Sam Harris weighs in on the destruction going on in Gaza. He proceeds very, very carefully, explaining that the situation in Israel is complicated, they’re a largely secular state with a historical justification for their establishment, people with a history of oppression should have a safe haven, wars in any cause all cause casualties, yadda yadda yadda. And I agree emphatically with that. The people of Israel have a secular right to autonomous existence; they have a unique history of persecution (becoming increasingly less unique, unfortunately) and it is morally right to correct an injustice; every war is an evil that has unintended consequences, which is why we should be reluctant to enter them, and only engage when absolutely necessary (and I will also concede that the calculus for determining that is murky). But all that is just a prelude to his justification for Israel’s actions: it’s because their enemies are evil, and deserve it. Somehow, I’m not surprised at that.
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 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.
Strangely, he never seems to question the necessity of fighting a war to keep a people oppressed, or considers the possibility that Palestinians see themselves as victims of the Israeli state, ghettoized and kept in a perpetual condition of essential serfdom…and that even that tiny bit of land that they do hold is constantly threatened by settlers and politicians eager to annex the place by one means or another. There is no consideration of alternatives, that maybe war is not the best solution to an extremely complicated (as he knows!) social problem. But to admit that they are committing war crimes, but that it is all the enemy’s fault, is simply disgraceful.
I must emphasize that this is NOT A DEFENSE OF HAMAS. As Harris points out, their goals are indefensible and despicable.
The truth is that there is an obvious, undeniable, and hugely consequential moral difference between Israel and her enemies. The Israelis are surrounded by people who have explicitly genocidal intentions towards them. The charter of Hamas is explicitly genocidal. It looks forward to a time, based on Koranic prophesy, when the earth itself will cry out for Jewish blood, where the trees and the stones will say “O Muslim, there’s a Jew hiding behind me. Come and kill him.” This is a political document. We are talking about a government that was voted into power by a majority of the Palestinians.
That is an evil statement, and I condemn it whole-heartedly. But condemning one side does not mean I endorse the other — it is possible to see that there is a lot of indefensible and despicable activity on both sides. Also, I’m not saying “a pox upon both houses” — I don’t think the evil Jews deserve to die, any more than I think all those evil Palestinians deserve it. There needs to be a solution to a complicated hatred between both sides, and the simple solution of war until one side is broken does not resolve it. Short of genocide (do I need to argue against that?), it only exacerbates the issues. Does anyone really believe blowing up houses, killing terrorists (and incurring lots of collateral damage), building giant walls, and imposing more and more restrictions on the lives of Palestinians, will actually accommodate themselves to Israeli rule?
Elie Wiesel, in Legends of Our Time, wrote this:
Every Jew, somewhere in his being, should set apart a zone of hate — healthy, virile hate — for what the German personifies and for what persists in the German.
Should we use that to argue against the legitimacy of Israel? It’s an example of emphatic hatred directed at a whole people (even though he walks it back in a footnote — he’s decrying racism, not all Germans — and he also visited Germany and felt no desire to kill everyone he met.) Persecution tends to do that to people, to feed the fires of hatred. It’s not an excuse, but when you kill and torture and oppress, normal human beings tend not to reply with love and forgiveness.
Then Harris trots out the most stupid argument ever.
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.
I’ve been hearing a lot of this sort of thing, and it’s nonsense. With American gun laws, I could buy an assault rifle, modify it to be fully automatic, get a couple of extra large clips, and march into the local Catholic church and gun down the entire congregation (NO, I would never do such a thing). We have that power. So if I get a rifle and shoot just one Catholic as they were walking down the street (also never going to do that), could I use the excuse that I was exercising commendable restraint? If I did kill 10 innocent people, could I then claim that I was being judged by a different standard, because I could have parked a truck full of fertilizer explosive outside the building and killed hundreds and destroyed the whole church, just like Tim McVeigh?
No. I judge by a consistent moral standard, rather than the relative one Harris is using. Killing people is not a good thing, whether it’s one or a thousand or six million, and the existence of one gigantic moral atrocity, like the Holocaust or the Indian genocide, does not suddenly diminish the significance of numerically smaller crimes. It’s horror all the way around.
There is also a kind of moral blindness at work here. He says the condemnation is out of proportion to what they’ve actually done…so what exactly have they done? Harris comes right out and tells us.
