“We Are All Living In Israel”

“[The Israelis] have been brutalized by this process—that is, made brutal by it. But that is largely due to the character of their enemies.”

—Sam Harris, “Why Don’t I Criticize Israel?”

We have all seen the news reports featuring Israeli jets dropping bombs on sites in Hamas-controlled Gaza, sometimes killing civilians. And we have seen Hamas-fired rockets falling on sites in Israel. We’ve heard confusing reports of cease fires and no cease fires. We’ve seen the United Nations plead for peace. We’ve seen the United States gaza deathsdo its best to calm things down. Just today we saw a strike on a park in Gaza near a hospital. Ten people were killed, nine of them children. Both sides blame the other and both sides are making truce demands that neither side can abide.

So, because we Americans like to keep moral score, who is to blame for what we have seen and heard?

There are about 8 million people living in Israel today, about ten times more than when the nation was founded in 1948 as a homeland for Jews, including European Jews fleeing the ravages of persecution. Of that 8 million, 75% are Jews and 21% are Arabs. In 1947 the United Nations recommended a plan to divvy up territory in a way that would hopefully make everyone happy, but most Arab leaders—Arabs were actually in the majority at the time—rejected the offer, seeing the move as another attempt by Europeans to do what they were good at: colonize. The fighting soon began.

And it has continued.

After spending some time, years ago, studying Judaism, I discovered that most people who today identify themselves as Jews don’t do so, thank God, because of any specific religious claims related to the veracity of the Hebrew Bible. Most Jews who live in Israel (the only nation in the world with a Jewish majority) are either openly secular or what I call “flexible” in their adherence to Judaism. These two groups constitute an overwhelming majority of the Jewish population and only a small minority (8% or so) are of the ultra-Orthodox variety we often think of when we think of outwardly observant, true-believing, extremist, sometimes radical, Jews. Because most people in Israel don’t have a religious ax to grind, they would gladly live peacefully alongside Arabs, most of them Muslim. Problem is that many Arab Muslims, with guns and rockets and a radical understanding of the Quran, don’t want to live peacefully with the Israelis.

One of the leading groups of Israeli-hating Arab Muslims is Hamas, a political and military organization that is considered a terrorist group by the United States and Israel and other Western nations. A child of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas was founded in 1987 in order to do what other Arabs could not do: boot out the Jews and establish an Islamic state. To this end, Hamas, which won a majority in the Palestinian Parliament via a democratic election, has attacked both military and civilian targets in Israel, sometimes using suicide bombers. In the present fight, they have encouraged civilians in Gaza to challenge Israeli attacks “with their bare chests.” In other words, Hamas has no problem with civilians, including women and children, dying for its larger cause. Hamas leaders have stored rockets in schools and, according to the Israelis and other sources, placed missile batteries in residential neighborhoods. I will soon get back to this point.

As for the Israelis, several of their attacks have seemed to be out of proportion to the injuries inflicted upon them. And they are certainly losing the PR war because of it. But should they? Let’s start with a point that Sam Harris makes (the bracketed “Note” is from Harris):

One of the most galling things for outside observers about the current war in Gaza is the disproportionate loss of life on the Palestinian side. This doesn’t make a lot of moral sense. Israel built bomb shelters to protect its citizens. The Palestinians built tunnels through which they could carry out terror attacks and kidnap Israelis. Should Israel be blamed for successfully protecting its population in a defensive war? I don’t think so. [Note: I was not suggesting that the deaths of Palestinian noncombatants are anything less than tragic. But if retaliating against Hamas is bound to get innocents killed, and the Israelis manage to protect their own civilians in the meantime, the loss of innocent life on the Palestinian side is guaranteed to be disproportionate.]

Harris speaks of  “a kind of moral illusion,” when it comes to people blaming “Israel for killing and maiming babies” and “for making Gaza a prison camp.” He writes:

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. [Note: Yes, I know that not every Palestinian supports Hamas, but enough do to have brought them to power. Hamas is not a fringe group.]

