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The Israel-Hamas Crisis

An analysis of the philosophic issues behind the deadly, intensifying conflict between Hamas and Israel. What are the moral issues at stake? What fuels this seemingly intractable conflict? What should be the U.S. approach to it? Aaron Smith interviews Elan Journo, author of What Justice Demands: America and the Israeli Palestinian Conflict. Recorded May 14, 2021.

Photo by Tengyart on Unsplash

Stop Ignoring Justice in the Israel–Hamas War

Israel and the Hamas regime in Gaza are at war. Palestinian forces have launched more than 1,500 rockets targeting Israeli towns and cities, and Israel has carried out aerial bombing raids on Gaza and deployed ground forces.

Watching news coverage of Palestinian homes destroyed, the scenes of human misery, and the mounting death toll, many people are despondent. Giving voice to that reaction, Trevor Noah argued on The Daily Show that we can gain clarity about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — if we can just “step away” from the complicated issue of “who’s good, who’s bad.” 

What should we focus on? “Power,” he says: Israel has one of the most powerful militaries in the world. Its sophisticated missile-defense system, Iron Dome, can destroy in mid-air (many) rockets fired from Gaza. Israel, he observes, could “crush” Gaza. This vast imbalance of power, he notes, is evident in the lopsided tally of the injured and dead.

If you are in a fight where the other person cannot beat you, Noah asks, how hard should you retaliate when they try to hurt you?  

The answer he expects us to reach is that, essentially, the stronger side should turn the other cheek, refrain from defending itself assertively, dial down its response.

But this premise is a travesty of sound moral thinking, and it can only inflame the conflict.

Noah asks us to consider an adversary who brings a knife to a gunfight. But let’s step away from foggy metaphors, and ask what this premise means in reality.

Take an actual clash between two mismatched adversaries. The underdog sent only 19 operatives into a fight armed with literally only knives, against a far stronger adversary. Presumably in this conflict, too, Noah would exhort the stronger to dial down any response, perhaps even do nothing.

But who was that underdog? The squad of jihadists who on 9/11 hijacked passenger jets and murdered three thousand Americans.

By itself, the material inequality between two adversaries cannot guide thinking about a conflict. Sometimes the weaker side is morally right: for example, the Nigerian schoolgirls abducted by the Islamists of Boko Haram. Or: the American revolutionaries, who were outmanned and outgunned by the English. But now consider the white supremacists who rioted in Charlottesville in 2017. They were far weaker than the police forces: should they be left to run amok?

The problem with Trevor Noah’s widely shared view is that it deliberately ignores the issue of justice. To form a rational view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I argue in my book What Justice Demands, it’s necessary to start with the essential facts about the adversaries. Chiefly: the moral character of the two sides.

In keeping with their avowed ideology, the Islamists who rule Gaza have created a belligerent regime that systematically violates the rights of its own people. The animating goal of Hamas (the Islamic Resistance Movement) is to wipe Israel from the map and subjugate whomever it can under totalitarian religious law. They use the population of Gaza, many of them willingly, as human shields and cannon fodder. And, starting at birth, they indoctrinate their followers to embrace the idea of dying in the name of Allah, for the glory of slitting an Israeli’s throat or carrying out a suicide attack.

Why should the Islamists’ status as underdogs erase the fact of their barbaric, morally corrupt regime and vicious goals?

By contrast Israel is a society governed by rule of law and a basic respect for individual rights. By virtue of those features, it has become a dynamo of human progress and innovation, particularly in high technology, with an elevated standard of living compared to its neighbors. Israel, like the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, has significant flaws and shortcomings. But Israel is on moral par with these countries, because fundamentally it protects the freedom of individuals. That’s a singular achievement in a region plagued by anarchy, theocracies, dictatorship, and monarchies.

Why should Israel’s military superiority erase the fact that it is a morally good society?

Trevor Noah, like so many people and policymakers, ignores a fundamental moral difference between tyranny and freedom, and the results are predictably tragic. The fighting now under way is precisely what Noah’s advice necessarily leads to.

Since seizing control of Gaza in 2007, Hamas has repeatedly initiated wars against Israel — in 2008/9, 2012, 2014. But Israel agreed with the United States, the UN and European nations and stopped short of defeating the (weaker) Islamists in Gaza, going out of its way to avoid harming civilians, for instance, by issuing evacuation alerts and sending text messages warning of impending strikes. Instead of deploying its full might to end that threat, Israel only degraded the ability of Islamists to fight.

