I’m always interested in hearing a different perspective on controversial topics, even though I know going in I’m highly unlikely to agree with the viewpoint. Sam Harris’ recent defense of his own unwillingness not to bash Israel over the current conflagration in the Middle East did not disappoint. I was really wondering how he was going to turn the crisis into a referendum on religion in general but I was taken aback how much he was willing to slam Israel for existing even as he was “defending” it. I was unaware of his position that Israel’s existence was illegitimate simply because of the fact that it was founded as a “Jewish and democratic state” and since Judaism is a religion, a country could not be founded based on it. I found his defense of his position not to criticize Israel very confused and self contradictory, and most of all completely uninformed.
I do not want this piece to become another piece of hasbara, because the issues with his positions go far beyond not knowing the historical background of the conflict. His fallacies fall into three major areas: ignorance of Judaism, Middle East history, and a confused moral system. In order not to distract from the major issues, I will simply add some links about Judaism’s approach to Zionism and Middle East history. See at the end of the article. I would hope that after he informed himself about these issues he might be in a better position to make public statements on the issue.
I want to hone in on the morality issue, as this is where Mr. Harris makes the crux of his argument. I can see where many people might want to dismiss Jewish and Arab historical claims to the land as a “he said, she said” kind of thing. Let’s remove all consideration of these factors and hone in on Mr. Harris’ wildly spinning moral compass. If he’s willing to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist, on whatever grounds he is, shouldn’t Israel be able to defend itself? Should Israel’s right to defend itself be strictly limited to the bare minimal and have to maximize risk to its own military and citizens in order to minimize casualty on the other side? Does the fact that Israel is fighting an existential war change the rules of the level of conduct by which it must engage in war?
Actually, there is only one real question: where is he getting his ideas about what is or is not okay in warfare? If he wants to take a Kantian approach, then the best place to look would probably be the Geneva Conventions, a generally accepted warfare practices guide. There it spells out what war crimes actually are: attacking civilian populations, using human shields, perfidy etc… By Sam Harris’ own admission Israel is not engaging in those behaviors, and is doing everything to minimize civilian casualties. The concept of collateral damage is acknowledged and a nation that accidentally kills civilians while engaged in acceptable military behavior is not guilty of war crimes. So how could he possibly say that he is certain Israel is engaging in war crimes? If he is using his own conscience as the source of what constitutes a war crime, he has already proved that is an invalid place to start given his willingness to pass judgement and make assumptions without being informed of the facts on the ground. If he says he’s sure something happened, but has no proof, then we have no reason to accept his certainty as anything but conjecture.
But it gets worse for him. Why shouldn’t two nations at war be able to engage in total annihilation policies? This is the way most nations engaged in warfare for much of human history, and the Middle East still operates on this principle. Multigenerational blood feuds are not uncommon in the Middle East. The Sunni-Shiite struggle is almost 1,400 years and counting. If anywhere, it might be said that the Torah that he so much demonizes could be considered the source for treating civilians and soldiers differently. In the Humash (Pentateuch), G-d forbids the Jews from waging war with Edom, Moav, and Ammon despite the fact that they are blocking their way into the land of Israel. Even when Israel is waging a revenge war against Midian they are ordered to spare some of the women as they could not be considered enemy combatants (Nm. 31), keeping in mind of course that the women who were killed were involved in a very unusual type of non-conventional warfare (Nm. 25:1-8). The Jews spared some of the enemy Canaanites and gave them sanctuary after making promises not to destroy them despite the fact that the sanctuary was granted under false pretenses (Jo. 9). The Torah, while technically permitting a forced relationship during combat, implicitly discourages it (Dt. 21:10-23), and Israeli soldiers have taken the Torah’s words to heart on this issue. In fact, without the Torah’s injunctions to limit the scope of warfare, where would he get the idea that there’s such a thing as war crimes? I think most people agree war sucks, but if you accept the fact that sovereign nations can engage in warfare to protect the interests of their populations, why must they have any regard for the lives of their enemies?
The problem becomes more acute when you take into account Mr. Harris’ position that morality is a kind of scientific Epicureanism with Utilitarian overtones. He assumes that increasing happiness (as measured scientifically) for the most number of people defines what is moral and can be addressed largely in terms of meeting people’s physical wants and needs, although I would think he will concede to Maslow that higher order types of pleasures of self-actualization are actually the real goal. There’s two problems with this. First, it is very easy to use such a moral system to justify genocide of a small population if it will bring happiness to the general population. Second, happiness is not held by all cultures to be the end determinant of what’s moral. He’s clearly not familiar with the Jewish moral principle that the determination of what’s moral comes from obeying the will G-d and not from a pleasure principle as the final end. In fact, one of the terms used in the Rabbinic literature for a heretic is an Apikorus, derived from its attitude toward the philosophy of Epicurus. Edward Said, the famous Palestinian thinker, devoted an entire work called Orientalism to discussing the issue of Western thinkers misunderstanding or disregarding the cultural factors in moral, ethical, and political decision making. As framed specifically in the context of this conflict, R’ Meir Kahane said that Israelis failed to understand the reason that their peace overtures and promises of material prosperity fell on deaf ears because the Palestinians would prefer to have THEIR outhouses to Israeli toilets. Some even believe there’s a moral imperative to suffer or even die to achieve a lofty etherial goal that may or may not bring them pleasure in the conventional Western sense.
Reflecting on Mr. Harris’ half-hearted defense of Israeli conduct has made me realize one of the reasons hard scientists mock the social sciences and humanities. The social sciences and humanities are not really scientific and suggest there is something to the human condition besides a mass of sophisticated organic chemicals interacting with one another. Sam Harris runs into a major brick wall when making declarations about morality: without G-d, where does morality come from? It’s an issue that philosophers have tried to address but have failed since every theory of morality without G-d ultimately breaks down. This IMHO explains why he can’t actually take a definitive position for one side or the other and lacks moral clarity at a fundamental level.
Jews are Indigenuous
* While the Neturai Karta distorts what our great rabbis have said to take an extreme position that has earned them the rare honor of banned from the Jewish community, they nonetheless have thoroughly documented not only Orthodox objections to Zionism but also some of the more shameful moments of early Zionist history. However, one should do their due diligence in fact checking before accepting their reports out of hand.