Sam Harris’s socially acceptable apologia for killing children, ethnic cleansing & apartheid

This was written in August 2014 and published on my blog as Why Do I Criticize The Israeli Government? My Response To Sam Harris. I’m posting it here because it’s a long-form response to many views I’ve heard expressed on DKos which echo Harris’s arguments.

Sam Harris has a transcript of a podcast on his website titled “Why Don’t I Criticize Israel“. It’s thought-provoking and cogent, but in the end unpersuasive.You should read or listen to Harris’s podcast in its entirety. What I’m going to do here is evaluate and examine many of Sam’s arguments and others you may have heard. Sam makes as good a case as you can possibly make for the Israeli government while hewing as close as possible to a secular, humanist point of view. I’ll quote liberally, but the podcast must be heard in its entirety for its full effect.

A note on philosophical inclinations towards justice. If you’re a utilitarian, the case is quite clear. Israeli action has caused the deaths of close to 2,000 people in this latest attack on Gaza in summer 2014. Most sources agree that 65-80% of these are civilians (the Israeli government claims over half were not civilians). Over 400 children have been killed. At the other end, Hamas has managed to kill over 60 Israeli soldiers, two Israeli civilian and one Thai civilian in addition to damaging some buildings and setting off sirens all across Israel generally disrupting everyone’s day. Israeli forces have destroyed key infrastructure in Gaza, leaving most of the population without water or power and around 500,000 without access to their homes, a great number of which have been destroyed. In utilitarian terms, the case is clear, the democratically elected government of Israel is by far the worse offender and it’s actions are disproportionate. Even in terms of rocket strikes, the numbers are disproportionate. Hamas has launched a little over 2,900 rockets, the IDF has struck over 3,800 targets, often multiple times. In some ways, it feels like heavily armed US cavalry running down entire Native American villages because they’ve attacked a white settlement.

But I am not a utilitarian in the strict sense of the word, as I suspect few of us are. In my view, for an action to be above reproach, you must utilize just means to achieve just ends. It is impossible to argue the Israeli government’s means are completely just (in this instance or in past actions), and I would say the ends are not either. Kant’s categorical imperative is that you cannot use rational beings as a means to an end. So you cannot kill 25 civilians to assassinate a single Hamas leader. Even if your goal of assassination is just. [This in itself is questionable. Israel’s government feels differently about assassinations when its own officials are targeted. Begin started the ’82 Lebanese war over an assassination attempt (by a rogue faction of the PLO which was not in Lebanon).]

As Americans we understand all this is true, and we actually live these principles in some instances. Bill Clinton recently said about Osama Bin Laden €œI nearly got him. And I could have killed him, but I would have to destroy a little town called Kandahar in Afghanistan and kill 300 innocent women and children, and then I would have been no better than him. And so I didn€™t do it.€ When Barack Obama finally had an opportunity to take out Osama Bin Laden, he sent 24 US commandos and support staff 200 miles from their base to do the job. They did not kill his two wives, who were shielding Osama Bin Laden when he was found.

In stark contrast, Israeli forces in the past month alone have bombed numerous homes, killing hundreds of people, whole families and over a hundred children. In one instance, 17 civilian members of the Hamas police chief’s extended family were killed by a bomb targeting his aunt’s home while he was visiting it. The demolition of homes, via bomb or bulldozer have been part of Israel’s strategy to bring “quiet” for some time now.

A final note. This is written for an American audience. Here in the US, we get a rather bland view of Israel-Palestine relations, heavily tilted in favor of the Israeli right-wing (which has been in power for about 20 years now). If you’re reading this in Europe, you should probably stop, the pendulum has likely swung the other way in your media. If you’re in France, you should probably try to get your elected representatives to do their best to stop the mobs that are threatening Jews and destroying their property.

Jews and Muslims

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. There are something like 15 million Jews on earth at this moment; there are a hundred times as many Muslims. I’€™ve debated rabbis who, when I have assumed that they believe in a God that can hear our prayers, they stop me mid-sentence and say, €œWhy would you think that I believe in a God who can hear prayers?€ So there are rabbis€”conservative rabbis€”who believe in a God so elastic as to exclude every concrete claim about Him€”and therefore, nearly every concrete demand upon human behavior. And there are millions of Jews, literally millions among the few million who exist, for whom Judaism is very important, and yet they are atheists. They don€™t believe in God at all. This is actually a position you can hold in Judaism, but it€™s a total non sequitur in Islam or Christianity.

That’s a quote from Sam’s podcast, you can assume any other quotes below are from the same podcast unless I say otherwise.The relative numbers of Jews and Muslims is essentially irrelevant when discussing proportionality. It may be that Sam believes this is more relevant than their shared humanity because they identify with their faith strongly. Most people identify with their names quite strongly, and there are very few people named Subir, and a lot of people named Sam. Does that mean Sams are expendable or we should mourn their deaths less? Does it means one dead Subir is equivalent to a hundred or a thousand dead Sams? If you can’t look at an innocent life as an innocent life, you’re probably engaging in tribal politics.

We should define a few terms at this point. I won’t often speak of Jews and Muslims in this essay. Mostly because “Jews” and “Muslims” do not have agency. We cannot ascribe intent to “Jews” or “Muslims”, we cannot evaluate their actions, because they are not capable of acting as groups. We can ascribe agency and evaluate the actions of individual Jews and individual Muslims, in which case we should refer to them by name. We can evaluate the actions of individual organizations, whether they are governments or political parties.

All we can say about “Jews” and “Muslims” is that they are people, and like all humans, they are capable of suffering. In a slightly different, but related context (the rights of slaves in the French West Indies), Jeremy Bentham asked:

The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?

So for the rest of this article, I’ll discuss the actions of:

  • successive Israeli governments, militias and armed forces (Likud, IDF, Irgun)
  • distinct Palestinian resistance movements (PLO, Fatah, Hamas)

though I might also discuss the suffering of Palestinian people, or the Israeli people. This has an added advantage, by being specific I avoid the charge that I’m being racist or bigoted. I will also spend much more time discussing Israeli actions than I will any Palestinian acts, for two reasons. The first is that I’m writing for an American audience, which hears a lot about Palestinian groups, terrorism, rocket launches and failures. The second is that the Israeli government is relatively free to act. It controls its borders, it enjoys sovereignty, and its actions have had immense impacts on Palestinians and the region. The Palestinians on the other hand have been constrained and are not a sovereign nation.

So with that in mind, I wholeheartedly agree with Sam that one must maintain some sense of proportionality here. Hamas is an organization that has done and continues to do reprehensible things. It has engaged in suicide bombings, it has recruited children to serve as militants, it has targeted civilians, in numerous cases it has operated out of civilian facilities in complete contravention of international law and placed Palestinian civilians in great danger, often knowingly. Like most guerrilla operations, Hamas has perfected the art of blending into the population, but it has also callously discussed how the deaths of Palestinian civilians may further its cause on the international stage. It has conducted purges and extrajudicial killings of suspected informers, and it continues to direct unguided rockets and missiles in Israel’s direction, knowing there are civilian centers in their path. It’s founding documents are reprehensible and as Sam says, look forward to a genocide. It has expended Herculean efforts in building tunnels that we can only imagine would be used for kidnappings and murders, certainly of IDF personnel, but also of civilians if it would further their cause. They are far more focused on fighting Israel than bettering the situation of the Palestinian people. From all accounts, having Hamas in power would be like stepping back a couple of centuries or more in time. I would not want them as neighbors and I would certainly not wish to live in a state governed by them. Yet, we must be wary of conflating Hamas with the general Palestinian population and nothing I’ve said here should preclude criticizing the actions and policies of the Israeli government. Even if we agree that reducing Hamas’ influence is a just end, we still need to be assured just means are employed to reach it.

A very standard response to any criticism of Israeli policy or sympathy for Palestinians is “You must be an anti-semite” or “You are for Hamas”. I’m neither.