One Israeli official likened it to mowing a lawn. But grass grows back eventually. And eventually the Islamists dug new weapons-smuggling tunnels, adopted new tactics such as incendiary balloons, and rebuilt their cache of rockets. Then, once ready for battle, the Islamists latched on to some pretext to resume firing rockets at Israeli kindergartens, schools, shops, and homes.

Along with so many other people, Trevor Noah laments that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been ongoing for upwards of seven decades. But as I show in my book, one key factor driving the conflict has been the attitude toward moral judgment that Noah himself is now pushing. Refusing to think rationally about what justice demands has only aggravated the conflict.


Photo by Max Kukurudziak on Unsplash

Why Did the Saudis Expect to Get Away with Murder?

The victim was lured to his death on a seemingly innocuous pretext, relating to paperwork for a marriage license. The killing was straight out of a horror movie. The body was butchered into pieces, with a bone saw, so it could be disposed of without a trace. This was the fate of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist and activist, employed by the Washington Post. The murder set off a global scandal. Who killed him? and why?

These are questions that a new documentary, The Dissident, helps us answer. It vividly tells the story of what happened to Khashoggi that day in October 2018 when he was put to death inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The documentary prompts us to weigh a related issue that provoked so much of the outrage at the time of the scandal: why did the Saudi rulers believe they could literally get away with murder?

A Dictatorship’s M.O.

The film presents compelling evidence that indicts the Saudi regime, all the way up to the crown prince. Often referred to as MBS, Mohammed bin Salman is a millennial, self-declared “reformer,” and the country’s de facto ruler. A number of Khashoggi’s killers belonged to an elite force that reports directly to MBS, who has absolute control over the country’s security and intelligence organizations. The agents, including an autopsy doctor and a forensics expert, came to Turkey aboard a private jet with diplomatic clearances, and eight of the 15 men held diplomatic passports.

Although there has been speculation that their mission was merely to abduct him back to Saudi Arabia, The Dissident suggests otherwise. In an audio recording of the killers as they awaited Khashoggi’s arrival at the consulate, they discuss how his body would be dismembered and disposed of. We hear one of them ask if the “sacrificial animal” had arrived yet.

The documentary puts the Khashoggi scandal in the wider context of how the Saudi regime deals with dissidents and critics. We meet one of Khashoggi’s friends, Omar, a young Saudi activist self-exiled in Canada. To coerce Omar into shutting up, Saudi agents tried to lure him to a local consulate. They tried to intimidate him. Later, they rounded up and imprisoned 23 of his friends in Saudi Arabia. Then they exploited his family as leverage, detaining and severely torturing his brother. Elements of Saudi Arabia’s m.o. were evident in the Khashoggi case.

Insider-Turned-Critic

Khashoggi was lured to the consulate in Istanbul, because he needed some paperwork so he could re-marry. We hear from his bereft fiancée about the life they had planned together. To most people Khashoggi is known only from headlines about his grisly death, and the filmmakers take pains to humanize the man, although at times this aim is over-emphasized. But what we learn about Khashoggi’s views, particularly his criticisms of the regime, casts the murder in an even worse light, if that’s possible.

Khashoggi used to be an insider at the Saudi court, and at first he supported the “reform” agenda launched by Mohammed bin Salman, which promised to uproot corruption and somewhat modernize the kingdom’s society (MBS, for instance, finally granted women permission to drive a car in 2018[!]). But Khashoggi became increasingly critical of some features of MBS’s rule.

There’s no freedom of speech in Saudi Arabia, but to the extent there are voices questioning the royal family’s rule, however gently, MBS had them crushed. The regime muzzled assorted “thought leaders” active on Twitter. Moreover, in a notorious purge-cum-shakedown operation, MBS rounded up hundreds of prominent Saudis, including rivals within the royal family, and held them captive at a Ritz-Carlton, until they coughed up millions of dollars. A number were hospitalized with signs of physical abuse.

Khashoggi’s wish was to see some approximation of freedom of speech. We’re not asking for democracy, he said in an Al Jazeera TV interview, only that people be allowed to speak.

One of his friends suggests that Khashoggi was naïve, never fully grasping the evil of the regime, which views its people like slaves or serfs. We can surmise some of what this friend had in mind; there’s strong reason to believe that MBS wanted to be seen as involved in the murder, because that would intimidate other critics and dissidents.