But there is no way to look at the images coming out Gaza—especially of infants and toddlers riddled by shrapnel—and think that this is anything other than a monstrous evil. Insofar as the Israelis are the agents of this evil, it seems impossible to support them. And there is no question that the Palestinians have suffered terribly for decades under the occupation. This is where most critics of Israel appear to be stuck. They see these images, and they blame Israel for killing and maiming babies. They see the occupation, and they blame Israel for making Gaza a prison camp. I would argue that this is a kind of moral illusion, borne of a failure to look at the actual causes of this conflict, as well as of a failure to understand the intentions of the people on either side of it.
The “Palestinians have suffered terribly for decades under the occupation”. Stop right there. What do you mean, we critics are “stuck”? Isn’t that a terrible, awful fact of Middle East history that is being blithely glossed over? Of course it is. Sam Harris apparently does not think it’s that big a deal that the Palestinians are suffering under an occupation, and for someone who wants to claim we have to look at the big picture to see the causes of the conflict, he doesn’t seem to see how that could have led to the hatred expressed by Hamas. Again, not to excuse it…but if you want to address it, you can’t simply call the Palestinians evil bad guys and offer no solutions other than shooting them. Both sides have deep antecedents and a thousand justifications.
See the Elie Wiesel quote above. Many of the Palestinians hate the Israelis, no small wonder. You don’t fix it by shooting their cousin, or dropping a bomb on the local schoolhouse.
But all that matters to Harris is intent.
And this gets to the heart of the moral difference between Israel and her enemies. And this is something I discussed in The End of Faith. To see this moral difference, you have to ask what each side would do if they had the power to do it.
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.
Whoa. So the reason we know that Israel would not commit genocide if they could do anything they wanted is because right now they have total power and can do anything they want, and they aren’t committing genocide. But that’s not true! Israel’s military power is strongly dependent on foreign support — maintaining good relations with the United States is a major constraint (well, maybe not that constraining, because so far it looks like Congress rolls over and does whatever Israel asks). Further, in his cautious prelude, Harris emphasized that Israel has a complex society with a very strong secular component — there are Jewish elements who resist the idea of wholesale murder, too. Right now, Israel has external and internal constraints, so it’s silly to argue that they don’t.
Israel has elected a government that is aggressively militant. If that government were released from all restraints, I suspect that they’d push for an even more thorough campaign of extermination. But that’s speculation about intent — I’m more interested in the actual evidence. I look at the casualties, and there sure seem to be a lot of dead Palestinians for an enemy that takes “great pains not to kill children and other noncombatants”. And then there’s the distribution of the deaths.
The United Nations estimates that more than 70% of the Palestinians killed were civilians, including 226 youths and 117 women. More than 150 were members of armed groups, the United Nations says.
UNICEF said Monday that about two-thirds of the children killed were 12 years old or younger.
We’re supposed to believe in reason and evidence. When I see a thousand dead bodies, many of them children, and city blocks reduced to rubble, I tend not to accept the claim that that was reasonable restraint. Likewise, when Hamas launches rockets into Jewish suburbs, I tend not to accept that they are acting under reasonable restraint.
We get another of those hypocritical arguments used by IDF apologists.
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. Muslims in other recent conflicts, in Iraq and elsewhere, have also used human shields. They have laid their rifles on the shoulders of their own children and shot from behind their bodies.
OK. So we should excuse the deaths of all the civilians caused by the Israeli military because they are a regrettable and unavoidable consequence of fighting in an urban area with a high civilian population density. But we have to blame the Palestinians for fighting in their homes in an urban area with a high civilian population density — they should have found some nice open fields somewhere and deployed an army that could be met by the Israeli army, I guess.
And please, please stop characterizing specific groups with specific issues and causes with global Islamism. I despise that religion myself, but that does not mean you can simply lump Palestinians under the thumb of Israel with Muslims in Iraq or unsourced claims that Muslims use their own children as shields, or complaining about ISIS when talking about the events in Gaza. Let’s start by recognizing that Palestinians have legitimate grievances, as Harris tacitly acknowledges, and not ignoring them under the umbrella of simply declaring them wicked and deserving of all that they get.
Here is an example of Israel’s measured response.