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A Response to Sam Harris

Why I Criticize Israel

by ERIC DRAITSER

A friend of mine recently sent me a link to a podcast and transcript from prominent author, neuroscientist, and atheist Sam Harris entitled Why Don’t I Criticize Israel?. In it, Harris expressed his “enlightened” position on Israel/Palestine, one which he obviously feels is rooted in fairness, morality, and reason. I mean, hell, this is the founder and CEO of Project Reason after all. Despite my inclination to throw my laptop against the wall, lose my lunch, or simply rip out my hair, I managed to force myself to read the entire screed. Finally, with beads of rage-sweat forming on my forehead, and my face turning the color of Harris’s Stanford alma mater, I felt compelled to respond.

Now, I should admit that I know little about Harris’s other works – I haven’t read his books on religion and neuroscience for example – so I am not attacking his body of work. In doing some basic research, I’ve found many statements he’s made regarding Islam, Israel, and a host of issues with which I take major issue and, in a different context, would vigorously challenge. However, here I am restricting myself solely to his recent comments on Israel/Palestine. It should be remembered, especially by people who might read this months or even years from now, that Harris’s comments (July 27, 2014) were made in the midst of one of the most vicious and brutal Israeli aggressions against the Palestinian people in recent years. And that’s saying a lot considering the long and sordid recent history of Israeli aggressions.

This is not to say that I want to base my refutation solely on emotional arguments. On the contrary, I prefer to ground my comments on factual bases that not only refute Harris’s distortions, but hopefully provide ammunition to others to take on Israeli apologists, Jewish and Christian Zionists of all stripes, and generally anyone who tries to “condemn everyone equally.” Why? Because the war against the Palestinian people is a war against all people who believe in justice and morality, peace and progress. It is a propaganda war and, despite their millions of dollars, lobbyists, public relations teams, and apologists in every field from academia to entertainment and politics, we are winning. That being said, part of the fight is in never letting them go unchallenged. And Sam Harris will not go unchallenged.

Below, I will reproduce a few of the key quotes from Harris’s podcast/transcript in italics.

The question I’ve now received in many forms goes something like this: Why is it that you never criticize Israel? Why is it that you never criticize Judaism? Why is it that you always take the side of the Israelis over that of the Palestinians?…Now, this is an incredibly boring and depressing question for a variety of reasons. The first, is that I have criticized both Israel and Judaism. What seems to have upset many people is that I’ve kept some sense of proportion.”

Indeed Mr. Harris, let us consider the issue of keeping a “sense of proportion.” In the current Israeli campaign which you seem to feel is not worthy of your criticism, there have been at least 1,065 Gazans killed (according to UN figures as of July 28, 2014) of which at least 795 were civilians. Of those civilians, at least 347 (or 44%) were women and children. Did you notice that roughly 75% of the dead are civilians? I hope so.

There have been 6,233 Palestinians injured, including 1,949 children and 1,160 women. Naturally, the sorts of injuries sustained from bombing and ground war assaults are not exactly skinned knees and twisted ankles, but are often grave injuries that will last a lifetime. As the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) notes, “Approximately 180,000 persons, almost ten percent of the population of Gaza, are now taking shelter in UNRWA schools, compounding overcrowding and raising health concerns…[with] 215,000 displaced people hosted in UNRWA schools, government schools and informal shelters, or with host families.” And let us not forget that Israel is bombing UNRWA schools such as the one in the Jabaliya refugee camp which left 19 dead and scores injured, including many children.

Let me continue. Israel has been targeting journalists, including both Palestinian and non-Palestinian journalists covering the carnage in Gaza. Israel has expanded its already criminal “buffer zone” to be 3 kilometers deep, comprising roughly 44% of Gaza’s total territory. In case you don’t know, that is de facto annexation and yet another violation of international law (as if I must continually repeat that phrase). Israel is bombing and otherwise destroying critical infrastructure including Gaza’s only power plant, thereby demonstrating that the war is not simply against Hamas, but all Palestinians in Gaza.donate now

On the other hand, let us examine Israeli losses, shall we? According to the UN, there have been a total of 2 Israeli civilians killed, and 44 Israeli soldiers killed. Naturally, the soldiers were part of an invading military force and, according to international law, were legitimate targets. There have been reports of minor damage to a few buildings in Israel, civilians treated for “shock” (I can’t even begin to express the hypocrisy of this), and little else.

I’m so glad Sam Harris has chosen to “keep a sense of proportion” in his attitudes toward Israel and its actions. I shudder to think what his disproportionate view might be.

When we’re talking about the consequences of irrational beliefs based on scripture, the Jews are the least of the least offenders.”

