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Eurovision, Israel, and the Responsibility for War

image of Eurovision logo

On May 11th, Swiss artist Nemo won the Eurovision song competition with “The Code.” The nominally apolitical contest has always been somewhat of a stage for international drama, with this year’s Eurovision occurring with an additional pall of controversy due to the inclusion of singer Eden Golan as the representative artist from Israel. Activists hoped for something like the 2022 exclusion of Russia, and failing that, began pushing for both the artists and the broader public to boycott Eurovision for allowing Israel entry. The finals, held in Malmö, Sweden, occurred amid marches and protests. Performing to a polarized crowd, Golan took fifth, the 20-year-old singer having become a focal point of international politics. To what end we might ask?

For pro-Palestinian or anti-war activists, the question is likely more about tactics than ethical principle. Eurovision, for all its kitsch, is a major international event with significant mass media interest. Tethering their cause to the visibility of Eurovision may pay dividends. This line of thinking does not, however, necessarily explain why they pushed so hard to get Israel excluded from the contest. For some activists, the stated concern was whitewashing, in which the international competition provided Israel a convenient platform to present itself through shimmering pop rather than military violence. And indeed, Golan’s submitted song, “Hurricane,” was originally entitled “October Rain” in reference to the October 2023 attack on Israel by Hamas which killed over 1,000 Israelis and precipitated the current invasion. It was rewritten and retitled at the behest of Eurovision officials, but vague references remain in the lyrics.

It may also be ethically significant to force those with large platforms to take a stand. This echoes the ongoing Blockout 2024 movement which surged following the Met Gala, and encouraged social media users to block celebrities and influencers for failing to use their influence to call attention to Gaza. At core, this is something between a demand for good Samaritanism and good custodianship of power. The contention is that those who have platforms should use them to call out injustice where they see it, either because everyone has such an obligation, or because specifically those with power or influence have an incumbent responsibility. (The expectations of celebrity have been previously discussed by The Prindle Post.)

Lurking behind this is a deeper question of responsibility and accountability. War is something ostensibly done by nations, vast concatenations of peoples, geographies, laws, and institutions that are the primary players of international politics. Is it not somewhat facile to draw such a straight line between a young Israeli singer and the decisions of her country’s government? How does a nation, this abstract geopolitical entity, waging war, refract to the responsibility of those within?

For some philosophers, the answer is simply democracy. While citizens are generally unable to vote on war, and certainly not on specific military operations, they are involved in electing political leadership. Aspiring leaders in turn often have some public record about their inclinations towards war. Certainly Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in his decades in government, has never pretended to be anything other than a hawk (technically as Prime Minister he is elected by a parliament which is elected by the people). From this electoral agency ostensibly stems citizens’ responsibility for war.

But if so, it is a watered down responsibility as almost all citizens are far removed from having any personal agency in the decision to wage war. Moreover, war is often based on contingent circumstances that were likely not front of mind when the politician was being elected. Even if the citizen supports the government actions in question — and they very well may not, regardless of whether they support the politician — it is extremely unlikely that anything hinged on their individual vote. Further, decision making powers related to war, and especially military action, strategy, and tactics are often kept deliberately far from voters. Such power is held almost solely by executive political and military leadership. Moreover, military leadership, with the likely exception of commander-in-chief, are not elected positions. Altogether this entails that citizens, even acting collectively in well-functioning democracies, have almost no formal capacity to check military decisions other than to elect different political leadership. Some philosophers, such as the political scientist Neta Crawford, argue that this situation means citizens have a moral obligation to stay educated on their country’s military actions and protest if they believe an unjust war is occurring. Although Crawford’s primary interest is a citizen’s responsibility given an unjust war, not necessarily their responsibility for the war in the first place.

Michael Walzer, a political philosopher, contends in his influential book Just and Unjust Wars that “there should be little difficulty in blaming heads of state [for aggression]. The hard and interesting questions arise when we ask how responsibility for aggression is diffused throughout a political system.” And yet, the Eurovision example raises an interesting contrasting point, for among the broader public, blame for war spreads like wildfire, hardly staying confined to the upper echelons of government. If anything, the fact that only a small number of powerful people actually had decision-making power is obscured by the image of a nation at war. A song contest is seen as strategic propaganda. Israel, which has long been internally divided about Palestine and has seen continuous peace marches and protests since October, is taken as univocal on their military actions. Soldiers, many of whom are performing mandatory service, are almost universally viewed as villains. From a perspective which emphasizes the culpability of decision-making powers, as opposed to more diffuse forms of responsibility, almost all individuals on both sides of the conflict become cogs simply caught in the gears of international politics.

