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Why humanists should stand with Israel and with the people of Gaza for a better future

By David Warden

David is the humanist representative on the Bournemouth & Poole Holocaust Memorial Day Committee. In this article he challenges what he believes to be a "false narrative" about the Israel-Gaza conflict.

A wise friend recently wrote to me, expressing the view that "there is justifiable right and grave wrong on both sides and maintaining equipoise is difficult, but IMHO essential. I think a humanist approach would be to avoid trawling history for right and wrong or justifications for violence and rather focus on the present and the future, the living and the yet to live, and try to promote any solution that serves their flourishing. Neither the Israelis or the Palestinians are likely to flourish in conditions of conflict. If only they could realise that... Maintaining neutrality... is most certainly challenging. None the less, I think that neutrality and a focus on lives and the living should be the humanist way." If neutrality means avoiding polarised positions, and being able to see right and wrong on both sides, then yes, neutrality is a good thing for humanists to aim for. But neutrality cannot mean, for example, holding that there is a moral equivalence between a pogrom by terrorists and a military response to that pogrom, or simply holding that both sides are as bad as each other. Some moral and factual distinctions need to be drawn.

My main purpose in writing this article, however, is to challenge what I believe to be a false narrative about Israel which, either in part or in whole, seems to be behind the mass pro-Palestinian demonstrations we are seeing all over the world. It goes something like this:

"Israel is an expression of white colonialism and occupation which was facilitated after the Second World War in order to appease European guilt for centuries of anti-Semitism culminating in the Holocaust. It necessitated the brutal ethnic cleansing of indigenous Palestinians who have been displaced, oppressed, and subjected to an apartheid regime for the last 75 years. When we say 'Palestine is occupied' we mean the whole of Palestine – 'from the river to the sea'. Hamas are freedom fighters and, whilst we condemn the brutality of their attack on 7th October, it 'didn't happen in a vacuum'. Israel is now committing war crimes by collectively punishing innocent Palestinian civilians in Gaza including women, children, and babies. It even attacks hospitals claiming that Hamas uses them for military operations. Its response is wildly disproportionate – many more Palestinians have died in the subsequent response than Israelis who were killed on 7th October. We demand a ceasefire now to stop the killing. We're not anti-Semitic. We just hate Zionists."

Some readers may object to me calling this a "narrative". They may see it as a factual account of reality. OK, well let's hypothesise for now that it could be a false narrative derived from ideology and propaganda rather than from history. Humanists are supposed to be critical thinkers and we should cultivate the ability to deconstruct narratives and myths, especially when they deliver a dopamine reward by making us believe that we are the good guys "on the right side of history". If, after honest critical analysis, you want to insist that what I am calling a false narrative is, in fact, a true narrative then I will be interested to hear your arguments.

So why I am arguing that this is a false narrative? For more of the background you may wish to read my article Unravelling the Israel-Palestine Puzzle: An Historical Perspective which was published in last month's issue. What I will do here is make some further general points in response to the narrative outlined above.

The claim that Israel fits the pattern of Western imperialism and colonialism is an ideological claim, based on anti-colonial theory, which pays little regard to history. In the mid-19th century, Palestine was an undeveloped and underpopulated region of the Ottoman Empire with a mixed population of Jews, Christians and Arab Muslims. Although the majority population was Arab, Jewish migration and economic development from the 1880s onwards created a pull-factor for Arab migration which augmented the indigenous Arab population. The diverse demography of Palestine has always been in dynamic flux.

Jewish nationalism (also known as Zionism) and Palestinian nationalism are legitimate aspirations for self-determination. It's normal and natural for peoples to have their own homeland. The English have England. The French have France. The Kurds would like to create Kurdistan and Sikhs would like to establish Khalistan in the Punjab. Most national homelands are settled, but rival claims over the same territory can create bitter conflicts.