Hmmm. I don’t know how to tell you this Sam, but the entire concept of Israel, the Jewish State and Zionism is based on scripture. There can be no Israel without anointing of it by God as the “chosen land for his chosen people.” The roots of Zionism – a form of Jewish nationalism crossed with imperial colonialism at the end of the 19th Century and into the 20th Century – lay not in a secular belief that the Jews should have a state to protect them from the pogroms, anti-Semitism, etc that they experienced in Europe, but rather from what Zionists believe to be a legitimate claim to the land based on biblical history. It seems that Harris, like so many other Israel apologists, despises religious arguments from non-Jews, while accepting those that are veiled in some sort of quasi-secular mythology, as Zionism is.

In fairness, it should be noted that Harris then went on to say “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. So I don’t celebrate the idea that there’s a Jewish homeland in the Middle East. I certainly don’t support any Jewish claims to real estate based on the Bible.”

There is a deception here. On the one hand, Harris condemns the notion of a Jewish state as “obscene, irrational, and unjustifiable” while simultaneously refusing to criticize the Jewish state for its obvious crimes. Implicit in the refusal to criticize Israel, along with many of Harris’s other statements, is recognition of the moral righteousness of Israel and its political character. You can condemn the “Jewishness” of the state all you want, but if you refuse to criticize it precisely at the moment when it is carrying out these inhuman atrocities, then you are, by definition, endorsing its right to exist as a Jewish state. Why? Because the continued oppression and subjugation of the Palestinians is precisely for the purposes of preventing their right of return which would be the end of the Jewish supremacist idea in Israel.

What Harris is doing here is the moral equivalent of saying in 1980 that you reject the concept of apartheid and institutionalized white supremacy while refusing to criticize the South African regime which was hell-bent on protecting that very thing. It is the usual “I condemn everyone equally therefore I’m above reproach” mantra. We’ve seen this countless times in recent decades on every issue of importance in the world. It was illegitimate then. And it is illegitimate now. The lack of overt and explicit condemnation and criticism of Israel is tacit endorsement of it as it exists today.

It is worth observing, however, that Israel isn’t “Jewish” in the sense that Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are “Muslim”…Israel is actually less religious than the U.S., and it guarantees freedom of religion to its citizens. Israel is not a theocracy, and one could easily argue that its Jewish identity is more cultural than religious. However, if we ask why the Jews wouldn’t move to British Columbia if offered a home there, we can see the role that religion still plays in their thinking.

What sort of absurd obfuscation is this? It is either a carefully crafted distortion, or an example of the sort of willful ignorance that is pervasive among the pro-Israel, liberal Zionist crowd. To say that Israel “guarantees freedom of religion” and “is not a theocracy” is to ignore the fact that one’s religion and ethnicity is what determines the political, economic, and civic rights that one enjoys in Israel. If Sam Harris doubts this fact, I would urge him to examine more closely the institutionalized discrimination (read apartheid) that is codified in Israeli law and social practice. Freedom of religion is a hollow and vacuous expression unless it means that one is free to practice any religion and still be entitled to the same rights as other citizens. This is undoubtedly not the case in Israel where segregation, state-sanctioned intimidation and violence against Arab-Israelis, African immigrants, and others, and Jewish-only roads and neighborhoods are the norm. Yes Sam, such “freedom.”

Needless to say, in defending its territory as a Jewish state, the Israeli government and Israelis themselves have had to do terrible things. They have, as they are now, fought wars against the Palestinians that have caused massive losses of innocent life. More civilians have been killed in Gaza in the last few weeks than militants. That’s not a surprise because Gaza is one of the most densely populated places on Earth. Occupying it, fighting wars in it, is guaranteed to get woman (sic) and children and other noncombatants killed. And there’s probably little question over the course of fighting multiple wars that the Israelis have done things that amount to war crimes. They have been brutalized by this process—that is, made brutal by it. But that is largely the due to the character of their enemies.

There are so many deliberately misleading statements, lies and half-truths here that they must be parsed one by one. First of all, “defending its territory as a Jewish state” is quite revealing about Harris’s true feelings on the subject. The idea that Israel is now, or at any time in the last 40 years, “defending itself” is essentially the same argument that Netanyahu and every other rabid Zionist has repeated ad nauseam. Aside from being simply untrue, it is a lie designed to exonerate Israel of its crimes by portraying its actions as purely defensive, as if it can be only a victim and never an aggressor. But wait, I thought Sam had said that a Jewish state is “obscene, irrational, and unjustifiable,” and yet somehow it has the right to defend precisely this? Is Harris now justifying the admittedly unjustifiable character of Jewish supremacy?

Second, Harris provides a skewed perspective here by regarding the conflict, and the many that came before this current round, as a “war.” Even a cursory examination of the casualty figures I noted above indicates quite clearly that this is no war, but a one-sided slaughter. To describe it as a war is to give it legitimacy, as if the two sides are equally culpable for the violence, as if each side is equally inflicting death and despair. This is not even to discuss the fact the Israel’s 1948 “war of independence” was an ethnic cleansing operation that led to the deaths and displacement of hundreds of thousands, the destruction of whole towns and villages, and directly led to the sad state of affairs we see today.

