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I'm Ezra, CEO of EA Israel, but am writing this in a personal capacity. My goal in writing this is to give the community a sense of what someone from a decent-sized local EA group is going through during a time of national crisis. I'll try to keep the post relatively apolitical, but since this is such a charged topic, I'm not sure I'll succeed. I will say that I’m quite nervous about the responses to the post, since the forum can sometimes lean towards criticism. Ideally, I’d want people who are reading this to do so with a sense of compassion, while keeping in mind that this is a difficult time and difficult topic to post or share experiences about. I also don't want the comments to be a discussion of the war per se, but of the experiences of an EA during the war. Finally, I'm sure that an individual from Gaza will be having a very different experience, which I respect and would be interested in hearing, but in this post I'm not trying to capture all possible experiences, but to share a part of mine and my community’s. 

These are my views and thoughts, and not the official position of the organization or of my team members. I wrote this on my phone around November 18th, since I’ve been without much access to a computer. I haven’t had a chance to update it or spend lots of time editing, so I apologize in advance if it feels lacking in polish. 

Thanks for bearing with me during the preambles.

So what have I been doing since the outbreak of the war?

Since the terrorist attacks on Oct. 7, and the ongoing hostage situation and frequent rocket attacks, life in Israel and in the community has changed drastically. Many know someone who was killed or is a hostage, the majority of men (and many women as well) aged 18-40 have been called up to reserve duty, and the entire country has been in a state of trauma and mourning. For the first few weeks, most commercial activity in Israel stopped, schools were closed, and people went to funerals. Adjusted for population size, the Hamas attacks were 13 times more deadly than 9/11.

Personally, I've been called up to the army, along with another EA Israel team member, a board member, and the husbands of two others on our team. I've been home only sporadically for the past 6 weeks. My wife and 2 year old son are alone, and are struggling emotionally. I've been to one funeral, of someone from my local (non EA) community. My cousin, who lives in a city that was attacked on Oct 7th, was locked in the bomb shelter in his apartment for 16 hours with his wife and four children, and heard his neighbours being violently murdered. Thank God, somehow the terrorists passed over them, and they've been living in a hotel since then. 

Many people who I know from the global community have reached out to me and the team to see that us and our families are safe, which felt good. On the other hand, I’m not sure how much the average in EA in Israel (or Gaza) feels cared about by the global EA community. I'd be happy to see some sort of statement of concern for the wellbeing of EA community members in a conflict zone.

Our work at EA Israel has mostly paused. Talking about global priorities seems less relevant during wartime, and most of our staff isn't available to work on projects. The university semester is suspended. We've been involved in a few projects trying to help with prioritising donations, a board member wrote a post about donations, and are trying to launch a donation optimisation project with a major foundation. We’ve done some work on mapping the mental health needs in Israel for foundations, and were invited to present it at the Knesset (parliament), but nothing major has come to fruition. We've been holding weekly virtual community meetings and had our first in person meeting since the start of the war this week, but since there are often rocket sirens it's difficult to arrange in person meetings. Obviously, our planned December community retreat and spring EAGx have been canceled. Grants that we expected to receive didn't materialize because of the regional instability, including for our charity evaluation program, which we were in the middle of fundraising for and now might have to close down. Recently we've begun slowly ramping up our regular activity with the staff members who are available, but it will be a gradual process.

How has my experience changed the way I think about EA concepts?

So far, it appears to me that some of the tools EA has developed to make decisions that optimise general wellbeing don't translate well to a crisis situation, which has made me feel a bit disappointed. As a worldview that guided much of my thinking about how to act, EA is often irrelevant in the current situation. This has played out in a few ways. 

Donation recommendations

Israel has seen an outpouring of support via philanthropy (the government hasn't functioned especially well). There are plenty of causes to support within Israel - mental health, hundreds of thousands of displaced people, supporting a struggling economy, etc. This should be an opportunity where EA-based principles would have enormous value! People are giving at incredibly high scales, and we could help them give more effectively! But, with a situation changing so rapidly, and little information about the effectiveness or neglectedness of different donations, we at EA Israel found that we don’t have much to say. We’ve done charity evaluation in Israel, but in order to reach the standard of evidence we feel necessary to provide concrete value to donors, the evaluation requires time, and an understanding of the philanthropic ecosystem, both of which aren't relevant when things are moving so rapidly. Even donations to Gazans or other Palestinians in need are of uncertain effectiveness due to the political considerations preventing aid from reaching its destination.

Important aspects of suffering aren't captured by usual metrics

Although I try not to think about the horrors of the attack, it's clear to me that to be brutally murdered in ways like this is worse than dying of a naturally occurring disease. [1] I don't know what metric to use to prove this, but to me it seems self-evident. The sense of tragedy and trauma in Israel is so much stronger now than it was during Covid, even though less people have died. And I don't think it's because people can't multiply, I think it's because violence feels much more horrible than disease. Not to mention being held hostage or tortured or raped by a terrorist organization.

There's even more moral uncertainty

The main goal of my day job is to improve lives as much as possible. Yes, there are decisions to be made about cause prioritisation, animal vs human suffering, how much to discount the long-term, etc etc. These are questions that I've thought through, more or less, and read a lot about, and I’m mostly at peace with my conclusions, updating occasionally.  

During wartime, my value system is much more confused. Hoping that suffering and death are kept to a minimum is still dominant. But now I also think much more about good and evil, and if stopping evil can justify many lives lost (if yes, how many? How do you even start to answer that?). I want justice for the terrorists who committed atrocities on women and children. I also feel national lines and tribalism much more strongly. I both relate to and understand it, having had family in life threatening danger, and also find it to be wrong and misleading and easy to slip into a mindset where I care more about “my people” than I want to. In general, for me, there's much less clarity on what “the right thing” is. This is during a time where there's a war of narratives raging, and many people reduce the complexity by just picking a side. My moral compass hasn't found North, and unfortunately I don't think it will anytime soon.