The discourse in the Muslim world about Jews is utterly shocking. Not only is there Holocaust denial—there’s Holocaust denial that then asserts that we will do it for real if given the chance. The only thing more obnoxious than denying the Holocaust is to say that it should have happened; it didn’t happen, but if we get the chance, we will accomplish it. There are children’s shows that teach five-year-olds about the glories of martyrdom and about the necessity of killing Jews.

All of that “gets to the heart of the moral difference between Israel and her enemies,” Harris says, and in order “to see this moral difference, you have to ask what each side would do if they had the power to do it.” Harris makes a point we often fail to consider, when we are thinking about this conflict:

 The Israeli army could kill everyone in Gaza tomorrow.

Even given that Harris is certainly overstating the case, the point is that the Israelis, if they wanted to, could wipe out much of the Arab population not only in Gaza, but the West Bank too. They could cause unfathomable destruction and death, if they had the will to do so. But they don’t. And getting back to the point about the use of civilians, they don’t use women and children as cover, a point that Harris hammers home with ferocity in a passage I will quote at length:

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.

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. It is morally abhorrent to kill noncombatants if you can avoid it. It’s certainly abhorrent to shoot through the bodies of children to get at your adversary. But take a moment to reflect on how contemptible this behavior is. And understand how cynical it is. The Muslims are acting on the assumption—the knowledge, in fact—that the infidels with whom they fight, the very people whom their religion does nothing but vilify, will be deterred by their use of Muslim human shields. They consider the Jews the spawn of apes and pigs—and yet they rely on the fact that they don’t want to kill Muslim noncombatants. [Note: The term “Muslims” in this paragraph means “Muslim combatants” of the sort that Western forces have encountered in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. The term “jihadists” would have been too narrow, but I was not suggesting that all Muslims support the use of human shields or are anti-Semitic, at war with the West, etc.]

Now imagine reversing the roles here. Imagine how fatuous—indeed comical it would be—for the Israelis to attempt to use human shields to deter the Palestinians. Some claim that they have already done this. There are reports that Israeli soldiers have occasionally put Palestinian civilians in front of them as they’ve advanced into dangerous areas. That’s not the use of human shields we’re talking about. It’s egregious behavior. No doubt it constitutes a war crime. But Imagine the Israelis holding up their own women and children as human shields. Of course, that would be ridiculous. The Palestinians are trying to kill everyone. Killing women and children is part of the plan. Reversing the roles here produces a grotesque Monty Python skit.

If you’re going to talk about the conflict in the Middle East, you have to acknowledge this difference. I don’t think there’s any ethical disparity to be found anywhere that is more shocking or consequential than this.

And the truth is, this isn’t even the worst that jihadists do. Hamas is practically a moderate organization, compared to other jihadist groups. There are Muslims who have blown themselves up in crowds of children—again, Muslim children—just to get at the American soldiers who were handing out candy to them. They have committed suicide bombings, only to send another bomber to the hospital to await the casualties—where they then blow up all the injured along with the doctors and nurses trying to save their lives.

Harris makes the additional point, one he has made in other contexts, that there is disproportionate outrage in the Muslim world and in liberal circles, when some offense, real or imagined, is committed against Islam or against a Muslim:

Every day that you could read about an Israeli rocket gone astray or Israeli soldiers beating up an innocent teenager, you could have read about ISIS in Iraq crucifying people on the side of the road, Christians and Muslims. Where is the outrage in the Muslim world and on the Left over these crimes? Where are the demonstrations, 10,000 or 100,000 deep, in the capitals of Europe against ISIS?  If Israel kills a dozen Palestinians by accident, the entire Muslim world is inflamed. God forbid you burn a Koran, or write a novel vaguely critical of the faith. And yet Muslims can destroy their own societies—and seek to destroy the West—and you don’t hear a peep.

