“[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 do 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.