Some of the staunchest criticism of Israel’s action in Gaza, point out that most people there are not Hamas; that these individuals, even if perhaps supporting from afar, did not plan or participate in military actions against Israel; that they are civilians and do not deserve to suffer as collateral damage in a larger conflict. (What “suffer” means in this context is of course worlds apart from any unpleasantness that occurred at Eurovision.) But pop stars and other celebrities are legitimate targets of criticism if one accepts the idea that we have a responsibility to do something and not merely the duty to take responsibility for something. And yet, there is a certain shared reductionism in equating Golan with Israel and the average Gaza resident with Hamas. The real challenge may be maintaining focus on those who actually have decision-making power and are publicly accountable for its use.

Military AI and the Illusion of Authority

Israel has recruited an AI program called Lavender into its ongoing assault against Palestinians. Lavender processes military intelligence that previously would have been processed by humans, producing a list of targets for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) to kill. This novel use of AI, which has drawn swift condemnation from legal scholars and human rights advocates, represents a new role for technology in warfare. In what follows, I explore how the technological aspects of AI such as Lavender contribute to a false sense of its authority and credibility. (All details and quotations not otherwise attributed are sourced from this April 5 report on Lavender.)

While I will focus on the technological aspect of Lavender, let us be clear about the larger ethical picture. Israel’s extended campaign — with tactics like mass starvation, high-casualty bombing, dehumanizing language, and destroying health infrastructure — is increasingly being recognized as a genocide. The evil of genocide almost exceeds comprehension; and in the wake of tens of thousands of deaths, there is no point quibbling about methods. I offer the below analysis as a way to help us understand the role that AI actually plays — and does not play — not because its role is central in the overall ethical picture, but because it is a new element in the picture that bears explaining. It is my hope that identifying the role of technology in this instance will give us insight into AI’s ethical and epistemic dangers, as well as insight into how oppression will be mechanized in the coming years. As a political project, we must use every tool we have to resist the structures and acts of oppression that make these atrocities possible. Understanding may prove a helpful tool.

Let’s start with understanding how Lavender works. In its training phase, Lavender used data concerning known Hamas operatives to determine a set of characteristics, each of which indicates that an individual is likely to be a member of Hamas. Lavender scans data regarding every Gazan in the IDF’s database and, using this set of characteristics, generates a score from 1 to 100. The higher the number, the more likely that individual is to be a member of Hamas, according to the set of characteristics the AI produced. Lavender outputs these names onto a kill list. Then, after a brief check to confirm that a target is male, commanders turn the name over to additional tracking technologies, ordering the air force to bomb the target once their surveillance technology indicates that he is at home.

What role does this new technology play in apparently authorizing the military actions that are causally downstream of its output? I will highlight three aspects of its role. The use of AI such as Lavender alienates the people involved from their actions, inserting a non-agent into an apparent role of authority in a high-stakes process, while relying on its technological features to boost the credibility of ultimately human decisions.

This technology affords a degree of alienation for the human person who authorizes the subsequent violence. My main interest here is not whether we should pity the person pushing their lever in the war machine, alienated as they are from their work. The point, rather, is that alienation from the causes and consequences of our actions dulls the conscience, and in this case the oppressed suffer for it. As one source from the Israeli military puts it, “I have much more trust in a statistical mechanism than a soldier who lost a friend two days ago…. The machine did it coldly. And that made it easier.” Says another, “even if an attack is averted, you don’t care — you immediately move on to the next target. Because of the system, the targets never end.” The swiftness and ease of the technology separates people from the reality of what they are taking part in, paving the way for an immensely deadly campaign.

With Lavender in place, people are seemingly relieved of their decision-making. But the computer is not an agent, and its technology cannot properly bear moral responsibility for the human actions that it plays a causal role in. This is not to say that no one is morally responsible for Lavender’s output; those who put it in place knew what it would do. However, the AI’s programming does not determinately cause its output, giving the appearance that the creators have invented something independent that can make decisions on its own. Thus, Lavender offers a blank space in the midst of a causal chain of moral responsibility between genocidal intent and genocidal action, while paradoxically providing a veneer of authority for that action. (More on that authority below.) Israel’s use of Lavender offloads moral responsibility onto the one entity in the process that can’t actually bear it — in the process obscuring the amount of human decision-making that really goes into what Lavender produces and how it’s used.

The technological aspect of Lavender is not incidental to its authorizing role. In “The Seductions of Clarity,” philosopher C. Thi Nguyen argues that clarity, far from always being helpful to us as knowers, can sometimes obscure the truth. When a message seems clear — easily digested, neatly quantified — this ease can lull us into accepting it without further inquiry. Clarity can thus be used to manipulate, depriving us of the impetus to investigate further.

