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Sam Harris reminds Andrew Sullivan to choose his words wisely on Gaza

Liel Leibovitz
August 15, 2014
An Israeli army armoured personnel carrier drives along Israel's border with the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip on August 4, 2014. (JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
An Israeli army armoured personnel carrier drives along Israel's border with the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip on August 4, 2014. (JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images)

Last month, as the fighting in Gaza was raging on, Sam Harris posted a thoughtful essay titled “Why Don’t I Criticize Israel?”. Andrew Sullivan replied. Sensing the possibility of a robust conversation, and neither man having a reputation for shying away from confrontation, Sullivan and Harris got on the phone for a 90-minute chat about Gaza. What followed was one of the finest pieces of contemporary theater I’ve read in years, equally remarkable for Harris’s level-headed and intelligent replies as it is for Sullivan’s rants, defying logic and morality in a wild effort to portray the Jewish State as a genocidal demon.

Genocide is rarely amusing, but in one of the conversation’s sharpest points, Sullivan denies having used the term, and Harris sets the record straight (and delivers a short lesson in computer literacy along the way):

Sullivan: It’s ethnic cleansing.

Harris: Fine. But I don’t want us to slide off this point. Go back and read your blog post. You call it genocide, and you draw the concentration camp implication in a way that does not differentiate between the Jewish version, designed to get civilians out of the way, and the Nazi version, designed to reduce them to ash.

Sullivan: But the idea that anybody would come close to that is horrifying.

Harris: They’re not close at all. This brings me back to the other topic I mentioned at the top of this call, regarding why it’s so damn hard to talk about this issue in the first place. We have to be honest about the plain meaning of words. When you use a word like “genocide” to describe a person’s intentions—

Sullivan: I didn’t.

Harris: You do in your blog post. Just go back and look at it.

Sullivan: I’m looking at it right now.

Harris: Do a keyword search for “genocide.”

Sullivan: I’m not good at doing that kind of thing.

Harris: Just type control-F, or command-F, and then “genocide.”

Sullivan: I see now: “Genocide and ethnic cleansing.” You’re right. But he does believe in killing every civilian in Gaza who resists—

Harris: Andrew, he does not believe in killing every civilian in Gaza. He’s talking about combatants. I only know this person from your blog, but I read what you wrote, and I read what you quoted. The man wants to separate the civilians from the militants so that the IDF can bomb the hell out of the militants.

It’s an important distinction, but Sullivan does not concede the point. Nor is he moved—arguing that “rather than seizing land” in Palestine, all Jews might have settled in America, where they could live peaceful and prosperous lives—by Harris’s historical reminder that America had turned down boatfuls of Jewish refugees seeking to flee the Nazi inferno. Sullivan writes it off to “a shameful episode in American history;” that Zionism was the natural and logical answer to such shameful episodes hardly bothers him.

Nor would the blogger concede that Israel has any legitimate claims when it strives to defend itself against its attackers. Instead, he offers this account of what really troubles the Middle East:

In fact, you can say that one of the major sources of jihadist Islam and anti-Western terrorism has been not just the founding of Israel, but its expansion and its constant presence in the lives of so many Arabs in the Middle East.

Even if one were willing to tolerate the patently false argument that the Jewish State is largely responsible for all instances of hereto forth known Jihad—ignoring a swath of history too massive and meaningful to discuss here, but readily available to any serious student of the conflict—the second part of Sullivan’s argument is truly stunning. Does Israel truly have a “constant presence in the lives of so many Arabs” in the region? Let’s see. There are 22 Arab states in the world, and approximately 300 million Arabs. Of those Arabs, roughly 2.7 million live in the West Bank, and another 1.6 million in Gaza. That means that factually, Israel is directly relevant to the lives of slightly more than one percent of the world’s Arabs. The rest—in Yemen and Sudan, Oman, Iraq, and elsewhere—have no real reason to concern themselves with the tiny Jewish State, no reason, that is, except for a burning and irrational hatred, which Andrew Sullivan clearly shares.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.

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