If you are familiar with Sam Harris’ writings, you have heard his criticism of the larger “Muslim world” before, as well as his frustration with those on the left who fail to take seriously the threat of radical Islamists. And set in the context of this present Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he does seem to have a point. Sure, there are bad actors in Israel. Sure, Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli Defense Forces have much to answer for. Sure, any solution to the problem between Jews and Arabs is not enhanced by killing civilians in Gaza. I have several times criticized Israeli actions regarding their dealings with Palestinians. But in terms of a larger moral equivalency, there is no comparison between Israel and Hamas, or between Israel and other even more radical Muslim groups. As I said, most of Israeli society is not wedded to some Iron Age notion of religion. They don’t want to impose Judaism on the rest of the world. There is no correspondence between a nation mostly populated by secularists or flexible followers of a mild form of Judaism and a group of radicalized people who won’t quit until the land is Allah’s or until they, or their women and children, are dead.

Harris will have the last word:

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.




  1. Yikes and Wow! I have to call “horseshit” on you, Duane. Israel has not honored its commitment to allowing a Palestinian state. Ever. It continues to encroach on the ever-shrinking Palestinian territory. Much of the area in uninhabitable due to the devastation by Israeli bombing. More illegal Israeli settlements are being built in the West Bank with impunity for the right wing zealots who build them. The West doesn’t give a shit. Israel receives empty chidings, but nothing with teeth since Eisenhower. Is Hamas disgusting? Most certainly, but you just spent a number of paragraphs giving Israel the same free pass to butcher and destroy and suffocate Palestine as they brutally see fit — with no need for them to be honest brokers for peace or fairness. A plague on both their houses: Hamas and Likud. You surprise me, sir.


  2. I have had a conversation about the Israeli-Hamas conflict on another web site wherein a commenter using the name “Henry Mencken” opined that, at its core, it was not about religion but rather ” . . . the mundane issue of land ownership.” Religion, he opined, was simply a convenient lever in the process. I disagreed, saying,

    Many real estate disputes occur in the world without one of the parties vowing to kill all members of the other, including the recruitment of suicide bombers.

    He, apparently a retired newspaperman, replied,

    All I know is what I read in the paper. Back in the days when mine was a real newspaper, instead of a few (p)ages of crab wrapper, we had correspondents in the Middle East. I knew some of them, and they seemed to be reasonably intelligent fellows when they were sober. Even back in the 1890s, they obeyed the Big Boss’s rule not to drink until after sunset.

    Anyway, a lot of their reports included examples of persecution of Jewish people by Christians, frequently resulting in Muslims and other non-religious Arabs sheltering them, taking them in (so to speak), providing some places for them to live while the Christians, mostly from Britain, carved up the Eastern Mediterranean region to suit themselves. Religion, it was reliably reported, appeared not to matter.

    This is a serious case of confirmation bias, in my opinion, but I think it is all too common in how people think of this terrible conflict. The simple fact that the British made a hash of carving up the Ottoman Empire can in no way justify how Hamas is acting. The best analogy I can think of for Menckin’s reaction is that of slavery and racial bias. What people do collectively can be markedly different from how they act personally. People could vote for the harshest kinds of policies, discrimination and segregation, while maintaining a mien of personal kindness. Makes me think of the movie, Driving Miss Daisy.


    • Jim,

      Great comments. 

      I have been on the fence on this issue (in terms of a moral analysis) for several years precisely because I thought it was largely a land dispute. But it was writers like Sam Harris who finally convinced me that it was not just about land but also about religious fundamentalism, in this case militarized Islamic extremism versus Western values. That made a difference for me.

      Your point about the compatibility of supporting harsh policies while remaining personally kind is so true. Our social selves, expressed through the ballot box, for instance, can be so much different from our social selves expressed through personal interactions with people we actually meet. The former involves making decisions about abstract people, people we will never know, and the latter involves interactions with real people. It’s too bad we can’t consistently apply our more “personal” selves to our collective decision making.



  3. Anonymous

     /  July 29, 2014

    There were 1150 slain Palestinian civilians yesterday versus a couple of IDF. Now they have no water or electricity. Don’t try to tell me that is humane.
    You and Harris sound way too much alike in your misplaced proportionality.


  4. Agree with the general. There were 1150 Arab dead yesterday and only some property damage in Israel. Now the IDF have destroyed the electricity and therefore the water. How is that proportional?