An International Furor

When the truth about Khashoggi’s murder came out, the Western reaction was outrage. The outrage focused particularly on the brazenness of the Saudi regime, and later, on the regime’s lies about Khashoggi’s disappearance (among the lies: he suffocated accidentally; he died in a fistfight). It was as if the Saudis fully expected to kill him without consequences, much less an international furor.

Why? The Dissident provides a lead to the answer when it briefly looks at the global reactions.

In this illuminating, but underdeveloped part of the film, assorted politicians decry the Saudi regime’s conduct. An outlier was President Trump. Initially, Trump expressed doubts about the allegations of Saudi involvement, even echoing a Saudi talking point that the killing was a “rogue” operation. Trump evaded the CIA’s report implicating the regime. The Saudis were spending billions of dollars on weapons, and Trump refused to jeopardize that by facing the truth.

Trump’s approach was dismaying for another reason. In at least one respect, the Khashoggi case was different from the untold number of dissidents who languish in Saudi jails or perish in its torture chambers. Khashoggi worked for an American company, the Washington Post, and was a resident of the United States. This should have factored into the U.S. response, but it did not.  When Congress passed legislation to block arms sales to Saudi Arabia, Trump vetoed it, and refused to make the CIA’s report public.

Trump’s loyalty to Saudi Arabia and MBS (a “truly spectacular ally”) stood out, but with time it became a perverse norm. Although the Khashoggi murder led to some international fallout for Saudi Arabia, that soon faded. Initially, the scandal scared away investors from a major conference (likened to “Davos in the desert”) that MBS was to host in Saudi Arabia. Several major corporations withdrew from the event. But one year later, they were back. Moreover, no global sanctions or punishments were meted out against Saudi Arabia. The Dissident ends by leaving us to ponder this dismal fact.

One implication to draw from the film is that the Saudi regime believed it could count on Western regimes to compromise whatever moral principles they mouthed.

It was not wrong.

For decades, the U.S. and other countries have refused to confront the nature of the Saudi regime. They evade how the regime tyrannizes its people under the barbarous rules of Islamic religious law and how it funnels uncountable dollars to fuel and proselytize for the Islamist cause. Saudi lucre has underwritten schools, books, charities, and mosques that spread the Wahhabi strain of Islamic totalitarianism around the world.

Despite its significant responsibility for enabling the jihadist movement, after 9/11 Washington perpetuated the fiction that the Saudi regime was a friend. Although it was known that all but four of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudis, President George W. Bush hosted the Saudi ruler at his ranch in Crawford, Texas. The amity continued under President Barack Obama, who met the Saudi king four times (more than did Bush and Clinton combined). In a highly symbolic decision, Donald Trump’s first foreign trip as president began in Saudi Arabia. And a mere six months before the Khashoggi scandal, Trump had warmly welcomed MBS to the White House, gushing that he and the crown prince had “become very good friends over a fairly short period of time.”

If past U.S. appeasement led the Saudi regime to expect impunity, since the release of The Dissident the incoming Biden administration has provided further warrant for that assumption.

The Sordid U.S.–Saudi Relationship

When running for president, Joe Biden vowed to put the ideal of rights at the forefront of his foreign policy. He criticized the Saudi regime harshly — at least, “harshly” by the precious, offend-nobody rules of diplomacy-speak. He called the regime a “pariah” with “very little social redeeming value,” promising to make it “pay the price” for the Khashoggi murder. In February, the Biden administration released a summary of the CIA’s findings that Trump had buried, implicating the crown prince in the murder.

What did the Biden administration do? Speak out boldly in defense of the ideal of individual rights? Exert real pressure on the regime to respect rights? Forbid MBS from entering the United States? Expel the Saudi ambassador to Washington?

No, none of that. Instead it decided “not to rupture the [U.S.–Saudi] relationship but to recalibrate it.” The administration announced the “Khashoggi ban”: a visa restriction “on individuals who, acting on behalf of a foreign government, are believed to have been directly engaged in serious, extraterritorial counter-dissident activities.” Under this policy, 76 Saudi citizens will be banned.

Why such a pitiful response? What happened to making the regime “pay the price”? The relationship with Saudi Arabia, explained Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, “is bigger than any one individual.” 

The de facto leader of the Saudi dictatorship orchestrated the murder of a dissident, a writer with ties to the United States, and nevertheless, the United States gave MBS a free pass. Part of what’s so shameful about this outcome is that it fits the longstanding pattern of Washington’s evasion of the monstrous nature of the Saudi regime. If the Saudi regime believed it could murder and get away with it, that’s because it had long ago come to rely on the unprincipled foreign policy and cowardice of Western — and particularly American — leaders who turn a blind eye to its murderous, tyrannical rule.

