Why Don’t I Criticize Israel?

This essay is a transcript from a podcast by Sam Harris, American atheist author, philosopher, and neuroscientist.

Dr. Harris He is co-founder of Project Reason,  and author of The End of Faith (2004), an atheist rejection of all forms of organized religion. He is not Jewish or a Zionist, but has a very logical and important message on why he stands with Israel against anti-Zionist/anti-Semitic attacks.

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Why is it that you always take the side of the Israelis over that of the Palestinians? Now, this is an incredibly boring and depressing question for a variety of reasons. The first, is that I have criticized both Israel and Judaism. What seems to have upset many people is that I’ve kept some sense of proportion. There are something like 15 million Jews on earth at this moment; there are a hundred times as many Muslims.

…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 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 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 in the Palestinian territories and elsewhere that teach five-year-olds about the glories of martyrdom and about the necessity of killing Jews.

And this gets to the heart of the moral difference between Israel and her enemies. And this is something I discussed in “The End of Faith.” To see this moral difference, you have to ask what each side would do if they had the power to do it.

What would the Jews do to the Palestinians if they could do anything they wanted?  Well, we know the answer to that question, because they can do more or less anything they want. The Israeli army could kill everyone in Gaza tomorrow. So what does that mean? Well, it means that, when they drop a bomb on a beach and kill four Palestinian children, as happened last week, this is almost certainly an accident. They’re NOT targeting children. They could target as many children as they want. Every time a Palestinian child dies, Israel edges ever closer to becoming an international pariah. So the Israelis take great pains not to kill children and other noncombatants. [Note: The word “so” in the previous sentence was regrettable and misleading. I didn’t mean to suggest that safeguarding its reputation abroad would be the only (or even primary) reason for Israel to avoid killing children. However, the point stands: Even if you want to attribute the basest motives to Israel, it is clearly in her self-interest not to kill Palestinian children.]

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.

What do we know of the Palestinians?

What would the Palestinians do to the Jews in Israel if the power imbalance were reversed? Well, they have told us what they would do. For some reason, Israel’s critics just don’t want to believe the worst about a group like Hamas, even when it declares the worst of itself. We’ve already had a Holocaust and several other genocides in the 20th century. People are capable of committing genocide. When they tell us they intend to commit genocide, we should listen.

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 non-combatants 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.

And again, the charter of their government in Gaza explicitly tells us that they want to annihilate the Jews—not just in Israel but everywhere. [Note: Again, I realize that not all Palestinians support Hamas. Nor am I discounting the degree to which the occupation, along with collateral damage suffered in war, has fueled Palestinian rage. But Palestinian terrorism (and Muslim anti-Semitism) is what has made peaceful coexistence thus far impossible.]

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.

Now imagine reversing the roles here…. 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.

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. [Note: Of course, I’m aware that many Muslims condemn groups like ISIS. My point is that we don’t see massive protests against global jihadism—even though it targets Muslims more than anyone else—and we do see such protests over things like the Danish cartoons.]

So, it seems to me, that you have to side with Israel here. You have one side which if it really could accomplish its aims would simply live peacefully with its neighbors, and you have another side which is seeking to implement a seventh century theocracy in the Holy Land.

There’s no peace to be found between those incompatible ideas.

That doesn’t mean you can’t condemn specific actions on the part of the Israelis. And, of course, acknowledging the moral disparity between Israel and her enemies doesn’t give us any solution to the problem of Israel’s existence in the Middle East…

… again, you have to ask yourself, what do these groups want? What would they accomplish if they could accomplish anything? What would the Israelis do if they could do what they want? They would live in peace with their neighbors, if they had neighbors who would live in peace with them. They would simply continue to build out their high tech sector and thrive.

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.

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