The Volokh Conspiracy

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Those Who Support Israel Against Hamas Should also Back Ukraine Against Russia

The justifications for backing Israel's struggle also apply in spades to Ukraine's.



Hamas' shocking terrorist attack against Israel has galvanized bipartisan support for Israel's cause in the US. But many conservative Republicans who back Israel simultaneously oppose continued support for Ukraine in its struggle against the very similar assault by Russia. GOP Sen. Josh Hawley says "[a]ny funding for Ukraine should be redirected to Israel immediately." This pro-Israel/anti-Ukraine stance is incoherent. The moral and strategic rationales for backing Israel also apply to Ukraine, in some cases with even greater force. Both states are liberal democracies threatened by authoritarian mass murderers who seek to destroy them. And Russian atrocities are strikingly similar to those of Hamas, except on a much larger scale. There is no good moral justification for supporting Israel's cause that does not also apply to Ukraine's. The strategic rationale for backing Israel also applies to Ukraine, with at least equal force.

I fully recognize that pro-Israel/anti-Ukraine and support for both aren't the only possible combinations of views on these issues. Some Western leftists are pro-Ukraine and anti-Israel. And some people (e.g. right-wing anti-Semites, anti-American far leftists, consistently dovish/isolationist libertarians) oppose aid to both Ukraine and Israel. But, at least in the US, these latter two positions are relatively marginal. From President Biden on down, mainstream liberal Democratic supporters of Ukraine overwhelmingly back Israel against Hamas, as well, with rare exceptions such as members of the "Squad."  Those who oppose aid to both Israel and Ukraine are, if anything, even more marginal. By contrast, pro-Israel/anti-Ukraine is the position of a large part of the political right.

Thus, in this post, I focus on critiquing the pro-Israel/anti-Ukraine position. It's the most politically significant alternative to supporting both.

Hamas's atrocities are now well-known to anyone who has followed this conflict, or just watches the news. They have slaughtered innocent civilians, including numerous women, children and even babies. Hamas terrorists have also taken numerous hostages, including kidnapping small children for that purpose. And it is likely they have engaged in widespread rape and sexual assault.

Russian forces in Ukraine have committed all the same types of atrocities—and on a much larger scale. Like Hamas, the Russian army has deliberately targeted and massacred civilians. They have gone so far as bombing maternity wards, and leveling entire cities. Like Hamas terrorists, Russian troops have engaged in mass rape and torture of civilians. And, like Hamas, the Russians have abducted civilians, including many children. The International Criminal Court has issued an arrest warrant for Vladimir Putin, because of his involvement in the child abductions. The number of Ukrainian children seized is likely in the tens of thousands or higher.

Russia is also similar to Hamas in seizing civilian hostages—including Americans—to exchange for its criminal operatives. For example, they detained US basketball player Brittany Griner, and eventually exchanged her for Viktor Bout, a Russian intelligence asset and arms supplier to terrorists. The latest such Russian hostage-taking is the detention of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich. Russia's hostage-taking operations have more of a veneer of legality than Hamas's, usually including trumped-up charges of one kind or another. But that should not mislead us about their true nature.

Just as Hamas seeks to destroy Israel entirely and impose a brutal despotism over the conquered land, so Putin seeks to establish Russian rule over all of Ukraine (which he denies has any right to exist as a separate nation), and impose the same sort of tyrannical regime that he established in Russia itself, and previously occupied Ukrainian territories. Neither's ambitions are confined to marginal territorial adjustments.

While Russia's atrocities are similar to those of Hamas, there is an enormous difference in scale. Hamas's recent onslaught has killed over 1000 Israeli civilians (a figure likely to rise as the victims are counted more fully). Innocent civilian victims of Putin's war number in the tens of thousands. The Russian military have also raped and tortured far more people, and kidnapped vastly more children than Hamas.

This difference is not because Hamas is more ethical than Putin. If they could kill as many Israeli civilians as Russia has Ukrainian ones, they would surely do it. But the difference in scale matters when it comes to assessing the moral urgency of the situation. Other things equal, larger-scale atrocities deserve higher priority. They certainly cannot be assigned a lower one.

Hamas' radical Islamist ideology is not only at odds with Israel, but with Western liberal democratic values more generally. They seek to establish a brutal medieval despotism, suppressing dissent, religious minorities, and LGBT people, among other victims. Putin's Russia is a similarly brutal tyranny. It too suppresses dissent, persecutes minorities, and oppresses gays and lesbians. And, like the radical Islamists, Putin has repeatedly made clear he is an enemy of Western liberal democracy, not just Ukraine. His anti-liberal crusade long predates the current Ukraine war. Like Hamas, the Putin regime is an enemy of the West generally, not just of its immediate opponent on the battlefield.