From what I've seen of the global coverage of the war, it seems that everyone has a strong opinion on who's at fault. Most of those people have no idea what's going on, and may be acting against the best interest of the people they claim to care about. They've expanded their moral circle, but are lacking the knowledge and context to express their care in a way that actually improves the situation or matches the facts of the ground. If we were to compare to GHWB, hearing Peter Singer and being convinced to expand the moral circle isn't enough, you also need GiveWell to help you guide your actions in order to have a positive impact. It’s easy to be emotional, loud and ignorant when addressing the suffering of someone far away, or when seeing pictures of children suffering. This is an area where I really appreciate EA thinking - there's a deep understanding that helping others is hard, and we should do it carefully and quietly and honestly, with a lot of self reflection. Especially in a global world, caring needs to come with a lot of humility, and maybe a dose of rationality.

Models of complex situations can be overly simplistic and harmful

There's an ongoing debate within AI safety about whether public protests and support for a pause are good or bad for safety in practice, which is a healthy debate on a complex topic. The same debate should be had for interpower conflicts. I've seen a claim that by using the ITN framework, publicly protesting for a cease-fire is a clear cut way to make the situation better. Low effort, medium tractability, not insignificant scale. 

I'm more skeptical. Popular support often needs a clear goal to have traction, and in this case, the clear goal of the public protests is a long term ceasefire. Which sounds good initially - a long term ceasefire means less fighting and less death, which is a good thing. 

But. It seems to me that such a model misses much of the context of the war. Why did it start? What does each side want? What are the consequences of pressuring a side to accept a long term ceasefire before they are ready? I don't have a great answer to any of these questions, but there are enough negative scenarios that make me skeptical that public support for a long term ceasefire will be net positive in practice, and isn't just fuzzies for people hearing about a horrible situation and looking for some way, any way, to act. The theory of change here sounds plausible, but doesn't take into account second order effects.

There's at least one potential scenario that comes to mind in which protests end up being net negative in the long run. If global protests cause an early long term ceasefire, in the short term, fighting will stop, and lives will be saved. However, terror groups all over the world will learn that if they embed themselves within a civilian population, take hostages and use human shields, Western public opinion will protect them from a military response for even the most barbaric of attacks. In the long run, the chance of more frequent and more vicous attacks, and the use of human shields, will go up significantly, leading to even higher death tolls. In game theory there are often differences between single round games and multiround games, and unfortunately, this looks like a multiround game.

I don't have any idea what the right balance is between not empowering terror and civilian lives, and I'm very thankful that I don't have to be the one to make decisions on life and death policy questions. What is clear to me that pushing for simple solutions to complex policy decisions can easily backfire, and that models that don't take into account second order effects or understand the responses of the actors are probably deeply flawed. The OpenAI saga (from what I've been able to glean from the headlines) looks like an all too recent example of this.

Optimisation is irrelevant

During the past few weeks in the army, I've been struck by how much I need to adjust my tendency to try and optimize. The army doesn't think in terms of cost-effectiveness at all, while I instinctually start doing expected value BOTECs wherever I am. At first I tried calculating the cost-effectiveness of being called up to the army. Reserve soldiers cost X, logistics cost Y, lost earnings cost Z, vs the value of my unit's role (hint: not especially important). But after a while, I realised that the army in real-time has no concept of cost. They've been given a mission, and that's the only thing they care about. Since the cost of losing the war is huge, you either can't do cost-effectiveness calculations or the conclusion of the calculation is to simply let the money flow. So basically the army is pascal-mugging everyone, which is strangely comforting.

Personally, the place where my usual way of thinking clashes most painfully with army thinking is how I view the value of my time. In regular life, I think a lot about how to optimise my time. In the army, most of the time I wait. This is while my wife is struggling with a two year old who refuses to nap because he's waiting for Dad to come home. It feels that my time is more valuable at home, where I have an immediate impact on the wellbeing of the people I care about most. But if my being in the army somehow helps return the hostages taken by Hamas, even in a very roundabout way, I feel obligated to stay, even though most of my days I feel I could be contributing much more at home.

Ambition to improve the world 

Two weeks before the war started I chatted with someone in the park on a Saturday, each of us holding a baby stroller. Two weeks later, I see his picture in the news with details about his funeral. Life seems more fragile. Something that shouldn't be taken for granted. Just waking up, knowing my family is healthy and that I'm loved by them, having basic food and shelter, is enough for me to feel satisfied and grateful. How very much of a contrast this state of mind is to the amount of energy and stress I expended on work projects, and to the slumps of mild depression during periods I didn't feel I was succeeding at having an impact. 

I don't know how this will play out long term, once the war ends. Maybe I'll go back to how things were, or maybe I'll be even more motivated to fix one of the many places where the world is incredibly messed up. I'm grateful that I can even contemplate returning to work on improving the world, which wouldn't be the case if I was a tax lawyer (no offense). But for now, my ambition sums up to living quietly in a shack with my wife and watching my son grow up.

The importance of peace  

I've been brought up Jewish, and peace comes up often during Jewish prayer. Only now do I understand how key peace is to all other values. May there be peace soon.


 

  1. ^

    A therapist friend commented that the emotional trauma from interpersonal violence is generally much greater than the emotional trauma from disasters that are “acts of God”, so apparently there is some literature to support this.

