Middle East Deadlock: Readers Weigh In, Part 2

In this issue, we conclude our presentation of edited reader opinions on Israel, Palestine, and the enduring Middle East deadlock. This feature began in our previous (October/November 2015) issue and was prompted by initial article s on the subject in the April/May 2015 FI.

Each statement will be identified by one of three pictograms:

  • 👍 Pro-Israel, anti-Palestine
  • 👎 Pro-Palestine, anti-Israel
  • 🤜 Evenhanded

As noted last issue, the majority of comments received fell into the “Evenhanded” category.

—The Editors

🤜 The perspectives of secular humanists will gain wider credibility, in my opinion, if they are seen as pragmatic, evidence-based, and more or less consistent with Western values and traditions. In the case of Israel, those who clamor for its destruction should be discredited, and those who belittle its requirements for security must be ignored. If and when Israel behaves or appears to behave unethically, the transgressions need to be accurately reported.

Israel clearly has a right to exist and to defend itself. The United States should continue to provide the same kinds of strong support to the State of Israel that it has in the past. At the same time, it should continue to be made crystal clear that the United States and Israel are two sovereign nations with perspectives that are not always identical. U.S. criticisms of Israeli policy should not be viewed necessarily as anti-Jewish, but anti-Jewish sentiments thinly disguised as criticisms of Israeli policies and actions should be quickly labeled as such with reasons provided for such assertions.

Name withheld by request

🤜 The Arab and Israeli governments are theocracies. Neither the Qur’an nor the Bible has any room for negotiated settlements. A few thousand years of experience should be sufficient evidence for stating that diplomacy will not work to settle the disputants’ differences. Both the Arabs and the Israelis clearly prefer a state of belligerency. In their perception this continues to validate their perfect holy books.

Frans DeWaard
By e-mail

👎 The land was literally stolen from the Palestinians. There is no getting around this. It can’t be excused by arguing that other Arab nations should have had no problem taking the displaced Palestinians into their countries. Can you imagine any other society being displaced without any compensation or agreement and just leaving? It is incomprehensible and the basis for the ongoing conflict and war. To dismiss this key issue—the robbery and displacement of Palestinians from their land—is to deny the elephant in the room. It makes absolutely no sense for Israel to continue to deny its debt to the Palestinians and not work toward a reasonable solution. But this won’t happen as long as denial and hatred are the guiding principles of the Israeli government. The Palestinians need justice. It’s not that hard to understand.

Eric Lane
By e-mail

🤜 One of the unfortunate characteristics of monotheism is that its true believers (Jews, Christians, and Muslims) generally believe that they are right and everyone else is wrong. This conviction has had, over the years, murderous consequences. Today, various jihadist groups who have grown out of Islam continue to kill Jews just because they are Jews, Christians just because they are Christians, and, with the highest body count, other Muslims, either because they belong to the wrong tribe or the wrong sect of Islam. Allah has ordered some of this, instructing his followers to kill infidels. Muslims also hold the idea that any land that has ever been under Muslim control should remain under that control forever. This obviously includes what is now Israel and, by the way, Spain and the Balkans. Jews and Christians began to emerge from such barbarism when they began to rationalize away or ignore certain practices, such as slavery, that God ordered or permitted. Islamic jihadists have yet to learn when they should ignore Allah.

Now Israel and the Palestinians are engaged in an ongoing conflict in which they continue the Middle-Eastern tradition of killing each other. Now there is a significant faction of Israelis, mostly religious, who want Israel to include all the land “from the river to the sea” just as many Palestinians want their state to encompass exactly the same territory.

What can be done? The minds of Jews and Muslims and the opinions they have of each other have to change. This is not happening. Until most Israelis think that their neighbors really believe Israel has a right to exist, Israelis will not change their attitudes toward their neighbors. Perhaps the realization on both sides that nobody is going to force an unconditional surrender and win this conflict outright would stimulate some to change their minds. (Anwar Sadat of Egypt did; Muslim radicals killed him.)

Islamic jihadists cannot eliminate Israel, which many of them would dearly love to do, and Israel cannot permanently defeat them. War will not solve this deadlock, but politicians like Netanyahu are apparently satisfied with a stalemate. If both sides adopted humanistic and nontheistic philosophies; accepted the Adam, Eve, and Abraham stories that say we are all brothers and sisters; and accepted the genetic evidence that all humans are 99.9 percent the same, the conflict should lessen. Israelis and Muslims could approach their problem as a family squabble, recognizing that family squabbles are seldom resolved by murder. Last, God and Allah must shoulder a great deal of blame for all the things they “said.” Unfortunately, other than in 1978 when God changed his mind about blacks being eligible for the Mormon priesthood, it has been very unusual for any major deity to ever admit he made a mistake.

Stephen Baird
By e-mail

🤜 Israel’s main problem is that it was established one hundred years too late. Not only was it not around to save the six million Jews of Europe, whom the U.S.A. (along with most of the world) did nothing to help, but in a world where Bismarck was uniting all German-speakers under one political entity, Garibaldi was doing the same for Italians, and many other nation states came into existence, it would have been far easier for Israel to be accepted.

