the Volga, and Jews everywhere—shriveled and disappeared. A new, ‘tidier’ Europe was being born.

Branko Milanovic makes a similar point about Eastern Europe in the aftermath of the Cold War:

When one draws the line from Estonia to Greece, or to be more graphic and to imitate Churchill from Narva to Nafplion, one notices that all currently existing countries along that axis were during the past several centuries (and in some cases, the past half-millennium), squeezed by the empires: German (or earlier by Prussia), Russian, Habsburg, and Ottoman. All these countries fought, more or less continuously, to free themselves from the imperial pressure, whether it was exerted through cultural assimilation (as in the case of Czechs and Slovenians), imperial conquest and partition (Poland), imperial conquest tout court (the Baltics and the Balkans), temporary inclusion as a second-tier ruling nation (Hungary) or any other way.

Their histories are practically nothing but unending struggles for national and religious emancipation (when the religion of the conqueror differed from theirs, as in the case of Ottomans and the Orthodox, or as between Catholics and Protestants).  National emancipation meant the creation of a nation-state that would ideally include all members of one’s community...

[W]hen the last such empire, the Soviet Union, collapsed all countries along the Narva-Nafplion line became independent and almost wholly ethnically homogeneous.


[The 1989 revolutions] were often interpreted as democratic revolutions. Thus the current “backsliding” of East European countries toward overt or covert authoritarianism is seen as a betrayal of democratic ideals or even, more broadly and extravagantly, of the ideals of the Enlightenment. The refusal to accept migrants is regarded as contradicting the nature of the revolutions. This is however based on a misreading of the 1989 revolutions. If they are, as I believe they should be, seen as revolutions of national emancipation, simply as a latest unfolding of centuries-long struggle for freedom, and not as democratic revolutions per se, the attitudes toward migration and the so-called European values become fully intelligible. These values, in Eastern eyes, never included ethnic heterogeneity within their borders. For Westerners this may be an obvious implication of democracy and liberalism, but not for the Easterners who are asked to risk their key accomplishment in order to satisfy some abstract principles.

For many of us in the West, the postwar era, beginning after 1945, accelerating after 1989, appeared to be a triumph of liberalism. Things were broadly getting better, most immediately for ourselves, but also for the world. One could quibble about the inauthenticity and unmanliness of the “last man”, but this "end of history", considering the other ways we feared that history might end, seemed overall like a triumph.

History has jolted back to life. It resumed its customary pastime of contriving our deaths, en masse. But we really did live in better times, for a while. There was a good trajectory that we failed to sustain. Perhaps, of course, it was unsustainable. Perhaps some inherent contradictions of our collective condition doom us to collapse. There is and was nothing to be done.

But perhaps we just misunderstood some things about how our successes actually worked, and therefore made some mistakes.

It will be no surprise to readers of interfluidity that I consider the strain of economic liberalism that we now call "neoliberalism" to have been mistaken. In my view, however, the mistake should not be colored in the broad strokes it often is. The problem was not capitalism bad, socialism good, either of which conjectures (or their opposites) I would describe as hopelessly grand and stupid.

At its roots, the mistake was that Western economists mistook ends for means. We want, as an end, to live in an economy where the contested outcomes of everyday life are resolved by decentralized markets that masquerade as natural forces, because we don’t go on murder sprees against hurricanes like we do against people we identify as dispossessing us. We want that market economy to yield prosperity, and a prosperity sufficiently equitable that our societies can be cohesive and classless, under which our interests are sufficiently shared that democracy doesn’t degrade to negative-sum factionalism. We want our market economy to be resilient to disruptions in far-flung supply chains, and to be adaptable to production of goods required for a muscular national defense, so we can sustain credible deterrence and support the peace upon which prosperity must depend.

These are all good things to want! They are ends. The neoliberal error was to posit that the ends themselves were sufficient as means. We needed simply to rely upon markets ever more expansively and naively and incautiously and then, by virtue of some divine coincidence (actually a term of art in economics!), all of our desires would be achieved. Markets — if they are regulated in the manner a certain priesthood defined as “deregulated” — would engender prosperity too cheap to meter. A sufficiently prosperous society would simply purchase every social good we might want. QED.