I’m quite optimistic. If people are left alone, the vast majority will choose to live peaceably with their neighbors. They are too busy with work, family, soap operas and the latest gaming console. That’s pretty much universal.

For a more pessimistic view of the past and how wide the gulf between Palestinians and Israelis is, you could start here.

Much of this essay is an attempt to provide context for the conflict. But there is so much context here, for both sides, that some people have forgotten the difference between right and wrong. I’ll try not to.

Human Shields

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.

“The Palestinians are trying to kill everyone.” That’s a really strong statement. Does Sam mean to say the 400 children who’ve died thus far as a direct result of the IDF bombs were “trying to kill everyone”? What about the people in the West Bank, the Palestinians who work with Israelis every day?The claim that Hamas is using the Palestinian population as a human shield is everywhere, promoted quite actively by the Israeli government’s spokespeople. It’s part of the talking points developed by them. It is also dreadfully easy to dismantle, so easy that it almost makes one wonder why our journalists are being paid if they cannot challenge such statements.

Israeli troops are operating and living in civilian communities within Gaza and Israel has many military bases near populated areas. Israeli troops have used civilian structures (houses, stores, garden walls) as cover in every war they’ve fought in an urban environment. Even worse, Israeli soldiers have in past conflicts forced Palestinians to stay in a home while they take up sniper positions (which is the true definition of a human shield). Israeli soldiers using Palestinians as human shields (or doing anything else to Palestinians for that matter) are rarely prosecuted. Except for one instance which resulted in demotions and suspended sentences. That was for officers who had forced a 9 year old Palestinian boy to open bags they suspected contained explosives. Strange how the Israeli government cannot see fit to punish its own soldiers for the war crime it rails about on the news. So it seems rather disingenuous when Israeli spokespersons are upset over Hamas firing from “near” schools and homes.

Senior IDF staff have said the IDF follows a strategy called the “Dahiya doctrine” when engaged in urban warfare. It involves destroying civilian infrastructure to cause suffering and lower support for the resistance. One cannot look at the bombings of power plants and other infrastructure in Gaza without wondering whether this is in fact what the IDF is doing. We can at least assume that the doctrine reduces the level of care IDF forces use when bombing a dense urban area. And we should not forget that this is being done to a population that the Israeli government has certain obligations towards, since they are an occupying powers. Gaza is still under occupation since Israel controls access and egress, even though there are normally no military forces within Gaza. It is in effective control of Gaza, even the Rafah crossing with Egypt is governed under an Israeli-Egyptian treaty.

The harsh truth is that Palestinian “human shields” don’t stop today’s IDF. So Sam’s argument doesn’t hold any water at all. For a “human shield” to work, the opposing force would have to demonstrate restraint. The Israeli forces do not appear to have done so consistently. For instance, in this conflict and the previous two, Israeli forces have targeted the homes of Hamas operatives, on multiple occasions killing entire families, or entire extended families having dinner. There are no apologies forthcoming for this, they think people in their homes are legitimate targets.

This line of reasoning is extremely problematic. There’s a reason off-duty combatants are protected under the Geneva convention (to which Israel is a signatory and which cover armed occupations and resistance to them). There’s a reason their families are considered civilians. If they were not, every Israeli soldier’s home would be a legitimate target. The homes and settlements Israeli soldiers are billeted in would be legitimate targets.

Quite apart from their very questionable legality and purpose, most right-thinking Israelis should worry about the amount of cheer-leading in Israel for the strikes. No doubt the fear aroused by a steady stream of rockets and the sirens and evacuations that follow drive some of this sentiment. Yet, it’s not just nationalism or patriotism, there’s a strong current of actual racial hatred in the comments, especially from some younger people. And once again, this is not surprising, the occupation of Palestinian lands has been a long exercise in de-humanizing the Palestinians. The walls in Gaza and the West Bank are the final outcome of this process, out of sight, out of mind.

There are no Israeli journalists allowed in Gaza and they haven’t been for years. There are few photos of Palestinian dead published in Israeli media, which is part of the reason why Netanyahu can get away with saying things like “Telegenically Dead Palestinians”. And then there are the ubiquitous references to Golda Meir saying “We won’t forgive them for forcing us to kill their sons” which is always conveniently misquoted as children instead of sons (even Golda Meir didn’t have quite the chutzpah to quip about killing children on the record, apparently not a qualm the current crop of Israeli politicians share). These talking points attempt to absolve Israel of responsibility for the hundreds of dead children and a thousand adult civilians. There’s a far easier path to avoid that responsibility, don’t drop the bombs, no one is forcing you to kill children.

There’s yet another good option if, as Israel’s spokesmen claim, they care a great deal about Palestinian civilians, especially women and children. Just let them out of Gaza into Israel under the Iron Dome so Hamas can’t make them “telegenically dead”. They’d probably be glad to go back and rebuild the villages their parents and grand-parents were driven away from. In some cases,the ruins of those villages are within sight of Gaza.

And if as Netanyahu claims, Hamas aims to provoke Israel into attacking Gaza and creating dead civilians to bolster its cause, why give them what they want. If dead civilians bolster Hamas’ claims and further its political ends why oblige by indiscriminately shelling neighborhoods that you know have schools harboring refugees?

In the fullness of time, I expect people will look at this conflict like we look at Vietnam, or the US’s treatment of Native Americans, a great military machine doing its utmost to enforce its own terms on a weaker people.

Hamas is not a fringe group. Neither are the settler movement and Shas

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.[Note: I was not saying that the horror of slain children is a moral illusion; nor was I minimizing the suffering of the Palestinians under the occupation. I was claiming that Israel is not primarily to blame for all this suffering.]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 €œO 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 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.]

Israel Palestine Settlement Map

The claim that “Hamas is not a fringe group” is generally a rather naked attempt to paint all Palestinians as extremists. I’m going to challenge that further below, but first let’s talk about extremism in Israel. Ariel Sharon was not a fringe figure either. He was Prime Minister of Israel for five years after having served in various cabinets positions for years. And this is after he was held personally responsible for the murder of thousands at Sabra and Shatilla, by an Israeli investigation committee. Should we conclude that since Israelis elected someone who bore personal responsibility for a mass murder as their PM, they support mass murders?Perhaps all we can say at this point is that it’s a bit self-serving to read every fervent Hamas statement as genocidal intent while conveniently glossing over the history of the Israeli leadership.

Let’s talk about Hamas’ charter as well, which you see referenced everywhere. I’m going to make some fine distinctions here, please don’t assume I approve of Hamas’ charter, the organization or their goals, I do not. I think Hamas is terrible for the Palestinian cause and many Hamas representatives are guilty of terrible crimes. However, in the interest of accuracy, I must note that Sam’s assertion is incorrect. The document he refers to is not “the charter of their government in Gaza”. It is a foundational document of the group. Hamas won the 2006 Palestinian election on a specific platform. If as Sam says, we should take their words very seriously, then we should take a serious look at their platform. It included renouncing suicide bombings, an offer of a long-term truce with the state of Israel within the 1967 borders, and Hamas explicitly dropped from their manifesto a call for the destruction of Israel. That’s the platform that led to their election victory.

It may well be that the Hamas leadership isn’t truly saying what they believe. Who knows what darkness dwells in the hearts of men. It may well be that Hamas did all those things for purely political purposes, i.e. to attract moderates. But if you admit this is the case, you cannot simultaneously use their victory to besmirch the intentions of the general Palestinian people. They voted for a party that said it would give up suicide bombings and achieve a truce with Israel. The worst you could accuse the Palestinian people is of harboring the sentiment that the Israeli occupation was run by heartless bastards and maybe they needed their own heartless bastards to represent them, i.e. they wanted a hard-right government as well.

And if you claim Hamas doesn’t bring their true positions to the negotiating table or the public sphere, the same charge can easily be levied against the Israeli government as a whole. Successive Israeli administrations have continued building illegal settlements in the occupied territories while continuing to pay lip-service to a “peace process” that has now gone on for decades. It’s true that Hamas did not suggest they would have a final peaceful solution right away, they said that once the truce was in place, time itself would heal the wounds. This is not an entirely unreasonable position to have.