    • You make a good point, Gerry. But you also ignore part of the reason why there is so much disproportionality. As Harris says, Hamas has spent time and money on terrorism and the Israelis on defending themselves against terrorism. And you also ignore the point that if Hamas had its way, its missiles would be killing thousands of Israeli citizens. The fact that they are not is not due to Hamas not trying. That is the moral case I am trying to make. Hamas is intentionally trying to kill civilians and the Israelis are obviously not (they are receiving much bad press for it as it is) and are giving warnings to targets to get out before the attacks happen. Hamas wouldn’t think of doing such a thing. They are committed to the destruction of Israel as a state and Israel is not committed to the destruction of any Palestinian state (otherwise they would, I suppose, nuke Jordan, for instance).

      By the way, I am not claiming that what Israel has done the past few weeks is “humane.” What I am saying is that responding to a terrorist group lobbing missiles on your citizens is not necessarily immoral, even if some of the response ends up inadvertently killing civilians. Collateral damage has always been a part of warfare and it doesn’t necessarily impugn the motives of the perpetrator. Such killing should, however, be avoided if possible. If there is a way of attacking Hamas missile batteries that doesn’t involve some risk to the civilian population in Gaza (a very densely populated place), someone should let the Israelis know.

      Finally, there is a way that the killing could stop. Hamas could stop shooting missiles at Israel. Why don’t they do that?



  5. Duane,

    I don’t know if you saw Charlie Rose’s interview with the head of Hamas last night (July 29) but it was quite an eye opener. Khaled Meshal, who now resides in Qatar rather than Gaza or the West Bank, told Rose, in so many words, through a translator, that he/Hamas consider Israel/Jews an “occupying force” and will only stop the fighting when Israel ceases its occupation of Gaza. “”We are not fanatics; we are not fundamentalists. We do not actually fight the Jews because they are Jews per se. We do not fight any other races. We fight the occupiers,” said Meshal to Rose.

    Then he, Meshal, makes this rather scary declaration, ““I do believe this as I see you now, It is a conviction. Why? Because time and time, in the history of nations says that peoples have the upper hand over the occupation. I have the will. I can die because of Israel. I cannot live under the occupation. The occupation is the worst thing that you can ever imagine. So every single Palestinian can die for the next generations to live in peace and freedom.” Well, that’s not good.

    So what we have here in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, to the extent neither side will change its policy, is a stalemate. There is no obvious exit strategy for either party that will save face. The U.N. is impotent, the Palestinian’s have no problem recruiting suicide bombers, and the rest of the world is apparently content with watching the human misery and destruction play out on television.

    So, what you and the estimable Mr. Harris are saying, as I see it anyway, is there are two sets of morality at work here; one of which comes from manufactured and irrational dogma, and the other is based on limited tolerance. And it’s the dogma that we should be concerned with; the rush to get a ticket to paradise.

    But, the religious extremists in Gaza are also in Syria and Iraq and, most recently in Libya. Maybe it’s time to revive the Crusades.



    • I did see the interview. Meshaal was fairly clear about one thing: there will be no living with a nation-state called Israel. He knows, because he is politically savvy to some extent, that he can’t outright say so, but it is clear from the context that when he refers to the “occupation” he means all of Palestine, from the Jordan to the Mediterranean, not just Gaza and the West Bank.

      If Meshaal really wanted to put pressure on the Israelis, if he really wanted to get reasonable goals accomplished (as opposed to the foolish notion that he can terrorize Israel into leaving the land or something just as foolish), he could have said in that interview the following:

      Hamas is ready to recognize the legitimacy of the state of Israel as long as Israel recognizes the legitimacy of a Palestinian state. I will immediately call a cease fire and, along with Fatah leaders, begin talks on a timetable for dismantling Israeli settlements in the West Bank, as well as when Israel will begin ending the blockade of Gaza, followed by border discussions and security agreements. I pledge that while these talks are going on, Hamas will not engage in attacks on Israel.

      If he were to say anything like that, things would change very quickly. The fact he won’t say anything like that tells you all you need to know.



    • And by “change,” I mean the pressure would squarely be on the Israelis and, by extension, the United States.


%d bloggers like this: