Why I Do Criticize Israel: A Response to Sam Harris

Posted on Posted in Ethics, Politics, Uncategorized

I’ve been wanting to write something about what is happening in Gaza and Sam Harris’ article Why I Don’t Criticize Israel is good opportunity to do so. I think it is pretty important that intellectuals who act as Israel apologists be responded to and frankly shamed. There is a lot of a drivel in the mass media on the topic and that should be responded to as well but I think it is especially important that liberal intellectuals who act as Israel apologist be responded to. Every defense of Israel should be responded to by people who care about this issue and human rights in general.

I’m not going to respond to everything Harris says. See some of the articles below for that. But I did want to respond to one argument that Harris makes, which I’ve also heard from a couple of other people on twitter and in other places.

The argument is that Israel gets an unfair treatment, in some quarters (presumably not the mainstream media), for its actions. As Harris says it faces a much higher degree of scrutiny for its actions than say the United States. The argument is something like “You shouldn’t be so hard on Israel, they are no worse than lots of other countries in the world including the United States.” Specifically Harris says:

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. [Note: I was not saying that because they are more careful than we have been at our most careless, the Israelis are above criticism. War crimes are war crimes.]

I think there are two important things to be noted about this response. The first is that it is just false. Israel is doing something that no other country in the world is doing, certainly no other developed country. Israel is the only true apartheid state in the world. Israel’s violence is particularly and uniquely appalling because the victims of its attacks are a people that have been oppressed and subjugated by Israel for a very long time. Israel is not defending itself, it is using violence to keep a certain ethnic portion of its population is perpetual servitude. They are using advanced weapons and using their first world military might on a people that Israel has prevented from gaining access to similar technologies.

To think that Israel is no worse than the United States one must presuppose a consequentialist or utilitarian view of ethics. According to this ethical view, taken very simplistically, Israel has killed less innocent people so it would be less bad than say the United States which has been responsible for many more civilian deaths than Israel. I’m certainly no fan of the United States and would absolutely agree with Dr. King that the United States is the greatest purveyor of violence on the planet. But ethical judgements about actions are not determined solely by the consequences those actions produce.

Official American policy has not been at the level of current Israeli policy since the end of slavery and the end of military campaigns against native Americans. Those in power in the United States have done really terrible things in advancement of their global agenda for the United States and their personal ambitions but official U.S. policy is nothing like official Israel policy at this point in time in history.

Our current war on terror is extremely ill conceived, poorly executed, and often times based on outright lies but officially the goals of the war on terror are very different from those of Israel. And therein lies the moral difference.

Sam Harris ends his piece by saying that “The truth is, we are all living in Israel. It’s just that some of us haven’t realized it yet.” I would agree but whereas he thinks Israel is just as justified in its “war on terror” in Gaza as we are in our global war on terror I would argue that our global war on terror is just as unjustifiable and misguided as Israel war on terror in Gaza.

Here and here are few responses to Harris criticizing him. Here is another that I think is particularly good.  For some Harris defenders see here and here.

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