Teaching an Old Liberal New Tricks: How I Learned to Sympathize with Israel  

My mind is far from made up concerning this issue, and maybe this post has been made prematurely. I admit I am no expert, and this issue is not as personal to me as it may be to some of you, so I encourage anyone to post their dissenting opinions in the comments.


There is strong pressure as a Leftist to exclusively support Palestine. Not simply as the lesser evil, but as the pragmatically and morally superior side. To be sure, I am very sympathetic towards Palestine, and I believe they have the moral edge. Israel’s establishment was frankly unjust, and to quote Ben-Gurion himself:

“Why should the Arabs make peace? If I were an Arab leader I would never make terms with Israel. That is natural: we have taken their country. Sure, God promised it to us, but what does that matter to them? Our God is not theirs. We come from Israel, it’s true, but two thousand years ago, and what is that to them? There has been anti-Semitism, the Nazis, Hitler, Auschwitz, but was that their fault? They only see one thing: we have come here and stolen their country. Why should they accept that? They may perhaps forget in one or two generations’ time, but for the moment there is no chance. So it’s simple: we have to stay strong and maintain a powerful army. Our whole policy is there.” (1956)

From this, it seems clear to me that Israel’s moral justification relies on in-group ethnic allegiance. As a believer of Cosmopolitanism, I don’t support that argument, since the only group we should identify with is humanity. Certainly the Holocaust was tragic, but the Nazi targeting of the Jews does not constitute reparations for the entire Jewish community. Rather, only the specific individuals affected are due anything. Therefore, according to this view, a state based on ethnic-wide reparations is not just. Secondly, even if I were to assume a non-Cosmopolitan stance, there is no justification for displacing the Palestinians from their home just because the Jews had a religious-historical tie to that region. In the modern world, religion is simply not a valid basis for a state.

However, whether we like it or not, Israel is here to stay; a two-state solution must be advocated, as it would be terribly unjust to punish modern Israelis for the actions of their parents. This is something many pro-Palestinians forget, as I often hear them defend Palestine’s actions by recalling Israel’s establishment as a state. It was Sam Harris who first convinced me to reexamine my pro-Palestine stance by asking: What should Israel do? What needs to happen to end conflicts? Perhaps the most intuitive answer is to recognize Palestine as a state. This already happened in 2012, in which their upgraded status to “non-member observer state” in the UN is considered a de facto recognition of statehood by the international community. However, conflicts still occurred. Another potential action is for Israel to end its occupation of Gaza. This happened in 2005, in which Israel not only withdrew all of their troops, but evicted all the Israelis who refused to leave. Israel still maintained control of Gaza’s airspace and borders though, but they opened up those borders to Palestinians. Of course more could have been done, but considering the history of the region, this was a significant step. Regardless, Palestine and Hamas did not use this opportunity to build public infrastructure and stability, but instead expanded their tunnel network and military infrastructure. It is easy to understand Israel’s hesitance in believing that further reducing their occupation will lead to peace.

Another major criticism is the large discrepancy of casualties between both sides. In the recent conflict for example, Palestine has over a thousand fatalities, while Israel’s number is under a hundred. I think much of this can be attributed to Israel’s superior defense infrastructure and weapons capabilities rather than a deliberate effort to kill civilians. The fact is that Israel has a highly sophisticated military, and they could kill a lot more Palestinian children than they already have if that was really their goal. But there is no benefit to killing civilians. It turns the international community against them, it turns their own civilians against them, and it feeds into Hamas’ propaganda. It seems more likely that these casualties are the product of tragic collateral damage due to Hamas’ well-known strategy of hiding in civilian zones. As such, I don’t think Israel should be penalized just because they have a better military – we should not expect them to forego using the best defenses they have just so that the casualties are more equal.

