Why Sam Harris Won’t Criticize Israel

Israeli attack kills Palestinian kid in Jabalia Camp

It’s a very long piece – or, rather, a speech annotated with qualifications – an interesting way to put your thoughts down on a screen. And it’s well worth your while. The gist of it is that because Hamas is an almost text-book example of nihilist theocracy and Israel isn’t, Israel is on the right side of the defining struggle of our times – and so not a country Harris will criticize. A related, central point is that the use of human shields by Hamas puts them in an utterly different moral universe than the IDF, in whose interests it is not to kill Palestinian civilians.

This is a crude summary – for there are qualifications on so many points that the piece is almost an explosion of nuance. So, for example, in Sam’s view, Israel cannot be absolved from war crimes either; and should not even exist as a Jewish state. That last point is a pretty huge one – and it comes at the very start of the piece. But if Israel should not exist as a Jewish state, it should not exist at all. This is its core justification – and one of the issues the Israeli government has put at the center of any possible two-state solution. Get rid of the Jewishness of Israel … and you will soon have a Middle Eastern state pretty evenly divided between Jew and Arab and in which future immigration ISRAEL-PALESTINIAN-CONFLICT-GAZAwould easily tip the demographic balance toward Islam. And this is where, I’d argue, Sam’s argument begins to unravel almost as soon as it begins: because it is overwhelmingly an abstract statement of abstract principles which fails to account for history in all its particular twists and turns. So he ends up refusing to criticize a state he really doesn’t believe should exist and yet then goes on to criticize it quite potently. You can call that original if you want. But you might also call it incoherent.

Still, Sam is unquestionably right about the theocratic extremism and despicable anti-Semitism of Hamas and its allies. It is much more extreme and central to Hamas than theocracy and anti-Arab racism is to Israel. He’s right that Hamas’ preference for building underground tunnels for war rather than underground bomb shelters for civilians makes them complicit (though far from solely responsible) in the horrifying carnage of the last few weeks. He’s also right about the difference between what Israelis would do if they had all the power and what Hamas would do in the same boat. Israel, with overwhelming power, gives many Arab citizens political rights even as it has penned a huge number into segregated bantustans, curtailed their travel, blockaded them (in Gaza), and surrounded them with theocratic Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Hamas would, in contrast, just kill every Jew it could find as soon as it could. That is an important difference.

But that’s why I absolutely do not support Hamas, and never have. Nor is there any excuse for their war crimes. But the issue here is not one of a choice between Israel and Hamas; it’s between the possibility of a two-state solution and the Israeli government’s refusal to take any of the off-ramps toward it if they would curtail the bid to settle and annex the West Bank. Much of Sam’s argument would hold water if the Israelis had been in earnest about peace, and in earnest in supporting moderate Palestinian forces on the West Bank, and in earnest about taking Obama’s proposals seriously this past decade. But they haven’t been. Settlements are much more important to them than peace. And the settlements are motivated by exactly the kind of theocratic zeal that Sam normally opposes.

But the settlements – themselves a standing war crime under Geneva – do not figure prominently in Sam’s account. And when they do, he offers an unconvincing defense:

What would the Israelis do if they could do what they want? They would live in peace with their neighbors, if they had neighbors who would live in peace with them. They would simply continue to build out their high tech sector and thrive. [Note: Some might argue that they would do more than this—e.g. steal more Palestinian land. But apart from the influence of Jewish extremism (which I condemn), Israel’s continued appropriation of land has more than a little to do with her security concerns. Absent Palestinian terrorism and Muslim anti-Semitism, we could be talking about a “one-state solution,” and the settlements would be moot.]

This is delusional. It’s not just Palestinian terrorism and Muslim anti-Semitism that makes a one-state solution moot; it is embedded in the very meaning of Zionism. If Israel requires a Jewish majority to survive as a Jewish state, a one-state solution is anathema to it. And if all Israel wanted to do was have its tech sector thrive within (roughly) the 1967 borders, and embrace serious, US-backed security arrangements vis-a-vis Jordan, I’d be backing it to the hilt.

Instead, as Palestinian terrorism from the West Bank has declined drastically – the Israelis have intensified their theft of Palestinian land. Those settlements deeply hurt, rather than help, Israel’s security – because they alienate most of her allies, exacerbate bitterness and suspicion, and make the possibility of a two-state solution moot. You could secure the West Bank by military outposts if you wanted. But Israel is committed to engineering the demography of the place by settlements of religious fanatics of the sort Sam would usually excoriate. Netanyahu, we now know, would rather release hundreds of prisoners convicted of murdering Jews than remove a single brick from the West Bank settlements. It’s really not about security at all. It’s about race and religion in their ugliest zero-sum manifestations. Just because it isn’t as bad as Hamas doesn’t excuse it.

Then there is a really important point:

What do groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda and even Hamas want? They want to impose their religious views on the rest of humanity. They want to stifle every freedom that decent, educated, secular people care about. This is not a trivial difference. And yet judging from the level of condemnation that Israel now receives, you would think the difference ran the other way.

This kind of confusion puts all of us in danger. This is the great story of our time. For the rest of our lives, and the lives of our children, we are going to be confronted by people who don’t want to live peacefully in a secular, pluralistic world, because they are desperate to get to Paradise, and they are willing to destroy the very possibility of human happiness along the way. The truth is, we are all living in Israel. It’s just that some of us haven’t realized it yet.

Again, the abstractions obscure rather than clarify. We are not all living in Israel. Nor should any sane person want to be. In America, we are surrounded by two vast oceans and two unthreatening neighbors – about as different from Israel as it is possible to conceive. We have more space and land to accommodate religious, racial and cultural diversity than Israel could even dream of. We are not defined by one race or religion – but defined rather by a radical separation of church and state. In so far as we face Jihadist terror, we do so from a vastly more secure vantage point – and its victims since 9/11 have been mercifully sparse, suggesting a threat more manageable within our existing laws and arrangements than I, for one, ever thought possible.

And we have a real debate about how to confront Jihadist terror. In the Cheney years, we adopted the Netanyahu “shock and awe” approach – bomb, invade, terrorize and detain. Since then, we have adopted smarter, more surgical and political initiatives to help defuse it. One way to defuse it would be to resolve the Israel-Arab conflict along the only two-state lines that can work. The Israel-Palestine dispute is not the only thing galvanizing Jihadism, of course. But it remains one area where we have some leverage to effect change, and it is one area where our alleged ally has done all it can to prevent us.

I oppose Jihadism, in other words, as much as Sam. But what Israel is doing in the West Bank and the horrors it is inflicting on Gaza are almost designed to inflame, give credence to, and empower Jihadism in ways that will not only affect the Israelis. We are not all living in Israel. But if Sam gets his way, and ever more salt is rubbed into an ever rawer wound, we could be.

(Photos: Palestinian girl Ansam says goodbye to her little brother Sameh Junaid, killed in an Israeli cannon shot in the morning of Eid al-Fitr at Jabalia Refugee Camp as he was playing in the garden of his house on July 28, 2014 in Gaza City, Gaza. By Ali Hasan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images; An Israeli soldier carries a shell as he and his comrades prepare their Merkava tanks stationed at an army deployment area along the border between Israel and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip on July 31, 2014. By Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images.)