By: Phillip Dolitsky  | 

Letter to The Editor: Yes, Let’s Talk About Israel

“Can we talk about Israel?” is a question that Professor Jeffrey Freedman asked the readers of this paper. The answer, of course, is a resounding yes. We can talk about Israel. Frankly, we must talk about Israel. We must “be able to ask questions, even difficult and painful ones” about the issues near and dear to our hearts, minds and souls. But we must not talk about Israel with the gross mischaracterizations of history and reality that Professor Freedman espouses in that same piece. That people believe in the narrative Freedman describes is sadly understandable in our current culture; that the chair of Yeshiva University’s Department of History believes them beggars belief. Since Freedman’s piece gets much wrong, both morally and factually, I feel compelled to address his points, one by one, citing sources for my claims, which Freedman never does; these pages deserve it.

Freedman begins his essay with the “first and most immediate matter of concern,” namely, the military campaign in Gaza. He notes that the Israeli military has “inflicted catastrophic suffering on the population of the [Gaza] strip,” that “the entire infrastructure, including hospitals, universities, electricity grids and sewage systems, has been obliterated.” He goes on to say that Hamas’ strategy of hiding within the civilian population “makes it impossible for the Israeli army to pursue Hamas without inflicting civilian casualties” and therefore questions whether the elimination of Hamas “justifies any amount of human suffering that might ensue.” Then, shockingly, Professor Freedman goes on to “[leave] … aside the moral considerations,” and discusses two “practical reasons why friends of Israel should hesitate before adopting the logic of military victory at any cost.” 

Perhaps it is not shocking that Freedman wants to leave aside the moral considerations, because that is the only way he could unironically write that Israel has inflicted “catastrophic suffering” on Gaza (note that Freedman never assigns that adjective to the suffering and trauma that the hostages and victims of 10/7 feel). How could it be that the army that has implemented more measures to prevent civilian casualties than any other nation in history has also inflicted catastrophic suffering? Israel has one of the lowest recorded civilian-to-combatant casualty ratios in the history of modern warfare. Does that fit with his brutish portrayal of the Israeli military campaign? When military historians think of particularly brutal campaigns, we think of Dresden, Tokyo, Operation Bagration, the March to the Sea; the Gaza campaign does not even come close to the level of suffering and destruction of this sampling by any metric. Freedman laments the destruction of hospitals and universities but never discloses what we all know — what Freedman deliberately withholds — that Hamas uses hospitals and schools as their headquarters and operations bases, making them legitimate targets of war. Describing the destruction in Gaza the way he has amounts to nothing short of Hamas propaganda, full stop. 

There is more. Freedman, seemingly, writes this way to tug at our moral heartstrings and pleads with us to question whether or not Israel’s campaign justifies any ensuing suffering. In doing so, he plays right into the hands of Hamas and other terrorist groups, who thrive off of the ethical concerns of liberal statesmen and citizens. A world that shares Freedman’s contempt for military action against militaries or terrorist groups that hide among civilians is a world ripe for great moral hazard. In such a world, the scholar Oren Litwin has argued that “tyrants would have a new incentive to build entire armies out of slaves rather than willing followers, specifically so that moral people would be helpless before them. Before too long the world could be dominated by slave armies ruled by the most vicious and evil people on the planet, simply because moral people would be forbidden to resist them.” Is that the world Freedman wants to live in?

Moreover, this paragraph ignores the entirety of strategic history. As I’ve argued elsewhere, and as nearly all of strategic history attests, there is a tragic paradox in military ethics: the more ethically constrained military campaigns and operations are, the longer evil reigns. The opposite is likely true as well: the more brutal war is, the longer peace can prevail. The decisive victory at Chaeronea and at Carthage, and the failure to maintain the peace after WWI serve as a small sampling of instances of this paradox. Prolific British strategist Colin Gray noted that “among history’s many ironies, it would seem indisputable that efforts to control and limit war, or armaments, both in theory and in practice have tended to have the reverse effect of that principally intended (emphasis added).” “It is simply the case,” Gray continued, that “awful means need to be threatened or employed for the purpose of advancing desirable end-state policy goals.” This aspect of political life is undoubtedly a tragedy, but it is a tragedy that all polities, and Freedman, must grapple with.