Entropy is a fact of social affairs even more than it is a fact of physics. If we want many different things, we will have to expend work and effort towards each of those things, and navigate tradeoffs between our various ends and the means required to achieve them. There will be no divine coincidence. The ends that we desire will make competing demands upon our limited resources. Letting the form of the ends stand-in for intelligent consideration of means — let’s “unleash the free-market economy!” — becomes a catastrophic kind of cargo-cult.

My liberal-to-left-ish readers can mostly nod along to this, I think. We’ve been persuaded for a while that the “neoliberal turn” was a disaster (even the many of us, including me, who once upon a time were enthusiasts).

My liberal-to-left-ish readers might have a harder time with what comes next. I think we are making the same mistake with the social and moral aspects of liberalism that we have made with the economic aspects. We mistake ends for means.

What get called “human rights” are good things. People should have freedom first and foremost to live in safety, exempt from torture or having their children murdered in front of them. People should be able to express themselves freely, to say what they think without fear of violent reprisal. People of the world’s many different religious, cultural, ethnic, racial traditions and identities should be able to live and raise their children within those traditions, wherever they might live. They should not face dispossession, or forced transfer, or extermination because of their traditions and identities. While no one should ever be forced to migrate, people of any tradition should be able to choose to migrate, and wherever they choose to go, they should also be able to live within their tradition, and speak their language with one another. While there may be some legitimate grounds by which states restrict immigration, restrictions based on the religious, cultural, racial, or ethnic, or linguistic identity of potential migrants are not legitimate, are racism or some other form of invidious discrimination.

All of these are desirable ends! But there are, to put it very mildly, tensions between them, and between these goods and broader ends, like effective social coordination at the scale of a nation-state in service of prosperity and defense.

Freddie deBoer likes to mock a “progressive tendency to act as though every political question has already long been settled and its answer obvious to all good people”. One example of this, I think, is to make demands for human rights as though they can simply be provided, as if to will the end is sufficient to create the means.

Securing peaceful coexistence — let alone productive coordination — between human communities that perceive themselves as having distinct identities is the most persistent, recurrent, and vexing problem in all of human history. You can universal-declaration anything you want. Ratification by the UN that a good should exist does not will the good into existence. If you want a social good actually to obtain, you will have to attend carefully to means, and accept that, in practice, you will have to navigate contradictions and trade offs between the goods that you desire.

The absolute language of rights — “inalienable”, “universal” — and its obverse, the rhetoric of condemnation, make thinking clearly about these tradeoffs difficult. A tradition rooted in the prevention of extermination may in practice help to provoke extermination, as the language of rights takes compromise off the table, and the rhetoric of condemnation becomes a sanctified form of dehumanization.

The neoliberal turn, which it’s easy now to deride as idiot cargo-cultism, appeared to work for about 30 years. The way I’d explain that is, well, there’s a lot of ruin in a social democracy. The period from the end of World War II until the middle 1970s created extraordinary societies in the West, shockingly prosperous and cohesive. During that period, policymakers took seriously that good economic ends required application of diverse and muscular social means. Courts enforced antitrust law based on a positive view that economic power should be widely dispersed, rather than narrow claims of “market failure”. Social institutions, from corporations to unions to civil society organizations, were understood and regulated in broad terms, rather than caricatured as the profit-maximizing agents of economic models. The social democratic era created circumstances following which a parasitic neoliberalism could seem to thrive, for a while. We could deceive ourselves and believe liberalism was working.

Since World War II, in the West, social liberalism seemed broadly to be working as well. Western countries enshrined universalistic approaches to human rights into law, and thrived, culturally as well as economically. Pluralistic liberalism, invented, arguably, to calm Europe’s religious wars centuries before, now seemed able to manage national and ethnic rivalries and keep an initially unlikely peace.

But has it actually worked? Did liberalism succeed, or did the ethnic cleansing that didn’t yet have a name at the end of World War II create conditions under which ethnonational rivalries were just easier to manage than thay had previously been? Should we understand postwar Europe to be a triumph of pluralism? Or did the triumph belong to a paroxysm of ethnic cleansing that left nation-states sufficiently homogeneous and cohesive that they could afford a kind of magnanimity? It is much easier to avoid ethnic strife when a dominant group’s hegemony is assured than when multiple groups must either share power or meaningfully contend for dominance.