The claim that Israel was set up by the West in order to assuage Western guilt for centuries of anti-Semitism is a piece of amateur psychology. The proposal to partition Palestine and create the State of Israel was made through a formal resolution of the United Nations, General Assembly Resolution 181, also known as the UN Partition Plan for Palestine. 33 countries voted in favour of the resolution including the United States and the Soviet Union. 13 countries voted against the resolution, primarily Arab and Muslim-majority countries. 10 countries abstained from voting, including the UK. The resolution was adopted with a two-thirds majority, which was required for it to pass. In democratic terms, this was a decisive mandate and the State of Israel was declared the following year on 14th May 1948. You may disagree with this result, but the alternative to democracy would have been a non-democratic process.

Referring to the whole of Israel as "an occupation" is motivated by ideology rather than geo-political facts. Israel is "occupying" Palestine in the same way that England is "occupying" a large chunk of Britannia. "Palestine" refers to a geographical region in the Middle East although there are "Palestinian areas" such as the West Bank and Gaza. Israel is occupying the West Bank, but before 1967 the West Bank was occupied by Jordan and before 1948 it was part of the British Empire. Its status as a territory is uncertain and ambiguous. Jewish settlements on the West Bank and the resulting inter-ethnic conflict are widely considered to be impediments to a long-term solution.

A rational and just solution to the conflict has been on the table many times: a two-state solution. This has been rejected by the Arab side numerous times because a Jewish state in the Middle East appears to be an affront to Muslim sensibilities. Historically, Jews have been tolerated as long as they are in a subordinate position and pay a special tax called "jizyah". Islamist groups like Hamas are fighting a jihad against Jews and the State of Israel.

The claim that Israel is "an apartheid state" is tendentious. Arab Israelis have equal rights. Palestinians living in Palestinian areas which are under occupation until a permanent peaceful solution can be found are subject to a security regime which is, by necessity, oppressive. The claim that Gaza is an "open-air prison" is equally tendentious. Gaza is subject to a blockade, primarily imposed by Israel and Egypt, which began in 2007. It was implemented following Hamas's takeover of the Gaza Strip, which raised security concerns for Israel and Egypt. The blockade restricts the movement of people and goods into and out of Gaza, impacting various aspects of life and the economy in the region. Israel states that the blockade is necessary to limit Hamas's ability to arm itself and carry out attacks. Inevitably, it does have a negative impact on the population.

Whether or not Israel is committing war crimes in its response to the 7th October massacre is a matter for international debate. There have been many claims about "collective punishment" and "genocide" but Israel's overriding military aim to defeat Hamas is legitimate. The widely-accepted fact that Hamas uses civilians as human shields, in itself a war crime, means that Hamas bears significant moral responsibility for the resulting civilian deaths. Of course, recognising this does not absolve the Israel Defense Forces of all moral responsibility. They too have a moral obligation to minimise harm to civilians and to avoid indiscriminate attacks. There is, however, no moral equivalence between the deliberate massacre of ordinary people and the unintentional killing of civilians in the pursuit of legitimate war aims (often termed "collateral damage"). Simple comparisons of the death toll on either side can obscure this difference, in addition to the difficulty of making a clear distinction between civilians and combatants.

Calling for a ceasefire is analogous to British people in the Second World War calling for a ceasefire in order to save German civilians from the legitimate aim of defeating Nazism. At the time of writing, however, there is a temporary ceasefire in order to exchange hostages and prisoners and for humanitarian relief.

Palestinian nationalism, as stated above, is a legitimate aspiration. But the type of Palestinian nationalism which seeks the annihilation of Jewish nationalism is causing misery for everyone in the region. It's not Zionism which is the root problem, although extremist elements within Israel are part of the problem. The root problem is jihadism and the main jihadi organisation in Gaza is Hamas. It is in everyone’s interests for Hamas to be defeated and support for this needs to come from the whole international community, including the United Nations and Arab states.

