If there are two hot-button topics in the liberal atheist community, they would be Sam Harris and Israel. For reasons I have yet to fathom, Sam evokes an extraordinary amount of rancor among atheists. I’m not sure why, but sometimes I think that some Harris-haters resent his goal of making them think about hard questions. (Really, is it that hateful to ask people to think about whether torture or ethnic profiling might be justified?). Too, he and the late Christopher Hitchens were the biggest atheist critics of Islam, and for reasons that are not as obscure (a double standard applied to non-Westerners), liberals tend to give Muslims a pass that they wouldn’t give to, say, Catholics or Jews.
I don’t always agree with Sam—I take issue with his stand on guns and on the existence of objective morality, for instance—but he’s always thoughtful, eloquent, and amiable. He doesn’t condescend to or sneer at anyone, and you can hardly call him strident. His book The End of Faith is the founding document of New Atheism, closely followed by Letter to a Christian Nation. Even if you disagree with everything he’s written since then (and I much admire his small books Lying and Free Will), you must admit that he brought nonbelief back to the table as a viable (and publicly discussed) option.
Nevertheless, his latest piece, “Why don’t I criticize Israel?” (available on his site as both a 15-minute talk and a written transcript) will surely provoke outrage. I thought long and hard about deciding whether to even mention it, because though it will surely produce comments, they are not necessarily the kind of comments I like to hear. But in the end I thought it was useful to inspire discussion, in the hope (perhaps vain hope) that discussion might be enlightening. Several readers, who emailed me about this piece, thought so, too—or maybe they just want to see fireworks! So I urge you to go to his site and either listen to or read Sam’s take.
If you comment, I expect civility, and I expect you to know your facts. Do not, for instance, call Israel an “apartheid state,” for that is not only grossly untrue, but denigrates the real apartheid that South Africa experienced. (Arab citizens of Israel are not segregated or denied voting rights, for instance, as were South African blacks. They have precisely the same rights as non-Arab citizens, except they do not have to serve in the Israeli Army, though they can volunteer to do so.) I also expect readers to have either listened to or read Sam’s whole piece, and to discuss the views in that piece. This is not a place to simply rant about Israel and/or Palestine. Address Sam’s contentions, or other people’s. There is plenty there to fuel a discussion.
And what I’d really like to hear is whether readers have a workable solution to the conflict. After long pondering, I don’t think there is any. Three times the Palestinians have been offered a peace deal, and three times they’ve either turned it down or ignored it. One or another of those deals included the two-state solution, the demolishing of the vast majority of settlements on the West Bank (with the retention of a few settlements compensated by giving Palestine Israeli land), the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine (in one rejected deal), and so on. It is now clear that Palestine will sanction only a solution that will destroy Israel—by insisting on the “right of return” that would flood Israel with Palestinians and turn it into an Arab state. If your “solution” involves getting rid of Israel, say so explicitly.
My take, which you’ll know if you’re a regular, is that the sworn intention of Palestine as a nation is to destroy Israel as a nation.This is no secret, nor is it a matter of dispute. If you doubt it, I strongly urge you to read the Hamas Charter, which is precisely as Sam has characterized it: it not only mandates the destruction of Israel, but refers to the old forgery, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” which anti-Semites formulated as a tool for destroying Jews. Here are three excerpts from that charter:
For Zionist scheming has no end, and after Palestine they will covet expansion from the Nile to the Euphrates. Only when they have completed digesting the area on which they will have laid their hand, they will look forward to more expansion, etc. Their scheme has been laid out in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and their present [conduct] is the best proof of what is said there.
. . . This is the Charter of the Islamic Resistance (Hamas) which will reveal its face, unveil its identity, state its position, clarify its purpose, discuss its hopes, call for support to its cause and reinforcement, and for joining its ranks. For our struggle against the Jews is extremely wide-ranging and grave, so much so that it will need all the loyal efforts we can wield, to be followed by further steps and reinforced by successive battalions from the multifarious Arab and Islamic world, until the enemies are defeated and Allah’s victory prevails. Thus we shall perceive them approaching in the horizon, and this will be known before long: “Allah has decreed: Lo! I very shall conquer, I and my messenger, lo! Allah is strong, almighty.”
