Dispatches from the Empire

Sam Harris’s Fairy-Tale Account of the Israel-Hamas Conflict

…Harris’s insistence on attributing Hamas’s violence entirely to apolitical motivations reflects a broader tendency to reduce the Israel-Palestine conflict into a simple, “good” versus “evil” binary. At one point in his monologue, Harris argues that “if the Palestinians put down their weapons, there would be peace; if the Israelis put down their weapons, there would be a genocide.” But this is only true in the most facile sense. In the West Bank, which is governed by a secular Palestinian Authority that cooperates with Israel, the Palestinians have largely abstained from terroristic resistance. Yet putting down their weapons has won them repression and dispossession by a Jewish supremacist settler movement, not peace. Of course, if Palestinians gamely submit to indefinite occupation, then there may be “peace” in some sense of the word. But it would not be the sort of peace that any Israeli would find tolerable were they put in the Palestinians’ position.

A counterpoint to my previous post about Sam Harris.

If it’s not obvious, this conflict has long been important to me. Many years ago, it motivated me to take college classes on the region, and not long after, to live in both Israel and Palestine for a lengthy stint.

My allegiance then was firmly pro-Palestinian. I saw this conflict, as many on the Left now do, as a simple binary: Israel has the power, and therefore they are not to be trusted. Palestinians have no power, and therefore I must sympathize with them. This speaks to something deep within me — a near-pathological desire to sympathize with people I perceive as overlooked, ignored, on the fringe, without power. Old dogs, small towns, mountain cabins… I’m not really all that complicated.

I haven’t had a strong opinion about the Middle East in many years. My attention and anxiety are now domestic, and while the events of October 7 changed that to some degree, I’m far more interested in how the effects of that day play in my own country than I am in hashing out the decades- and centuries-long grievances — and the very hard work to be done by all sides of this conflict — in the Levant itself. (In this way, I’m hopelessly American, perpetually gazing at my own navel.)

But since October 7th, I’m stunned by how powerful the Palestinians have become. No, obviously not militarily, but culturally, here on the American Left, support for the Palestinian people is de rigueur. In some ways, I find this thrilling — everything I felt so strongly all those years ago now seems to be in vogue.

Yet any time there’s a big social swing, I’m inherently skeptical. I do not trust the mechanisms of social media and how they magnify or perpetuate certain narratives, and more importantly, I’ve lost faith in the American Left over the last several years to rise above the fray. At risk of beating a dead horse, a political movement I once thought to be grounded in pluralism, liberalism, and equality has become something else entirely, something that feels like a naked grab for power. (And, though I resent having to, I feel obligated to say that my mistrust the Left does not mean I endorse the Right.)

So now that the Palestinian cause is front-and-center on social media, I’m not sure what to think. And I’m horrified by the corollary rise in anti-semitism. Young people on American college campuses calling for the eradication of Israel? Really? Much like Sam Harris, I’m morally opposed to any religious state, be it Jewish, Christian, Hindu or Muslim, and while I think far too many people willfully conflate anti-Zionism (which is legitimate) with anti-semitism (which is not) in order to blunt criticism of Israel’s policies, I cannot fathom how the eradication of the state of Israel seems at all like a legitimate outcome of this conflict.

And yet…

I was once twenty-one. I had strong opinions about this region, some of which were grounded in reality and others born of emotion. To my credit, I traveled to the Middle East and lived there, living in both Palestinian refugee camps and on Israeli kibbutzim. I saw things with my own eyes and came to some conclusions. If I didn’t have the restraint to admit that I didn’t know what I didn’t know, how can I expect anyone else to do the same?

I want so badly to trust my fellow humans. The young tend to be open and the old tend to be wise. In my middling age, I’m not sure where I fit anymore.