On My Recently Dashed Hopes For Sam Harris

I’ve been an admirer of Sam Harris for just shy of a decade. I’ve read most of his books and am looking forward to reading Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion when it becomes available. This admiration has, however, suffered some damage in recent years, and it’s fair to say this damage is in some significant sense a result of my own shifting of views on matters of religion and state power. I’ve held out some hope that Sam might experience a similar shift. I even had specific reason to hope for such a shift given the content of one of his blog posts where he references having watched Dirty Wars, the documentary by Jeremy Scahill and David Riker about US covert operations.

My original concept for this post, thought of a few months ago, was to explore the antagonism between Sam and a few of his most vocal critics: Chris Hedges, Glenn Greenwald, and Murtaza Hussain. I’m replacing that with a much more recent and more topical disappointment. Sam recorded a podcast (which he later transcribed and annotated) under the title ‘Why Don’t I Criticize Israel?’. Whether or not you believe me, I will tell you that nothing in his podcast surprised me in the least. I almost feel like I could have recorded it for him, without him even telling me its content beyond the titular question. And therein lie my dashed hopes.

What follows is a point-by-point criticism of his blog post. Don’t mistake any agreement on my part with any portion of his post an agreement with it overall. As an aggregate, it’s very disheartening.

It leads off with disappointment: [emphasis mine]

The question I’ve now received in many forms goes something like this: Why is it that you never criticize Israel? Why is it that you never criticize Judaism? 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.

If I seem to be drawing an association between the third of the three questions he spoke and his reference to boredom and depression it is principally because finding that conflict boring demonstrates an incredible disconnection from the reality of what is happening at present in Gaza, and what has happened over the several decades of existence of Israel. Depression I can understand. I find the death and destruction being visited upon Gaza very depressing. It is, however, not the slightest bit boring to me. My sense of empathy for the people of Gaza is incompatible with boredom. That Sam would express boredom over such concerns is a deep blow to my admiration for him.

I will comment on Sam’s “sense of proportion” later, as context for that develops further.

Later in the same paragraph which includes the second part of the quote above, Sam ignores the existence of ethnic/cultural Jewry in favor of a straw-man criticism of a relationship between atheism and religious Judaism. This seems especially unusual given that according to Sam’s Wikipedia entry, “Harris was raised by a secular Jewish mother…” (Given Wikipedia can play host to what may modestly be called “inaccuracies”, Sam may want to edit his Wikipedia page if he believes there to be any misrepresentations.)

In the next two paragraphs Sam mentions the portions of the Old Testament (which is to say, of the Torah) containing—amongst the tales of creation, flood, and enslavement—the assortment of laws intended to govern the Jews, some of which are rather vile. He notes that a small minority of Jews may believe we should adhere to such laws, much in the same sense that there are fundamentalist Christians who believe in things like homosexuality as a sin, derived from the same source. Sam recognizes a danger in such people, but again invokes Muslims and sneaks in another reference to proportionality, “…and their [the Jews] religious beliefs are as divisive and as unwarranted as the beliefs of devout Muslims. But there are far fewer such people.”

Now comes a real zinger:

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.

This is a point upon which I am entirely in agreement with Sam. To elaborate on my own view, if Israel is to continue to exist and also continue to lay claim to operating as a democracy, they must adopt an entirely secular system which includes freedom of religion and eliminates ethnocracy. Palestinians who have been displaced over the decades must be allowed to return to their ancestral lands. I don’t know as I care so much about what the land is called (Israel, Palestine, Judea, Pantsoffistan) as I care that colonization and ethnic cleansing is replaced with integration, equal rights and respect for all citizens, both indigenous and immigrant.

Indiana Jones flight over Palestine

Though if it was called Palestine when Indiana Jones flew over it, that ought to be good enough for everyone.

That such is unlikely to happen in the current environment poses a problem given what follows of Sam’s view on the legitimacy of Israel in its present state.

Though I just said that I don’t think Israel should exist as a Jewish state, the justification for such a state is rather easy to find. We need look no further than the fact that the rest of the world has shown itself eager to murder the Jews at almost every opportunity. So, if there were going to be a state organized around protecting members of a single religion, it certainly should be a Jewish state. Now, friends of Israel might consider this a rather tepid defense, but it’s the strongest one I’ve got. I think the idea of a religious state is ultimately untenable.