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Disclosure (copying from a previous comment): I have served in Israel Defense Forces, I live in Israel, I feel horrible about what Israel has done in the past 75 years to millions of Palestinians and I do not want Israel to end up as a horrible stain on human history. I am probably unusually biased when dealing with this topic. I am not making here a claim that people in EA should or should not get involved and in what way.

The author mentioned they do not want the comments to be "a discussion of the war per se" and yet the post contains multiple contentious pro-Israel propaganda talking points, and includes arguments that a cease-fire is net-negative. Therefore it seems to me legitimate to mention here the following.

In interviews to foreign press, Israeli officials/politicians often make claims to the effect that Israel is doing everything it can to minimize civilian casualties. Explaining why those claims are untrustworthy in a short comment is a hard task because whatever I'll write will leave out so much important stuff. (Imagine you had to explain to an alien, in a short text, why a certain claim by Donald Trump is untrustworthy.) But I'll give it a go anyway:

  • The current Minister of National Security in Israel is a far-right politician called Itamar Ben-Gvir. He has been convicted on at least eight charges, including supporting a terrorist organization and incitement to racism. For many years he has signaled admiration for a person that has massacred 29 Palestinians; he kept a portrait of that person in his living room. (He removed the portrait in 2020 because a prominent right-wing politician refused to run with him as part of an election.) As a member of the Security Cabinet of Israel, Ben-Gvir plausibly had[1] a substantial, direct influence on Israel's behavior in the Gaza strip. EDIT (2024-02-04): I failed to mention here that the prime minister of Israel (Netanyahu) would plausibly not survive politically without the support of Ben-Gvir, which may have allowed the latter to have a lot of influence over the behavior of the Israeli government w.r.t. the war. Quoting from a WSJ article that was published today:

The differing paths present a stark choice for Netanyahu, who now risks heightening Israel’s international isolation if he continues the war, or potentially losing power if Ben-Gvir withdraws his Jewish Power party’s six lawmakers from the governing coalition.

“Ben-Gvir has huge leverage over Netanyahu,” said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Jerusalem-based think tank the Israel Democracy Institute. “The last thing Netanyahu needs is an early election and Ben-Gvir knows that.”

  • It seems to me that when politicians from the ruling coalition communicate with the Israeli public (in Hebrew) about what Israel is doing in the Gaza strip, they ~never mention avoiding civilian casualties as a moral obligation. When they do mention steps that Israel takes to reduce civilian casualties, it is often presented as things that are done for the purpose of reducing international pressure and thereby allowing the war to continue. This is a good place to mention:
  1. This Hebrew article by a former Israeli Defense Minister, from 3 days ago, titled "[...] There are no innocents in Gaza" (Google Translated).
  2. The Deputy Knesset Speaker has tweeted in Hebrew that Israel had to do "no less than burn Gaza", according to the The Jerusalem Post.
  • The right-wing prime minister of Israel (Netanyahu) is probably more concerned right now with surviving politically (and saving his legacy, and maybe also avoiding going to jail due to his unrelated trial) than he is concerned with minimizing Palestinian civilian casualties.

  • From the perspective of the Israeli government, even if this is not consciously optimized for, more Palestinian civilian casualties probably means a greater deterrence effect (and a greater revenge). In the Qibya massacre that occurred in 1953, 69 Palestinian villagers were killed, two thirds of which were women and children--according to an extended-protected Wikipedia entry--as a response to an attack in which an Israeli woman and her two children were killed. The international outcry seemingly caused Israel to no longer carry out such similarly orchestrated massacres. But during the current war, the Israeli government has the ability to act (perhaps subconsciously) in a way that is functionally similar to the Qibya massacre--at a much larger scale--while claiming (perhaps without technically lying[2]) that all the civilian casualties are killed in Israeli attacks with civilian casualties are attacks on "legitimate military targets".

(The Qibya massacre was led by Ariel Sharon, who at the time was a Major in the IDF. Sharon personally ordered his troops to achieve "maximal killing and damage to property" (quoting from the extended-protected Wikipedia entry). Sharon later served as the prime minister of Israel from 2001 to 2006 and played a major role in Hamas taking over the Gaza strip; see my previous comment for more info on the incentive that Israel had to empower Hamas while weakening the much more peaceful Palestinian National Authority; while trying to avoid a peace process and its obligations to the Palestinian refugees.)


  1. EDIT: ~5 days after the war started a new, smaller version of the Security Cabinet was created without Ben-Gvir. The larger version of the Security Cabinet (which Ben-Gvir is part of) is now referred to as 'the extended cabinet'. I don't know how much power the extended cabinet currently has. I think at minimum members are getting updates and can use their position to "shame" the top decision makers for not being sufficiently 'tough' from the perspective of right-wing voters (e.g. if the decision makers allow certain humanitarian aid). In any case, I think it's plausible that the general tone of this war was set during its first days and still has a lot of influence on Israel's current behavior in the Gaza strip. UPDATE: This Hebrew article (published ~4 hours after this comment) says that the extended cabinet has approved doubling the amount of fuel that is allowed to enter the Gaza strip (for the operation of water desalination and sewage treatment systems, to prevent spread of diseases) due to pressure from the US. Ben-Gvir voted against. ↩︎

  2. EDIT: What I mean here is that Israel can internally make claims such as: "We are bombing that building with about X civilians inside because based on certain evidence it is more than 5% likely that a Hamas commander with such and such rank is currently there, which makes the building a legitimate military target". (I don't know much about international law but my best guess is that there is a huge gray area in which claims like that can be made while no one is consciously lying.) ↩︎

I downvoted this comment, even though I'm pretty sympathetic to many of the factual claims it contains: in particular, I don't believe that Israeli civilian or military leadership are doing everything they can to avoid civilian casualties. Nevertheless, this comment feels quite out-of-place and vaguely inappropriate to me, given the framing and emotional tone of the OP, which feels much more about explaining one person's feelings and thought processes than an actual attempt to make a strong argument for a specific position.