. . . The prophet, prayer and peace be upon him, said:The time will not come until Muslims will fight the Jews (and kill them); until the Jews hide behind rocks and trees, which will cry: O Muslim! there is a Jew hiding behind me, come on and kill him! This will not apply to the Gharqad, which is a Jewish tree (cited by Bukhari and Muslim).
It amazes me that people prefer to ignore this, or pretend it isn’t there. Do you think that Hamas isn’t serious about their own charter? And remember that the Palestinian Authority is now allied with Hamas.
The main disagreement I have with Sam is, perhaps, a semantic one. He first says this:
I don’t think Israel should exist as a Jewish state. I think it is obscene, irrational and unjustifiable to have a state organized around a religion.
But then says this:
Though I just said that I don’t think Israel should exist as a Jewish state, the justification for such a state is rather easy to find. We need look no further than the fact that the rest of the world has shown itself eager to murder the Jews at almost every opportunity. So, if there were going to be a state organized around protecting members of a single religion, it certainly should be a Jewish state. Now, friends of Israel might consider this a rather tepid defense, but it’s the strongest one I’ve got. I think the idea of a religious state is ultimately untenable.
I agree with Sam that a state based on religion itself is hard to justify. But although Israel is a “Jewish” state, it is a culturally Jewish state, although it encompasses Jews from atheists to Orthodox (about 50% of the “Jews” in Israel consider themselves “secular,” and between 15% and 37% see themselves as atheists). The country is, then, much less religious than the U.S. and any Muslim nation. The Israeli constitution guarantees religious freedom for all, including nonbelievers. It is not a theocracy in the sense that Iran, or even Saudi Arabia, is. This confusion, I think, explains the ambiguity in Sam’s piece. The “justification” was not to establish a religious state, but to give people of Jewish “culture” a refuge from the pogroms that occurred throughout Europe and the Middle East. (Although I’m an atheist, I would have been rounded up and sent to the camps during the Holocaust.) What I am saying is that I think Israel has a right to exist in more or less its present form (without, of course, the war), and that a solution that makes it an Arab state is untenable and unjustifiable.
I won’t go on, except to say that Sam points out the moral disparity between the Palestinians and the Israelis, and I largely agree with him. One excerpt:
So, it seems to me, that you have to side with Israel here. You have one side which if it really could accomplish its aims would simply live peacefully with its neighbors, and you have another side which is seeking to implement a seventh century theocracy in the Holy Land. There’s no peace to be found between those incompatible ideas. That doesn’t mean you can’t condemn specific actions on the part of the Israelis. And, of course, acknowledging the moral disparity between Israel and her enemies doesn’t give us any solution to the problem of Israel’s existence in the Middle East. [Note: I was not suggesting that Israel’s actions are above criticism or that their recent incursion into Gaza was necessarily justified. Nor was I saying that the status quo, wherein the Palestinians remain stateless, should be maintained. By “siding with Israel,” I am simply recognizing that they are not the primary aggressors in this conflict. They are, rather, responding to aggression—and at a terrible cost.]
Sam’s final statement is quite eloquent, and addresses the aims you’ve already seen in the Hamas charter. The extreme exponents of Islam, as seen in Hamas and even more radical groups, want nothing more than the imposition of their faith on the entire world, and the total extirpation of the Jews. That is why you can see in the Arab media, even in state-sponsored newspapers and television shows, caricatures and hatred of Jews as vile as you could have seen in Der Stürmer in Nazi Germany. For some reason liberal supporters of Palestine ignore the kind of bigotry they’d attack vociferously if it came from America (or Israel), or allude to it only briefly before they go on to demonize Israel (which of course does not publish state-sponsored ethnic hatred). That is why you hear from the Arab world, as Sam notes, both denial of the Nazi Holocaust as well as a call for a new Holocaust. How can one side with people like that?
Sam’s final words:
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 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.
If you think that groups like Hamas will be satisfied with a peace that gives them their own state but leaves the state of Israel still in existence, you’re fooling yourself. Palestinians have rejected that several times. And if you think that such groups will be happy even if they wipe out Israel, and then will have no further quarrel with the West, then you’re also fooling yourself. Finally, if you think that all the anti-Western and anti-Israeli rage from Arabs is inspired by Western oppression and has nothing to do with the tenets of Islam, you’re fooling yourself most of all.