I live in Israel not for religious reasons and not on the basis of some Bible-derived promise but because a group of people known as Israelites or Judeans, from whom I claim descent, inhabited greater or lesser parts of what is now Israel, the West Bank, Transjordan, Lebanon, and Syria for about 1,500 years until they were forcibly expelled by the Romans in the year 135 CE. There is ample archaelogical evidence of this. At the same time, it should be noted that the areas of North America, Canada, Central and South America, Australia, and New Zealand were originally inhabited by different people from those of today. Why single Israel out as an example of discrimination?

I agree that criticism of Israel is not necessarily anti-Semitism, but unfortunately in today’s world it provides a most convenient cover for anti-Semites of all types. I am distressed that the editor of a publication I respect is adding grist to their mill.

Neil Schwartz
Raanana, Israel

🤜 I am pleased that Israel exists as a homeland for the Jews and as the only outpost of Western values in the region. But I also believe that the Palestinians have an equal claim to the land as their homeland. Both groups have a long and venerable relationship with the land that should be honored.

But peace is not possible because Israel has no interest in peace: it is happy to discuss peace while it continues to expand settlements in the West Bank. So long as that continues, there is no incentive for the Israelis in peace.

Do these statements mark me as an anti-Semite? If so, plenty of American and Israeli Jews must be anti-Semitic, because they share my criticism of Israeli governmental policies and actions.

My humanist values lead me to grant equal respect and dignity to Palestinians and Jews alike. The only just solution, then, is one state in which Jews and Muslims figure out how to live together for their mutual survival and prosperity. For this to happen, each group must recognize the right of the other to exist. Pie in the sky? Perhaps, but better than to continue on the nihilistic path both parties are pursuing.

Walter Ehrhardt
Knoxville, Maryland

👍 Where in the entire Mid East is there an Arab/Muslim nation that can match what Israeli society offers its citizens? If life in Israel is so oppressive, then one is hard-pressed to explain why there is not a mass exodus of Arabs from Israel to supposedly enlightened, non-oppressive neighboring Muslim states.

Even when Israel was besieged externally by six well-armed and trained armies and even internal enemies, in a war for survival from the day it was being born, Israel never restricted free speech or prevented the judiciary from doing its job. This is in sharp contrast to what occurred in Singapore, in the 1960s, when Lee Kuan Yew curtailed Singaporeans’ civil liberties and muted dissent as he consolidated power. Though he was not under attack from surrounding enemies, he jailed political rivals without trials and sued journalists and rivals. He limited free speech and public protest, allegedly to maintain social and political stability in a multi-ethnic, multi-racial nation. These restrictions lasted for decades. Yet, the cynical disparagers of Israel were silent. One could only imagine the outcry if Israel ever behaved in a similar manner.

Instead of taking delight that there is a civilized nation that protects civil liberties in the midst of all this horror and uncivilized behavior affecting its national survival, critics like Tom Flynn unmercifully attack it, heap vitriol on it, curse it, and claim that it has no right to exist because they perceive a flaw in its society. Yet they say nothing about other nations that have flaws far worse than the perceived inequity in Israel. No nation on Earth is perfect. Every nation discriminates, even the United States. Yet, not one, save Israel, is vilified by Flynn. He and others seem to demand perfection from Israel.

Sheldon Gottlieb
By e-mail

👎 One big problem with coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that quite often people start at a cherry-picked place in the narrative that conveniently fits the argument they’re trying to make. Getting people to side with the economically, culturally, politically, militarily advanced Israeli society (the members of whom tend to speak perfect English) by painting them merely as ingenious, hard-working, innocent folks who just want to be left alone in peace is easy to do, provided you don’t have a conscience or are simply deluded yourself. Getting people to look at the Palestinians as crude Stone-Age miscreants prone to violent behavior is likewise easy to do. All you have to do is start in the middle of the story.

To tell the story in full, you have to include the part where the Zionists stole land from the indigenous people because some ancient holy text told them it was OK (theocracy?) and subsequently repopulated it with people of the “proper” ethnicity (racism). With this perspective, we can now more fully understand how those original indigenous masses (who got left with pretty much nothing) would do anything to get back what is rightfully theirs. Let’s face it, when you beat the living crap out of somebody repeatedly it shouldn’t be a great surprise that they might eventually become aggressive in order to rectify what they view as a grave injustice. It doesn’t matter how much the Israelis have made the desert bloom or how much social progress they’ve made, it’s not their land (leaving aside a small minority among Jewish families who were living there at the time the British took over). When Hamas fires rockets into Israel, from their point of view, they’re not firing on Israelis on Israeli land; they’re firing on interlopers who have illegitimately usurped their property. I’m not advocating or justifying violence, by the way, only trying to clarify the facts.

