Friday, 1 August 2014

Why We Should Criticise Israel: A Response to Sam Harris

A new piece has emerged from Sam Harris, which represents his first piece of foreign policy commentary in a while now. It seems he's becoming rusty, because this one contains literally no references whatsoever, and exhibits such a horrendously biased interpretation of the current conflict that its prejudices are worth examining in some detail. 

What strikes me as a particularly odious part of Harris’ piece is that murderous intent expressed by Hamas is given front and centre of the piece’s focus, but equally offensive, racist, theocratic expressions by Zionists are ignored. I’m going to hazard a guess that Harris hasn’t actually read the accounts of Zionists describing the brutal Operation Cast Lead, in which over 1,400 Palestinians were killed as “mowing the lawn”, because if he had it would call into doubt his claim that Israel bombs civilians in sorrow rather than in anger.

If we kill their families, that will frighten them” -  not, as you would perhaps first guess, the brutal injunction of a jihadist death-cult leader, but a recent statement from reserve IDF general Oren Schachor. One doesn’t have to search far to find examples of Israeli justifications for Operation Protective Edge being couched in violent, retributive terms, such as the far-right Israelis revelling in there being “no school tomorrow” in Gaza after the IDF obliterated a UN-run school, killing 19 people and injuring nearly 100. Again, I'm sure Harris would condemn this, but make an aside that Israel is nonetheless pure in its intentions towards the Palestinians, because of reasons.

Even in apologising for its own citizens' crimes, the Israeli state seeks to demonise the oppressed population of the Palestinian Territories in any way it can. See, for instance, Prime Minister Bejnamin Netanyahu’s response to the brutal murder by a group of ultra-Zionists of Palestinian teenager Mohammad Abu Khdeir, beaten, then forced to drink gasoline before being set on fire and burning to death. The apology? That “…there is no place for such murderers in our society. In that we stand apart from our neighbours – In their society murderers are seen as heroes and have squares named after them” – one would be forgiven for forgetting, for a moment, that what was being decried were the actions of Israeli citizens. Even these can be attributed to being more closely aligned with the supposedly murderous Palestinian character, in the eyes of the Israeli state.

These injunctions to racism and demonisation of the populations of the Palestinian territories surely bely Harris’ claim that all Israel wants is to live peacefully with its neighbors and expand its technology sector. In any case, why the Israeli population would want to live peacefully besides people it considers to be members of a death cult is never explained, nor does Harris explain why the Israelis themselves should desire this. He points to the Hamas charter, a decades-old document generally ignored or denounced by the Hamas leadership, of evidence of the Palestinian’s murderous intent towards Jews. So if the charter is such a big deal, why bother making injunctions towards peaceful co-existence? There couldn’t be peaceful co-existence with the Nazis, after all, how can there be peaceful co-existence with a group of people who are, according to Harris, murderous anti-semites? It’s this kind of racist portrayal of the Palestinians as being a revenge cult that impedes progress towards a peace settlement and it’s exactly the kind of racism – yes, racism – that pervades Harris’ article.

The obvious retort to Harris’ invocation of the Hamas Charter is that the Hamas charter is in no way representative of the goals of the Palestinian population or even Hamas as an organisation. All it takes is one lazy Wikipedia search to find a quote from Khaled Meshaal, the leader of Hamas, stating that the Charter is “a piece of history and longer relevant.” Of course, none of that matters if your intent is to demonise the Palestinians and blame elements of their leadership for the massacring of civilian children. You can just refer to the Charter willy-nilly as if it weren’t written decades ago and rejected in modern times. This is not understanding a situation – it's simplistic grandstanding.

Harris says that all we need to do in order to understand the “moral difference” between Israel and Hamas is to “ask what each side would do if they had the power to do it”, but this is a silly thought experiment that is too abstract and hypothetical to be of any practical value in a conflict which is currently occurring. It’s a crude form of denialism which demands that rather than analyse the actions of the IDF as they are right now, we should instead envisage an entirely fictional conflict, in which dynamics, economics, politics, history and political support are completely reversed and judge the actions of Hamas in that, instead. Why we need to perform these mental acrobatics and imagine conflicts by which we should judge Hamas’ non-existent actions is beyond me, since we have a conflict currently unfolding before our very eyes in which over 1,300 civilians are dead, thousands more injured and nearly half a million displaced. “War crimes are war crimes”, Harris states. Indeed, they are – so why is the piece entitled “Why I Don’t Criticise Israel”? Surely war criminals are not beyond a bit of criticism?