Hamas is no longer a fringe group, that is true. But Israel has to take some responsibility for initially encouraging Islamist groups as a means of fomenting division within the Palestinian political movements and to limit the growth of the PLO.

If one wants to shine a light at Hamas, a similar light would have to be shined on Shas, which is also not a fringe group either. You would also have to look at the settler movement, many of whom venerate Baruch Goldstein who killed 29 Palestinians at prayer in Hebron. You would have to ask why the Israeli government keeps supporting these settlements, keeps tipping the scales in favor of the settlers in every land dispute. You’d have to ask why the Israeli government has not managed to prosecute a single person for the so-called “Price Tag” attacks. Hate crimes and intimidation tactics that have involved the desecration of numerous churches and mosques, settler violence against Palestinians and the destruction of Palestinian property and farms. This is not “defense” this is colonial aggression supported by the state.

Even further, you would have to ask why the Likud government has allied with Shas repeatedly and why former Labor governments have done the same. Especially when their founder and spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef has repeatedly said things like “It is forbidden to be merciful to them. You must send missiles to them and annihilate them. They are evil and damnable” about Palestinians and Arabs in general. I will admit that Ovadia Yosef later apologized for another incendiary statement: “Abu Mazen and all these evil people should perish from this world. God should strike them with a plague, them and these Palestinians.” But why should we believe his retraction if we don’t believe the current Hamas leadership when they say they have withdrawn their call for the destruction of Israel. Shas is not a fringe group, they have 10% of the seats in the Knesset and in the past they have held more.

If we want to get so upset about Hamas’s charter and the hadith of the Gharqad tree, we should be similarly apoplectic when Shas’ founder says “The Lord shall return the Arabs’ deeds on their own heads, waste their seed and exterminate them, devastate them and vanish them from this world”. Perhaps the successive Israeli governments that have allied with Shas do not believe any of this, maybe it’s just that politics makes strange bedfellows. But why not give the Palestinian factions the same benefit of doubt when they create a unity government with Hamas?

As an aside, I do believe Shas has a legitimate grievance. Many of their members are sephardic Jews who left their homes in various middle-eastern countries in duress, often under similar conditions to the flight of the Palestinians from their homes in Israel. Shas has demanded that they be compensated for the loss of property. If you believe the Palestinians should be compensated for the loss of their property in ’48 and later, then the same must be done for the sephardic population.

In the recent past, it has become rather fashionable to point to a particular Islamic text and ascribe genocidal or “terrorist” intentions to it, and then use this to paint an entire people as genocidal terrorists. What then should we make of the following (Sam Harris knows and acknowledges this, I put these quotes in anticipation of other objections):

Only in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you shall not leave alive anything that breathes. But you shall utterly destroy them,When the Lord your God brings you into the land where you are entering to possess it, and clears away many nations before you, the Hittites and the Girgashites and the Amorites and the Canaanites and the Perizzites and the Hivites and the Jebusites, seven nations greater and stronger than you, and when the Lord your God delivers them before you and you defeat them, then you shall utterly destroy them. You shall make no covenant with them and show no favor to them

They [Israel] utterly destroyed everything in the city [Jericho], both man and woman, young and old, and ox and sheep and donkey, with the edge of the sword

Now go and strike Amalek and utterly destroy all that he has, and do not spare him; but put to death both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.

Sounds pretty genocidal doesn’t it? They’re all quotes from the Old Testament. Should we conclude that these words do not have an impact on orthodox Jews who believe the Torah is a literal commandment and set of laws? If we accept Sam’s argument that most religious authorities in the Jewish world do not read these literally, we must also admit that apart from various fundamentalist Sunni schools, most Islamic scholars will likewise diminish the import of the various similarly bloody Islamic texts.In general, the vast majority of people in our world do not wake up each morning dreaming of genocide against any particular group. They are far too busy with their own lives. And most who have been aggrieved will find room in their hearts to forgive.

If we’re taking words literally though, what should we make of the words of Moshe Faeglin, who is deputy speaker of the Knesset and part of the Likud leadership. In an Op-Ed in Arutz Sheva on July 15, 2014, he writes:

Attack Attack the entire €˜target bank€™ throughout Gaza with the IDF€™s maximum force (and not a tiny fraction of it) with all the conventional means at its disposal. All the military and infrastructural targets will be attacked with no consideration for €˜human shields€™ or €˜environmental damage€™. It is enough that we are hitting exact targets and that we gave them advance warning.Defense Any place from which Israel or Israel€™s forces were attacked will be immediately attacked with full force and no consideration for €˜human shields€™ or €˜environmental damage€™.Conquer €“After the IDF completes the “softening” of the targets with its fire-power, the IDF will conquer the entire Gaza, using all the means necessary to minimize any harm to our soldiers, with no other considerations.

A senior member of the Israeli government feels this is the “Solution” for Gaza. It matches the actual actions of the Israeli army quite well. Should we not suspect these ideas have seeped down the ladder and been adopted by troops on the ground in some form? If they haven’t, why does the Israeli government not investigate civilian deaths and allegations of disproportionate force.This all in keeping with a rightward shift in Israeli politics that has been underway for decades, as immigration has increased from the former USSR and the Middle-East. You can reach your own conclusions about why. But perhaps the “sleeping beauty thesis” has something to do with it. What’s the first thing that happens when the castle awakens? The cook boxed the kitchen boy’s ears. What’s the first thing that happened when the USSR broke up and various ethnic groups were free to re-kindle tribal rivalries?

Fear of what the Palestinians might do

There is every reason to believe that the Palestinians would kill all the Jews in Israel if they could. Would every Palestinian support genocide? Of course not. But vast numbers of them€”and of Muslims throughout the world€”would. Needless to say, the Palestinians in general, not just Hamas, have a history of targeting innocent noncombatants in the most shocking ways possible. They€™’ve blown themselves up on buses and in restaurants. They’€™ve massacred teenagers. They€™’ve murdered Olympic athletes. They now shoot rockets indiscriminately into civilian areas.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.

There is no excuse for the suicide bombings that Hamas and other terrorist organizations with Palestinian roots have conducted. There was 1 suicide bombing in the 80s, 22 in the 90s, and 147 in the 00s. There have been none since 2008 as Hamas disavowed suicide bombings in 2006 (other groups continued for a while). Some of these bombings were against IDF targets. A total of about 800 people were killed (that’s equivalent to last week’s toll in Gaza), with 2003 and 2004 being the worst years. But Sam’s assertion that “the Palestinians in general” have a history of targeting innocents has to be challenged vigorously. If the Palestinians in general acted on the murderous impulses Sam believes they mostly harbor, we would expect to see suicide bombings in their thousands and tens of thousands. That is simply not the case.Now, what Sam might be saying is that a majority of Palestinians supported suicide bombings. The support has dropped from 62% to 46% in the past year and continues to trend downwards. If we’re considering approval ratings, what does one make of the almost 90% approval among Israelis for bombings that have killed over 400 children thus far, and possibly thrice that number of adult civilians? That’s far more than were killed in suicide bombings over 20 years. And this death toll has been racked up in a couple of weeks. Perhaps they just don’t find death by drone and smart-bombs as shocking as a suicide bombing.

The real question as I see it, is not “What would the Jews do to the Palestinians if they could do anything they wanted?” but rather “What would Israeli forces do to the Palestinians if roles were reversed?” i.e. if they were looking to conquer or regain land and statehood that were lost.

