There are hyper-controversial subjects, and there are emotionally charged ones. Then there’s the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is both. And that’s something of an understatement.
In my new book, What Justice Demands: America and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, I offer an argument about the essential nature of the conflict, what has fueled it for so long, and America’s stake in it. It’s a vast, complex subject, and naturally there are many aspects, issues, and questions that I could deal with only partly, or that I had to put to one side. What’s more, in analyzing the issue, I adopt a secular, individualist moral framework, a framework informed by Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism. Consequently, the argument I present in the book pushes back against prevailing views of the conflict and America’s approach to it.
So, from the outset, I expected objections, questions, and disagreement. And I welcome such engagement.
In this essay, I take up five challenges to What Justice Demands and my approach in it—but without assuming that you’ve read the book. Clearly, you’ll gain more if you’ve already engaged with the book, but if you have yet to pick up a copy, this article will give you a flavor of the book’s distinctive perspective and value.
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1. Isn’t it wiser to walk away?
Q. Wouldn’t we be wiser—and safer—if we stopped interfering and left the tribes to their conflict?
No, because this conflict is not fundamentally about two tribes fighting over one piece of land. The conflict is essentially ideological. It’s a clash between a basically free society and movements and regimes hostile to human freedom and progress. Therefore it’s a grave mistake to think that by turning our back on the Middle East and suspending our judgment, we can make ourselves safer. Far from it. Part of what I show in the book is that to the extent U.S. policymakers disregarded the demands of justice in their approach to the conflict, they made matters worse and empowered our regional enemies. Any sensible policy requires that we be guided by a serious commitment to the principle of justice in understanding the conflict and evaluating the adversaries.
Since the question presupposes a misconception about the nature of the conflict, I’ll start by focusing on that. To view the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as just a quarrel over one piece of land fails to recognize the fundamental nature of this conflict. Such a characterization is about as accurate as saying that the American Civil War was about “states’ rights.” It obscures the fundamental moral issue. Clearly, the Civil War was about a momentous issue: the evil institution of slavery. Correspondingly, I show in my book that when you zero in on the actual nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, what you find is a clash between freedom and tyranny. And it matters a lot. It’s an inescapable fact that turmoil in that part of the world affects us.
It’s true that Israel and its various adversaries have fought over claims over one piece of land. And, certainly, tribalism—and more broadly, collectivism—does figure prominently in the conflict, a point that I explore in the book (and I’ll say a bit more about this below). But the pivotal question about the land is what each side seeks to do with it, which is a moral-political question. What kind of society does each seek to build on it? And the yardstick that applies here is the moral ideal of human freedom.
Israel’s political-legal system is predicated on the idea that government should protect the lives and freedom of individuals. Even with Israel’s many faults and shortcomings, which I discuss at length in the book, it is the region’s only free society. It respects the rule of law, it protects intellectual freedom—notably, the freedom of speech and the freedom of religion. It enables individuals to live and act by their own judgment, protecting their freedom to pursue their own success and thrive. By contrast, a common denominator among Israel’s adversaries across decades is that in their political vision and actual practice, they’re hostile to human freedom and progress. They are dictatorships, monarchies, and theocracies. They are variations on one distinct theme: religious subjugation of the individual.
Go back seventy years, for example, to the war over Israel’s independence in 1948. Israel’s main adversaries then were dictatorial Muslim regimes. The aim of the five invading regimes—Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan,1 and Iraq—was to expand their own dominions by conquering the land known as Palestine. That tract of land is desirable militarily and commercially, offering ports on the Mediterranean and Red Seas. A principal, if not the overriding, aim of these five authoritarian regimes was to arrogate to themselves the spoils of war. Had the invading regimes won, they would have extended their authoritarian and dictatorial rule over the people on that land.
In later phases of the conflict between Israel and its adversaries, you can see some of the same dictatorial regimes and their allies, including in due course the Palestinian movement, seeking to dominate human lives and to “liquidate” Israel.