Harris’ bizarre thought experiment is representative of a particular strain of Harris’ thought which posits religions as mere ideologies; as static things to which people arrive independent of outside influence and then become inspired to action. In Hegelian terms, this is called 'idealism', and it was kindly refuted by a couple of German philosophers over a century ago. To demand that religious extremists give up their religion, as Harris does (a goal I share, incidentally) is to demand the end to a condition which requires religious extremism, not a simplistic condemnation of the ideas themselves.

In Harris' world, all that matters is the ideology, therefore, if it were the Palestinians who had their own technologically advanced state which had illegally occupied two densely populated Israeli areas since 1967 and placed them under brutal occupation, the dynamics of the conflict and rhetoric of both sides would nonetheless remain the same. Thus we can use the Hamas charter as a useful indicator of how Hamas would actually behave if this thought experiment were a reality. As with Harris' approach to theology, all that matters is fundamental principles – nuance and development of the jihadist cause from its roots is irrelevant.

Incidentally, the extreme of Hamas, generally speaking, advocates for an outcome in which all of Israel becomes the state of Palestine. That's undoubtedly an unworkable position, but it's a far cry from Harris' claims that Hamas explicitly desires genocide. Genocide has a very specific legal definition, and throwing it around is ill-advised, because it cheapens the meaning of the term as one reserved for the highest international crime imaginable. The more moderate wing of Hamas, meanwhile, advocates for a two-state solution. Now, Harris does say in his piece that it's wrong to equate Hamas with the whole of the Palestinians, but I'll submit to the reader that really this is just another typical example of Harris trying to have his cake and eat it – trying to deflect criticism by claiming what he said is not what he actually meant. Later on in the article he says that the “Palestinians are trying to kill everyone. Killing women and children is part of the plan” and describes Israel as being “surrounded by people who have genocidal intentions towards them”. I'll leave the reader to decide what Harris' general opinion of the Palestinian population of over 4 million people is.

A far more odious claim in Harris' piece is to lay the blame for Israeli war crimes at the door of the Palestinians themselves. Israeli war crimes can be explained and understood because the Israelis have been “brutalized by this process – that is, made brutal by it. But it is largely due to the character of their enemies.” One is reminded of the old joke about the British soldier stabbing to death the Irishman, sobbing harder with each thrust of the bayonet. The Irishman, in his dying breath, incredulously asks the British soldier why he's crying. The soldier wipes a tear away - “we will never forgive you”, he says, “for what you've made us do to you”. If that seems too parodic, perhaps consider former Israeli PM Golda Meir's statement that “we cannot forgive [the Arabs] for forcing us to kill their children.” One was a joke, another was grandstanding from a colonialist – what's Harris' excuse?

Of course, his excuse is that he's simply making a point about the reality of fighting multiple wars. Only Israel is not fighting a war. It is conductingmilitary action in territories which it has illegally occuped fornearly 50 years. Furthermore, the injunction that Israel is engaging in self-defense would require acknowledgment that Palestine is a state, something explicitly denied by Israel and would also require a lack of effective control over the occupied areas, something which Israel does exercise. Since Israel under the laws of occupation has a greater duty to protect civilian life than it would in a genuine wartime situation, it should not garner praise for what Harris claims is its commendable restraint in this and other military action against the occupied territories – it should receive the utmost condemnation for not exercising enough. The Palestinian Territories are not a belligerent in an external armed conflict, and it serves us well to reiterate that Israel has illegally occupied the West Bank and Gaza since 1967, again something conveniently left out of Harris' piece.

In any case, it's true to the point of truism that war has a detrimental effect on the moral character of its participants. Picture Old Major from Fawlty Towers, whose only good word about the Germans is that their women are “good card players” or John McCain's occasional use of the word “gooks” to refer to the Vietnamese. It's entirely correct that Israeli brutality can be explained by the nature of the conflict. That said, I don't see why only Israel gets this sort of empathy, yet the people living in the Palestinian Territories, the majority of which are far more likely to have a family member who was killed or wounded than the average Israeli citizen is, are condemned for following an extreme ideology. Can we not expect some consistency in what was an otherwise fairly salient point?

Ultimately, Harris' piece demonstrates that he's once again on the wrong side of history with regards to the inherent rightness of the west and her allies. The day will hopefully one day come when the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank is behind us, the Palestinians have their own separate state, and we can see the occupation in the same way we see view the oppression of blacks in South Africa under apartheid. In the meantime, we will have to put up with a lot more ill-informed apologia like that present in Harris' piece. Hopefully the rest of us will have some good sense to exercise some empathy and that much-sought after but rarely exercised critical thought.

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