We can go back to a time when roles were reversed, in 1948, when the Israelis were fighting for territory. Israeli militia massacred over 100 villagers in Deir Yassin, including women and children. The Haganah did apologize for these actions, so maybe we want to ignore the Irgun and the Stern gang as “fringe/rogue elements” (Arab armies were guilty of killing civilians in the war). But what then do you make of the Khan Yunis and Rafah massacres of 1957, where almost 400 civilians were killed by IDF forces? This happened in a war of aggression by Israel to take over the Sinai and the Suez canal, aided and abetted by France and the UK? Were those isolated incidents as well? I bring this up because these massacres figure prominently in the psyche of Palestinians (and Rafah, Khan Yunis specifically for Gazans). It is why Palestinians are skeptical of Israeli notices to leave their homes and flee. Their parents did just that, and their homes were razed to the ground and laws passed by Israel’s democratic institutions to ensure they could never return (the Nakba).

Green Line Beirut, 1982

What should we make of the 1982 war in Lebanon, which the Israeli government initiated to put in place a Lebanese Christian president it felt would be sympathetic to its cause. Menachem Begin, the Israeli PM, said at the time the war would deliver 40 years of Peace. This sounds tragically ironic now for a variety of reasons. In general, we should be suspicious of politicians who claim war will deliver peace. But we should be particularly suspicious of Menachem Begin. Begin led the Irgun, during 1948 when they were responsible for a number of atrocities against Palestinian civilians (including Deir Yassin). Begin ordered the bombing of the King David Hotel in 1946, which killed over 90 people, many of them British officials. Begin’s crew was also responsible for the kidnapping and murder of British soldiers. On his visit to the US in 1948, Albert Einstein, Hannah Arendt and others called the party he led fascist, and the actions of the Irgun (which he had also led) as terrorism. Despite all this, the Israeli people chose him to be Prime Minister in 1977.In 1982 Begin decided he would flush out a break-away faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) from Lebanon by invading the country and putting a sympathetic Christian leader in place. To achieve that end (a political end), the IDF shelled and bombed Beirut heavily, for ten weeks. Beirut was largely destroyed, as were Tyre and Sidon. Possibly 10,000 people died in this war. It’s estimated 2,500 were under the age of 15.

Should we conclude the Israeli population supports terrorists (supposedly reformed ones) for high political office? That they condone such wars?

The story gets better. This was also the war in which Ariel Sharon’s forces (he was defense minister at the time) closed exits to a Palestinian refugee camp and let in Christian militia allied with Israel. They ended up murdering 3,000 civilians (mostly Shia Palestinians) in Sabra and Shatila. So there’s that.

And now for some irony. Hezbollah (the Shia militia that is Israel’s arch-nemesis and primary bogey-man) was founded directly after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the massacre in Sabra and Shatila. The Shia population decided they couldn’t trust anyone else to protect them (same conclusion the Israelis reached after WW-II). If you’re trying to understand Hezbollah’s animosity towards Israel, perhaps the 1982 Lebanese war has something to do with it.

Further irony. Al-Qaeda leaders said the images of women and children killed in the bombing of Beirut is what initially drove them to attack civilian targets in the West (including the September 11 bombings).

So there we have Menachem Begin’s “40 years of peace”.

When Sam says:

Needless to say, in defending its territory as a Jewish state, the Israeli government and Israelis themselves have had to do terrible things.

It would be more accurate to modify that sentence to read “in acquiring and defending its territory”. Which is an important distinction since we should acknowledge that every “terrible thing” the Israeli government has done is not purely for “defense”. And it’s important to discuss those “terrible things” to gain an understanding of the impact they’ve had on the Palestinians and their psyche.To round out how Begin’s legacy lives on, it was his government that began building Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. The party he founded in 1973 was called Likud, it holds power in Israel today and Netanyahu is their leader. In case you’re thinking Begin was an exception, and perhaps Sharon as well, what then do we make of Yitzhak Shamir, who led the Lehi (also known as the Stern Gang) and was similarly complicit in atrocities on Palestinian civilians. He served as Prime Minister twice. So three out of twelve Israeli PMs have been directly responsible for some form of atrocity against Palestinians. That’s not “exceptional”. And we haven’t even discussed cabinet ministers yet. There is so much dirt to go around, on both sides, that none of the major players have clean hands.

Perhaps we shouldn’t begrudge the Palestinians too much their choice of heartless leaders who will use violent means to achieve their political ends. One could argue, Israel has had a head start on that.

We must not forget though, that there have also been men (and women) of good intent on both sides. People who have sought to achieve some semblance of a just peace. And that should give us hope.

Coming back to the present, smaller scale. What do we make of near universal support for the occupation of the West Bank, where there have been 1-2 civilians killed by the IDF each month? Most of them either demonstrators or people who wandered too close to a fence or an Israeli outpost. Should we conclude that the Israeli government with the full support of the people condones the routine killing of civilians?

What should we conclude when we see people cheering bombs dropping on Gaza, or chanting “Death to Arabs” and worse on a public street in Israel? Are these all instances of “Israeli soldiers going berserk under pressure”? If they and the persistent settler violence are indeed acts at the fringes of Israeli society, why are virtually no IDF soldiers prosecuted or indicted and why do individual settlers and settler organizations enjoy the same impunity? If we find suicide bombings shocking, why do we not find the routine killings of civilians with impunity in the occupied territories equally shocking, especially when they occur in greater numbers and kill more people? Are these the actions of a state utilizing just means?

Sam is quite wrong when he says “there is an obvious, undeniable, and hugely consequential moral difference between Israel and her enemies”. Both parties have used terrorism in the past to achieve territorial gains or political advantage. They continue to use violence to further their ends. That is the moral equivalence. Israel just does it with far more sophistication, higher kill counts, and a bigger bureaucracy to back it all and provide some cover. That bureaucracy and the claim that Israeli forces do not target civilians should not distract us from the larger truth that both parties continue to pursue political ends through war or violence. Especially when dozens of Palestinian civilians are killed each year in the West Bank with impunity, and many more in Gaza out of carelessness or as afterthoughts.

None of this should be taken to mean I condone violence or terrorism. And since I don’t condone killing but it’s clear Israel’s institutions and leaders have a history of killing Palestinians, I ask why we should believe Sam at all when he says “Jews” do not want to kill “Palestinians”? When there are over 5,000 civilians dead over the course of a decade what should we conclude? Are they all “exceptional cases”? Should we consider stated intentions alone and ignore actions and consequences entirely?

Perhaps Sam’s argument about the relative morality of Israel vs. Palestinians comes down to deciding between what “Hamas/Palestinians/Arabs” say they will do in theory (the genocidal intentions) against what Israeli forces end up doing in fact. The truth is, no one knows what an independent Palestinian people with their own state will do, we can only guess. The leader of Hamas recently said it wasn’t for him to recognize Israel or not, the Palestinian people will make that choice once they have a state and a government. Who knows whether Hamas will play any political role in it at all? I hope fervently it does not.

If we want to accept what people say at face value, we should note that Netanyahu said last week he will never accept a two-state solution. This isn’t even news, though I suspect most Americans think it is. We naively believe that peace in the Middle-East is just around the corner, if only we could get the Israelis and the Palestinians to sit and talk over another plate of hummus we’d have a deal. The plain fact is that Likud’s party platform for 1999 said they would not support a two-state solution with sovereignty for the Palestinians. They have not veered from that position. Maybe not in so many words, but is this not a call for the “destruction of Palestine”?

In effect, the freely elected Israeli government is advocating effective apartheid (limited rights for Palestinians) and Bantustans (racial enclaves or ghettos), in perpetuity. They’re advocating an eternal military occupation where Palestinians are surrounded on all sides by Israeli checkpoints, where children are arbitrarily “arrested” by military forces and harshly interrogated, where IDF soldiers shoot civilians with impunity at the rate of one or two a month and there is no freedom of movement for either goods or people. Netanyahu sees no reason to change the “facts on the ground”. How would Israelis react if roles were reversed?

Now, is it possible that some Israeli soldiers go berserk under pressure and wind up shooting into crowds of rock-throwing children? Of course. You will always find some soldiers acting this way in the middle of a war. But we know that this isn€™t the general intent of Israel. We know the Israelis do not want to kill non-combatants, because they could kill as many as they want, and they€™re not doing it.

