What’s your name again? Pandora, you say. Nice to meet you. Lovely box you have there. Mind if I look inside?
In all the years that Council for Secular Humanism founder Paul Kurtz was Free Inquiry’s editor in chief, there was only one article of mine that he killed. It was 1991, and I’d written a short opinion piece criticizing the United Nations General Assembly for revoking its 1975 Resolution 3379 rebuking Zionism as “a form of racism and racial discrimination.” Paul rejected it, and when I asked him why, he said that he was fearful of how readers would respond. Since then, Free Inquiry may have taken too little notice of the complex, unfolding tragedy in the Middle East—in later years, at least, not by conscious policy but rather by happenstance.
It’s time to remedy that omission, even if that too owes something to happenstance. In the October/November 2014 issue, Nat Hentoff wrote a column on Israel’s Operation Protective Edge in Gaza (and Hamas’s response) in summer and fall 2014 that took both sides to task. Its title, “Israel, Attacked by Hamas, Annuls Its Free Speech History,” was critical of Israel. Hentoff upbraided the Israeli government for banning a human-rights group’s radio ad reciting the names of Palestinian children killed in Gaza during the war. He voiced the hope that as it had done before, Israel’s Supreme Court would reverse this action as “antithetical to the nation’s fundamental values.” Further, Hentoff gently rebuked Israel’s targeting practices: “I am aware that Israel claims it has made every effort to notify targets of its return fire in advance so that they can remove themselves in time—and I believe that—but how successfully careful has this planning been when targets have included sites where children could be expected to be found, including schools and United Nations (UN) refugee centers?”
But Hentoff also reproached Hamas, finding it the more dire offender. For one thing, Israel has a supreme court with a record of holding the government to moral account; Hamas has none. For another, Hamas is a terrorist organization whose presence in the unified Palestinian government, on Hentoff’s view, taints the Palestinian cause. “The near consensus of many nations is that Israel is primarily to blame. They ignore the facts,” Hentoff concluded. “If Hamas is not disestablished, death will continue to triumph.”
Though Hentoff had gored both oxen, all the letters we received came from critics of Israel who thought Hentoff had disregarded Israel’s long oppression of the Palestinians. We published two edited letters by Barry Seidman and Guillermo Kuhl in the December 2014/January 2015 issue. In response to those came a furious missive by Sheldon F. Gottlieb, a longtime friend of the magazine and the sort of ardent Zionist whose reaction Paul Kurtz might have been worrying about back in 1991. (As it happens, Gottlieb had an article, “The Day God Lied,” in the same issue in which Hentoff’s column appeared.)
That’s when the proverbial lightbulb lit up. If Free Inquiry had committed—pardon the expression—a sin of omission in paying so little mind to the perennial and largely religion-inflected crises that roil the Middle East, what better way to—pardon the expression again—atone than by inviting all FI readers to have their say? Additionally, what better way to demonstrate the commitment to free and untrammeled inquiry than by launching a wide-ranging yet civil discourse on one of the most controversial topics in American life?
To begin the discourse—as it were, to give Pandora’s box a hard shake—we present five varied items: Sheldon Gottlieb’s response to the pro-Palestinian letters by Seidman and Kuhl; replies to Gottlieb by Seidman and Kuhl; my own modest attempt to present a brief case against Israel; and Center for Inquiry Chair Eddie Tabash’s presentation of a case for Israel.
The next move, readers, rests with you. Where should secular humanists stand on Israel, Palestine, or any other aspect of the abiding deadlock in the Middle East? More important, where do you stand? Now is the time to speak your mind. Send your responses to email@example.com or to Deadlock, c/o Free Inquiry, P.O. Box 664, Amherst, NY 14226-0664. What use we will make of the responses will depend on how many of them we get and how intriguing they are. I am optimistic on both counts. The last time FI extended an open invitation for reader writings, the result was “The Faith I Left Behind,” a series of articles that ran in four consecutive issues during 2014 and resulted in a new book from Inquiry Press. Few subjects are more multifaceted, intractable, and polarizing than the Middle East.
I declare this subject—and with it, Pandora’s box—open!
Tom Flynn is the editor of Free Inquiry.