How Ayn Rand Ignites Appreciation of Capitalism

What, in a nutshell, is Ayn Rand’s case for capitalism? How did her views contrast with libertarianism? anarchism? conservatism?

These are some of the questions addressed in my conversation with the coeditors of Foundations of a Free Society, an important new book on Ayn Rand’s political philosophy.On the book’s release, my colleague Keith Lockitch called it “a much-needed addition to the literature on Rand” and a resource of special interest to “the growing number of students active in what’s widely called the pro-liberty student movement.” Now available on Kindle, the book does a superb job of situating Rand’s views in relation to other thinkers and drawing out key points of contrast.

My conversation with coeditors Gregory Salmieri and Robert Mayhew and two chapter authors, Harry Binswanger and Onkar Ghate, took place at Objectivist Summer Conference 2019. Watch or listen to the panel discussion to get a sense of just how illuminating the book is. Among the topics we touched on:

  • The essence of Rand’s case for laissez-faire capitalism;
  • How Rand’s writings have ignited in many people an appreciation for capitalism;
  • The scope of Rand’s influence in the culture and on political movements;
  • Why Rand’s view stands in fundamental opposition to anarchism;
  • How Rand’s political theory relates to the work of philosopher Robert Nozick, author of Anarchy, State and Utopia;
  • How Rand’s theory of value relates to the views of the Austrian school of economics.

One point that emerges from the conversation is the pivotal role of nonfiction books in growing and advancing an intellectual movement such as Objectivism. There’s an enormous, ongoing need for such intellectual work. But on what topics? Make sure you catch the part when I ask the panelists to name some fields that they’d like to see future Objectivist scholarship explore.

Western Apathy Toward Iran’s Religious Dictatorship

Imagine being torn away from your husband and son, brutally arrested, and tossed into solitary confinement. Imagine being prevented from calling your family or even speaking to your lawyer. Imagine having to go on a hunger strike to get attention.

This was the actual experience of one Iranian woman, Shaparak Shajarizadeh. Her “crime”? Protesting the Iranian theocracy’s law mandating that women wear a headscarf in public.

With the help of noted human-rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, Shaparak was released on bail. Facing mounting persecution for her activism and the likelihood of a significant prison term, Shaparak decided to flee the country. She eventually found asylum in Canada.

For the New Ideal podcast, I recently interviewed Shaparak about her struggle in Iran and the plight of her fellow activists, which she describes in a recent book (currently only available in French, La liberté n’est pas un crime, or Freedom Is Not a Crime). We start with the reality of life under Iran’s theocratic regime, from the vantage of one of its victims. Ordinary Iranians “live under the shadow of fear,” she noted. Women in particular are second-class citizens who “face violence every day” and “never feel safe” in public, amid the patrols of the “morality police,” who enforce the compulsory hijab.

Having turned away from Islam, Shaparak went on to join protest movements, notably “#WhiteWednesdays,” and challenged the religious oppression of women. In one statement, she defied the authorities: “Don’t drag me to your heaven! I know what to do with my life!” As peaceful protests grew, the regime sought to crush such opposition.

Probably the most poignant, and dismaying, topic we discussed is the apathy of Western countries to the fate of Iranians seeking a modicum of freedom. One example she brought up was the 2015 agreement that the Obama administration signed with Iran over its nuclear program. Some people had hoped that U.S. diplomats would pressure the regime about its abysmal record on rights. But Obama’s landmark deal was silent about the Iranian regime’s systematic violation of individual rights. It left activists like Shaparak out in the cold.

You don’t know how much Iranian people look to the outside world for support, she told me. But the world, she said, is silent.

Or worse: Without intentional irony, the United Nations recently added Iran to a commission on women’s rights. “They come, they lie, and they go,” she said of Iranian diplomats at the UN — and the world lets them get away with it.

Determined to help change that, she has spoken out about the UN and worked to bring awareness to the struggles of Iranian activists — especially her lawyer, Nasrin Sotoudeh. For defending Shaparak and many other political activists, Sotoudeh has been sentenced to 38 years in jail, and 148 lashes.

For me the conversation — which you can watch or listen to below — holds a lesson for America about the absence of, and urgent need for, a principled foreign policy. Such a policy should uphold the ideal of freedom as a standard to live up to, regard its absence in other regimes as a moral failing, and lend moral support to individuals genuinely seeking freedom, in Iran and elsewhere.