In a similar fashion, Lavender’s output offers a kind of ease and definiteness that plausibly acts as a cognitive balm. A computer told us to! It’s intelligent! This effect is internal to the decision-making process, reassuring the people who act on Lavender’s output that what they are doing is right, or perhaps that it is out of their hands. (This effect could also be used externally in the form of propaganda, though Israel’s current tactic is to downplay the role of AI in their decisions.)

Machines have long been the tools that settle disputes when people can’t agree. You wouldn’t argue with a calculator, because the numbers don’t lie. As one source internal to the IDF put it, “Everything was statistical, everything was neat — it was very dry.” But the cold clarity of technology cannot absolve us of our sins, whether moral or epistemic. Humans gave this technology the parameters in which to operate. Humans entrust it with producing its death list. And it is humans who press play on the process that kills the targets the AI churns out. The veneer of credibility and objectivity afforded by the technical process obscures a familiar reality: that the people who enact this violence choose to do so. That it is up to the local human agents, their commanders, and their government.

So in the end we find that this technology is aptly named. Lavender — the plant — has long been known to help people fall asleep. Lavender — the AI — can have an effect that is similarly lulling. When used to automate and accelerate genocidal intelligence, this technology alienates humans from their own actions. It lends the illusion of authority to an entity that can’t bear moral responsibility, easing the minds of those involved with the comforting authority of statistics. But it can only have this effect if we use it to — and we should rail against the use of it when so much is at stake.

Criticism of Israel, Media Focus, and Bias

photograph of Jerusalem through barbed wire fence

As in the past, in the wake of this most recent bout of violence in Israel an argument has raged in the media over the proper bounds of criticism of the state of Israel — when, in other words, does criticism of Israel merge with Jew hatred? No sane person denies that criticism of Israeli policies is, at least under some circumstances, not equivalent to prejudice against Jews. Nevertheless, some defenders of Israel claim that what they call the disproportionate attention paid to the Israel-Palestine conflict by Western media and other critics of Israel is itself evidence of Jew hatred. It is this claim that I will evaluate in this column.

I will grant the premise of those who make this claim — to wit, that the Israel-Palestine conflict does receive more critical attention than other, worse conflicts around the world. This is not to underplay the moral enormity of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians; my claim is simply that there are even more egregious violations of human rights in other parts of the world that receive relatively less attention from certain quarters. In order not to beg any questions — “disproportionate” has a negative connotation — I will put the question to be answered as follows: “Is the relatively greater attention paid to the Israel-Palestine conflict over other, worse conflicts itself evidence of Jew hatred?”

There are a number of players who might be said to pay more attention to the Israel-Palestine conflict than other, worse conflicts, but I will consider three: the Palestinians themselves, Arab observers, and the Western media. First, let’s consider the Palestinians. Suppose that Smith is a shop-owner whose store is periodically raided by a Jewish shoplifter. As yet unable to catch the shoplifter, Smith is consumed by hatred for him. Meanwhile, in another town, a Gentile serial killer rapes and kills women. On the rare occasions when the thought of the killer comes to Smith’s mind, Smith feels some degree of indignation and pity. Still, he does not hate and resent the serial killer as he does the Jewish shoplifter. It seems to me that Smith’s attitudes are not evidence of Jew hatred. It is natural — not to say morally good, just natural or commonplace — to focus more attention on the moral wrongs perpetrated against oneself than on the moral wrongs perpetrated against distant others. To do so does not necessarily reveal prejudice against the ethnicity of the wrongdoer. By the same token, Palestinians are naturally more focused on the wrongs perpetrated against them by Israel than on other, perhaps worse conflicts.

Now consider Arab observers. Suppose that Adam is Smith’s cousin, and Adam is almost equally consumed by hatred for the Jewish shoplifter as Smith. Again, I do not think this relatively greater focus on the Jewish shoplifter is evidence of Jew hatred. It is natural — again, not morally good, just commonplace — for those who feel a kinship towards victims of particular wrongdoing to focus more on that wrongdoing, even if there is worse wrongdoing somewhere else in the world. Arab critics of Israel tend to feel a bond of ethnic kinship with the Palestinians, and so will naturally focus more attention on the wrongs done to them than to others. This may offend against some conception of moral equality according to which we ought to dole out our attention to wrongs precisely in proportion to their egregiousness, with no special attention paid to wrongs that are “closer” to us in any sense. My point is merely that even if this form of neutrality is morally required, those who offend against it do not necessarily reveal prejudice in doing so.