I also think it's needlessly hostile, in a place where compassion and acknowledgement of uncertainty seem particularly important. Calling someone's views "propaganda talking points" seems like a bad way to start any productive dialogue.

I really appreciate your takes on this issue by the way. I have a lot of trouble figuring out who's right, and I find the discourse both quite confused and likely under heavy adverse selection (in both, or more, directions). And realistically, I may never be able to figure out the truth. 

But I imagine that your position must be very difficult. You're challenging an orthodoxy that promises to protect yourself and your loved ones, while vulnerabilities in said orthodoxy might have a direct effect on the safety of yourself and your loved ones, and you see the risks of loved ones dying every day. In such a brutal epistemic environment, concluding that the orthodoxy is evil or net harmful for the world must've been really hard to come to grips with. It must've taken a lot of wisdom, and courage, to reach the current point. And I think this is a virtue that more EAs can benefit from.

And again, I really don't know who's right here. But I really appreciate that you seem to be genuinely trying to figure out the truth, and say morally right things. I hope to learn from you. :)

A large part of the difficulty in understanding comes, I think, from "the war" or "Israeli policy" being composed of many large and small acts by different agents with different agendas, e.g.:

  • PM Netanyahu
  • Defense minister Gallant
  • Cabinet members Gantz & Eisenkot
  • Police minister (and convicted terrorist) Ben-Gvir
  • Treasury minister Smotrich
  • Other extended cabinet members
  • IDF chief of the general staff Halevi
  • Various lower IDF commanders

Add to that various wings of Hamas, UN orgs of questionable independence and reliability, wartime media, and 2500 years of historical context, and you get dozens of conflicting narratives.

I don't really appreciate Ofer's comments, because they present the war effort as one combined front and do not really tell you how much influence different agents have. This also makes it hard to draw conclusions - is the very existence of Israel to blame for death, injuries, mass displacement, war crimes? Or is it the current administration? Or just parts of it? Or Hamas? Each answer gives different practical conclusions of what could/should be done about it, and in reality it's going to be some combination of all of them.

I don't really appreciate Ofer's comments, because they present the war effort as one combined front and do not really tell you how much influence different agents have.

The OP includes arguments for why people should not support a ceasefire, while not providing ~any info about the incentives of people/factions within Israel or the relevant historical context. I agree that such info is important. Summarizing all the relevant info in a reliable/legible way is hard (and both I and the OP failed to do so here). This problem probably often exists w.r.t. conflicts at that scale. Humanity should nonetheless attempt to coordinate somehow to make the world peaceful and avoid situations in which humans are doing terrible things to each other as they compete over resources and power.

Your comment mentions in passing "UN orgs of questionable independence and reliability". This is a good place to argue that most people should probably just defer to relevant UN institutions on questions such as whether a certain ceasefire is net-positive. Quoting from the UN website (published 3 days ago):

The Secretary-General went before the Security Council today to call for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza to avert a humanitarian catastrophe that could have ramifications for peace and security in the region and beyond, two days after he invoked Article 99 of the United Nations Charter.

Is anyone on this forum in a better position than the Secretary-General of the UN to analyze, for example, the impact of Israel's actions on future, unrelated conflicts? (E.g. imagine that next year some state/org will set out to starve millions of people etc. as part of some total war, while claiming that their actions are at least as justified as the US-supported actions of Israel in the Gaza strip.)

Is anyone on this forum in a better position than the Secretary-General of the UN to analyze, for example, the impact of Israel's actions on future, unrelated conflicts?

I would guess yes? The Secretary-General of the UN is subject to a lot of political pressures. Many UN members are enemies of Israel - e.g. Iran, which chaired a UN human rights meeting just last month, has pledged to destroy Israel. UN aid workers in Gaza collaborate with Hamas, including allowing Hamas to operate inside UN buildings. And one of the major drivers of the conflict is the UN policy towards palestinian refugees, which has encouraged revanchism over integration for decades, unlike their policy towards other descendants of refugees. Given these political pressures, and the lack of positive incentive for accuracy, I would actually expect him to be unusually bad at analyzing the situation. I think this is verified by the very anomalous way the UN treats Israel, like repeatedly condemning Israel while neglecting far worse offenders, and being strangely reticent to criticize Hamas' use of rape against civilians.

edit: typo

I don't see any obvious reason to think enemies of Israel are more influential on the UN Secretary-General than allies. The US is on the security council and is the most powerful country in the world, and Iran is not. Although I guess for UN stuff that depends on majority vote (I am not expert to know what does and doesn't) it is plausible that most developing countries see the conflict through an anti-colonial, and hence anti-Israel lens. But Israel is certainly not friendless in international institutions: most of the power in the world is either friendly (US, Europe) or probably doesn't really care much (China, Japan). 

Thanks for asking this, it's an interesting question. I don't feel confident in my answer, but my best guess is some combination of:

  • The countries you list as Israel supporters have many issues they care about at the UN. The US cares about North Korea, Taiwan, nuclear proliferation, climate change, refugees, women's education, polio, piracy, Ukraine... In contrast, the enemies of Israel typically have fewer issues they care as much about, so their attention is more concentrated.
  • The more pro-Israel countries are not anti-palestine; both the US and Europe are major donors to both the West Bank and Gaza, and they often try to influence Israeli policy to be more considerate of Palestinian welfare. In contrast many of the enemies of Israel range from actively desiring the murder of jews to simple indifference to Israeli welfare.