Freedman then goes on to offer two practical reasons he thinks we should be wary of “the logic of military victory at any cost.” His first is the “harm that such a policy is doing to Israel’s reputation in the world” and notes how “human rights and humanitarian organizations have been nearly unanimous in their condemnations of Israel’s assault on Gaza.” There is a certain brazenness behind this utterance. First, it is once again devoid of knowledge about Israel’s political history, which has always faced a Pavlovian contempt for anything it has ever done, however ethical, however just and right. What response to the 10/7 massacre would not have garnered international contempt? How might any reasonable commander have acted in a way that would not be seen as excessive and would have been both available and effective on the battlefield? Freedman offers no answers; he simply finds it easier to speak truth to power and criticize. Second, Freedman points to the concern of human rights groups and insists we take their concern seriously. To which groups shall we lend our ears? To the Red Cross, the same group that refused to transfer medicine to the Israeli hostages? To UNRWA, which had employees collaborate in the 10/7 massacre?

Freedman’s second reason to be wary of the military campaign is that it “rests on a dubious premise: it presupposes that a solution to the conflict is achievable by military means.” Here, once again, Freedman gets history wrong. Terrorist groups can and have been dealt with by military means. Historically speaking, terrorist groups end in one of six ways and, as terrorism scholar Christopher C. Harmon notes, “the most historically common way that a terror group ends is that … the regime strikes back with force, overwhelming or crushing the group of movement.” Moreover, Hamas is an apocalyptic terrorist group, not merely a political one (such as the IRA or Lechi), and, as another terrorism scholar Ralph Peters writes, “apocalyptic terrorists, no matter their rhetoric, seek your destruction and must be killed to the last man. The apt metaphor is cancer — you cannot hope for success if you only cut out part of the tumor.” Professor Freedman clearly does not like the military means to end Hamas, but it is wrong to say that the premise that they are effective is dubious. Quite the contrary. 

The only solution Professor Freedman posits throughout the piece is to rehash the idea of a two-state solution. I must admit, I laughed reading this. It is once again ignorant of the storied history of that fantasy. Forget even the many times that the Palestinians rejected offers of statehood the Israelis made. Does he think nothing has changed since 10/7? Has the worst attack on the Jewish People since the Holocaust changed nothing in Israel’s geopolitical calculus? Shall we reward the Palestinians with a state, when the majority of them support the 10/7 massacre? Freedman offers nothing more than the mere regurgitation of this dead idea. 

I could go on for another thousand words, but I wish to end on the following note. On Sept. 11, 2001, the American author Susan Jacoby was sitting in a NYC bar, dazed and confused. Next to her, two men were discussing the worst terrorist attack in American history, when one said to the other, “This is just like Pearl Harbor.” The other asked, “What is Pearl Harbor?” “That was when the Vietnamese dropped bombs in a harbor, and it started the Vietnam War,” the first man replied. Commenting on this tragically funny anecdote, the eminent military historian Margaret MacMillan asked if it matters that they got it so wrong. “I would argue that it does,” she writes, “that a citizenry that cannot begin to put the present into context, that has so little knowledge of the past, can too easily be fed stories by those who claim to speak with the knowledge of history and its lessons.” 

If we are going to talk about Israel, as we should continue to do — and as I hope Professor Freedman will do as well — we have to handle history with great care and context. Professor Freedman is a respected historian, one that I enjoyed studying with. But his essay not only reveals a limited grasp of the complexities inherent in military strategy, history and campaigns, but also veers from the scholarly conventions of objectivity and reasoned argument, both central to the discipline of history. Readers of The Commentator deserve better. 

Phillip Dolitsky (YC ’20) is a budding military strategist and independent national security researcher, focusing on the intersection between strategy, military ethics, and classical realism. His writing has appeared in First Things, Chesterfield Strategy, Military Strategy Magazine, and more. You can find him on X @phillyd97


Photo Caption: An Israeli F-16I Sufa in flight

Photo Credit: Major Ofer, Israeli Air Force