There’s abundant evidence that the Palestinian movement’s various factions sought to create their own authoritarian regimes—and in fact, they did so to the extent they gained even a modicum of self-rule, for example in the Palestinian Authority (1993–present).
The vanguard of the Palestinian cause is now the Islamists, notably Hamas, and their declared aim is to establish a totalitarian regime under Islamic religious law. That’s the perverse ideal that Hamas has worked to realize within its quasi-state in the Gaza Strip (2007–present). Standing behind Hamas and kindred groups is a leader of the jihadist movement, the Islamic totalitarian regime in Iran.
There’s much more to say about the conflict’s nature, but here’s one important takeaway. The conflict is best understood as a clash between a basically free society, Israel—and regimes and movements hostile to human life and freedom.
Why does this matter to us? Part of the answer I lay out in my book is that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become nested within the wider clash between free societies and the Islamist movement.
The fact of the matter is that Osama Bin Laden, the ayatollahs of Iran, and other jihadists have long viewed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as one of their battlefronts, and they have used it (along with other issues) as a means of recruitment. Their hostility to Israel stems fundamentally from their ideological conviction that Muslims must dominate everywhere, notably including in Palestine. It is this same outlook that shapes their hostility to America (which Iran has long vilified as the “Great Satan”).
The Islamists rail against American foreign policy, including U.S. support for Israel. But neither an American departure from the region, nor even the cessation of Washington’s backing of Israel, would pacify the Islamists. In another essay at New Ideal and in my book, I have argued that their basic objection is that we’re unbelievers, everything we do is an affront, and, in the end, it is they who should dominate, in the name of religious totalitarianism.
Turning our back to this reality cannot advance American interests, precisely because the conflict is far more than a quarrel between two tribes.
The failure of American policymakers to take seriously what justice demands in dealing with the conflict—at times suspending moral judgment, at times practicing moral neutrality—has led to disastrous results. In the book I show at length how our policy in the region generally, and regarding Israel in particular, has failed to advance our interests. In fact, our policy has sold out the ideal of freedom, while enabling and strengthening our enemies, chiefly the jihadists. Everyone who values freedom should stand alongside genuine freedom-seekers—within Israel, among the Palestinian community, across the Middle East—and against our common enemies.
2. Isn’t it a deadlocked, unsolvable conflict?
Q. Who are you writing for? Seriously, do you really believe there are people open to changing their minds on this hyper-partisan, deadlocked, and basically unsolvable issue?
I hear you. The conflict does appear unsolvable. For sure, some folks in the debate often shout past each other, putting out articles and books that “preach to the choir” rather than seeking to convince the undecided.
But I challenge the assumption behind the question. I reject the idea that people are unreachable; perhaps some are, but certainly not everyone, and in fact, some are particularly receptive to a new perspective. And, as I argue in the book, despite the enormous work required to do it, the conflict itself is solvable—but only if we understand the nature of the conflict and what a just solution actually looks like.
I’ll say a couple of things about the book’s audience, and then connect that to the pursuit of a just solution, which entails resetting our expectations of the timescale involved.
First, the audience. I address active-minded readers who hold widely ranging political-ideological views. Whichever tags—left/right or conservative/libertarian/progressive—resonate with you, that’s OK. If, like me, none of those tags fits you, that’s fine too. There’s no pre-existing “choir,” no entrenched group seeking affirmation of their views, for which I wrote this book. It doesn’t matter what views (if any) readers already have about the conflict. What matters is that they’re open to questioning assumptions and forming (or revising) their own conclusions.
Cynics might wonder if such active-minded readers exist. Let me assure you: they do. They care about right and wrong, they’ve heard various claims about the conflict, but they want to understand it and form their own independent evaluation of it. The book is tailored to such readers.
That said, if I were offered a blank check to spend on maximizing the book’s impact, I would focus above all on putting as many copies of the book as possible into the hands of students. And I’d look for opportunities to connect with them at in-person and online events, investing in educating them on the related issues.
The reason is that this particular audience is a force multiplier for impacting cultural-political issues in America—emphatically including our approach to the Middle East.