But if we’re going to play hypotheticals, we should indeed ask how things would be if roles were reversed. If the Palestinian state were in the position of Israel and the Israeli people were living under the occupation, what means would they employ? We actually do know how that might play out because we have the very early history of Israel to go by. The Irgun, the Stern gang and Lehi all participated in massacres and bombings that claimed hundreds of civilian lives. These forces were absorbed into the IDF. Forces under the command of the Haganah forcibly removed Arabs from villages and destroyed their homes. So the history of extremist factions within Israel and the IDF is not particularly pleasant either. If Israel were occupied, it is not unreasonable to think that armed resistance and possibly terrorism would again be utilized by extremist factions.What matters is not whether we believe the Israelis are “better” than the Palestinians. The right question to ask is whether or not a particular action is right.

Is bombing of civilians wrong? Is it more wrong if it is solely targeted at civilians? What if there is a military target mixed in with civilians? What is the soldiers are off-duty at a bus-stop? Is it wrong to repeatedly fire if you have no control over direction and know there are civilian targets within range?

Is it right to drop a bomb on the home of a combatant? What if they are not fighting at the time, i.e off-duty? What if they are at home with 25 other people, half of whom are children? What if it is one off-duty target who is with his two sons?

All of these examples are of incidents that have happened. The first group are all examples of suicide bombings and rockets that various Palestinian factions have launched (Hamas, Al-Aqsa Martyrs, Palestinian Islamic Jihad). The second is an example of targeted strikes Israeli forces have launched. Neither party has claimed these were errors. They were intentional.

Let’s be clear, under International law, they are all wrong. Even if you broadcast warnings. Especially when children are victims.

I’ve kept the descriptions generic since I want you think about the question in the abstract, not whether the target was a Hamas fighter or an IDF soldier. Because the moral question isn’t really about them. It’s about the people around them who died or were maimed.

Kant’s categorical imperative is that you cannot use a rational being as a means to an end. Killing someone’s child, or their relatives as part of the action to eliminate them is immoral and should be criticized.

And finally, to come back to Sam’s justification for Israeli action. A threat is not justification for violence. “Pre-emptive war” was wrong when advocated by Dick Cheney, and it remains wrong when advocated by Benjamin Netanyahu.

We should also examine the number killed. Sam assures us that Israel uses restraint and avoids civilian casualties, that it is not needlessly killing Palestinian civilians. Do the numbers bear this out?

Over 5,000 Palestinians have died in the past 10 years as a direct consequence of the conflict, most of them civilians, including hundreds of children. Just over 220 Israelis have perished, most of them soldiers. So the Israeli state has, over the course of the past 10 years, killed more Palestinian children than it has lost soldiers. Looking at it another way, 1 out of every 1,000 Palestinians living in the occupied territories has been killed. That would be the equivalent of 300,000 deaths in the US.

I think most people given that data would conclude that the Israeli government would rather kill Palestinian children to achieve its objectives than sacrifice its soldiers.

A Jewish State

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.

I quote that only because I agree with Sam Harris completely on this one. I do not even know what a “Jewish state” means, or an “Islamic State” or a “Buddhist state” for that matter. Perhaps it comes about once Netanyahu’s achieved his objective to amend the Israeli constitution and create “the nation state of one people only – the jews – and of no other people”.

It is worth observing, however, that Israel isn’€™t €œJewish€ in the sense that Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are €œMuslim.€ As my friend Jerry Coyne points out, 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.

How then does one explain the continuing attempts, over decades to build settlements in the West Bank, to create an Israel from the sea to the river? How do you square this claim with laws that discriminate against Arabs? How do you square it with evicting Palestinian families who were granted former Jewish homes after 1948, paired with a steadfast refusal to recognize any reciprocal Palestinian property rights? If Israel is not a theocracy, or is “less religious” than other countries, how do you square this with calls from members of the Likud leadership for only Jews tp be recognized as citizens of Israel? If we are, as Sam repeatedly posits, to take every statement made by Hamas seriously, surely we should take every statement made by members of the Israeli government with the utmost seriousness as well.And if we accept Israel’s claims that these lands are theirs, then Belgium can claim the Congo, and African colonization was just (we’re all from Africa). I don’t think people want to go there. If instead, the question is where to draw the line, why is 3000 years ago so important. Why not 75 years? Solely because that would place 95% of Israel in Palestinian hands?

Likud’s most recent pre-requisite for talks is that all parties recognize Israel as a “Jewish state”. What exactly is that supposed to mean? Does it means non-Jews aren’t welcome in Israel? Or does it mean they are, but only up to a certain number. What happens if most of the Jews in Israel decide to convert to Buddhism? Is the state then going to force them to convert back? What if the current Muslim and Christian population has a higher growth rate and Jews are about to become a minority? Will the state force-sterilize them? Will it force them to leave Israel? Or will it give them three-fifths of a vote? Does a Jewish state mean it will be run along the lines of the Vatican? At what point is it a theocracy?

Or maybe what you worship isn’t that important, as long as your family was Jewish and you’re not Arab. But if that’s so, how is this any different than demands for a whites-only South Africa, or a white Mississippi. Different place, same idea.

If someone were to suggest that the US be recognized as a “Christian state” or that its “Christian character” be preserved and protected (as many do), most people would have a conniption. Why then should US policy be to help the current Israeli government make this a precondition. Why should peace talks be held up once again by the occupying power’s arbitrary demand to be “recognized” as something or the other?

This concept of a “Jewish state” is completely alien to US ideals and values. A state that respects everyone’s rights is what we should be pushing for.

Better than Assad and ISIS

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.

This is a serious point. Not unlike the European wars between Protestants and Catholics, various factions within Islam have been warring for decades over territory, power and mind-share using sectarian sentiment as a wedge. In most cases, these distinctions are used by “leaders” to whip up sentiment and propel themselves to power and wealth. The people suffer under the yoke of their ambitions. This is a terrible thing and I wish for all these people the benefits of self-determination and peaceful democracy with full protections of minority rights.The “better than Assad or ISIS” argument though needs to have the hypothetical question set up correctly. Israel is not facing an existential threat with Hamas today. To make a comparison with the Syrian conflict and the Alawite administration’s response, you would have to ask what level of Palestinian casualties would the Israeli government be willing to cause if it were facing an existential threat. We know the current government thinks of a thousand deaths as “mowing the grass”. If Palestinian militias were rampaging through Tel Aviv, killing hundreds or thousands, or taking over large swaths of the occupied territories and Israel itself, I’d expect scorched earth policies in response. History, once again, can serve as a guide. The 1982 Lebanon war with the destruction of Beirut is pretty comparable, in terms of lives taken, to the bombing of Hama in 1981 by Hafez al-Assad.

Deir Yassin

Israel’s government today is fighting wars to consolidate territory and control an occupied population. Back in the 1940s, 50s and 60s when they were trying to conquer territory, Israeli forces were pretty adept at massacres, in Deir Yassin, Khan Yunis, Rafah, etc. Their actions then are the ones to compare with what ISIS is doing now. The IDF too, destroyed property and infrastructure, issued threats, effected random killings. True, this has all happened before in many different places, not least in the US against Native Americans. But that does not excuse this instance, nor does it oblige us to accept the Israeli government assertion that it is simply “defending its territory”.Am I saying the Israeli government is €œas bad as€ Assad or ISIS. No, I€™’m not. Yet, when placed in similar positions, Israeli forces were not above using similar tactics. To their credit, the Israeli establishment subsequently expelled the most extreme elements (Lehi/Irgun), though all those people came back into public life later and founded Likud, which has had a very receptive welcome in modern Israel. We should evaluate very carefully the Israeli claim that everything they do is from a defensive stance since there are at least two wars of aggression in Israel€™s history, the Suez crisis and the 1982 Lebanon war. Most would also argue the Six-Day war was pre-emptive since Israel moved against the Egyptian air-force without being attacked and did the same in Syria/Jordan. The Israeli government€™s behavior towards the Palestinian people is also to be questioned vigorously, the historical record is quite clear that successive Israeli governments have done their utmost to stall the development of a Palestinian state, often through violent means and by encouraging warring factions in an attempt to divide and conquer.

