I’m going to write in English and in Portuguese because I may share this letter with persons who don’t read the latter.
A. Where I’m Coming From
Any discussion of any subject, no matter how objective the interlocutors want to be, inevitably reflects the intellectual and emotional backgrounds of the persons involved. There are persons who put lots of weight on emotions, and for them arguments based on “objective” criteria and logic may fall on deaf ears. And there are persons who try to be logical and objective, and for them emotional appeals or arguments have less or no weight.
Some of the most important—perhaps the most important, if we end up blowing up the planet because of them—factors in humanity’s struggle to survive and prosper are its religions. Religions by definition, explicit or implicit, effectively must be totalitarian: why would a person believe something which he/she thought wasn’t true? Ergo, if he/she believes something, it’s because it’s true. And ergo again, if someone else believes something which contradicts what he/she believes, of course that someone else is wrong.
There’s a pretty good and relatively high inverse correlation between level of education and religious belief, especially in Europe, and there’s a very high inverse correlation between professional activities involving science and religious belief. It varies from country to country, as you’d expect, but it’s consistently there. Estimates are that 10% to 20% of the American population is anti-theistic while 50% to 75% of its scientists are. In Europe the percentages are considerably higher.
Having been raised in a religious Protestant family—and Protestants, you may know, don’t subscribe to the laughably frequent “miracles” of Catholics and have no “saints” other than those cited in Biblical texts—I recall the awkward silence that followed when, after someone had read a text from the Bible, I at perhaps age seven asked why miracles haven’t happened since Biblical times.
To make a long argument longer, in my intentions to be rational I don’t buy arguments for religions. I reject the argument that judgment must be suspended in questions of faith: it’s impossible to present a good reason why. I reject the concept that religions and science can coexist: again, the only arguments are tautologies. And because there’s no evidence to support the idea, I find unconvincing—which is to say, unbelievable—the argument that concepts presented in Biblical texts were inspired by a god or gods. Biblical writings were clearly and rather obviously conceived by their writers. They’re additions to the continuum of the metamorphoses of religions, one into another over time, all the result of man’s need to explain what he didn’t understand and—not incidentally—manipulate and consolidate political power by arguing divine backing.
As religions morphed from one into another, branches were formed; the most famous to Westerners, of course, is that Islam, Judaism and Christianity had a common patriarch, Abraham. And since all are man-concocted sets of beliefs, each is as “valid”—or, I’d argue, “invalid”—as the others. So a Muslim’s beliefs are just as valid or invalid as are a Jew’s or a Christian’s, regardless of how impossible it may be for the Jew or the Christian to accept that. They’re valid or invalid because they’re all groundless.
Conclusion: a religious argument for or against anything is fallacious or unfounded.
B. Turning Off and the Firmness of Illogic
When two persons begin to discuss religion with the intent of being rational, it’s common, I find, for persons who are religious to simply “turn off” at critical points in the debate. When talking with anti-theists, religious persons generally react with surprise, almost always negative, when informed of their interlocutor’s position. An inner sense of horror is not uncommon, especially amongst conservative Christians—“This guy’s soul is destined for Hell!”—which they may or may not try to hide. Then, as to anti-theists, the religious persons mentally close their minds to further logical thought and the intention of debating ceases.
If the religious persons are talking with persons of other religious beliefs, their reactions tend to be less negative than with anti-theists, though now Islam is getting ranked right up there terms of provocation of negative reactions among religious conservatives.
(I trust, of course, that you haven’t hit the “Delete” key and you’re still reading. If you have hit “Delete,” you’ve disappointed me.)
Attached is an article by Jeffrey Kluger in TIME magazine entitled, “I know the truth, so don’t bother me with facts.” He cites a study in which 750 persons were asked to reconsider their positions on the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” in New York City in the light of objective information about the issue. Fewer than one-third of the persons were willing to consider reconsidering!
Such logical rigidity characterizes religions. They insist on initiating religious instruction when the subjects are children and—not at all incidentally—incapable of serious analysis and logical thought. The children are taught to accept concepts that defy science—that is, logic and proof—and instructed to rely on faith when and/or if their religious beliefs are questioned. As Richard Dawkins sarcastically observed in an essay, those persons who believe the most incredible and illogical things are admired by other religious persons for the strength of their faith!
All this to appeal to your sense of logic and reason: don’t turn off. Try to be open-minded about Israel and Palestine. Keep reading.