I am not a “post-liberal”. The end I seek is a liberal, pluralistic society in which the claims we call human rights are respected as broadly and fully as possible. I’m a “social democrat”, because I would also include various positive economic goods among those claims — “rights” to education, housing, health care, etc.

But precisely because I seek those end, I want to take seriously the question of means. I understand that there are trade-offs and contradictions between the various rights to which I think we should aspire. Simply declaring and sanctifying a panoply of rights, and condemning in moral terms any abrogation, does not strike me as a recipe for achieving and broadening the purchase of those rights.

On the contrary.

The bad war, like all the wars

World War II — or rather our misremembering of it — has dangerously distorted our understanding of human affairs.

When we think of World War I, we draw saner lessons. We remember death, futility, the horror of gas and trenches. We can see that whatever its causes were, the consequences of resorting to war so eclipsed them that everybody lost. World War I was supposed to be the war to end all wars, because who would do this again?

World War II was objectively a much more horrible war. Many more people were killed, maimed, displaced than during the first World War. It was “total war”, in which the distinction between combatant and civilian was erased.

Despite all of that, despite the carpetbombing of Dresden and the burning of Tokyo and the two atom bombs, we came out of that war with a notion that it had been “worth it”, that the good guys had defeated the bad guys.

War is never worth it. World War II was perhaps the single worst event in all human history.

That is not to say that the allies should not have fought and won and defeated the Nazis. Of course a counterfactual of capitulation to monsters could be even worse than our current catastrophe of a timeline. What it is to say is that even in 1939, with the literal Hitler gesticulating like a drunken scarecrow before ranks of jackbooted thugs, if there had been any possible means of deterring or preventing the German army’s march, that would have been better, even though it would have left that evil regime in place. Tens of millions of lives would have been spared, inconceivable suffering would have been avoided, and we today might be less stupid.

What about the Jews? No one can say for sure, but I suspect even for them (for us, it’s my own ethnicity however much I flee it), it would have been better. Without the more universal institution of wartime forced-labor camps, the extermination camps that distinguish the Nazi genocide of the Jews from history’s many, so many, “ordinary” genocides might never have been, umm, innovated. The Jews of Germany might have been persecuted, detained and mistreated like the Uighurs of China today, or simply terrorized, randomly murdered, and expropriated until they were driven to emigrate. All of that is horrible. One can take a certain satisfaction that the Nazis were utterly destroyed and discredited. But for the Jews, the cost of that satisfaction was probably not worth the escalation of persecution into an industrial supply chain of forced labor and cyanide gas.

We have whitewashed the war. We had trials at Nuremberg which we called justice. And, to be sure, those who were condemned thoroughly deserved their fates.

But was it “justice” when by the very definitions we were then inventing and formalizing for “war crimes”, many of our own leaders and soldiers could also have been condemned, but were not? It was victor’s justice, which is the only justice war ever brings. We foolishly encased it in a patina of sanctimony which has blinded us ever since to the ineradicable awfulness of war.

War is crime.

There are times when crime is necessary. I would steal bread to feed my child, but I would still become a thief. I would take up arms to defend my country, but I would still become a murderer. Whenever crime is necessary, there has been a profound social failure. The work, the main work to which the human spirit is devoted, organizing ourselves for mutual survival and prosperity, has collapsed.

Yes, war is sometimes necessary. But it is never good. It is the rotten fruit of the very worst human failure.

Political leaders sometimes see war as opportunities for glory. That is obscene. Leaders on whose watch war has emerged should presumptively be scorned, shamed. Whatever the conflict, among states or between factions, that led to war should be adjudicated by any and every other means. The only redemption for leaders so terrible, so miserable, so condemned and condemnable as to allow a war to begin on their watch is to stop the horror quickly, to find ways neither to capitulate nor to fight, but to compete on less destructive terms.

Nothing deformed the United States as a political community more than our victory in World War II. Again, I’m not condemning the fighting or winning of that war, to the degree it could not have been prevented or staunched. We are all criminals for Dresden and Hiroshima, but our adversaries also were criminals, and much worse outcomes were possible than the one we achieved.

But we told ourselves a story of good and evil, we were good and they were evil. We went on for decades imagining ourselves to be comic-book heroes, despite growing body counts in Indochina and North Korea and the Middle East. Our culture is now dominated by literal comic-book universes in which violence against evil is depicted as the way we pursue the good. But propounding evils that merit violence is how the devil farms our souls. Violence multiplies evils. It does not quell them.