Third is the fact Harris engages in one of the most egregious examples of “blaming the victim” that I have seen in quite a while. To say that Israel has been “made brutal by [the conflict]” and “that is largely due to the character of their enemies” is once again shameless. It is an inversion of reality wherein all Israeli crimes can be justified by the fact that they are simply a response to much worse Palestinian crimes. That somehow Israel has been made to do this; that they’ve been left with no choice. I hope I’m not the only who feels like Harris’s statements are increasingly moving closer to those of right wing Zionists and other pro-Israeli warmongers.

Finally, we must shine a light on the exact language Harris used because it is indicative of the left imperialist types who supposedly denounce Israeli crimes while at the same time diligently working to dilute those very denouncements. According to Harris there’s “probably” little question that Israelis have done things that “amount to war crimes.” The use of the qualifiers is telling. He does not say “There’s no doubt that Israel has committed war crimes” which would be accurate and justified. Instead they probably maybe might have at some point possibly done some things that some people might find amount to war crimes. At least that’s how it sounds. A refusal to denounce a war crime is inexcusable. Indeed, this is precisely the same language that Human Rights Watch uses to let Israel off the hook – HRW consistently says that Israeli actions “may amount to collective punishment” while Palestinian resistance “is undoubtedly a war crime.” This sort of double standard is typical.

Whatever terrible things the Israelis have done, it is also true to say that they have used more restraint in their fighting against the Palestinians than we—the Americans, or Western Europeans—have used in any of our wars. They have endured more worldwide public scrutiny than any other society has ever had to while defending itself against aggressors. The Israelis simply are held to a different standard. And the condemnation leveled at them by the rest of the world is completely out of proportion to what they have actually done.

The Israeli “restraint” argument is so vile that it hurts my fingers to even type a response to it. The bombing of homes, schools, hospitals, power plants, TV stations, roads, government buildings, etc. is certainly not what I’d call restraint. Considering that 80% of the Gazans killed by Israel are civilian non-combatants, it is factually wrong to assert that the Israelis have somehow been more careful than the US forces were in Iraq or Afghanistan.

This question of “enduring more worldwide public scrutiny than any other society while defending itself against aggressors” is also factually wrong. There have been dozens and dozens of UN resolutions, calls for investigations, comprehensive reports, etc. which have all been either ignored or quietly dismissed by Israel and its US ally. It seems that Harris is confusing calls for investigations that go nowhere with public scrutiny which presupposes that the party being scrutinized accepts the findings of the scrutinizers. Also, Harris here again reiterates the notion that Palestinians are the aggressors. So, allow me to reiterate, once again…no army, no navy, no air force, no independent economy for Palestinians. And they are the aggressors? It would be tantamount to saying that the Nazis had to protect themselves from the Jewish aggressors in the Warsaw ghetto.

What would the Jews do to the Palestinians if they could do anything they wanted? Well, we know the answer to that question, because they can do more or less anything they want. The Israeli army could kill everyone in Gaza tomorrow. So what does that mean? Well, it means that, when they drop a bomb on a beach and kill four Palestinian children, as happened last week, this is almost certainly an accident. They’re not targeting children. They could target as many children as they want. Every time a Palestinian child dies, Israel edges ever closer to becoming an international pariah. So the Israelis take great pains not to kill children and other noncombatants. 

This is a straw man argument, and Harris knows it. Just because Israel kills Palestinians with impunity, but doesn’t outright exterminate them overnight (but rather is doing it piecemeal over decades), somehow that proves that Israel’s policies are humane and that children’s deaths are always accidents? I fail to see the logic in this argument. So, because Israel doesn’t exterminate Gaza completely, that means the bombing of innocent boys on the beach, or children at UN schools, must necessarily be an accident? Again, I return to the figures cited above and pose this question: Are Israeli accidents happening 44% of the time? Because, if the killings of children are all accidents, then that must mean the vaunted Israeli army has one of the worst targeting percentages of any military in the world. It seems that they could simply bomb indiscriminately and get a similar figure. Or, perhaps they already are bombing indiscriminately and the “accident” claim is simply a myth.

The truth is that everything you need to know about the moral imbalance between Israel and her enemies can be understood on the topic of human shields. Who uses human shields? Well, Hamas certainly does. They shoot their rockets from residential neighborhoods, from beside schools, and hospitals, and mosques... Consider the moral difference between using human shields and being deterred by them. That is the difference we’re talking about. The Israelis and other Western powers are deterred, however imperfectly, by the Muslim use of human shields in these conflicts, as we should be.