Russia is a far larger and more potent enemy than Hamas could ever be—even in combination with its Iranian sponsors. And it's worth noting that those Iranian sponsors back Russia, as well. All of that strengthens the purely strategic case for helping Ukraine against Russia, even aside from moral considerations. That case is at least as strong as the strategic rationale for backing Israel against Hamas.

The Israeli and Ukrainian governments are not perfect paragons of virtue. There are genuine wrongs in Israeli policy towards the Palestinians, including violations of civil liberties, and unjust seizures of private property (partly curbed by the Israeli Supreme Court). The present right-wing government's effort to neuter the judiciary (now suspended as a result of the war) threatens to create a dangerous tyranny of the majority, if it were to pass. Ukrainian government policy also has illiberal aspects, which I have condemned.

But, despite very real flaws, there is a vast moral chasm between Ukraine and Israel on the one hand, and their respective enemies on the other. The former are functioning, if highly imperfect, liberal democracies. The latter are horrific tyrannies. In each conflict, one side systematically targets civilians, rapes and tortures the innocent, kidnaps children, and takes hostages, while the other does not.

As always, there is a risk that even liberal states with a just cause will engage in unjust  policies during wartime. America's own history has all too many examples, such as the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. We should not give either Israel or Ukraine a blank check in this regard.  But there is an enormous difference between a state that has liberal values, yet sometimes fails to live up to them, and one that utterly rejects those values, as Russia and Hamas do.

Just as we should not overlook Israeli and Ukrainian shortcomings, we should also be careful to avoid undifferentiated demonization of Russians and Palestinians. In previous writings about the Russia-Ukraine War I have criticized imputations of collective guilt to Russians, and made the case for opening Western doors to Russians fleeing Putin's regime. Most of this reasoning is readily applicable to Palestinians, too. But recognizing that Putin's dictatorship and Hamas don't stand for all Russians and Palestinians is entirely compatible with recognizing that we should back efforts to defeat both of these evil regimes. If defeat leads to the collapse of one or both of them, so much the better! Recognizing the humanity of Russians and Gaza Palestinians entails recognition that they deserve to be free of the tyrants that currently rule them.

On all these moral dimensions, there is no good reason to back Israel, but not Ukraine. Both have flaws, but are vastly preferable to their adversaries.

A final possible reason to back Israel, but not Ukraine, is resource constraints. Perhaps we just don't have enough money to help both. But the US aid given to Ukraine since February 2022 (about $77 billion), is barely a rounding error in the federal budget (an annualized rate of less than 1% of the $6.27 trillion in federal expenditures in fiscal year 2022). And the resulting massive damage to the Russian military—one of our principal adversaries—could well actually save us more more money in the future. The Pentagon projects Ukraine will need a similarly modest amount over the next year (about $60 billion).

Israel, which faces a far weaker enemy than Ukraine, can likely make do with much smaller amounts of US aid. If necessary, aid to Ukraine and Israel can easily be offset with elsewhere. There is no shortage of wasteful and harmful federal expenditures! If we really want to deal with our looming fiscal crisis, we should focus on the gargantuan entitlement spending that is its principal cause.

If there nonetheless is a resource tradeoff, the ally facing a more powerful opponent—Ukraine—deserves priority. Israel can, if need be, defeat Hamas with little or no US aid, beyond diplomatic support and intelligence-sharing. Israel's forces are vastly superior to Hamas's in both quantity and quality. That will remain true even if the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah enters the war. Ukraine's position relative to Russia is far more difficult. From the standpoint of US geopolitical interests, Russia is a far more important enemy to curb than Hamas, precisely because of its greater power. At the very least, there is no good reason to assign it a lower priority.

I have not, in this piece, sought to outline anything like a comprehensive US strategy for these two conflicts. Each poses a variety of tactical and strategic issues that I cannot hope to cover here. But the points made do serve the more limited purpose of showing how there is no good rationale for the position of backing Israel against Hamas, but not Ukraine against Russia. The moral and strategic rationales for the former apply with equal or even greater force to the latter.

UPDATE: The original version of this post included an incorrect calculation of the percentage of the federal budget going to aid to Ukraine. I apologize for the mistake, which I have corrected.