The Bible exhorts Jews’ to slaughter their enemies and perpetrate all manner of savagery. Things as bad as—or, considering genocide, perhaps worse than—what the Palestinians do or are accused of doing. But civilized persons in the 21st century have morally outgrown Biblical texts. That’s why religions which rely on the Bible must use its texts selectively, a compelling argument its text were concocted by men and not a god.
Since at least medieval times Jews have been subject to outrageous abuses for a number of reasons. Evolutionary developmental arguments point to distrust of the alien: to the extent that Jews have beliefs and practices which are different from others’, they’ve been distrusted. And there’s simple human jealousy or envy: to the extent that Jews—whose average intelligence is demonstrably high and whose cultural values prize education—are above average achievers, they’re envied by the dullards and the sloths. Certainly that’s behind a lot of anti-Jewish sentiment these days.
One has to keep in mind, of course, that what we see today as outrageous abuses—e.g., the Inquisition—weren’t abuses to those who practiced them. They were following the precepts of their religion, carrying out what they chose to believe were their god’s instructions.
What’s ironic is that now Jews in Israel discriminate against Arabs, who may not have the same full rights as Israeli Jews, because the Arabs don’t share Jewish beliefs.
In my case, you won’t find in my background any meaningful evidence that anti-Semitism is part of my attitudinal or belief structure. It is not. Anti-religion for certain is part of me, but not anti-Semitism: I don’t discriminate. I reject all religions. And I don’t envy or feel jealous of high achievers: I admire them, providing their achievements are legitimate. (George Soros comes to mind as a good example.)
D. Rights of Persons as to Land
Matters dealing with real estate have their own, entirely separate body of law for a simple reason: they don’t make land any more, Dubai-style man-made islands notwithstanding. And for reasons which arguably are not entirely rational, humans tend to become attached to their real property. Unfortunately for some, power and a lot of other factors are involved, and persons who are fond of their property often end of losing it. Historically recent examples include the indigenous peoples of North and South America, aborigines in Australia, African tribes, and on and on.
As to the hopeless arguments in favor of those displaced persons, society today usually frowns, grimaces, shrugs and says, “Oh, well…”
Now, do you think that’s morally Right (with a capital R)?
E. The Promised Land
Since I’m aggressively anti-theistic, I obviously put no weight in arguments that a particular piece of land belongs to any group because it was promised by a god. Especially if such promise is in self-serving texts written by the promisees. Especially, too, if other groups have gods which may give them counterclaims. And especially if long periods of time have passed when such other groups occupied the land and suddenly were displaced from it. If the amount of time that’s passed is what makes claims to land valid, it would seem that the correlation should be inverse: more time elapsed, less valid the claim. Less time, more valid. (A cynic or a skeptic would say this is precisely the reason for Israel’s intransigence as to the peace process and its continued colonization of the west Bank.) But no weight should be given to one or another group’s gods, because their gods are by definition in conflict, and none is superior to the others. (In fact, there’s no evidence at all that any exists.) And remember that religion is totalitarian.
You know where I’m going, of course. I cannot accept arguments that certain square meters of land in the Middle East belong to Jews because a Jewish god promised them in texts the Jews themselves wrote. If that argument were valid, get ready to vacate Brazil and give it back to the indigenous tribes. America, move out: the Indians are back.
Although efforts to establish a Jewish state began before World War II, the Holocaust gave those efforts practicality, credence and justification. So Israel was established, even though it meant dislocating Palestinians who had lived on the land for centuries, periods as long as European settlers have been claiming land as their own in the New World. Arguments based on religion that Palestinians’ rights should be ignored are illogical.
G. More versus Less Advanced
Societies differ, obviously. Their social, economic and cultural levels differ. Who’s to say which is “higher” or “better”? The Finns are pretty satisfied with their consistently high ratings in international comparisons, but does that make Finland better than Brazil? Better than Canada? Better than anyplace? In an ideal world perhaps we’d all be free to move wherever we’d like to choose the “best” place to live, but I’ll wager a lot of persons wouldn’t move at all. And certainly not all would find any one place better than others.
The evidence is obvious that the social, economic and cultural levels of Israel and its neighbors are significantly—even vastly—different. The fact that they’re different—higher versus lower is what Western Europeans would be likely to say—doesn’t mean they’re better in everyone’s opinion. Osama bin Laden is pretty firm on the point that Western societies are inferior to his concepts of Islamic society, and there’s no way you’ll convince him otherwise.