Colonialism

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 out-sized focus on Israel does seem unfair when as Sam says there are many, many other conflicts that are taking a far worse civilian toll (for instance, who remembers Sri Lankan Civil War of 2007)? There are two things that set the Israel-Palestine conflict apart though. The first is that it has been going on for over 70 years, through cold and hot wars. The average person has heard about it multiple times in their life and can’t be faulted for being a bit curious about it.The second is that Israel’s actions (settlements, military rule, arbitrary arrests, etc.) in the occupied territories (West Bank and Gaza) is seen by most of the world as a colonial enterprise. Much of the world has experience with European colonialism, most of it painful and that generates understandable empathy for the Palestinian cause. Rightly or wrongly, many look at Israel as yet another European colonial enterprise. Of course, within the Islamic world, there are associations made with the crusades as well.

Perhaps Israel’s only fault is that it embarked on a colonial effort about 150 years too late, and precisely when most colonies were regaining independence from their European colonial powers.

If the Occupied Territories are not a colony, why then do we see the basic rights of Palestinians living there routinely trampled. Why are Palestinians arrested routinely without any opportunity to provide a legal defense? Why can they be detained for arbitrary periods? Why have7,000 children been arrested by Israeli forces in the occupied territories over the past 15 years? Why have many of these children been harshly interrogated in complete violation of international norms? Why have Palestinian families been evicted from homes in Jerusalem that were owned by Jews prior to 1948 but not a single Palestinian-owned property in Israel has been returned? Why do Israeli forces protect settlers who are trespassing, encroaching or building on Palestinian land in the occupied territories? Why are Palestinians not free to move about in the West Bank, or in and out of Gaza? Why does the Israeli government, under a security pretext, make it so much harder to get goods in and out of the West Bank or Gaza for Palestinian businesses?These are all methods used by colonial powers. We can only conclude that the Israeli government is a colonial power and via its settlements it intends to establish effective control over additional territory. Peoples with colonial experience, except apparently Americans (who have worn both hats) recognize this for what it is. The “security” or “defense” motive, is directly related to a colonial power furthering its territorial and political ambitions under the guise of maintaining order.

On the one hand we have absolute hysteria over the fact that some flights to Israel were halted. Meanwhile, the Palestinians have lived for decades under Israeli checkpoints at every entry and exit under the occupation. And we’re expected to be upset that Israeli vacation plans were disrupted?

In the end, the key moral question we need to consider is whether an occupation and denial of rights that have impacted two generations is just. With every passing year, the charge of apartheid rings more and more true. The Israelis have had decades to reach a just peace with the Palestinians and they haven’t. Every settlement, every checkpoint, every act of rudeness or ill will by an IDF soldier makes the prospect even more remote.

Of Means and Ends and the Mediterranean

We know what Hamas is fighting for, they say it’s the liberation of the land of Palestine. They want to liberate their homeland from the Israelis, by any means necessary. Their popularity is built on a reputation for not compromising. It should be clear that I in no way sympathize with Hamas, their ends are insanity and the means they have employed in the recent past despicable. But neither do I sympathize with the IDF. The means they have employed are despicable as is Israel’s continuing subjugation and oppression of millions.

What is the end of the Israeli action? It’s clear the current Israeli administration does not want Palestinian independence (the two state solution) unless the Palestinian territories continue to be tightly controlled by Israel. Successive Israeli governments have worked to build settlements in the West Bank. Is their goal to “liberate” as much of Palestine from the Palestinians as they can while keeping fatalities to a thousand or so every other year?

The Israeli government claims everything it does is from a security pretext, but in truth that cannot be the case. Hamas’ rocket attacks cause virtually no loss of life in Israel, in numerical terms their impact on civilians is the equivalent of a bad traffic accident. They’ve been described as a nuisance, and reports that the Iron Dome missiles create more wreckage and consternation than the ones they’re taking down. I agree that the government of Israel has a responsibility to stop them, but is precision bombing families in their homes the only way? Hamas’s tunnels are also a concern, but can they not be destroyed without making half the population of Gaza homeless and destroying thousands of homes and apartment buildings?

The Palestinian and Israeli people also have to ask themselves another question about their sacred texts. The Bible/Torah and the Koran/Hadith are both religious and political texts. If you don’t see that upon reading them, you are intentionally blind. Allowing these texts to influence your political institutions has a cost. You end up with the politics of the 7th century or the earlier. Eventually, you will end up with a society from the same era.

This brings me to a digression on Palestine. Most people will instantly connect Palestine with the rest of the Middle-East, think Arab, think Saudi Arabia, think women in abayas. Palestine though, is partly a Mediterranean nation. As such, it has been exposed to travelers and people from every part of Southern Europe and Northern Africa. For centuries. Lest we forget, for a long time it was a Roman colony.

Why should this matter? It matters because like the other Mediterranean states in the Middle-East (Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt), Palestine is a plural, multi-cultural society. Even prior to the arrival of European Jewish immigrants in the 1800s, it had a Christian population and a Jewish population (around 10%). This matters because it has influenced Palestinian culture, which was largely secular. It is misleading to suggest that Palestinian society cannot live with a secular government or leadership. In fact, the PLO is explicitly secular and it was Israeli policy to support Islamist elements as a counter-weight to the PLO that have led to the rise of Hamas and their ilk (though the steady radicalization of the surrounding region hasn’t hurt).

Constructive Criticism

The roots of this particular conflict run deep. They are at least 150 years old, when many Eastern-European Jews, fleeing pogroms in Europe, came to Palestine as part of the original Zionist movement. That migration began before the Nazis killed 6 million Jews (and probably 10 million other civilians) in a genocide unmatched in scale and brutality by anything in recorded history. After and during the holocaust, it picked up steam.The world empathized with the victims of the holocaust, which is why the UN carved Israel out of Palestine, by giving away land that was not truly theirs to give. I do not agree at all with people who say Israel should not exist and the Israelis should return to Europe. Many Israelis have lived their lives in this land and they know no other. We have to recognize that. The Israelis have a claim to this land, that much is true. But ameliorating the suffering Jewish peoples have endured cannot come on the backs of the Palestinian people. That too is true.

There is so much pain and blame to pass around that you can spend your whole life tallying it up. And many have. Spending years and lives in recrimination and vengeance. It isn’t worth it. The only thing that matters is what happens next.

As I see it, the Palestinian and Israeli people can choose between having two states, one state, three states or no state. Two states is what a peace “process” that has gone nowhere for 70 years (since the mid 1940s) claims is the best option. Three states would be unacceptable to Palestinians (Gaza and the West Bank permanently separated), but may be what some Israeli factions think is achievable. No state is what happens if one of the other nations on the periphery absorbs Israel-Palestine. One state is effectively what you have today, with two regions that have some autonomy but no sovereignty or control over their borders.

Increasingly to me, it looks like the logic and “facts on the ground” are driving matters towards the one state option. And here’s a rough road-map for a one state option that is just.

Without a referendum approved by the majority of Palestinians and Israelis this plan will not work. Any peace proposal requires the people to be on-board explicitly

Immediate steps:

  • All newly born children to have Israel-Palestine citizenship.
  • Integrate primary schools.
  • Free and fair elections for local municipalities to include all residents.
  • Absorb all Palestinian militia into the IDF.
  • Integrate civil police forces.
  • Establish a truth and reconciliation commission to investigate all violence.
  • A separate legislature for Palestine
  • Internal travel, study and work restrictions eased for those under 21 and over 65.
  • Control Immigration both Jewish and Palestinian, perhaps with long residency requirements.