Russia thinks of World War II as its good war as well. Its new invasion, it says, is denazification. Maybe if you cannot see the corpse this idolatry has bred in your own mirror, you can see the corpses now multiplying in theirs.

Wars end in exhaustion, misery, and catastrophe, whichever flag last stands. World War II was not a good war. Beyond a certain point, it was necessary to fight it, but the world should never have reached that point. If the war could have been deterred by a less yielding and better armed Chamberlain, it should have been deterred.

Deterred. To be against war unfortunately is not to be against arms. Unfortunately, deterrence is often a precondition for keeping the peace. However, the more deterrence is relied upon, the more catastrophic when it breaks. Deterrence by denial is superior to deterrence by punishment. States should rely as much as is necessary but as little as is possible on threat of reprisal to keep the peace. States should rely as much as is possible on proactively resolving disputes, on maintaining interdependence, but on a mutual and equitable basis that resists weaponization. Deterrence is always necessary, but never sufficient.

It is not our turn to take up the fight against fascism and authoritarianism that our grandfathers and great grandfathers won before us. What is ours is to learn the lesson of both the great wars and all the smaller ones, that our first and most important work is to prevent from ever emerging the poisonous choice between capitulation or conflict. Fascism and authoritarianism are defeated by the example and experience of prosperous liberality, which war extinguishes, sometimes temporarily, sometimes permanently.

Peace alone is insufficient to prevent fascism, as our recent experience attests. But war is always fascism’s friend. Civilization is a narrower road than barbarism. Neither of the simple choices, ferocity or passivity, can sustain it. Civilization, like life itself, requires continual attention, adaptation, innovation, improvisation. It’s exhausting work, Sisyphean, thankless. It is so much easier, so much more exhilarating, to relax ones grip and let slip the dogs. Death is easier than life.

Price rationing

I’ve written about this before, but I wondered if I couldn’t be concise.

Umm. Oh well.

Price rationing of scarce goods has three important characteristics:

  1. When the supply of goods is price elastic, price rationing — allocating initially scarce supply to the highest bidders — provokes new production of goods, helping relieve the scarcity to the benefit of all.
  2. Ceteris paribus, all else being equal, price rationing allocates scarce goods to the people who value them most.
  3. Under circumstances where purchasing power is unequal, price rationing allocates goods to the people with more purchasing power in preference to people with less.

The first two characteristics are generally desirable. They are the reasons economists have historically favored price rationing, and are good reasons why we all should favor price rationing under some circumstances.

However, from a welfare perspective, Characteristic #3 is a point against price rationing. Suppose we had a limited supply of food, enough to feed the whole population, but not enough to give everyone a nice dessert. Under conditions of stark inequality and pure, self-interested, price rationing, the wealthy would enjoy their desserts and the poor would starve. Under nearly anyone's social welfare functions (just a fancy way of saying their values), the dessert-plus-starvation result is inferior to the everybody-eats outcome. So, in this case, it's better to choose equal allocation rather than price-rationing to decide who gets what.

Characteristic #1 is a powerful argument in favor of price rationing. But it also is dependent upon circumstances. In general, when industries are competitive, supply tends to be price elastic, because producers fear that if they raise prices very much, competitors capable of expanding production will undercut us and gain market share at our expense.

But under monopoly, supply tends to be price inelastic. From a producer’s perspective, the very sweetest outcome is when you can get more profit by simply raising prices, without incurring the costs and hassles of new production. (Hat tip Steve Roth!) Further, price elasticity requires that suppliers produce inefficiently, in a static and narrow sense. Firms have to invest in capacity that under current price and demand conditions will be "slack”. If no new demand materializes, that investment will be wasted.

So, without the discipline imposed by rivals who threaten to steal market share, monopolies tend to optimize for current or narrowly foreseeable market conditions. While they may be unprepared for them, they are very glad to be surprised by positive demand shocks. Sure, they will be unable to actually meet that demand at current prices. But they will enjoy the jump in prices by which they ration the insufficient level of production they are prepared to manage.