Israeli arguments—or simply beliefs—that they’re superior to their neighbors are based on judgments that include individual and societal preferences, and not inherently logical differences. Even, though, if we choose to decide that societies in which religious law treats women in a manner “inferior” to the way they’re treated in the west—or in Israel—are somehow “wrong,” that doesn’t serve to justify improper Israeli behavior.
H. Occupation of Others’ Lands
Again, let’s be practical: Israel’s a reality. Not because of gods but because of political decisions. Arguments that the state has no reason for being—the rationale being that for close to two millennia the land’s been in others’ hands—simply won’t fly. But neither will the argument fly that Israel has a god-given right to anything, based as it is on man-made texts written a long time ago to attend the objectives of its authors. Especially if equally “valid”—or perhaps “invalid”?—texts in the hands of Israel’s neighbors compete with such old texts.
So Israel, as a practical matter, ought to agree to get back to the 1967 borders. Legitimately it should agree to do so only under conditions which will provide reasonable likelihood that its neighbors won’t send rockets over or drop bombs on it or start wars. To argue this is not anti-Semitic, it’s practical.
Assuming the 1967 borders are valid, the Jewish settlers in the West Bank are occupiers, and they‘re taking land that belongs to others. Socio-economic or cultural differences are not the issue. The issue is taking land that belongs to others. How on earth can one justify that? You have a nice apartment in Rio de Janeiro, one which José Dirceu—inspired by Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez—might like to have, perhaps for one or another girlfriend. Inadequate or no recompense, of course, especially if he considers you—a Jew—to be different from him. Like the idea of losing your home?
I. Criticism of Israel
When Israel is criticized, its defenders all too often rely on two arguments, one a non sequitur and the other irrelevant or a second non sequitur. They first remind their interlocutors how Jews have suffered at others’ hands over the centuries, something only ideologues deny. But that doesn’t justify Israel’s occupation of others’ lands. Next they argue that criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic, as the speech by the Pilar Rahola alleges. I argue that a person may or may not have a positive attitude towards Judaism but can still present logical and legitimate arguments criticizing Israel’s colonization of the West Bank. So a cry of anti-Semitism against such arguments is either irrelevant or a non sequitur.
Yasser Arafat was corrupt and incompetent. Hamas—a creation of Israel’s, I believe—is a gang of fanatics with whom reasoning is difficult if not impossible. Ahmadinejad is a would-be dictator. And on and on. Israel has enemies. No doubt about it. But that doesn’t justify its occupation of others’ land.
If you have not read Mearsheimer’s and Walt’s criticism of AIPAC—published on Harvard’s website in 2006—you really should. (I have the complete text, both with and without footnotes, and can send it to you.) Alan Dershowitz, not surprisingly, screamed his usual “Anti-semitism!” non sequitur. Nonsense: it was solid, reasoned criticism.
I’m attaching an article by Uri Avnery of Gush Shalom which I came upon through CounterCurrents.org, a liberal website. I don’t know who Avnery is nor what Gush Shalom does, except that both he and it are peace-seekers. They’re the ones who are Right.
Next-to-last, I’m attaching another article from TIME about the Israeli occupiers who are destroying Palestinians’ olive trees. The report is infuriating because of the smug Israeli sentiment exemplified by the last paragraph, precisely what gives Hamas its moral and psychological ammunition:
The view from the hilltop is stunning; Binyamin’s smile is knowing. “I’d love to sit in the valley,” he says. “We’re caught up in a conflict of people against people. I hope the guy from Bureen will have a good future. But all my efforts will be to assure that his future won’t be here. Because this land belongs to the Jewish people.”
And finally, providentially—though I don’t believe in Providence—Roger Cohen’s article published in The New York Times on 28 October 2011 and its translation here in O Estado de São Paulo today. As he writes, it’s Crunch Time.
Back to you, my friend.
- 2010-10-29, TIME, Kluger, Jeffrey, ‘I Know the Truth, Don’t Bother Me with Facts’.doc (205 KB)
- 2010-10-23, CounterCurrents, Avnery, Uri, ‘Weimar in Jerusalem’.doc (311 KB)
- 2010-10-29, TIME, Vick, Karl, ‘Olive Harvest War, Palestinians vs Settlers’.doc (139 KB)
- 2010-11-01, OESP (NYT), Cohen, Roger, ‘Chegou a Hora de Israel Decidir seu Futuro’.doc (83 KB)
- 2010-11-01, NYT, Cohen, Roger, ‘Crunch Time’.doc (83 KB)