In 5 years:

  • All children under 18 years of age and all citizens over 65 gain Israel-Palestine citizenship.
  • Integrate middle and high schools.
  • Truth and reconciliation committee completes initial investigations.
  • Palestinian and Israeli lawmakers meet to revise basic laws.
  • All internal travel, work restrictions lifted on Palestinians and Israelis. Anyone can go anywhere.

In 15 years:

  • All residents transition to a Israel-Palestine citizenship.

In 18 years:

  • First elections to a unified legislature.

What the Israeli and Palestinian people really need to ask themselves, is whether they want to end up like Zimbabwe, or South Africa. In Zimbabwe you have a freedom movement that continued to stick with the methods of armed struggle well after this became unnecessary. In South Africa, you have one that laid down its arms and negotiated a peace. South Africa is by no means a perfect society, but Israel-Palestine might have a much simpler re-unification since so many Israelis have roots in the Middle East and the Israeli occupation has been less brutal and dehumanizing than South Africa’s was (though not in the violence meted out by the IDF).

The biggest benefit a one-state solution offers is that it gives something to both the right and the left in each camp. Both extreme rights can claim they’ve gained their objective of a complete Israel and a complete Palestine. Jewish settlers can (eventually) settle wherever they want. Palestinian refugees can (eventually) return to their ancestral homes. The left and moderates too gain something, they have an opportunity to prove what they’ve been claiming all along, that the two societies can live together in peace.

A two-state solution is not in keeping with US values. The Palestinian resistance must lay down arms just as the ANC did in South Africa and Israel must grant Palestinians equal rights in one state. There’s a model for something similar in the region, Lebanon. It’s not perfect, but then neither is a two-state solution. With two states, attitudes will inevitably harden on the right in both states and the “Jewish state” and the “Palestinian state” will be back at war in 20 or 30 years. And they are both more likely to be state-lets rather than true states with defensible borders and complete sovereignty.

Footnote: Why I care

I look at the treatment of Palestinians by the Israeli government as part of a long line of unjust oppression which includes the Jim Crow laws. American Jews endured discrimination for years in America, which is why so many participated in the Civil Rights movement and a number gave their lives.If you accept my view that the treatment of Palestinians is an injustice, but think Israel should be given time to catch up, why not Saudi Arabia, they’re only a few decades further behind.

I am now an American, and the US is intimately involved, generally on the side of Israel. This has not always been the case, Eisenhower (who had to deal with the Suez Crisis) and George H.W. Bush (who was an oilman with close ties to the Saudis) had a far more circumspect view of Israeli motives and actions.

I’ve felt the sense of insecurity that comes from seeing your own city in flames. I understand the fear that comes from knowing your “people” are the target of someone else’s hate. It is true that in this century perhaps no one except possibly the Tutsis/Cambodians have had as dreadful an experience as the Jewish population of Europe and other victims of the Nazis. If not in degree, I can understand in principle the urge to respond overwhelmingly to every provocation. Yet, I despise, despise so-called leaders who will use violence to achieve political ends without exhausting all other means of redress. And yes, this includes war-mongering American politicians as well. If you believe in Hell, please pray that a special place is reserved for those who let war decimate the lives of so many people unknown to them.

In general, I feel the true moral question at the heart of every multi-cultural democracy is not what we would do for someone who is known to us or shares our ethnicity or religion. The true test of our morality is how we treat and what we will do for those we do not know.

I have never lived anywhere where I am not part of a minority. I’m part of a diaspora today. Living in one of the most diverse neighborhoods in one of the most diverse cities in the world. I made my own peace with being a minority a long time ago. I decided I would treat all people with the same degree of respect. In the final reckoning, we are all a minority of one.

I said it was long form didn’t I.

Silly Palestinians, if only they’d accepted the state offered in 1947.

Ron Prosor (Israel’s man at the UN) wrote an Op-Ed in the Times on March 31 titled The U.N.’s War on Israel. I found it extremely annoying, but after a few deep breaths I managed to channel my annoyance into something useful.

Prosor is right to note that at times it seems the UN has no other business but to pass resolutions condemning Israel. But why? Are there any reasons for this unseemly obsession? I can think of a handful:

  • Most UN member-states are former European colonies. In fact, the whole non-European world is except for five countries. So as a group, member-states of the UN don’t much like colonialism and naturally empathize with the Palestinians.
  • There are a lot of Arab/Muslim countries that have to support Palestine (or find it convenient to do so). They control resources that many other countries need, and so it goes.
  • The UN has some institutional animosity towards Israel, thanks to the assassination of a UN appointed mediator (Folke Bernadotte), ordered by a sometime terrorist who went on to become PM of Israel.
  • Israel has repeatedly ignored UN resolutions on its West Bank settlements, its administration in the Occupied Territories, and with respect to the various conflicts it has been involved in over the years. Many of today’s resolutions are useless re-iterations of prior resolutions that have been ignored by successive Israeli governments.
  • In many ways, the Israel/Palestine conflict is a problem created by the UN, early in its history.

The last point is what I want to discuss in this super long post. It will involve wading into a thicket of post WW-I maneuvering including the McMahon Hussein Letters, the Sykes-Picot agreemeent, the Balfour Declaration, the Peel Commission, and finally, the UN Partition Plan of 1947.

Towards the end, I’ve quoted, in full, the remarkable statement made by Henry Cattan, representing Palestinian interests, to the UN committee working on the partition plan. Cattan was a Palestinian lawyer who happened to have been Christian. He went on to write a number of books on Palestine, including The Palestine Question. His statement is below the fold and I’d highly recommend reading it when you get to the end. It’s at once both illuminating and tragic.

Since this is such a long post, I’ve marked key sections in bold for those who want to skim it. All emphasis throughout the post is mine.

Continue reading “Silly Palestinians, if only they’d accepted the state offered in 1947.”

Liberal Zionism’s impending demise: as narrated by the NYTimes magazine.

This weekend’s Times magazine will contain an article titled Can Liberal Zionists Count on Hillary Clinton?

It has everything you could want from engaging hand-wringing over Israel, including:

The steady right-ward shift in Israel.

Micah’s liberal Zionists remained wedded to a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians and estranged from the policies of a right-wing Israeli government, along with the reflexively Israel-can-do-no-wrong sentiment on Capitol Hill.

Vocal voices comparing Israeli policies towards Palestinians to South African apartheid and Jim Crow.

But they also felt alienated by Jewish groups to their left, some of which chanted, “Stop the murder, stop the hate, Israel is a racist state.”

An overview of the political calculations that push most “serious” Democratic candidates to reflexively support Bibi.

The political arithmetic for Clinton is easy — knowing you can take the larger liberal Jewish vote for granted, you support Israel’s right-wing government to keep moderates from bolting.

Messianic yearning for Bill Clinton.

Other liberal Zionists are hoping that Bill Clinton could be a more sympathetic voice within a Clinton White House. After Zemel’s Rosh Hashana sermon, in which he talked about the need for “Jewish genius” to solve the problem in Israel, Al From told me, “Bill Clinton has this little bit of genius.”

Perhaps surprisingly, it quotes Rebecca Vilkomerson, the executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace.

Vilkomerson (whose sister, an entertainment writer, is a friend of mine) said she felt no sympathy for the concerns of the liberal Zionist agonistes, whom she considered toothless and intellectually dishonest in their attempts to reconcile their liberal values with Israel’s right-wing government. She reserved special indignation for what she referred to as “PEPs,” or politicians who were “progressive except for Palestine.”

My thoughts below the fold…

I empathize with those who feel betrayed by the rightward shift in Israel.

At the same time, I wonder whether they were willfully blind to the treatment of Palestinians in the years and months leading up to the declaration of an Israeli state. Did they really believe all these towns, villages and cities were devoid of people? Or did they think it was justifiable to confiscate the property of those fleeing violence?

Benny Morris’s work is over 25 years old, so it should not come as news to anyone that the Haganah/Irgun/Lehi conducted mass-expulsions of Palestinians civilians from their homes in 1947 and early-1948, before the mandate expired, well in advance of any “Arab invasion”.