You're right that this isn't a fully convincing argument. I'm significantly more confident in the problem of UN bias, which I think can be observed reasonably directly, than my diagnosis of the causes.

David - there are 1.9 billion Muslim people in the world, and only 16 million Jewish people in the world. That's a 120-fold difference.

Of course the 'enemies of Israel' are numerically more influential in the UN. This has been obvious for decades.

People who are disagree-voting with me on this: 

Please explain how a 120-fold difference in population sizes between groups wouldn't yield any bias in the global influence those groups would tend to have at the United Nations?

I didn't vote on your post, but I could imagine disagree voting to indicate disagreement with the implication that Muslims are fundamentally 'enemies of Israel'.

Your first comment claims that the 120 fold difference in population makes Israel's enemies more influential than its allies at the UN (which I disagree with), which is different to claiming that the disproportionate populations have "some" effect over the UN (which I agree with).

Religions are not represented at the UN, countries are, and the major forces influencing the UN in favour of Israel are the US and the UK, which are mostly not made up of Jews, and the main force influencing the UN against Israel is China, which is largely not made up of Muslims. 

In other words, power struggles at the UN on Israel-Palestine are not really a power struggle between Jews and Muslims, and like lots of other geopolitics things are more of a power struggle between the USA and China.

And one of the major drivers of the conflict is the UN policy towards palestinian refugees, which has encouraged revanchism over integration for decades, unlike their policy towards other descendants of refugees.

Many policies that seek to hold states accountable for committing atrocities can be accused of encouraging revanchism. Nonetheless, the international community should probably coordinate to prevent states from doing things like conquering land and then effectively throwing hundreds of thousands of natives outside their new borders (causing them to be stateless), killing those who try to return, destroying/stealing almost all of their property without providing any compensation, etc.

I think this is verified by the very anomalous way the UN treats Israel, like repeatedly condemning Israel while neglecting far worse offenders,

Can you give an example of a state that was clearly a "worse offender" than Israel and yet was clearly treated less severely by the UN?

Can you give an example of a state that was clearly a "worse offender" than Israel and yet was clearly treated less severely by the UN?

I'm not fact-checking anything, but I'd bet both Russia and China are worse offenders who are treated better.

Although to be clear, I think the "UN bias against Israel" argument, while true, is almost always irrelevant to the discussion, maybe even including this instance. The relevant question is whether the UN General Secretary has the necessary information to know better than you or I do. And I'd answer that with a "maybe".

If Russia and China are worse offenders (which I doubt, if the metric is "atrocities per capita") and have been treated less severely by the UN, this seems to point at a bias in favor of permanent members of the UN Security Council / superpowers, rather than a bias against Israel in particular.

Just to make clear, I meant UN orgs on the ground in Gaza whose activities are, by necessity, dependent on continued support from Hamas (which comes with a steep price), and many of whose workers are (at least in expectation) Hamas supporters.

Without saying much about the merits of various commenters' arguments, I wanted to check if this is a rhetorical question:

Is anyone on this forum in a better position than the Secretary-General of the UN to analyze, for example, the impact of Israel's actions on future, unrelated conflicts?

If so, this is an appeal to authority that isn't very helpful in advancing this discussion. If it's an actual question, never mind. 

There are few organizations in the Western world that could survive with the allegations of mismanagement, scandal, and corruption that permeate the United Nations. For many delegates, officials, and employees, particularly those from developing nations, the UN is little more than an enormous watering hole.

Concerned about its shabby image, the UN recently developed a multiple-choice "ethics quiz" for its employees. The "correct" answers were obvious to everyone [Is it all right to steal from your employer? (A) Yes, (B) No, (C) Only if you don't get caught].

The quiz was not designed to determine the ethical sense of UN employees or to weed out the ethically inept but to raise their level of integrity. How taking a transparent test could improve integrity is unclear. There has been no mention of how management and other officials did on the test

~ Snakes in Suits, a study of psychopaths in the workplace

 

Are there many EAs that consider the UN a serious institution from a "makes the world a better place" perspective? I thought most of us viewed it the same way we view the US medical system: which is to say woefully ineffective, credentialist, in some cases net-negative for public health and something that is ripe for systemic change to make the world better (It would be interesting to see how many "systemic change" criticisms of EA could apply just as well, if not more, to the UN).

That said, you do have a point. I still haven't heard a pro-Israeli argument that properly parses the whole anti-Israel UN position. The most salient answer to me is still "Israel is actually in the wrong for a lot of things." Otherwise surely the UN would be a tad bit more split on the issue?

I just wouldn't place quite as much stock as you do in the UN. Same goes for the US medical system. Get multiple opinions. Always. Including from those from within the system that argue the entire system has systemic flaws (e.g. vegan doctors that face opposition from practically their entire field). The overall UN position is one signal among many, but it isn't that strong of a signal.

It's possible that if the UN had not existed, we would have already had a third world war. The UN is obviously not optimal but may be a lot better than nothing (w.r.t. allowing humanity to coordinate on important issues). EDIT: 'Making the UN better' may be an important cause area from an EA perspective.

Shrugs, sure it's possible. It's also possible that if we employ counterfactual reasoning that had the UN not existed that a better institution would have arisen in its place. It is quite possible that the dynamics of post-WW2 just made it inevitable for some coordination-institution to be built out of sheer geopolitical necessity and that we got one of the worse possible outcomes.

If the US medical system didn't get created in its current form that doesn't mean that counterfactually what would have happened otherwise is that the US would just have no medical system whatsoever. Nobody seriously defends the US medical system by saying it is "better than nothing" because a world where something like it doesn't exist at all is practically impossible - probably much like a world without something resembling the UN. Too many social, economic and political forces demand that both exist in some shape or form.

