I agree with a lot that Sam Harris has to say. I find him an erudite and intelligent commentator. I have been listening to his “Waking Up” podcast for some time. I sided with him in the Cenk Uygur debate, after watching the 3 hour back and forth they had and I was absolutely in agreement with him and Bill Maher when they duelled with Ben Affleck on “Real time”. So far, so good. I decided to go back to one of the first episodes of the “Waking up” podcast (#2 Why don’t I criticize Israel?) recently, and this is where the problems arose for me. Harris began to outline what he saw as the moral differences between Israel and Palestine. It shook me so much that I have had to completely revaluate everything I thought about the man. I have to seriously question anybody who genuinely believes Harris’ portrayal of what is going on there.
Should Israel exist?
He calls the doctrine of Judaism “unethical and sickening” and “worse than the Koran”. Being a fellow atheist, I agree with his assertion that virtually all religious doctrine is bad. However, he then says that “most Jews recognise this and don’t take the text seriously”. This is problematic. It is a pure fluke that more Jews are not extremist. If the doctrine is equally as bad or worse, the chances are equal that more people could become extremist. I can only assume that because there are numerically more Muslims than Jews, that he thinks that it is not as big an issue. If the doctrine was not as bad, I could understand why he would think that. By his own admission though, it is.
There are a number of Israeli settlers who use their beliefs to justify their aggressive settlement expansion, causing untold suffering for innocent Palestinians. You do not have to dig too deeply in Israeli history to see their Zionist extremism surface. Yitzhak Shamir was the Israeli Prime Minister in 1983 after he had previously led the extreme Zionist group Lehi. The former Israeli Prime Minister was in a paramilitary group before Israel was founded as a State. Sound familiar? Oppressed people get pushed to extreme ends.
The only reason there are not more Zionists is a statistical one. Taking a position that Israel are morally superior, as Harris does, is an aberration of any human being who thinks about ethics in a cogent manner.
There is some hope for Harris when he admits that “the idea of a religious state is ultimately untenable”. The question is why does he view it as less untenable than a Muslim theocracy, like say Iran. Extreme doctrine is there in both religions. The potential is there for it to be exploited on both sides.
“They (Israel) have shown more constraint in fighting against the Palestinians that we the Americans and Europeans have used in any of our wars”. This is where Harris begins to go off the deep end. Any supposedly intelligent human being that uses the word “restraint” when describing or comparing how the Israeli’s operate in Palestine is to be questioned. I am not sure how any sane person can come to this conclusion. There are countless instances of Israeli brutality. Let us take just one. In 2014, the Israeli air force destroyed a water treatment and sewage plant after they had deliberately intended to target it. How can this be viewed as a “constrained” action? It is a war crime plain and simple. Not an accidental one. Harris paints this imaginary world where Jewish war crimes are all accidental. They are not. Here is a specific example of a deliberate war crime where the Israeli government specifically targeted Palestinian civilians. There is absolutely no justification for this. Any civilised society would never target civilians in this manner. It is disgusting to view this war crime as in some way morally superior to the crimes that the Palestinians commit. It is a vile conclusion to draw.
Harris talks about Israel enduring excessive “scrutiny” while having to “defend themselves against aggressors”. I cannot fathom how a person who thinks deeply about morality can come to this conclusion. Israel were and are the aggressors. They invaded land that was not theirs and have, at every opportunity, sought to expand their territory, at horrifying cost to Palestinians, who have to accept Israeli soldiers taking land by force. They throw Palestinian families living on land that they have owned for generations off of it. How can this be justified? It is an aggressive act. In no universe can it be construed as a “defensive act” to deliberately displace people from a house where they are living. Harris’s thinking about Israel as fighting a defensive war is utterly absurd. If you take a person’s land, you are an aggressor. It does not matter if you are religious or not. It is unacceptable. By this Machiavellian rationale, it would have been justified for the American settlers to take native Indian American’s land. He would point to their “intent” of creating a great society in the future. Doubtless the English thought they were bringing civil society to India, Ireland and everywhere they conquered. It does not matter that the Israeli’s have a secular democratic society. They have no right to take another people’s land.
He acknowledges Israel’s disproportionate killing of a number of innocent people yet claims that this is a “bad” way to think about it. He thinks that the images of innocent babies being killed is a “moral illusion born of the failures to look at the actual causes of the conflict”. Earth to Sam: the cause of the conflict is not purely religious in Israel. It is due to continued expansion in taking land that is not theirs. There is no moral illusion here. Global opinion is revealing here. Virtually every civil society on Earth points to a two state solution as the way forward. The US and Israel are the only ones who do not want it. They want to continue to annex land that is not their own. The only illusion here is Sam Harris’s concept of Israel as a benign state with “good intentions”.
Harris goes on to talk about Hamas as a political entity and how they call for the annihilation of the Jewish state. I agree with him in his condemnation of this violent group. I share his belief that religion is not the future. Yet, it is blindingly obvious that Hamas must be viewed as a reaction to brutality that the Palestinians endure.