I’ve written in terms of “monopoly”, but the same argument holds for highly consolidated industries. Firms tacitly coordinate on highly optimized, “zero slack” supply chains, secure in the knowledge that if there is a positive demand shock, neither they nor their rivals will have the capacity to quickly expand share and eat one another’s lunch. Quantity produced will fail to expand. Instead, they will all enjoy an increase in prices and profits.


Characteristics 1 and 2 above are really great arguments for price rationing! But Characteristic 3 is an argument against price rationing. Whether price rationing is desirable depends how much the downside of Characteristic 3 weighs against the upside of Characteristics 1 and 2. The case for price rationing depends, quite simply, on how materially equal a society we are, in terms of the dollar value of purchasing power we can each sustain. The more equal we are, the stronger the case for price rationing.

Plus, Characteristic 1, the most persuasive argument for price rationing, depends upon market structure, on how competitive and contestable our industries in actual fact are. When our economy is one in which most industries are competitive, the case for price rationing is very strong, as we can expect that when demand grows suddenly strong, quantity will expand to meet everyone’s needs, and prices will rise not so much. When industries are consolidated and supply chains are “optimized”, we can expect demand shocks to translate into price shocks, exacerbating the social cost of inequality.

We can’t rely on any dogma. We have to actually evaluate these tradeoffs. The social cost of letting designer handbags be priced so only the wealthy can afford them is small, so designer handbags can pretty much always be price-rationed. The social cost of disparate allocation of food, water, or housing can be tremendous, if we do not have a clear abundance of those resources on the market. For these goods, the choice of price-rationing versus regulated allocation can’t be made theoretically and a priori. Perhaps these goods should be price-rationed, but only if you can show that in fact prices won't rise so much, because new supply will be mobilized to overwhelm the potentially serious cost of disparate allocation.

Price rationing has another advantage. It’s the allocative procedure that, in our current society, we consider normal, even “natural”. When we interject other allocative schemes, there’s inevitably a political struggle over whether and exactly what should be imposed. That struggle can be socially costly. Real resources will be squandered on zero-sum litigation and lobbying. More insidiously, whatever the outcome, those who fail to get their way perceive their loss as injustice, unnecessarily and artificially imposed by state actors never free of corrupt influence.

By camouflaging divisive outcomes as neutral results of "natural" market forces, price rationing helps conserve the legitimacy of state and society. I think that's a huge virtue. We'd be better off if we lived in circumstances where we could dogmatically stick with price rationing and it would work well enough.

Unfortunately we do not. That would require and society more materially equal and an economy more pervasively competitive than what we have in fact allowed to befall us.

This one is dedicated to my friend Clay Shentrup, who I suspect will disagree with every word.

The rhetoric of condemnation

I find myself increasingly frustrated with the rhetoric of condemnation. In particular, I find the way people use “war crimes” and “genocide” to be lazy and evasive of the actual questions that need to be answered in order to address the situations that provoke those accusations.

To be very clear, I am not to in any way exonerating, defending, minimizing the many atrocities that attract those labels. They are reprehensible actions that anyone ought to find abhorrent. But those atrocities occur in the context of histories and unfolding events for which “just don’t do that” is nowhere near a sufficient answer. Speakers often use the accusations to place themselves on the side of virtue and the accused on the side of evil, without owning up to the consequences they would require of those they admonish.

Whatever some treaty or document held up as “international law” does or does not say about the matter is immaterial. Situations actually need to be addressed, and “international law” as it stands is far from being a system to which states or nonstate actors could simply agree to conform and then expect that their rights and vital interests will be protected.

There are disputes. They have to be addressed with solutions that antagonists can be persuaded at least to live with. Until such solutions are found, there will be conflict. When the terms of conflict create conditions in which the alternative to war crimes is unacceptable to any or all the parties, then war crimes will be committed.

Both the Palestinians and the Israel provide rich examples. The intentional slaughter of 1300 civilians for dancing one morning or waking up in their homes is obviously a war crime, regardless of any right to resist occupiers or claims that their presence on the territory is illegitimate. However routine it has become, every time Hamas launches a missile from Gaza towards Tel Aviv or some Israeli town, they are committing a war crime. Hamas does not carefully target its rockets toward military objectives in a manner calculated to ensure that any civilian "collateral damage" would be proportionate (whatever all that slippery language is supposed to mean). Yet given the actual balance of power and armaments available, if even the desultory missile barrages are taken off the table, Hamas would have no plausible means to prosecute their cause other than on terms set entirely by the Israelis. Symmetric military-to-military warfare against Israel, waged from bases segregated from Gaza’s civilians, would lead to a quick extermination of Hamas' soldiers. It would, very mercifully, spare civilians on both sides, but it would do nothing for the Palestinian cause.