The fact that Jews have suffered persecution over the centuries is no justification for a Jewish homeland if in the establishment of that homeland the Jews, with vast assistance from Western powers, colonize, appropriate, displace and kill to get what seems to be the Jews’ just due. And whether or not “the idea of a religious state” is tenable hardly matters when Israel receives backing from the US to the tune of $3 billion dollars per year. You can make all sorts of thing tenable with that kind of money.

Sam goes on to mention that Israel is not a theocracy in his annotation. This may well be true. Perhaps Israel does offer freedom of religion in terms of high law. But as an on-the-ground reality, being ethnically or religiously Jewish (with both together being better) saves some measure of grief you are not likely to be spared if you’re Arab.

In the next paragraph Sam discusses what has brought Israel to the point of seeming to commit war crimes, given the disproportionate number of civilians being killed in Gaza. From the latter part of the paragraph:

And there’s probably little question over the course of fighting multiple wars that the Israelis have done things that amount to war crimes. They have been brutalized by this process—that is, made brutal by it. But that is largely the due to the character of their enemies.

I find blaming the victim of brutality (the Gazan Palestinians) for the brutality of their oppressor (Israel), vis a vis the straw-man that is Hamas, abhorrent. No allowance has been made for the shift in stance by Hamas in recent years. (More on that later.) And if Hamas is the real enemy and not the Gazan people in general, then why are whole neighborhoods being destroyed by the IDF?

The demolition by artillery in that video far outstrips anything that Hamas is capable of now, or has been capable of at any time in the past. And that video is only a small slice of the total destruction Gaza has experienced so far.

Sam on restraint and standards:

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 problem with a logical sense of proportionality is it distorts the magnitude of a crime, as it relates to the people suffering from that crime, by cheap statistical comparison to similar events. The fact that the total number of Gazan dead and injured may not rise to the level of current numbers of the same in Syria, or in the past with respect to the US invasion of Iraq, does not diminish or validate the injustice done to the people of Gaza. And characterizing Israel as “defending itself against aggressors” carries the implication that Hamas/Gaza stands on roughly equal footing with respect to the capacity to make war. That the truth is so far from this misguided perception of parity of forces seems entirely lost on Sam.

As for condemnation, part of the reason we as Americans in particular should hold Israel to a higher standard is due to Israel’s use of US taxpayer money to fuel their economy and aid in the purchase of the very weapons used to slaughter Palestinians. Every US taxpayer is, in a financially relevant sense, complicit in Israeli war crimes. Unless Sam escapes paying taxes somehow, his money is as bloodied as the rest of ours. (I’ll say again, $3 billion per year can buy quite a lot. But lets add another quick $225 million just to make sure that the Iron Dome isn’t rusting.)

More on “defense”:

Israel built bomb shelters to protect its citizens. The Palestinians built tunnels through which they could carry out terror attacks and kidnap Israelis. Should Israel be blamed for successfully protecting its population in a defensive war? I don’t think so.

When the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto resisted the occupying Germans, they dug tunnels, too. Did the Germans call them terror tunnels as well? As for bomb shelters, the Israeli shelters can protect against Hamas rockets because that’s all they need to protect against. I doubt Hamas has, or has ever had, the resources and architectural knowledge necessary to build bomb shelters capable of resisting bunker-busting smart munitions, much less the more typical 500 lb. bomb.

For a brief moment, Sam talks some sense: (excepting the part about being “stuck”)

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.

And then Sam hits us with the victim blaming again:

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.

If, by “causes of this conflict,” Sam is referring to Hamas and the launching of rockets, he hasn’t looked back far enough in history. If you want cause, look to al Nakba. The first great crime in Palestine was not committed by Palestinians, but by the Zionists (and their supporters in the West) who would go on to form the State of Israel. As I’ve already typed, Hamas is the straw-man. Hamas enables Zionist propagandists to focus the so-called conflict in the present, enabling ignorance of decades of occupation, displacement, and the building of an apartheid state to make old South Africa flush with embarrassment at its comparative mediocrity. The true moral illusion is one which propagates an ignorance of history, keeping so many from recognizing the unjust nature of Israel’s occupation.

Expanding on the victim blaming:

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.

The problem here is that the reference to the Hamas Charter is out of date. It was altered in 2006 to drop the reference to the destruction of Israel.* The fact that Hamas has softened its tone in recent years is entirely lost on Zionists, the Israeli government and military, most of the US government and mainstream media, and Sam Harris.

And in a strange fit of irony, Sam admits in the annotation to the above quote that, “Yes, I know that not every Palestinian supports Hamas, but enough do to have brought them to power. Hamas is not a fringe group.” [emphasis mine] If Hamas is not a fringe group, why do parties interested in a ceasefire agreement ignore Hamas when trying to establish one? Or are we still stuck with the tired old diplomatic evasion, “We do not negotiate with terrorists!“?