Imagine for a moment, that Israel had settled in a remote country in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Imagine there was nobody there. Do you really think that Hamas would be flying out into the Pacific Ocean to kill the Jews? The likelihood is that they would not care. Hamas has been voted into power as a reaction to the violence inflicted upon Palestine. Plain and simple. Geography, not religion, is the issue in Israel.
There is where Sam Harris is a complete failure. He talks about the difference between Israel and Palestine’s intentions. He describes the Israeli dropping of a bomb on a beach as “almost certainly an accident” and goes on to state categorically that “they are not targeting children”. So, let us revert back to the example of when Israel deliberately targeted a water treatment plant. This was not an accident. They deliberately targeted children in this instance. They knew they would be affected. There is absolutely no doubt about this. So, we can easily conclude that Harris is categorically wrong in his assertion that Israel do target children. They absolutely do.
Let us not kid ourselves that the water treatment attack was an isolated incident either. The Israeli’s systematically attack Palestinians. Consider for a minute the March 2016 incident in Hebron where Israeli soldier Elor Azaria callously and deliberately shot to death Abed al-Fattah Yusri. Again, we can easily conclude that the Israeli’s do target Palestinians. It is fundamentally dishonest of Harris to suggest otherwise.
Furthermore, let us think of the Israeli reaction to this incident. If Harris claims that their intentions are benign and they do not tolerate unethical behaviour, then they would surely have punished Azaria appropriately? Yet, he received an 18 month sentence for it. Again, the global reaction from virtually every civilized nation was condemnation. The Israeli reaction? Netanyahu instantly called for him to be pardoned, calling the whole incident as “painful for his family”. Zero mention of the dead Palestinians family. I guess in Sam Harris’s bizarre world, this is just another example of Israeli soldiers showing “restraint”.
Harris admits that it is possible that some Israeli soldiers to go “berserk” when faced with Palestinians throwing rocks at them. Again, just watch the video of Yusri’s murder. Azaria did not go berserk. There was no threat to him, there were no Palestinians throwing rocks. Any intelligent person can only come to the conclusion that he thought that Yusri’s life was worth less than an Israeli’s. There is no other explanation. Yet Harris concludes that “we know that Israeli’s do not want to kill non-combatants”. I cannot take this opinion seriously. There is ample conclusive evidence that the Israeli’s do target, intentionally or otherwise.
I agree with Harris that Hamas should not use human shields. He says it is morally abhorrent to shoot “non-combatants if you can avoid it”. Yet, we have seen that Israel does exactly that. Both sides do. They shot a wounded Palestinian in a completely avoidable situation. So, because Hamas uses human shields, it “tells us everything we need to know” about their morality. No, Sam. It tells us that both sides have resorted to barbaric acts. All of these acts should be condemned.
“There is every reason to believe that the Palestinians would kill all the Jews in Israel” says Harris, quoting Hamas. This gets to the heart of Harris’s incorrect thinking. He confuses the conflict in Palestine as being a religious one. It is not. It is about the Palestinians right to their own land. He assumes that Palestinians want to see an Islamist state because they voted Hamas in.
Let us compare the situation in Palestine with Iran for a moment. 95% of Iranians voted for Khomeini’s Islamist revolution in 1979. Does the fact that they installed a theocracy give another country the right to take their land if they would install what Harris would deem a morally better society? Of course not.
If we truly believe in democracy, we have to accept what a country votes for. It is a nation deciding its own path. I can disagree with it, sure –as I vehemently do. But if the majority of Iranians or Palestinians want to live in a theocracy, that is their right. And yet, event that is not even what is going on here. Palestinians chose Hamas because they do not see any hope in the face of constant Israeli settlement expansion.
Harris goes on to condemn Muslims who blew themselves up “just to get at the American soldiers giving out candy at them” in Iraq. Oh dear, Sam. Those nice American soldiers, just handing out candy. Really? US good. Muslims bad.
He then refers to the suicide bombers who blew up hospitals as being barbaric. Again, it is easy for any intelligent human to condemn these acts. He speaks as if the US military is above this kind of action. This despite the fact that they deliberately targeted a hospital in Fallujah during the Iraq war in 2004, justifying it by saying it was a propaganda outlet. I guess that was OK for Harris as the overall “intent” was to bring a civil society to Iraq? What a moronic and morally vacuous position to take. All violence should be condemned equally. We should not prioritise Muslim violence over Western violence as they are religious.
As Chomsky pointed out to Harris in their email exchange, everyone believes they have good “intentions”. The Japanese viewed their 1937 rape of Nanjing as justified as they saw the Chinese as or sub human. They were merely bringing civil society to the Chinese. The fact remains. Nobody has the right to take another country over.
Harris decides that he “has to side with Israel” as they want to “live peacefully with its neighbours”. Let us remember the definition of the word peaceful. “1: without disturbance; tranquilly. 2: without war or violence”. It may be revealing to ask the ordinary Palestinians whether they see their neighbours as peaceful.