Of course you could say the exact same thing about Effective Altruism as well. Had EA not been created in its current form something - counterfactually - with a better foundation might have been culturally constructed. I suppose the difference for me is that it is probably orders of magnitude easier for me to picture a better US medical system or better UN that could have been constructed instead than it is for me to picture a better EA. Maybe this is a failure of imagination on my part.

Anyway, this game of "if this-thing-I-like-had-not-existed" is a fool's errand and strongly susceptible to motivated reasoning. And that is true whether we do or do not employ counterfactual reasoning.

Hi Ofer

Thanks for responding.

I agree with all of the facts you present in your comment! and I don't at all think that the Israeli government is trustworthy or is trying to maximise general wellbeing, and I think that they, like most sovereign countries, value the lives of their citizens and soldiers significantly more than civilians on the other side. I don't know if that's good for the world, but it is how governments operate. I do think that there is effort being made to minimise civilian causalities, but I have no idea how much.

The point I was trying to make was more to caution against joining protests / building models without taking into account second-order effects or the broader context and interests of players. I think it's quite plausible that a long term ceasefire could be better than the current policies (obviously for Gazans, but maybe even for Israelis), or that a third-option - say, creating a global coalition for sanctions and targeted killings against Hamas leadership, without widespread warfare - would be the welfare maximising option. But, as Guy points out, you need a lot of context, and I didn't feel a need to lay out the case for them, since the ceasefire call is widespread and intuitive.

Also, there's a (small) chance that the current Israeli policy is actually welfare maximising, which should be taken into account. I dislike the current Israeli leadership and am embarrassed that they represent me and my country, but that doesn't mean they're always wrong, so I try to not dismiss their positions out of hand. For context, the "no ceasefire" posution had a pretty broad support across the spectrum in Israel.

Finally - I find it hilarious that that Israelis talking about politics is being followed closely on the forum, so thanks again for your comment.

After learning some more about the topic, it now seems to me that the word "untrustworthy" in my comment above is a severe understatement. Quoting from a Washington Post article (emphasis added):

The so-called “Dahiya Doctrine” took shape in the wake of the bruising 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon. [...]

The doctrine that emerged out of the conflict was most famously articulated by IDF commander Gadi Eisenkot. “We will wield disproportionate power against every village from which shots are fired on Israel, and cause immense damage and destruction. From our perspective, these are military bases,” he told an Israeli newspaper in 2008. “This isn’t a suggestion. This is a plan that has already been authorized.” [...] Around the same time, former Israeli colonel Gabriel Siboni wrote a report under the aegis of Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies that argued the necessary response to militant provocations from Lebanon, Syria or Gaza were “disproportionate” strikes that aim only secondarily to hit the enemy’s capacity to launch rockets or other attacks. Rather, the goal should be to inflict lasting damage, no matter the civilian consequences, as a future deterrent.

“With an outbreak of hostilities, the IDF will need to act immediately, decisively, and with force that is disproportionate to the enemy’s actions and the threat it poses,” he wrote. “Such a response aims at inflicting damage and meting out punishment to an extent that will demand long and expensive reconstruction processes.”

The doctrine appeared to be in operation during a round of hostilities between Hamas in Gaza and Israel at the end of 2008 and beginning of 2009. A U.N.-commissioned report regarding that conflict, which saw the deaths of more than 1,400 Palestinians and Israelis, determined that Israel’s campaign was “a deliberately disproportionate attack designed to punish, humiliate and terrorize a civilian population, radically diminish its local economic capacity both to work and to provide for itself, and to force upon it an ever increasing sense of dependency and vulnerability.”

The doctrine endured in the years since. [...]

Ofer, I'm an Israeli and a leftist perhaps as much as you are. Perhaps not, since I think the war is a necessary evil (though at the same time think some of the acts taken by Israel in it are unnecessary and horrific). Point is, I wouldn't be surprised to discover you're right. But I don't understand what this all has to do with anything in Ezra's post.

Not Ofer but I think he laid it out pretty clearly:

The author mentioned they do not want the comments to be "a discussion of the war per se" and yet the post contains multiple contentious pro-Israel propaganda talking points, and includes arguments that a cease-fire is net-negative. Therefore it seems to me legitimate to mention here the following.

I feel similarly to Ofer - this post has many interesting personal reflections, which I'm glad the author shared. At the same time, it seemed like there were several pro-Israel comments that feel similar to the rhetoric used to justify the killing of large numbers of civilians in Gaza (as a reminder for readers, roughly 17,000 Palestinians have been killed, with 70% of them being women or children under 18, relative to approx. 1,150 in Israel)

Some examples of these comments:

But now I also think much more about good and evil, and if stopping evil can justify many lives lost (if yes, how many? How do you even start to answer that?).

There's at least one potential scenario that comes to mind in which protests end up being net negative in the long run. If global protests cause an early long term ceasefire, in the short term, fighting will stop, and lives will be saved. However, terror groups all over the world will learn that if they embed themselves within a civilian population, take hostages and use human shields, Western public opinion will protect them from a military response for even the most barbaric of attacks. In the long run, the chance of more frequent and more vicous attacks, and the use of human shields, will go up significantly, leading to even higher death tolls. 

Without getting into it too much, the second comment seems to totally overlook the fact that Israel has been illegally encroaching on Palestinian land, forcing people out of their homes and restricting access to basic rights like food and water for the past few decades. In my view, it's the allowance of this by the international community which has been net negative, and led to the ongoing occupation of Palestine and the war we currently have.

