Let's start with where he starts:
Let me state unequivocally from the outset that I fully supported Israel’s operations in Gaza. I have no doubt whatever that these were both justified and necessary given more than three years of almost constant missile attacks against its citizens, that Israel acted throughout with commendable restraint and that Hamas, through its cowardly and despicable policy of basing its terrorist infrastructure in densely populated civilian areas, is morally responsible for each and every civilian casualty for which Israel was so widely and unjustly blamed.
This is, to say the least, tremendously irresponsible.
I've been taking Torts at the University of Chicago, and one of the things that's become pretty clear is that apportioning liability is difficult even under the best of cases. And the Israeli campaign in Gaza was far from the best of cases. First, it was a war. Bad things happen in war, and it is difficult to determine which are simply things that happen in war, and which are actually blame-worthy above and beyond the fact that we might oppose war.
Second, normative claims, like who is to blame for civilian casualties, are highly fact dependent, and we don't have the necessary facts. There are a dozen and a half things which are relevant to any fair moral evaluation of who -- Israel, Palestine, or nobody -- is responsible for any given civilian death. What precautions were taken to avoid targeting civilians, and did they in fact reach the civilians in question? Did the precautions actually meaningful improve the security of the persons they were targeted at (e.g., leaflets warning of an attack are of limited effect if the recipients have nowhere to flee to, or if the act of fleeing at high speeds is taken as a sign they were militants). Were the civilians being used as human shields? How proximate were they to a legitimate military target? Was it known that they were in the area when the strike was launched? How much effort was made to ascertain this information (to the degree possible) prior to the attack? I could list off a dozen others, and I dare say that nobody has all of this information -- not the IDF, not the Palestinian government, not the civilians themselves, and certainly not the global commentariat.
Third, it is extremely unsettled what all the aforementioned factors, even if known, mean in terms of apportioning fault. The question of who is to blame (or what proportion they're blame-worthy) for civilian casualties when an urban-based insurgency operation bases itself in civilian areas is very, very hard, and it is certainly not one in which I believe there is a consensus. Same with issues of human shields, same for using "sanctuary" locations (like schools or hospitals) for military operations or storage. The "proper" response to such behavior is one that, at best, is hotly contested.
All of these points, taken together, make it impossible to ascribe blame as a general matter with any degree of confidence. It is an abdication of moral responsibility to say, then, that one has "no doubt ... that Hamas ... is morally responsible for each and every civilian casualty for which Israel was so widely and unjustly blamed." It is equally wrong to assert that Israel is totally and solely responsible for these deaths.
What I am sure of is that Israel is responsible, in a morally negligent way, for at least some of the deaths. It is possible (as it is in all wars -- I have absolutely no idea about any specific instance in this conflict) that some Israeli troops are criminally responsible and deserve prosecution. Hamas is likewise responsible for some of these deaths as well, perhaps criminally responsible (the firing of rockets deliberately targeted at civilians is a facial war crime in of itself, but I don't know if any of their actions vis-a-vis Palestinian civilians are criminally negligent, both because I don't know the necessary facts and I don't know the relevant law). And some of the deaths are not properly attributed to the moral failings of either party. The proportions that lie in each category, however, are not known to myself or Mr. Saks, or any other person, and I believe it is prejudicial, unwarranted, and and a function of pre-existing biases to assert otherwise, in either direction -- particularly in the sort of universal ascription of culpability that has quickly become the norm.
So that's the first thing. But why, exactly, was Mr. Saks writing this? It wasn't to begin a column discussing his views on Operation Cast Lead. Rather, it was as preface to an ugly anti-Semitic episode in his country of South Africa. I've been reminded that people who are under conditions of extreme oppression, stress, or threat will sometimes say things that aren't strictly justifiable, and this cannot be a bar to expressing our sympathy with them.
What was the proximate cause of Mr. Saks' article, then?
“They in fact control [America]. No matter which government comes in to power, whether Republican or Democratic, whether Barack Obama or George Bush. The control of America, just like the control of most Western countries, is in the hands of Jewish money and if Jewish money controls their country then you cannot expect anything else”.
That statement was made by South African Deputy Foreign Minister Fatima Hajaig, at a Palestinian "solidarity" rally. The South African Jewish community has officially filed a complaint alleging hate speech. The Israeli foreign ministry had also previously complained about Ms. Hajaig, alleging that she accused the Israeli ambassador of bringing a diplomat of Ethiopian descent to the embassy "only because he was black."
This does not serve to justify Mr. Saks' preface, but it does serve to contextualize it. Ms. Hajaig's comments, unfortunately, were neither isolated nor the worst of the lot:
[V]arious other speakers at the Lenasia rally made threatening statements against the local Jewish community. This included calls that anyone with Zionist sympathies be expelled from the country, that “Israeli” businesses be boycotted (a list of Jewish-owned businesses is in fact now doing the rounds within the Muslim community and further afield) and that action be taken against South African Jews who served in the Israeli military.
One presenter said: “The common enemy is making inroads in South Africa … the Zionists in South Africa must be kicked out of the shores of South Africa”. Another speaker praised “our Jewish brothers and sisters” who had come out against the Israel Defence Force, assuring them “there is a place in the world we are building in South Africa for you”. Those who had not done so, he warned, had “better watch out because the winds of change are blowing”.
Regarding local Jews allegedly serving in the IDF, another presenter shouted (again to rapturous and sustained applause): “We are going to become impimpis, we are going to become impimpis … the business that we are going to carry out with the Jews, with these Zionist entities. We are going to talk to them, were going to find out if their sons have gone to fight our brothers and sisters in Palestine and then we’ll say to them come and fight us at home”.
Other speakers included ANC Provincial Secretary Nazeem Adams and Eddie Makue, general secretary for South African Council of Churches. Makue denied that the fight against Israel and Zionism was anti-Semitic, saying that he and his fellow activists only wanted to bring their “Jewish brothers and sisters onto the right path”.
“This is a global struggle. We are inviting you to join us in it, otherwise you will be mowed down in the annals of history as people who refuse to support justice and peace” he said, as the crowd bellowed its approval.
If I were a Jew in South Africa, I would surely fear for my life upon hearing this. The threats of expulsion, the threatening of Jewish owned businesses, saying we will be "mowed down". This is violent language. This is borderline genocidal language. It is not, unfortunately, uncommon language -- even by members of government, even by socially prominent figures. And it is language that, when heard by Jews worldwide, echoes unnervingly of Nuremberg.
I've had comments similar to Ms. Hajaig's stated to me (more accurately, yelled at me) right here at the University of Chicago. At the time, my adrenaline was pumping too much to notice, but in retrospect, that was an extremely dangerous situation for me. He was bigger than me, he was screaming in rage, and while there were other people in the room, he knew them better than I did and none of them ever really tried to intercede. If he had started physically attacking me, what would have happened? I don't think they would have joined in. Would they have stopped him? Would they have sympathized (even if they think maybe he "over-reacted")?
My worry is not just about the Ms. Hajaig's of the world. It's about those who, at the end of the day, don't recognize the tremendous peril her words put me in. There are many people who I am quite sure wouldn't join in that speech, but whom I am very unsure as to whether they would support sacking her from her position in the government, or whether they would consider her someone they could continue to associate with, someone whose opinion and perspective (including on matters that affect Jews) is still worthwhile. That does worry me. Sometimes, it terrifies me.
And one day, it may very well yet kill me. We don't know.