In a 17-minute podcast, Sam Harris delivers one of my favorite defenses of Israel. He’s a surprise source of support for the Jewish state.
Harris is one of America’s leading public atheists, an intellectual and a philosopher with a podcast that’s downloaded one million times per episode, according to reports. He’s written five New York Times bestsellers.
What I love about Harris’s July 27, 2014 defense-of-Israel podcast is that you can tell he doesn’t care. He sounds bored with his own words as he defends Israel, even annoyed with his listeners for having asked him to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Which is just so delicious. Seriously, a man who doesn’t care isn’t going to talk himself into anything. He’s not rationalizing. There’s a pureness to it. It’s real.
He doesn’t feel Jewish, having been raised without Judaism by a non-practicing Jewish mother. This is not someone who loves the Jewish people, or loves Torah, or sees Israel through an evangelical Christian lens.
In the 2014 podcast, this sharp critic of all religion says, “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.”
Yet he adds: “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.”
Harris talks about how Hamas has used fellow Palestinians as human shields. But reverse it and imagine the Israelis holding up their own women and children as human shields. The hypothetical turns so improbable as to be ridiculous, he says, like a grotesque Monty Python skit.
“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.”
It’s amusing that Harris refers to questions from his listeners about his stance on Israel as “incredibly boring” and then essentially takes the Israeli side and knocks it out of the park. Set aside Harris’s dream of a world with no religious divisions and he starts to sound a lot like a Zionist.
“The discourse in the Muslim world about Jews is utterly shocking,” Harris says. “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.”
“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,” he says, though he adds that he understands this does not describe all Muslims.
Harris starts out calling Israel obscene, yet he essentially ends with calling efforts at its erasure obscene. This comes to us from, of all places, an anti-religionist.
I know that some of you have turned against Israel. So many of us in Judaism identify with the left, because we can relate to others who are also “Other,” because of Jewish values and because we see with our hearts as much as with our eyes. And that has led you to feel for the Palestinians which is perfectly understandable. We all feel it and we need to work towards solving problems. But we can do this and support Israel, too.
Palestinians have been victimized by poor decisions, corruption, politics and the power of human culture, not by an Israel hell-bent on their destruction. Empathy for Palestinians and support for a Jewish homeland need not be mutually exclusive.
Forgive me for being so bold as to say this to you, please. If Israel has lost your heart, perhaps it’s time to reconsider. Try to see what Harris sees.
The universe is speaking to you. It’s sending you a message. It’s like a text message with a dozen fire emojis. The Tree of Life massacre in Pittsburgh, the worldwide increase in anti-Semitism and an American lurch toward impatience and intolerance are all a reminder that we don’t live in the tolerant, secular world of Sam Harris’s dreams.
“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,” Harris says. “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.”
The world is reminding you a thousand times over: You’re a Jew. Israel is imperfect, but it’s ours. It’s time to come home.
Rob Golub is editor of the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle. Here is the Sam Harris podcast on Israel.