One of the things that I think EAs may be able to see better than others is that such claims are not mutually exclusive.

Agreed! In that case, why not include both sides of the story to paint a fair picture, given the author thought it was fine to include more political / less-neutral statements?

Because the post is about OP's personal feelings as they relate to EA thinking, and not about what the right thing for Israel to do is, or what the resolution for the conflict is.

I disagree because at least one of the statements I quoted above is not “feelings” as you state, and they literally talk about what might be the downside of some political actions (e.g. closer to analysis on the conflict and potential resolutions).

I don't agree with you, because I still think the post leaves much room for readers to come to different conclusions, and is rather (in that part) a demonstration of how popular thought misses important things.

I do however appreciate your effort to discuss with me and explain your view.

Thank you, I appreciate you engaging in a civil way too, as well as this comment!

I've been reading your comments with great interest. Thank you! Do you maybe want to write a top-level post on the topic? Since it's December (but also generally), I'd be quite interested in whether you can think of donation opportunities that are sufficiently leveraged to plausibly be competitive with (say) GiveWell top charities. Perhaps there are highly competent peace-building organizations in Israel. (I imagine few EAs will have the right expertise for direct work on this, and the ones who do will not benefit much from the post – but money is flexible.)

From what I've seen, peace building initiatives are more a matter of taste than proven effectiveness.

And I would wait until after the war to understand which orgs are able to effectively deliver aid to Gazans who have been affected, things will be clearer then. Now everything is complicated by the political / military situation.

I, very sadly, cannot recommend any org operating in this area. I'm a big fan of Standing Together, so maybe them, but I'm very pessimistic about the chances of the peace process. [Edit: I'd rather say I'm not optimistic enough. One of the major determiners of the future here will be foreign (and in particular, American) pressure - so maybe lobbying the US government to push for a peace accord would be good?]

If I were a non-Israeli person wanting to donate, I'd focus on aid for Gaza, but there too I cannot point to any organisation able to reliably move goods or funds into the hands of the citizens who need them.

The situation is dire and very hard to deal with, in both the short and long term. I'd be happy to have better recommendations.

Thanks! Yeah, I could imagine that particular aid programs beat GiveDirectly, but they'll be even harder to find, be confident in, and make legible to others. But if someone has the right connections, then that'd be amazing too! (I'm mostly thinking of donors here whose bar is GiveDirectly and not (say) Rethink Priorities.)

I quite often listened to interviews with Noam Chomsky on the topic, and yeah, my takeaway was typically that the situation is too complex and intricate for me to try to understand it by just listening to a few hours of interviews… If I were a history and policy buff, that'd be different. :-/

I failed to mention in the parent comment that the prime minister of Israel (Netanyahu) would plausibly not survive politically without the support of Ben-Gvir, which may have allowed the latter to have a lot of influence over the behavior of the Israeli government w.r.t. the war. Quoting from a WSJ article that was published today:

The differing paths present a stark choice for Netanyahu, who now risks heightening Israel’s international isolation if he continues the war, or potentially losing power if Ben-Gvir withdraws his Jewish Power party’s six lawmakers from the governing coalition.

“Ben-Gvir has huge leverage over Netanyahu,” said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Jerusalem-based think tank the Israel Democracy Institute. “The last thing Netanyahu needs is an early election and Ben-Gvir knows that.”

I was going to "heart" this, but that seemed ambiguous. So I'm just commenting to say, I hear you.

Having family in Israel, I know how much the crisis is affecting them and how much they are suffering.

However, it's exactly taking the EA perspective that has saved me from getting sucked in: I believe that it's still much more cost effective to save an African child from malaria than to spend money on fighting another "war on terrorism" if you want to reduce human suffering.

Yes, I know it may sound cold, but if EA has taught me anything it's that the 1000+ children that die every day from this preventable disease, as well as their grieving families, do not care about your feelings or mine.

Spend your resources wisely and keep making an impact 🤗

Thank you for writing and publishing this here, Ezra!

As I already wrote to you in another channel, first of all, I want to say that I’ve been thinking of all of you I know in the EA Israel team since the terrorist attacks and you and your family after I heard that you were called up to the army reserves. I can’t image what you have been going through. The piece at least gives a glimpse, which I found very valuable to read. 

The piece reminds me of You have more than one goal, and that's fine in the sense that the acute situation of war, of fearing for the lives of loved ones, is a different bucket to the peacetime situation of impartial altruism.

A formative experience for me was being part of a student exchange in high school with Israel. Most of our group of Germans lived with Israeli families while I was at a Palestinian's house. I was able to spend time with Israelis and Palestinians and hear stories of violence and trauma. Since then, I've been very sceptical of outsiders trying to weigh in on the conflict, especially one-sided and simplistic statements. I like how you phrased it: "Most of those people have no idea what's going on, and may be acting against the best interest of the people they claim to care about."

Thank you so much for writing this. I deeply identify with most of what you wrote.

Since the war, as you wrote, simplistic views of tribalism and side-picking have taken over almost universally. Having an EA-like universalist perspective, one is often surrounded both in real life and on the internet by people whose lack of empathy for some of the human beings involved is now extremely apparent. This has been very difficult emotionally and will keep being so for the next few months at least. It thus makes me very glad to see views such as yours coming from people in my communities.

Hi Ezra, thanks a lot for writing this. I hope you'll be able to go back to your family soon!


I think your question about the type of death someone experiences if quite important. While he numbers are important too, the suffering experienced during/before death, and the suffering caused by maliciousness must play an important part in how we weigh up these losses. I would think that one very important aspect of this is the intention - a natural disaster or a disease don't have intention, whereas a murderer does, and leads its victims and the loved ones of those to suffer more as a result.