Notice that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a perennial flashpoint on campus, not only in the quads, but also—indeed, especially—in lecture halls. The issue is framed in terms that resonate with the (admirable) idealism of students, but the prevailing moral framing of the issue that they encounter leads them astray. The book speaks to their idealism directly.
It’s crucial that we take justice seriously, but most people rely on a conception of justice that’s wrong. The book explains what it looks like to properly apply the principle of justice to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the course of doing so, the book corrects major confusions and misconceptions about the conflict. What it offers students is a rational perspective that embraces the ideal of justice.
By imparting to students better ideas and perspectives on this issue, it is possible to influence the views of future writers, teachers, journalists, professors, politicians, voters. This in turn paves the road for necessary long-term cultural-political changes. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is solvable, and we can secure American interests in the Middle East, but there’s no shortcut. It will take time. This is all the more reason to invest especially in reaching young Gen Xers, millennials and college students, now. I hope my book contributes to that goal.
3. Why distinguish Palestinians from the Palestinian movement?
Q. In the book, you talk about both the Palestinian people and the Palestinian movement, which champions their cause. You emphasize that this ideological-political movement is distinct, and should be distinguished, from the people it claims to speaks for. Why do you stress the need to differentiate them?
Because it’s a crucial aspect of taking justice seriously. We need to disentangle the Palestinian movement from the wider Palestinian population, in significant part because many of them are victims of the movement.
Taking justice seriously means adopting an individualist, rather than a collectivist, perspective on the conflict and the adversaries in it. For the same reason, I’m at pains to note the various problems with thinking in terms of “Arabs” and “Jews”—terms that push us to view people not as individuals, but as somehow interchangeable members of collectives.
If we think of people in collectivized terms, we distance ourselves from the facts of the matter and cloud our thinking. Such a perspective elevates unchosen group membership while depreciating, if not erasing, the real, consequential differences among individuals stemming from their chosen outlook on the world, and their other individual choices. One danger of adopting a collectivized perspective is that it can lead you to assume that everyone within that group somehow thinks alike, and thus fail to evaluate them as individuals.
To make sense of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it’s vital to analyze the Palestinian movement, which came to prominence about fifty years ago, and to understand its relationship with the wider community of people who identify themselves as Palestinians. The ideological-political movement claims that it is avenging wrongs done to the Palestinian people, and that it speaks for them with one voice. What I show in the book, however, is that the movement seeks not to right wrongs but to inflict them. And it’s false that the movement speaks for everyone in that community. Which is another reason not to think of Palestinians in collective terms.
A key point I develop in the book is that the Palestinian movement’s defining claim—that it fights to redress grievances of Palestinians against Israel—is a lie. I examine major Palestinian grievances in depth, evaluating their validity, and indicating how actual wrongs—those involving violations of individual rights—should be redressed. None of the actual wrongs, it’s worth noting, justifies the violent actions and aims of the Palestinian movement. And, crucially, the Palestinian movement has exhibited no real concern with righting any actual wrongs. Even worse, it has magnified existing problems and inflicted its own injustices. The Palestinian movement is divided between would-be quasi-secular dictators and Islamist theocrats, and it exploits its own people, disposing of their lives as cheap.
Many within the Palestinian community do embrace the movement’s ideological vision. Some of the evidence for that: Yasser Arafat, the longtime leader of the movement, was widely celebrated as a hero; opinion polls have demonstrated widespread support for the movement’s basic agenda. Further: some followers have volunteered to become suicide bombers, crowdsourced murderers, and human shields. Many more endorse, facilitate, and abet the movement’s violent attacks.
But not all of them do, nor was it always this way. Some of the Palestinian movement’s unrecognized victims are individuals living under its subjugation and indoctrination. Specifically, I mean those individuals (however few now remain) who genuinely want peace, justice, and freedom for themselves and everyone else—emphatically including Israelis.
It is vital in many contexts, therefore, to differentiate the Palestinian movement from the community it purports to speak for.
