Humanism Under Fire: When Atheists Have to Face Applied Humanism

Barry Seidman

I was invited to respond to Dr. Sheldon Gottlieb’s essay, which was itself a response to two letters to the editor—one by myself—concerning how humanists ought to regard the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. My letter addressed Nat Hentoff’s essay in the October/November 2014 Free Inquiry, in which he defended the recent actions of Israel against the Palestinian people in Gaza. Hentoff could not understand anyone taking the Palestinian “side” because, after all, they are “terrorists,” and no peace will ever come to the region as long as groups such as Hamas exist. My letter spoke to my bewilderment, frustration, and even despair at how anyone who self-identifies as a humanist could be so blind to the crimes of the Zionist state.

I have been involved officially and unofficially in the freethought/humanist community since the late 1990s. I was once employed by the Center for Inquiry, and I still produce the radio broadcast I began at that time, Equal Time for Freethought, on WBAI in New York City. One of the topics I have repeatedly featured is how humanism—and individual humanists—should express sociopolitical viewpoints. Engaging in dialogue on this issue, I am often reminded that one key aspect of humanism is that it is informed by scientific naturalism and is skeptical of religious and other supernatural and paranormal claims. Others point to the ethical foundations for humanism as described in several manifestoes and the long progressive history of humanist thought. To me, all of these elements lie at the core of humanism, but while many who call themselves humanists apply its skepticism, naturalism, and atheism in the real world, too many fail to apply the ethical codes of humanism, which tend to be manifested not so much through investigation as through political ideas and actions. If we more consistently applied humanist ethics to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we might not see such unfortunate commentaries as Hentoff’s published in the flagship magazine of the Council for Secular Humanism.

In an essay I wrote for a collection I edited about a decade ago, Toward a New Political Humanism(TNPH), I discussed the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and suggested several humanistic approaches toward ending the apartheid and violence associated with it. TNPH was about applied humanist ethics and at the time was one of the few texts urging humanists not only to avoid being apolitical but to engage vigorously in the political landscape if they are serious about the ethics they so often express (albeit usually when confronting religious ideas and morality). Obviously, any such effort must be built on evidence, critical thinking, and an objective survey (insofar as possible) of the subject under discussion. Also, our expression should be tempered by compassion, empathy, and a genuine wish to leave the world healthier than when we entered into the debate. Let us try to apply these principles to considering the Middle East situation.

There is hardly space in this essay to discuss the origins of the conflict, but certain aspects of the story are clear. According to all accounts, Israel was given to the Jews after World War II without any consultation with the indigenous population. This was in response to the horrific treatment the Jewish people had (barely) endured under czarist Russia, the Soviet Union, and of course, Nazi Germany. Indeed, many still argue that there need not be any other reason for the legitimacy of the State of Israel but the Holocaust. While I, as a person of Jewish heritage, absolutely understand the need for a safe haven for one of the most persecuted peoples of the last several thousand years, I also understand that the desires, plans, and behavior of the Zionists regarding Israel had (and has) much less to do with finding peace than creating (and sustaining) a nation on land that was already inhabited—an ethnic state that some might call a theocracy–in exchange for Israel keeping an eye on the region for the benefit of first the United Kingdom and later the United States.

In an essay in TNPH, I argued that the Zionists never planned to live peacefully and equally with the Palestinians and, therefore, began the process of ethnic cleansing early on. This process continues to the present time. The recent horrific attacks on Gaza were claimed to be a defensive action, but they were in fact yet another offensive designed to chill Palestinian resistance and as leverage for grabbing even more land in the West Bank. The rest of the world seems to be far better educated about the ongoing conflict than most Americans are. That so many Americans can either willfully ignore the overwhelming evidence for the crimes against humanity of which Israel is guilty or claim that the murderous actions of the Israeli government are defensive shows how successful decades of pro-Zionist propaganda, Israeli and American, has been. For a better understanding of how this happened, I highly recommend the documentary Peace and Propaganda in the Promised Land by Bathsheba Ratzkoff and Sut Jhally. Also, for an introduction to how the horrors of the Holocaust have been used to stop debate in its tracks and justify unsavory Israeli actions against the Palestinians—to say nothing of the knee-jerk use of the term anti-Semitism to frighten anyone who does not toe the Zionist party line—read the works of Dr. Norman Finkelstein, both of whose parents survived Nazi concentration camps.

I expect that Dr. Gottlieb will ignore these sources, preferring confirmation bias over Free Inquiry. He has already made poorly sourced claims about one of the strongest intellects of our time, the humanist Noam Chomsky. It is interesting to note that while Zionists and their sympathizers ascribe bigoted motives to non-Jews who criticize the government of Israel and/or the political ideology of Zionism, they grow uniquely frustrated and angry when confronted by Jews (whether atheistic or religious) such as Finkelstein, Chomsky, and, I suppose, even myself. They see us as particularly threatening to their efforts to impute legitimacy to pro-Israel propaganda. Just as right-wing whites tended to grow more upset with liberal whites who defended civil rights than with African-American activists, contemporary Zionists are more concerned about anti-Zionist Jews than about non-Jews who criticize Israel’s politics. What frustrates me is that while so many are so busily trying to defend the indefensible, hardly anyone is offering solutions on how to bring peace to both Palestinians and Israelis.

Among those who are writing about what could be done is another person of Jewish heritage, Joel Kovel, with his book Overcoming Zionism. Yet, unless the United States gets behind such an evenhanded peace effort, I’m afraid it won’t happen. What the United States keeps doing instead is funding Israel’s terrorist efforts against the Palestinians. And the children keep dying. I don’t know about anyone’s opinions reading this essay, but somehow acceding to this shameful state of affairs doesn’t feel like humanism to me. And if humanism is content to stand by while Palestine suffers, then humanism has failed, and failed mightily.

Barry Seidman

Barry Seidman is executive director, Community Outreach with the Center for Inquiry–Metro NY.


Humanistic principles must be applied in understanding and solving the crisis in the Middle East.

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