Again Harris simply repeats the well worn talking points of Israel and the pro-Israel crowd. There is no documented evidence of the argument that Palestinian resistance uses human shields in the way that is being described. Even Human Rights Watch’s Ken Roth, a notorious apologist for Israel who has been accused even by his former staffers of suppressing information that would damage Israel’s reputation, noted that in all their investigations, HRW found no evidence to back up these claims. However, HRW’s 2002 report In a Dark Hour: The Use of Civilians During IDF Arrest Operations does in fact “document how the IDF routinely has taken civilians at gunpoint to open suspicious packages, knock on doors of suspects, and search the houses of ‘wanted’ Palestinians during its military operations.” So, even if one were to accept the widely repeated claim that Hamas uses human shields (I reiterate that there is no documented evidence of this), then they are merely as guilty, not more, than Israeli forces who do the same thing.

However, there is a deeper issue here that must be addressed, and that is that Harris is moralizing on the state of Muslim resistance in general. Reading the full text of his rant, it becomes clear that he believes this to be a general characteristic of Muslims, that they are somehow more likely to use human shields than Jews or Christians or Buddhists or Hindus. Naturally, this reeks of Isalmophobia reminiscent of the Bush years and the “War on Terror.” But I think it is in keeping with Harris’s friend Richard Dawkins who has routinely made statements on twitter and elsewhere suggesting that Islam is a scourge on the planet and somehow is inherently wicked.

By the way, not to belabor the point, but does Harris understand that all of Gaza is a civilian area? There are 1.4 million people on a tiny strip of land that is shrinking everyday thanks to Israel’s “security” policies. Somehow it strikes me as delusional to say that Hamas shooting rockets from civilian areas is somehow equivalent to aggressive actions by Israel on Gaza’s soil. This is, once again, an inversion of reality, and the sort of mental gymnastics required to believe it are simply too much for my poor old materialist mind.

And again, you have to ask yourself, what do these groups want? What would they accomplish if they could accomplish anything? 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.]…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.

Harris here reaches an astonishing conclusion which he seems to have concocted based on nothing but his own opinion, namely that Israel would “live in peace with its neighbors, if [it] had neighbors who would live in peace with them.” Naturally, there is no evidence to back up such an assertion. From its very inception, Israel has never, despite the myriad forms the resistance has taken, tried to live in peace with its neighbors. On the contrary, it has fought multiple wars precisely because they refuse to live in peace with neighbors, knowing that they must only conquer territory and construct a “Greater Israel” in order to achieve “peace.” I’m reminded of the famous words of Calagus as recorded by the Roman historian Tacitus regarding the Romans – “They make a desert and call it peace.”

Indeed, in the Israeli mind, truly the collective mind of a settler-colonial state, the only peace that can exist is one in which every Palestinian has been driven from the land, their history forgotten, culture extinct or absorbed into other Arab states. Does anyone truly doubt this? If they do, they should perhaps examine the true state of Israeli politics, the extreme right fascist Zionists such as the Kahanists (extreme fascist followers of Meir Kahane) and other groups who regularly chant “Death to Arabs” among other cheerful slogans.

To be sure, there is a great deal of hate on the Palestinian side. This is a hate engendered by multiple generations of dispossession, oppression, and war. It gives rise to a dangerous tendency to conflate all Jews as the enemy. But is the presence of such a tendency the product of innate Muslim hate? Or is it the product of political, economic, and social conditions imposed upon them? I would certainly argue the latter.

Harris also betrays a complete, and inexcusable, ignorance regarding the region and Islamic extremism by conflating Hamas and ISIS. One is a political and militant organization duly elected in a democratic vote to administer Gaza. The other is a Saudi-sponsored Wahhabi extremist group that routinely beheads, crucifies, summarily executes, destroys religious monuments, slaughters Christians, and much worse. Hamas has, since its rise to power, always maintained a militant posture while trying to take part in political processes. ISIS has no interest in any such thing, and has waged war on Syria and Iraq, not to mention Lebanon and Hezbollah. Yet another red herring located in Harris’s arguments.

I will conclude this by merely pointing out that I have had to limit the selections from Harris’s screed in the interest of time. There are more than a dozen other excerpts I would like to have addressed here, but will have to leave to others. But the point I think comes across.

What Sam Harris has done is articulate clearly and unflinchingly the secular liberal Zionist perspective. It is one that is pervasive among liberals in the US and in the West generally. This cannot be allowed to stand. The stakes are far too high, there are too many children being killed, far too many farmers being pushed off their land, far too many schools being bombed.

In Gaza, the Israelis are making a desert that they can call peace. Perhaps it is in the sands of that desert that Sam Harris, like the proverbial ostrich, will choose to bury his head. I, for one, refuse to do so.

Eric Draitser is the founder of StopImperialism.com. He is an independent geopolitical analyst based in New York City. You can reach him at ericdraitser@gmail.com.