I really appreciated reading this, thank you.

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I grew up in northern Israel and was there in 2006. I'm still traumatised by the constant alarms and rockets. I remember watching the news, seeing Beirut being bombed, feeling nothing but empathy and sadness about it. It didn't look any less traumatic for the Lebanese than it was for us.

Bless you for seeing all humans for who they are.

To everyone who replied with messages of support and wishes for a better world - thank you, I'm really glad that the EA community has people such as you, especially in such difficult times.

Hey Ezra! Thanks for writing this up and sharing your thoughts. I wish you lots of strength and endurance throughout these challenging times.

Thanks so much for writing this Ezrah. I really appreciated your thoughtful reflections on how hard it can be for your moral compass to find a north when your whole world and that of your family and community has been turned upside down. You are right - peace is a necessary condition to do good. We shouldn't forget this. Sending strength.

Thanks for taking the time to write this, Ezra -- I found it useful. 

One of the points in the book Strangers Drowning was that very dedicated altruists (some EAs included) live like it is war time all the time. Basically, the urgency of people dying from poverty, animals suffering, and humanity's future at risk demand the sacrifices that are typically reserved for war time. Another example is if existential risk were high, some argue that we should be on "extreme war footing" and dedicate a large portion of society's resources to reducing the risk. I'm interested in your perspective on these thoughts.

Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on this incredibly complicated topic. It's easy to see the care you took in writing such a personal, nuanced reflection on what has happened in your part of the world, and you're very brave for doing so. My heart goes out to you and your loved ones that have been so terribly affected.

It's interesting to hear how your usual "EA thinking" hasn't helped you much in your current situation. Perhaps other models of thinking and acting are necessary in crisis situations. And for those of us who are fairly removed from this particular case, it definitely doesn't feel "right" to dismiss attempts to help/donate to foreign aid given that it's comparatively less cost-effective than giving to the usual Givewell recommended charities. I think as a community of people whose goal is primarily to help others, we ought to do more. And I would agree with you that the suffering happening in your region, or in wars in general, is somehow on another level, both in terms of the direct experience and the trauma it leaves behind, than the suffering created by disease. However, as someone who's been fortunate enough to escape both, I can only speculate. 

Thank you for sharing this update, Ezra, and I’m sorry for your losses. As an Israeli-American currently living abroad, I’ve felt uncertain about the most effective ways to help both in terms of giving my money and time/energy—and of what I should even be optimizing for—which has been frustrating as an EA/human being. I remember after the earthquake in Turkey, I believe it was Kelsey Piper who had a piece about how the greatest need for donations is usually not in the immediate aftermath (when more money comes in than charities can effectively spend) but rather later down the line when the story has disappeared from the headlines (as have the donations). So, maybe time will provide more clarity, although it feels emotionally unsatisfying to not be able to do more now.

Two random personal observations: 

  1. When I first heard about EA, the ideas resonated with me precisely because of my experiences with Israel and Palestine. Even though it is not an “EA issue,” the conflict seems like a perfect case study in (mostly) well-intentioned people doing immense harm not just to Israelis but also to Palestinians. Even the way the situation is framed by unaffected Westerners as needing to pick a “side” seems inherently reductive and problematic and more likely to perpetuate rather than resolve the conflict.
  2. My Israeli and Jewish friends in the Diaspora who work for more “traditional” non-EA nonprofits have all faced xenophobia and antisemitism, and at least one person I know is considering quitting if the situation in her workplace doesn't improve. I can’t speak to EA as a whole (and I work remotely, so maybe I’m in a bubble), but my experience has been the exact opposite. I’ve felt supported both in terms of people reaching out and more tangibly in terms of flexibility with work hours, for example, which matters to me more than a statement (this is just my personal take, though). I attribute the difference between my friends' experiences and my own experience as being due to the culture of EA, which at least tries to promote values like radical empathy, rationality, and nuance and not getting too wrapped up in group-think.

Anyway, thanks again for keeping us updated, and stay safe!  

Executive summary: The author describes his personal experiences and those of his EA community during the Israel-Hamas war, noting how EA concepts struggled to provide guidance and his views evolved on issues like suffering metrics, moral uncertainty, activism, optimization, and ambition.

Key points:

  1. Donation advice was hard to give due to rapidly changing information and priorities.
  2. Metrics seem inadequate for capturing the full suffering involved in violent conflict.
  3. Moral clarity is much harder in war, with more confusion on right and wrong.
  4. Public activism to help may overlook crucial context and backfire.
  5. Optimization felt less relevant in the military's crisis mode.
  6. Near-death experiences shifted his personal ambition and life outlook.
  7. The fragility of peace and its necessity became more apparent.

 

This comment was auto-generated by the EA Forum Team. Feel free to point out issues with this summary by replying to the comment, and contact us if you have feedback.

Hi Ezra, thank you for writing this. I'm really sorry to hear about how the war has both directly and indirectly impacted you, your family and your community. May there be peace soon.

Thank you for your post, and my best wishes to Israel in this challenging times. Israel disproportionally attracts both the hatred and the admiration of other countries, and perhaps those who hate are more vocal. So while I cannot add much, I want to wish you all the best.

ezrah - thanks very much for this insightful, self-reflective, and timely post. Given the horrific circumstances, you show remarkable objectivity, restraint, and maturity in your writing. My heart goes out to you, your family, and Israel.

I don't have anything very intellectually useful to add. 

Just, hang in there, and know that many of us in EA are following this war very closely, and we are appalled by the Jihadist terrorism that Israel has been facing for decades. (I say this in full awareness that this comment will probably be brutally downvoted as a result.)