4. What about “stolen” Arab land?
Q. You argue that Israel’s founders acquired land by buying it through trade, but isn’t there still a sense in which the land was “stolen”? Wasn’t it properly “Arab” land? Doesn’t justice demand addressing that issue?
There’s a mistaken assumption that I reject behind the grievance framed in terms of “Arab” lands. Let me explain the context surrounding this issue, and then indicate why I think it is peripheral to the book’s central argument.
The longest chapter in the book, chapter 3, is about Palestinian grievances, and the first I explore is a claim about “stolen” land. The issue arose in the early twentieth century, mainly in the decades before Israel’s independence (1948). I show how during that period, Israel’s founders acquired land through purchases from local landowners (they are typically described as “Arabs,” a nebulous term that encompasses Muslims, Christians and others; ultimately, the term “Arab” is undefinable, so I flag it here in quotes, and analyze it in detail in the book). There are other claims of “stolen” land, and I deal with some of them later in the same chapter (for example, in connection with Israeli “settlements”). But there’s one version of that claim about “stolen” land that I chose not to address in the book.
In briefest summary, it’s the idea that in some broad sense the land of Palestine belonged to “Arabs” collectively. They are taken to be the indigenous and therefore rightful possessors of lands to which they have collective ancestral bonds—regardless of property rights and quite apart from sales of land through voluntary exchange. To this is added the enormously complicating factor of Britain’s rule over the area in the early twentieth century, and the British government’s policy toward Palestine, the Jews, and Arab leaders. Put these two points together, and the resulting claim is that the land “belonged” to the Arabs, and the British government cheated them out of it by committing it to the Jews.
Let me say a few words about why I chose to leave this claim out of the book. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict and America’s involvement in it is a vast subject, and every book must be delimited to certain aspects of its subject. I deal with major episodes in the history of that conflict to illuminate the present, but my book is not about that history. Nor did I seek to be comprehensive in covering every feature and sub-issue of the conflict. Instead, my aim was to identify what I judge to be essential features of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, explain the nature and causes of the conflict, and present an analysis of what America’s approach to it should be.
I decided that while there are important historical issues bound up in this particular claim of “stolen” land (on which I’ll say more in a moment), it was peripheral to my book’s central question. Whichever view you take of that claim, that does not alter the moral character and malignant aims of the dictatorial regimes and movements that sought, and continue to seek, to liquidate Israel’s free society today. Nor can it fundamentally alter Israel’s moral standing today.
But it’s worth pausing to indicate my view of this particular claim about “stolen” land. Basically, I reject the claim’s moral premise. I reject the idea that any group of people can lay claim to collective proprietorship over some tract of land on the grounds, not of the moral-political principle of property rights (even in rudimentary form), but rather on the basis of having merely been born on it or having ancestral links to it. Such assertions are, in my view, baseless. An assumption underlying such assertions is that one should think of in terms of collectives, rather than individuals. This is a recipe for strife, which the principle of property rights obviates. Moreover, such collectivist claims to land based on heredity or ancestral links often reflect a xenophobic, or worse, motivation: the desire to exclude “outsiders” precisely because they differ from your racial or tribal group.
Can groups of individuals work in association, acquire property rights in land, and own it jointly? Yes, of course. But that’s in sharp contrast to what’s being asserted in the claim that the land in some sense naturally “belongs” to a collective, whether hereditary or religious—and the hazy term “Arab” combines elements of both.
There’s a further, distinct issue of evaluating the policy of the British government toward the “Arab” population, their leaders, and the Zionists (Zionism was an ideologically variegated movement seeking to create a homeland for “Jews” and whose leaders included atheists, secularists, and religionists). Based on my reading, I find the claim that the British sided with the Zionists and against the Arabs to be unconvincing. British policy was inconsistent, bigoted, and often dishonest, and in the run-up to Israel’s independence, you can discern a pattern of appeasement—of both adversaries, on various issues. My point here is not to present a detailed evaluation of British policy; rather, it’s to note that the British made many serious errors and were guilty of moral failings, too (for example, they blocked Jewish immigrants fleeing World War II from entering Palestine).