Hamas should not slaughter and kidnap civilians. If you are not still reeling from the horror of what happened last Saturday, I am. Hamas should not even lob missiles at towns, whether or not the “Iron Dome” will manage to intercept them. But if all we do is condemn the war crimes, then we are saying morality compels the Palestinians to accept complete and total impotence to prosecute what they believe is a just and urgent cause. So of course they choose to commit war crimes.

It is absolutely a war crime for Israel to cut off food, water, and power from the civilians of Gaza. But if we accept as given that Israel must extirpate Hamas as a military force from Gaza, then the logistics that support those who will fight and kill Israeli soldiers are the same logistics that support the civilian population. A ground invasion of a densely built urban landscape deeply familiar to its defenders will cost the lives of many Israeli soldiers no matter what. But fewer Israelis will die if the force they fight is depleted and exhausted before the battle begins. When you are at war, ours versus theirs is a more salient concern than civilian versus soldier. The outcome and toll of war is largely a function of logistics. In this case, Israel controls the logistics of the opposing force. To refrain from war crime, it would have to literally feed the snipers who will await its soldiers. Unsurprisingly, Israel chooses the war crime.

Depending on where the balance of your sympathies lie, it is easy — and it is accurate! — to highlight the criminality of either side. If your view is that, however regrettable, the status quo ante plight of the Palestinians was in some sense acceptable or tolerable or redressable by better means, then it is easy to condemn them for war crimes. If your view is that Israel could and should simply cease its occupation, whatever exactly that would mean in practice, then you can just condemn the settler state’s crimes and demand that it accede to a Palestine “free, from the river to the sea”.

But if you think either of these things, you are a fool. Most people are not so foolish, and understand that the Palestinians have been in a cruel, impossible, and unjust position for decades, and also that if Israel were to simply relinquish its authority and lay down arms, civil war and bloodbath would be immediate. It doesn’t matter which side you accuse of war crimes, even if you are right. Of course you are right. But you are helping nothing but the cause of your own self-righteousness. Or worse, you are helping one side gird itself for and justify new atrocities against the other.

If you want to do some good, you have to actually help unravel the thorny circumstances under which each side understandably views the commission of war crimes as superior to the alternative, despite all of our righteous condemnation. Israel should have a government that offers real hope of progress for the Palestinians, rather than one that buys the support of fascists by continually dispossessing Palestinian residents of the West Bank, and buys the support of many others by promising safety while keeping the dispossessed out-of-sight and out-of-mind like factory-farmed poultry. The Palestinians should have governments that are meaningfully accountable to their publics, with legally enshrined regular elections, rather than one mafia that finds patrons for its terrorism and another mafia that finds patrons by collaborating.

I have no tablets with solutions to bring down from Mt. Sinai. I do have suggestions. Israel should not invade Gaza at all, after all, but should offer clear conditions for the kind of government to which it would cede sovereign control of Gaza’s borders, and define milestones that would define incremental progress toward that goal. Obviously one of those milestones would be complete exclusion of Hamas’ current leadership. Israelis who do not wish their country’s role in the world to be fuse of the apocalypse should replace the Netanyahu catastrophe quickly. A new government should commit to naturalize and enfranchise willing Palestinian residents of the West Bank. Settlement has succeeded at changing the facts on the ground, so creating a Palestinian state there would be very challenging. Letting Gaza become a Palestinian state while integrating the West Bank allows Israel to be what most Israelis want, simultaneously a Jewish state and a liberal democracy. Palestinians who prefer their own state could look forward to and help to build a well-governed city-state in Gaza. Jewish Israelis who fear differential birthrates might soon overwhelm them should work to integrate and grant opportunities to Palestinians so that they too experience a demographic transition. Regardless of how a demographic horserace works out, integration does the most important work. Just in case, it might be wise to better entrench protection of minority rights into the structure of the Israeli state.

Perhaps all of this is hopelessly naive. I look forward to your counterproposals. Naivety at least is more constructive than uselessly self-righteous condemnations of war crimes.