After a brief diversion into talk of Muslim denial of the Holocaust (which I very willingly grant is odious no matter the source) and children’s TV, Sam offers a preface to an upcoming counterfactual regarding who holds the power to destroy whom:

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.

Aside from it not being clear to me that Israel is taking great pains to avoid killing children, (given so many have been killed relative to the total number dead so far, 229 children out of 1,065 total dead as of the 29th) the statement, “The Israeli army could kill everyone in Gaza tomorrow,” is inherently ridiculous. Even an all-out assault by Israel’s military could not achieve such an objective so quickly without resorting to weapons of mass destruction, which in Israel’s case means nuclear devices. Consider this map from an article at the BBC:

Gaza Strip with Israeli buffer zone imposed in July 2014

The Israelis are already engaged in a land grab by virtue of the imposition of a “buffer zone” extending well into Gaza from the current border. Though considerable destruction can be visited on so small an area, total eradication of the Palestinian population (estimated to be a bit over 1.8 million people) is still no trivial matter. And make no mistake; Israel wants the land. Resorting to nuclear weapons is not merely a non-starter from an international political perspective, but would render land Israel wants uninhabitable as well as likely create fallout in Israel proper.

And this is where the argument for Israeli “restraint” comes in. I find the suggestion that the Israeli’s are engaging in restraint for moral reasons specious. Rather, I believe Israel’s so-called restraint only exists insofar as it is strategically sensible to engage in a measured, incremental genocide that will avoid—as much as possible—international political and military repercussions, while ultimately leading to a de facto ethnic cleansing of the Gaza Strip of Palestinians.

As for what Sam thinks the Palestinians would do if they had Israel’s military might, here’s the counterfactual:

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.

The problem with this theory is that if Palestine had such power, they would be under the same class of political constraint Israel experiences now. Yes, we’ve had genocides in the 20th century, but in those cases where genocides occurred it was often a result of both remoteness of location and disinterest on the part of nations possessed of sufficient power to intervene. The Middle East holds the interest of the US, Europe, and other nations with concerns over instability creating restrictions on access to oil. If a genocide is going to happen in the Middle East, it won’t happen because we weren’t paying attention. Genocide can only occur with our blessing. The Palestinians wouldn’t get such a blessing from the US. The Israelis already have it. If you doubt this, consider the near-infinite loop of the favorite statement of President Obama, the State Department, and assorted members of Congress, concerning genocide in Gaza: “Israel has a right to defend itself.”

Sam spends a few paragraphs on human shields, offering the standard talking points I’ve tried to debunk elsewhere, which are not especially worth quoting. What troubles me most about Sam’s approach to the notion of human shields is not so much an adherence to the standard propaganda, but a failure to allow (as others have failed to allow) for the existence of a legitimate counter-narrative to the statement that Hamas uses their fellow Palestinians callously as tools of defense. I have yet to read of anyone granting Palestinians any moral agency where the concept of human shields is concerned. On some occasions when a building gets the “knock on the roof” from an Israeli missile lacking an explosive payload, instead of evacuating, Palestinians in the building immediately rush to the roof. No one posits that the Palestinians in question are not tools of Hamas, but are instead fully engaged moral agents acting to non-violently resist Israeli oppression. This is not Hamas relying on the humanity of the Israeli military while using other Palestinians in an immoral, cowardly fashion. This is the Palestinian citizenry themselves relying on the humanity of the Israeli military using the most moral and inherently honorable method of resistance possible. The fact that Israeli propaganda denies this and as a result enables the murder of innocent Palestinians is what is truly the most morally reprehensible feature of human shield propaganda.

After a brief aside to talk about ISIS and other Islamist distractions, (distractions in the context of a post about Palestine/Israel, but worthy of consideration in their own right) Sam returns to the real point of his post:

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.

If any of the above were true, then why are we seeing the opposite express itself through the devastation in Gaza. One may as well say that one side wants to live in peace, (as most Palestinians do!) and the other side wants to rebuild the Temple of Solomon and implement a pre-Birth of Christ theocracy in the Holy Land (Zionism!). And yes, there’s no peace to be found between those incompatible ideas. Sam almost admits this:

Again, granted, there’s some percentage of Jews who are animated by their own religious hysteria and their own prophesies. Some are awaiting the Messiah on contested land. Yes, these people are willing to sacrifice the blood of their own children for the glory of God. But, for the most part, they are not representative of the current state of Judaism or the actions of the Israeli government. And it is how Israel deals with these people—their own religious lunatics—that will determine whether they can truly hold the moral high ground. And Israel can do a lot more than it has to disempower them. It can cease to subsidize the delusions of the Ultra-Orthodox, and it can stop building settlements on contested land.