Even if we accept Israel’s right to defend and retaliate to the best of its abilities, many question whether their responses have been proportionate. It is probably more likely that Israel has been excessive, but we should look at where their motives are coming from. Israel is literally surrounded by enemies who explicitly desire their destruction, and none of these states are adequately signaling opportunities for peace if Israel relaxes its military. In the Hamas Charter for example, it states:

“The time will not come until Muslims will fight the Jews (and kill them); until the Jews hide behind rocks and trees, which will cry: O Muslim! there is a Jew hiding behind me, come on and kill him! This will not apply to the Gharqad, which is a Jewish tree (cited by Bukhari and Muslim).”

Despite all the claims that Israel has a genocidal intent against Arabs, at least they are not explicitly advocating genocide in an official government document. The same cannot be said of Hamas. Many defend Hamas by arguing that the document is outdated, such as the senior Hamas leader Khaled Meshal, who said the charter is not relevant anymore but cannot be changed due “internal reasons.” This defense is not satisfying because it neglects the incredible importance of political signaling. If Hamas is not willing to change such blatantly racist words, how can Israel trust any of their claims that they value peace and a two-state solution? There is a double standard in the international perception of the conflict, in which they constantly interpret all of the words of Israel as literal, such as the statement made by Netanyahu that Israel must not relinquish “security control” in Gaza, but quite conveniently defend Hamas’ harsh words as symbolic, outdated, and meaningless. Israel is not as forgiving towards Palestinian rhetoric, so their fear and responses are somewhat understandable, even if not justified.

The double standard extends far past rhetoric into actually ignoring the crimes of Palestine. Hamas is an openly Islamic organization that grew out of the Muslim Brotherhood. They may emphasize their anti-Israeli goals, but they are ultimately aiming towards creating a sharia state. This was clear in 2005 after the Israeli withdrawal, in which Hamas Islamicized Gaza. I therefore fear a similar situation as the Arab Spring, in which progressives champion a seemingly liberal force, only to find out later that it has been co-opted by Islamic extremists. And concerning proportionality, many are quick to criticize Israel while ignoring Hamas’ disproportionate responses just because they have an overall weaker army. Well, just because you are overall weaker does not mean you cannot disproportionately respond. Take the recent conflict. Although the facts are still shaky, the general picture is that Israel knew who the killers of the 3 Israeli teenagers were, but withheld the information to presumably bait Palestine. They then proceeded to imprison hundreds of Palestinians as suspects, which prompted Hamas to fire missiles. Certainly Israel’s actions are deplorable, but I don’t think Hamas firing missiles and starting a war is a proportionate response to those actions. Some argue that Hamas does not actually reflect Palestine (officially led by the PLO), but this is a difficult distinction to make considering Hamas’ control of the government and the recent Fatah-Hamas pact.

To clarify, I am not advocating Israel over Palestine. Rather, I have come to realize that Palestine is not the benevolent force that many on the Left think. Certainly Israel has made major transgressions, and certainly the world could do more to help Palestine (the US just approved $225 million of funding for Israel’s Iron Dome. Where are the funds for Palestine’s defense?), but this does not excuse the racist sentiments, fundamentalist goals, and harmful military strategies of Palestine. Ultimately, Palestine has failed to adequately signal a commitment to peace, which sheds some light on Israel’s motives. Considering this, I think that the international criticism of Israel has been disproportionate to their actual actions, whereas Palestine has been disproportionately praised. It is unclear that Palestine sincerely desires a peaceful two-state solution, and that they would not do the same thing as Israel if the tables were turned. I mean, can we honestly believe that if Israel were to theoretically eliminate their military tomorrow, Hamas would not sweep in to conquer them? I doubt it.

Perhaps the best way to understand the conflict then, is to abandon the idea that there are only two actors: Israel and Palestine. More realistically, there are many groups with differing interests and we don’t have to unilaterally support the PLO-Hamas leadership just because they are the most salient Palestinian force. We needn’t categorize ourselves as “pro-Palestine” or “pro-Israel” if we legitimately value peace over retributive justice, as discourse will ultimately devolve into a he-said/she-said argument with highly biased and cherry-picked news sources. Both sides commit atrocities that go against the goal of a two-state solution, and just because Israel has a morally-questionable foundation does not justify Palestine to do whatever it wants.