Pro-Palestinian marches in the West give every appearance of being motivated by jihadi propaganda nested within a more generalised anti-Western sentiment. Far from helping the Palestinians to build a better future for themselves, as Germany and Japan were helped to build a better future after the Second World War, jihadism promises more misery and destruction for everyone in the region. Humanists should, of course, be horrified by the destructiveness of war and the humanitarian catastrophe which has overtaken Gaza. Humanists should also be horrified by the barbarity of the pogrom which occurred on 7th October. We should stand with Israel and we should stand with the ordinary people of Gaza who deserve liberation from Islamic extremism. We should strive to construct an accurate narrative of the conflict based on historical facts. The best chance for peace is for the whole world to help set Palestinian nationalism on a more constructive path.

As always, I welcome your feedback and corrections in the comments section below.

Suggested reading and watching

  • Son of Hamas Co-Founder Denounces Group at UN (2023) on YouTube. Mosab Hassan Yousef speech to the United Nations.

  • If Europe Could Do It, So Can the Middle East by Anne-Marie Slaughter (a former director of policy planning in the US State Department) for Project Syndicate (scroll down to find her article).

  • Israelophobia: The Newest Version of the Oldest Hatred and What To Do About It (2023) Jake Wallis Simons, a Middle East security correspondent and Editor of the Jewish Chronicle.

  • The War of Return: How Western Indulgence of the Palestinian Dream Has Obstructed the Path to Peace (2020) Adi Schwartz and Einat Wilf

  • The Palestinian Delusion: The Catastrophic History of the Middle East Peace Process (2019) Robert Spencer

  • Son of Hamas: A Gripping Account of Terror, Betrayal, Political Intrigue, and Unthinkable Choices (2011) Mosab Hassan Yousef and Ron Brackin

Image source

The merged Palestine-Israel flag is from Liberal International

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4 comentários

Jeremy Rodell
14 de dez. de 2023

Thanks David. Indeed the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem saw Hitler as someone who could help his cause. But he was one man (albeit often cited) and the population of Palestine were not responsible for his actions. Unlike Hitler, no one voted for him, and he was a religious figure. Similarly, ordinary Palestinians were not responsible for the actions of the surrounding Arab states in 1948, and there is ample evidence of Zionist fanatics took the opportunity to commit atrocities against them. 80% of the Palestinian population was displaced. Hence it's called "The Nakbha" (The Catastrophe). Sadly, recent Israeli governments under Netanyahu, instead of seeking to heal and build on the Oslo Accords, have oppressed the Palestinians in the West Bank…

David Warden
David Warden
15 de dez. de 2023
Respondendo a

Thanks Jeremy. You make a fair point about the Grand Mufti. I don’t know how widely shared his views were or to what extent this contributed to the Holocaust. You write that “ordinary Palestinians were not responsible for the actions of the surrounding Arab states in 1948”. That’s a rather curious observation given that it was ordinary Arab Palestinians who started a civil war against Jews immediately after their leaders had rejected the UN Partition Plan on 29th November 1947. This consisted of a militia in every village – about 700 of them. Jewish forces were on the defensive for the first four months, partly because the British were still nominally in charge of the place. But from April 1948…


Jeremy Rodell
01 de dez. de 2023

I agree entirely with the overall point that, as humanists, we should recognise the humanity of decent people on both sides, and their suffering, and the fact that the only long term solution - difficult though it may be - is to have two states living in peace and security side by side. Indeed Hamas, Iran and many Islamists hate that idea. We must in particular fight against anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim hate here in the UK resulting from the war.

But the primary - though certainly not sole - underlying cause of the conflict is missing in the article: the great injustice suffered by Palestinians. Jewish people in Europe were victims of awful pogroms in the 19th/early 20th century (my…

David Warden
David Warden
01 de dez. de 2023
Respondendo a

Many thanks for your feedback Jeremy. I’d like to pick up on two points if I may. You state that the Palestinians had no responsibility for the Holocaust. The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem during the early to mid-20th century was Haj Amin al-Husseini. He met with Adolf Hitler and other Nazi leaders during World War II. He sought their support for Arab nationalist goals, including opposition to the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. He was involved in anti-Semitic propaganda efforts, using radio broadcasts and other means to promote Nazi ideology and anti-Jewish sentiments in the Arab world. He played a role in recruiting Muslims in Eastern Europe for the Waffen-SS. Some historians argue that his actions had little…

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