The creation of Israel is the classic “might makes right” story, and I’m pretty certain this kind of behavior is not in line with humanist values. Although our system of civil justice here in the United States is painfully flawed, I firmly believe that the principles are sound and that a civil trial based on fundamental U.S. legal precedent that pitted the Zionists against the Palestinians regarding property ownership would absolutely conclude with the ruling that the land belongs to the Palestinians and not the Israelis.

Scott Snyder
By e-mail

🤜 The initial April/May 2015 articles in Free Inquiry concerning Middle East deadlock largely dealt with the rights and wrongs of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Such an approach has been, and almost certainly will continue to be, unproductive, because too many people on each side of that conflict are unshakably convinced that they are right and their opponents are wrong. Much like arguments between committed believers and nonbelievers over the existence of a deity or deities, morality-based arguments are futile in this situation.

I suggest trying a different approach to accomplish an aim of United States foreign policy that I think is shared by all people of goodwill: maximizing the chances for peaceful coexistence in the Middle East. Instead of arguing over rights and wrongs, many of them historical, we should focus on the realities of the situation as a way to convince people to end the stalemate. Three realities in the Middle East might change people’s positions if properly presented:

Reality No. 1: Because Israel is a nuclear weapons state, it cannot be conquered. Although Israel has never acknowledged possessing nuclear weapons, its nuclear arsenal has generally been estimated to include from one hundred to two hundred such weapons. Israel also has the means of delivering such weapons. Thus, even if Israel’s regional antagonists achieved conventional military superiority, Israeli nuclear weapons could be used to destroy those conventional forces. And of course, Israel could also strike the homelands of any invaders with nuclear weapons.

Reality No. 2: Israel can be destroyed. Nuclear capability is a sword, not a shield, except to the extent that it deters. If deterrence fails, nuclear weapons directed against Israel could render that country uninhabitable. Other weapons of mass destruction, such as biological weapons, could also be used.

Reality No. 3: As time passes, the likelihood of Israel’s regional antagonists acquiring nuclear weapons will almost certainly increase. Considered together, these realities establish that there is no good long-term military solution in the Middle East, and that over time, the chances of a deterrence failure resulting in nuclear warfare will likely increase. In short, the Israelis and their antagonists are living in a house that has been smoldering for decades, has seen periodic outbreaks of relatively small fires in the form of conventional warfare, and could burn down completely if nuclear weapons are used. Therefore, efforts should be made to switch the focus of the Middle East debate from “who is right” to “who wants their society to continue to exist.” Such a tack is worth trying in the Middle East and it cannot fail any more spectacularly than the decades-long focus on rights and wrongs.

Barry Wolf
By e-mail

🤜 I am a Jewish secular humanist. (Judaism is a culture as well as a religion.) Israel was founded as a Jewish state although many Israelis are secular. After the Holocaust, the Jewish people wanted their own nation where they could live in safety.I see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict not as a religious war but as two nations fighting for land, resources, and in the case of the Palestinians, freedom and autonomy. They want freedom from Israeli occupation, checkpoints, expanding Jewish settlements, and in the case of Gaza, sealed borders. I agree with Guillermo Kuhl (“Criticizing Zionist Crimes Is Not Anti-Semitic,” FI, April/May 2015) that criticizing Israeli war crimes such as the recent assault on Gaza is not anti-Semitism.Is Zionism a form of racism? That depends on how it is practiced. Netanyahu recently criticized the Arab minority in Israel for going to the polls to vote. That was racism, but it is not racist for the Jewish people to want their own state where they can live in peace and security.

The problem that they face is how to have a Zionist state and also a democracy. Attorney Joseph Avesar has advanced the idea of a confederation, two states under a joint federal government similar to the United States. The president and vice president, one Israeli and one Palestinian, would alternate every few years. Israel, Palestine, and the United States—Israel’s prime supporter—need to think outside of the box and find a solution that grants peace, freedom, and autonomy to both nations and promotes cooperation that will benefit both nations.

Ruth Shapin
Orange, California

🤜 Instead of steadfastly defending “one side” of the issue or another, as an atheist and secular humanist (with Jewish ancestry), I believe that we should condemn violence and oppression no matter who engages in them. Palestinian groups and others in the region should not be calling for the destruction of Israel, committing terrorist attacks, promoting anti-Semitism, and the like. Clearly, such actions do not help the Palestinian cause. At the same time, while Israel has the right to exist, its government does not have the right to violate international law and hold people under occupation, bomb civilian populations—including those in apartments, hospitals, and schools—limit access to water and employment, discriminate based on religion, allow continued settlement-building, and so on. These actions, in my view, do not promote Israel’s security, either.

Secular humanists and others who do not want religious zealotry or hegemonic geopolitical interests to drive policy can work with peace movements in the region, the United Nations, and others to assert global norms regarding human rights, nonviolent social change, the rejection of religious and other bigotry, and so on, in order to push for an agreement that prevents the killing of more Israelis or Palestinians and establishes a lasting peace. This would be a tall order—and I am not all that optimistic—but insistence on remaining stuck within the same debates/talking points will get us nowhere.

Nathan Pino
By e-mail

Readers sound off on Israel, Palestine, and the Middle East. The second of two parts.

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