Why Don’t I Criticize Israel?

Listen to the audio here.

AUDIO TRANSCRIPT [Note: This is a verbatim transcript of a spoken podcast. However, I have added notes like this one to clarify controversial points.—SH]

I was going to do a podcast on a series of questions, but I got so many questions on the same topic that I think I’m just going to do a single response here, and we’ll do the #AskMeAnything next time.

The question I’ve now received in many forms goes something like this: Why is it that you never criticize Israel? Why is it that you never criticize Judaism? Why is it that you always take the side of the Israelis over that of the Palestinians?

Now, this is an incredibly boring and depressing question for a variety of reasons. The first, is that I have criticized both Israel and Judaism. What seems to have upset many people is that I’ve kept some sense of proportion. There are something like 15 million Jews on earth at this moment; there are a hundred times as many Muslims. I’ve debated rabbis who, when I have assumed that they believe in a God that can hear our prayers, they stop me mid-sentence and say, “Why would you think that I believe in a God who can hear prayers?” So there are rabbis—conservative rabbis—who believe in a God so elastic as to exclude every concrete claim about Him—and therefore, nearly every concrete demand upon human behavior. And there are millions of Jews, literally millions among the few million who exist, for whom Judaism is very important, and yet they are atheists. They don’t believe in God at all. This is actually a position you can hold in Judaism, but it’s a total non sequitur in Islam or Christianity.

So, when we’re talking about the consequences of irrational beliefs based on scripture, the Jews are the least of the least offenders. But I have said many critical things about Judaism. Let me remind you that parts of Hebrew Bible—books like Leviticus and Exodus and Deuteronomy—are the most repellent, the most sickeningly unethical documents to be found in any religion. They’re worse than the Koran. They’re worse than any part of the New Testament. But the truth is, most Jews recognize this and don’t take these texts seriously. It’s simply a fact that most Jews and most Israelis are not guided by scripture—and that’s a very good thing.

Of course, there are some who are. There are religious extremists among Jews. Now, I consider these people to be truly dangerous, and their religious beliefs are as divisive and as unwarranted as the beliefs of devout Muslims. But there are far fewer such people.

For those of you who worry that I never say anything critical about Israel: My position on Israel is somewhat paradoxical. There are questions about which I’m genuinely undecided. And there’s something in my position, I think, to offend everyone. So, acknowledging how reckless it is to say anything on this topic, I’m nevertheless going to think out loud about it for a few minutes.

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. I certainly don’t support any Jewish claims to real estate based on the Bible. [Note: Read this paragraph again.]

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. So, if there were going to be a state organized around protecting members of a single religion, it certainly should be a Jewish state. Now, friends of Israel might consider this a rather tepid defense, but it’s the strongest one I’ve got. I think the idea of a religious state is ultimately untenable. [Note: It is worth observing, however, that Israel isn’t “Jewish” in the sense that Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are “Muslim.” As my friend Jerry Coyne points out, Israel is actually less religious than the U.S., and it guarantees freedom of religion. Israel is not a theocracy, and one could easily argue that its Jewish identity is more cultural than religious. However, if we ask why the Jews wouldn’t move to British Columbia if offered a home there, we can see the role that religion still plays in their thinking.]

Needless to say, in defending its territory as a Jewish state, the Israeli government and Israelis themselves have had to do terrible things. They have, as they are now, fought wars against the Palestinians that have caused massive losses of innocent life. More civilians have been killed in Gaza in the last few weeks than militants. That’s not a surprise because Gaza is one of the most densely populated places on Earth. Occupying it, fighting wars in it, is guaranteed to get woman and children and other noncombatants killed. And there’s probably little question over the course of fighting multiple wars that the Israelis have done things that amount to war crimes. They have been brutalized by this process—that is, made brutal by it. But that is largely the due to the character of their enemies. [Note: I was not giving Israel a pass to commit war crimes. I was making a point about the realities of living under the continuous threat of terrorism and of fighting multiple wars in a confined space.]

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