It might be objected that some Arab observers have a history of openly anti-Semitic statements. Suppose Adam had such a history. Given this, would Adam’s focus on the Jewish shoplifter smack of Jew hatred? Surprisingly, the answer is no. This is a subtle point, so I want to be clear. With a past history of anti-Semitic statements, we have good evidence that Adam is an anti-Semite. However, Adam’s focus on the Jewish shoplifter does not provide additional evidence, over and above Adam’s past statements, that Adam is an anti-Semite. Similarly, an Arab who criticizes Israel and has a history of anti-Semitic statements is not more likely to be an anti-Semite than an Arab who has a history of anti-Semitic statements but never criticizes Israel.

Now suppose that both the Jewish shoplifter and the Gentile serial killer are caught. It turns out that the Jewish shoplifter is a local “golden boy” who attends high school on a city scholarship, volunteers at soup kitchens, and plays varsity basketball. Many of his relatives hold important positions in government and the media, and many prominent members of the community rally around him, raising money for his legal defense. The serial killer, by contrast, lives on the margins of society, grew up in an abusive household, and had innumerable encounters with law enforcement prior to his most recent crimes. He’s represented by a public defender. Predictably the media, including local gadflies on the opinion pages of the local newspaper, focus a lot of their attention and ire on the golden boy. Once again, that they do this may be in some ways regrettable, as they ignore the serial killers’ victims in the process. There may be a moral argument for apportioning their attention and criticism differently. On the other hand, there is at least a partial justification (and not just a “man bites dog” explanation) for the focus in the fact that the golden boy receives a city scholarship. The point is that the greater focus on the golden boy is not necessarily evidence of Jew hatred. Similarly, Israel not only holds itself out as an upstanding member of the international community, but it also receives significant material support from the United States. These facts can explain why the Western media focuses attention and criticism on the Israel-Palestine conflict to a relatively greater degree than other, worse conflicts.

My conclusion, then, is that there are reasons that explain why both participants and observers pay more attention to the Israel-Palestine conflict than other conflicts — reasons that have nothing to do with Jew hatred. This is, of course, not to say that such attention is certainly not due to anti-Semitism. Rather, my conclusion is that the fact that, say, a member of the Western media focuses more attention on the Israel-Palestine conflict than other conflicts is not itself evidence — does not make it likelier — that this person is an anti-Semite.

Liability Versus Deterrent: The Patriot Missile Defense System

Photograph of missiles accompanied by Romanian troops

On March 25, Houthi rebels launched a series of missiles at Riyadh in an another attempt to push Saudi Arabia into reacting and escalating tensions in the ongoing Yemen War. Saudi Arabia has issued a statement claiming that their Patriot Missile Defense System was able to intercept all seven missiles, successfully protecting the population from Houthi attack. The Patriot Missile Defense System is a set of “radars, command-and-control technology and multiple types of interceptors, currently used by 15 countries, including Germany, Japan, Israel, Spain, and Qatar. Yet, despite the confidence behind the Saudi statements, reports were made about the repeated malfunctioning of the Patriot Missile Defense System, and the Saudis’ need to cover up the failure of the system. Similar cases occurred in November and December of 2017 in Saudi Arabia, with the Israeli Air Force pointing to the fact that there is no evidence of even a single successful intercept.” Notably, there are different versions of the system, all of which are upgrades from the previous versions, all of which differ in efficiency. However, despite the upgrades in efficiency, one ought to evaluate whether governments covering up the (in)effectiveness of the defense system works to benefit citizens’ security or create a more unsafe world. According to Jerry Lewis  and his team at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, an analysis of the effectiveness of Patriot system leads to a troubling result: governments either lie about the effectiveness of the Patriot system, or they are greatly misinformed. Either way, their results are not reassuring for greater security. Continue reading “Liability Versus Deterrent: The Patriot Missile Defense System”

In Trump’s Jerusalem Declaration, Diplomacy by Blowtorch

A landscape photo of Jerusalem.

On December 6, 2017, President Trump announced his intention to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from its current location in Tel Aviv to a new location in Jerusalem.  This move is in accordance with the Jerusalem Embassy Act, passed by Congress in 1995 but waived by every president every year since it was passed. This decision has tremendous political implications, which is why previous presidents, despite conducting much of their business pertaining to Israel in Jerusalem, have refrained from moving the embassy or announcing any formal position on the matter of Jerusalem at all, other than to attempt to advance peace talks between Israel and Palestine.

Continue reading “In Trump’s Jerusalem Declaration, Diplomacy by Blowtorch”