And while the remaining paragraphs of Sam’s podcast refocus again on Islamism and religion as the source of conflict, the true source (for which religion is a powerful framework, but not a root cause) is just what Sam stated in the last word of the quote above: land.

What Palestinians want most of all is to return to their ancestral lands. Israel shows no inclination to defer to the right of return. And peace bought through genocide is no peace, merely a lull between murder done and murder yet to be done.

I spoke originally of hope for Sam Harris: hope that Sam would broaden his views in such a way as to acknowledge more deeply the plight of the oppressed. That hope was pinned on the idea that Sam might come to question with greater energy how the exercise of state power against claimed terrorism does harm to the innocent and creates blowback which results in an increase in terrorism rather than a reduction of it: the sort of terrorism he decries as an essential (if not existential) threat to Western civilization. To whatever extent Sam does question such considerations, I’m glad. But if I had hope such questioning might be brought to bear on Israel, that hope has been proven forlorn. For Sam, and many others, the actions of a nation-state are inherently legitimate, and thus cannot be classified as terrorism. And yet the terror that the great nations of the world have visited upon those deemed lesser makes the worst acts of al Qaeda or ISIS, or any of those we so blithely classify as terrorists, pale in comparison. We will never stop the terrorism of others if we do not stop ourselves from committing terror. And like Israel, this too, I fear, is something we have no inclination to do.

Postscript: PZ Myers wrote a criticism of Sam’s blog post. It’s good. It’s also shorter than mine, and better written.

Addendum, same day: A tweet from Murtaza Hussain containing another video, this one far more visceral and heart-wrenching, of Israeli “restraint”.

Apparently, this is how Sam cures his boredom concerning tragedies in the Middle East:

The Dahiya doctrine gives lie to notions of Israeli “restraint”.

Here’s an editorial by the late Christopher Hitchens from May, 2008: Can Israel Survive for Another 60 Years? which strikes me as a much more interesting and nuanced examination (despite some taint of Islamophobia) of Israel’s existence than what Sam Harris has spoken/written concerning the same.

Addendum, 31 July 2014: Andrew Sullivan semi-dis/agrees with Sam. Yes, it’s just as confusing as my typing of the prior sentence suggests.

Qifa Nabki posts about the increasing irrelevance of the original Hamas Charter: “[T]he Hamas charter has all the relevance of an adolescent anarchist phase in a politician’s history. Was that really Hamas? Sure. Is that Hamas today? No.”

Addendum, 1 August 2014: I could not have said it better myself:

Jareer Kassis links to a Times of Israel blog post which was captured before being deleted by archiving sites, and draws a parallel between that post, titled When Genocide is Permissible, and some of what Sam Harris says in his podcast:

Addendum, 2 August 2014: An op/ed at Mondoweiss by Theodore Sayeed offers up good counterpoint to Sam’s arguments, ranging into wider territory with respect to things Sam has said or written in the past.

Addendum, 3 August 2014: Another fine blog post, this one by Gaura Rader, takes Sam to task for being too consequentialist/utilitarian.

And then a substantially less-than-fine op/ed in The Atlantic from Jeffrey Goldberg (former IDF prison guard, I’m told) where he explores the counter-factual I address above in greater depth: What Would Hamas Do If It Could Do Whatever It Wanted? (Note that by “greater depth” I’m referring to a deeply-dug and well-trafficked outhouse of opinion.)

As serendipity would have it, Murtaza Hussain tweets a link to Deconstructing Harris, a blog post taking strong issue with Sam’s podcast, written by a former IDF officer:

Addendum, 4 August 2014: The blog Muu’s Views directly tackles the counter-factual supported by Sam Harris and Jeffrey Goldberg.

Addendum, 7 August 2014: Usaid Siddiqui posts to Religion Dispatches: In Gaza Siege, Atheist Author Sam Harris Finds Yet Another Opportunity to Disparage Islam

* – I’m troubled by the fact I cannot find this alleged update to the Hamas Charter. Every copy I find via Google is the 1988 version. If an updated version does exist as the Guardian article claims, I hope it turns up so I can verify what the article states.

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