To convey how I view this issue, let me frame it in terms of a thought-experiment. Suppose you could travel back in time and decide the future of the area that later became Israel. How would you evaluate these two paths: One path honors a collective claim of Arabs over the land, aiming to preserve traditional, stagnant, authoritarian modes of living. Another endorses the formation of a new free society that makes possible economic development and human progress for individuals of any ancestry and creed.
5. How can an atheist back a religious state?
Q. You’re an atheist, and yet you call for supporting Israel—a self-defined “Jewish” state? Isn’t that utterly hypocritical?
I am an atheist, and in the book I lay out a case for supporting Israel against our common, particularly Islamist, foes—not because of any Biblical claims to the land, but despite Israel’s religious aspect. I argue for backing it in the name of a secular, individualist moral principle: the principle of individual freedom.
If one values human life, freedom, and progress, then one should stand with Israel—as well as with everyone else in the region who seeks genuine freedom, including those among the Palestinian population who do. By the same token, one should stand against the movements and regimes hostile to freedom. I argue that we should support Israel precisely because (and to the extent that) it respects and upholds freedom.
Freedom is a rare and precious political value that we, like all other nations, need to live up to and champion. We should recognize and celebrate the momentous achievement of any country that actually protects individual freedom—and in the Mideast, Israel is the only country that does so. Israel, like the world’s other free societies, is riddled with political problems and flaws, including a distinctive tension over religion’s place in politics, which I examine in the book. I view Israel’s religion-state tension as a serious problem. But significant though Israel’s problems and flaws are, they are worlds away from the pervasive dictatorship, authoritarianism, and theocracy of the Middle East.
What I argue in the book is that we should recognize Israel’s fundamental nature as a free society, and lend it our moral endorsement so long as that remains a defining feature.
That’s a standard that we should apply to any country. If a country’s political character changes—if, say, it veers toward authoritarianism, as in the case of Turkey—we’d have to change our assessment of and relationship with it. Conversely, if an authoritarian regime moves toward genuine freedom, such a welcome change must factor into our approach and policy toward it.
The argument I lay out in the book contrasts sharply with viewpoints invoking the Bible’s say-so, looming End Times, or any other supernatural dogma. Instead, my argument is predicated on upholding—and thus exhibiting integrity to—the secular, individualist moral principle of freedom.
What makes this book’s viewpoint so distinctive
Soon after I finished writing What Justice Demands, I was discussing the book with a colleague, who asked me, “Why do you resist calling this a ‘pro-Israel’ book?” My answer: because the conventional meaning of that term (like the corresponding term “pro-Palestinian”) is unhelpful. My view contrasts starkly with views commonly tagged with that label.
The label tells you vaguely about the conclusion someone holds, but not the basis for that view, whether the reasons for it are sound, or what the view entails in practice. Compounding the problem, it suggests that there’s some uniformity among views deemed to be “pro-Israel,” when in fact there is no such uniformity. On the contrary. Four different people can hold what appears to be the same conclusion—but for four different reasons, which may be good, mixed, bad, or thoroughly irrational. For example, some people are avidly “pro-Israel” because they see that country’s religious elements as fulfilling Biblical prophecy. By contrast, my book argues for supporting Israel despite its religious aspects—and I’m critical of its lack of a separation between religion and state. Fundamentally, my book is pro-individual and pro-freedom.
What I’ve tried to impress upon you in this essay is that my book offers a distinctive analysis, and it is distinctive precisely because of the reasons for my conclusions. Underlying my approach is the individualist moral perspective of Objectivism, the philosophy of Ayn Rand. That, in the end, is what makes the book stand out so sharply in the intellectual landscape.
I invite you to engage with the book’s argument. Once you do, I expect you’ll have comments, questions, criticisms, objections. Please, send them my way. I always learn from such feedback, and while I cannot promise to respond to each note individually, I’ll look for opportunities to address points of general interest.
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