Reading Morris’ early work, you come away with a sense that he is indignant at the expulsions. He’s since changed his mind and said it was justified in the interests of establishing a homeland for Jews, to quote Morris:

A Jewish state would not have come into being without the uprooting of 700,000 Palestinians. Therefore it was necessary to uproot them. There was no choice but to expel that population. It was necessary to cleanse the hinterland and cleanse the border areas and cleanse the main roads. It was necessary to cleanse the villages from which our convoys and our settlements were fired on.

To me, this leads to the heart of the problem. If you go along with the claim that “bad things were done but in the interest of a good cause”, you have to examine both the “good cause” and the nature of the “bad things”. This is why Miko Peled keeps prodding audiences to tell him why it is inherently good to have a Jewish state (or a Muslim state, or a Christian state, or a Hindu state I might add).There are no voices in the mainstream who delve into that question honestly. And that’s the problem with this article as well, it’s largely about the crisis of conscience faced by Daniel Zemel, the head rabbi at Temple Micah in Washington:

“One is torn,” Zemel told me from Tel Aviv. “I can’t imagine not wanting to come to Israel every chance I get. But what would happen if an Israeli government were to decide, ‘O.K., we’re going to declare the entire West Bank to be part of Greater Israel and we’re not going to grant the Palestinians full citizenship.’ How could I then come to visit this country? But how could I not come? I just can’t imagine it.”

Noam Chomsky, Ilan Pappe and Miko Peled look at the same facts and come to a different conclusion, that the Zionist project as it is presented today was flawed from the start. Flawed because it sought to create and maintain a “democratic” and “Jewish” state by controlling who had citizenship rights within territory it controlled (the solution post ’67), or by expelling non-Jews (the solution in ’47/’48).The same sort of expulsions had occurred across Eastern Europe in the inter-war years and then after as the Austro-Hungarian empire fell apart taking its cosmopolitan nature down with it. The goal there too was to create states that were as ethnically homogeneous as possible. there was no room for certain diaspora, including Jews and Gypsies. Almost the same thing happened as the Ottoman empire dissolved. Maybe that is the fate of all multi-ethnic societies which leave populations in place. A reflection of our tribal nature.

Most people excuse Israeli actions, tacitly or overtly by referencing the holocaust. This just raises another moral question, whether victims, their families, tribes and co-religionists are justified in victimizing unrelated third parties. We do not excuse such behavior for individuals, even though we acknowledge that humans do act this way.

In the end, I don’t think peace is possible till Israel and its supporters acknowledge what happened during the Nakba and how complicit some of the lionized founding fathers of Israel were (including Ben-Gurion). And I think a just and lasting peace can only come with one state in Israel/Palestine that guarantees equal rights to all, with restitution for Palestinian refugees.

I whole-heartedly agree that it will require a political genius to achieve peace.

The Moral Equivalence between Hamas and Likud

Rockets and F-16s have stopped flying over Gaza and Israel, but the propaganda war continues. Netanyahu recently said “Hamas is ISIS, ISIS is Hamas”. Israeli spokesmen have routinely asserted that Israel holds the moral high-ground even when confronted with outcomes and policies that bring this into question. For instance, the bombing of homes and killing entire families to assassinate a single Hamas operative would be morally unjustifiable unless faced with an imminent threat. Yet Israeli forces have done this repeatedly. Criticism of the Israeli administration’s conduct in Operation Protective Edge has been muted, except in the most egregious instances. I suspect this is partly because too many fear being branded “Hamas supporters”. And few among us want to be seen as supporters of a party founded by terrorists. Netanyahu and his colleagues in the Likud coalition are ill-placed to claim the moral high ground since they themselves are inheritors of a party founded by terrorists.

The specter of Hamas’ 25 year old charter and the prior actions of its leaders has been raised repeatedly to question the organization’s current stance on negotiations and commitment to compromise. Hamas is a political organization, and like many others it can and has changed its positions over time. Netanyahu’s party, Likud has also modified its positions, but we can say with virtual certainty that if Likud were placed in the same position as Hamas, its behavior would be no different. We know this because when Likud’s founders were looking to gain Palestinian territory, they did indeed turn to terrorism. Likud, like Hamas, was founded by people who used terrorism to further their political goals.

Likud was created in 1973 by Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir among others. It came to power for the first time in 1977, in an election that marked a  dramatic shift from left to right in Israeli politics. So much so, that it is often called “the revolution”. Begin became Prime Minister and Shamir served as Speaker of the Knesset. This was a remarkable change of fortune for the two, who had been virtual pariahs in Israeli politics.

In the late 1940s, Begin led the Irgun, and Shamir was part of the leadership of the even more extreme splinter group Lehi. During the 1930s and 1940s, the two groups bombed hotels, markets and bus stops, killing hundreds of civilians. They had also targeted British soldiers and policemen. Most notoriously, in 1947, they kidnapped two British seargents. The parents of the two soldiers made personal appeals to Irgun leaders to release their children. Under Begin’s direct orders, both soldiers were hanged. The parallels with Hamas’ abduction of Israeli soldiers is striking.  Lehi, under Shamir, assassinated the UN appointed mediator, Folke Bernadotte in 1948 when it was clear he would recommend the unconditional return of all Palestinian refugees and a re-assessment of the UN partition plan. Bernadotte, by the way, had rescued hundreds, perhaps thousands of Jews from Nazi concentration camps. That’s part of the reason Israel had agreed to his appointment as mediator. The nascent Israeli government branded Lehi a terrorist group and briefly imprisoned all its members. They were pardoned within months.

Lehi and Irgun were also responsible for some of the worst violence during the expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians from what was to become Israel. This included multiple instances where civilian homes were bombed while residents were inside.

On May 22, shortly after Likud’s victory, William Farrell wrote in the New York Times:

“In 1946, the [Irgun] fighters blew up a wing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem where British Government officials maintained offices, killing 91 persons and injuring at least 100. To this day, Mr. Begin maintains that the casualties were the fault of the British authorities who ignored a telephone warning to abandon the premises. During the fight for Jerusalem in 1948, Mr. Begin’s band was involved in a battle in the suburban Arab village of Deir Yassin. Two hundred Arabs were killed. Again, he said, a warning to evacuate all non-combatants had been ignored.”

To a modern reader, it is striking that Mr. Begin’s logic on the King David Hotel bombing is indistinguishable from Mr. Netanyahu’s assertions that he bears no responsibility for the deaths of civilians in Gaza, even that of children sleeping in their homes. I would suggest this is not accidental. It is an integral aspect of Likud’s stance, inherited from Begin and Shamir. It permits no introspection on actions deemed necessary to maintain control over the land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean, which Likud’s platform claims is “eternally and indisputably” a part of Israel . In the article, Mr. Farrell continued:

The Word “terrorist” incenses Mr. Begin and he chided newsmen who used the term when asking him about his experiences in the 1940’s… “Freedom Fighter” is the correct description, he insisted.

Mr. Begin’s actions in resisting the British mandate (which Irgun considered an occupation) were not that different from that of the most violent elements in the Palestinian resistance (including Hamas). Yet we can only imagine the howls of protest if we referred to Hamas activists as “freedom fighters”?

To round out the trinity, Ariel Sharon, another leading light of Likud, led the Israeli army unit responsible for the Qibya massacre in 1953. Most notoriously, it was on his watch that the massacres at Sabra and Shatila occured during the disastrous Lebanon war of 1982.

There are few political factions in this conflict whose hands have not been stained with blood. Few whose founding was not infected by vengeance of some form. We do not have to excuse or accept this, but we do have to recognize it to identify reasoning that smacks of hipocrisy.

We also have to recognize that, like most indigenous people subjected to colonization, the Palestinians have borne the brunt of the suffering in this conflict. Only once we have recognized these facts can we evaluate the actions and statements of Palestinian and Israeli factions.