US Needs Humanists to Correct Its Self-Sabotaging Israel-Palestine Policy

The Middle East is at its most unstable point in decades: Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya are being ravaged by civil wars fueled by outside powers; Saudi Arabia is facing an increase in domestic terrorist attacks that threaten to ignite sectarian conflict within oil production centers vital to the global economy; and over the last several weeks, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has flared up once again over accusations of Israeli encroachments on the religious sites in Jerusalem.

The Iran nuclear agreement has provided a window of opportunity for the US and Iran to resolve their broader policy differences, but the two governments remain far apart on how to resolve various regional issues including the related matters of Syria and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Increasing direct Iranian military involvement and support for Iran’s proxy Hezbollah on Israel’s borders with Lebanon and Syria, which Israel has responded to with periodic airstrikes inside Syria, could culminate in yet another major conflict with potential implications for Iran’s nuclear policy and American military engagement in the region.

Although these conflicts have multiple, complex causes, several of which can only be resolved through the political will of the civil societies and governments concerned, one critical issue that humanists must play a more active, organized role in resolving is the Israel-Palestinian issue.

Within the US domestic political arena, the current balance of power on this issue is heavily weighted in favor of organizations such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).  These groups work insidiously to shift blame for the conflict away from the Israeli settler movement, which is supported by the Israeli government, and onto the Palestinians.  (Although the latter certainly share responsibility for the conflict—particularly Hamas, which has an adversarial relationship with the Palestinian Authority—the Israelis have over the last year and a half demonstrated themselves to be the intransigent party.)

AIPAC’s financial strength is augmented by the voting power of numerically larger organizations such as Christians United for Israel (CUFI), whose evangelical base is staunchly biased toward Israel due to its fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible, which dictates that the Jews have an eternal divine right to the land they originally conquered thousands of years ago.  (Incidentally, CUFI’s membership base is part of the same theocratic constituency that is fixated on restricting women’s reproductive rights in the US.)

The religious dimension of this conflict and the role of the US government in perpetuating it—particularly the US Congress, which is structurally more vulnerable to lobbying groups such as AIPAC and CUFI and is itself strongly influenced by Christian Zionism—compels humanists to play a role in rebalancing US policy on this issue.

This means first and foremost pushing for a rational, secular approach to solving the conflict.  Religiously based, exclusivist claims to territory or religious sites should be dismissed outright and vigorously countered in contrast to the current equivocations and even overtly sectarian arguments heard from US policymakers such as Senator Lindsey Graham.

The principle of separation between religion and state—a core American value—should be placed at the center of any approach to the US’s conflict resolution efforts between Israelis and Palestinians.  In practical terms, this means establishing a firm policy requiring dismantlement of illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank and UN peacekeepers with jurisdiction over disputed religious sites.

These peacekeepers would be charged with ensuring each side’s right to exercise their religion while preventing efforts to reintroduce the incendiary mix of religion and politics that is at the root of this conflict.

Humanists should also be at the forefront of efforts to pressure the US government and Congress in particular to impose substantive consequences on the Israeli government for its demonstrated unwillingness to genuinely engage in negotiations toward a two-state solution.

Although J Street—the most viable Jewish American counterweight to AIPAC—has called for unspecified consequences to exert leverage on Israel, the organization’s lack of concrete policy recommendations are indicative of deep ambivalence within its membership: they want harmony between their liberal values and Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians, but they are ultimately not willing to advocate for what is necessary to achieve this.

Contrast this ambivalence with the consensus American policy approach to Iran.  Although Israel is a US ally and Iran a US adversary, the principle that governments do not act in ways they do not wish to act unless they are presented with the right balance of incentives and pressures is evident.

By virtue of their rational secular approach to policy questions, humanists are the ideal American constituency to push for a shift in the US’s policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian problem.  The time to mobilize on this issue is now, before the religious zealots on all sides fulfill their plans to hijack civilization in pursuit of their destructive sectarian visions for the world.

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  • Carl C

    This is a balanced view and I support it. The principle of separation of church and state should be front and center when we conider where US interests lie in the tangled web of Middle East politics.

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  • Eric Veltri

    All that’s stated in this article I agree with. Problem is how in the world can any of us individually influence our bought out and also dangerously partisan legislators who play lip service to our value of separation of church and state and then go out and kowtow to religious groups?

    • johndowdle

      You have to do what organisations like AIPAC do, i.e. bring financial and other forms of pressure to bear on elected representatives in Washington DC. This is already happening, when groups such as Jewish Voice for Peace are making it clear that they side with the Palestinians. Netanyahu has stopped trying to throw his political weight around in the US because the penny has finally dropped that most US citizens find his behaviour deplorable and unacceptable.
      How else to explain his absolute failure to influence US policy with regard to Iran?

  • johndowdle

    Two things:

    1. Please remove the stupid postings below relating to bogus income streams; and

    2. The main tactic all Palestine supporters should pursue is a complete policy of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel and their thuggish so-called and self-styled zionist “settlers”.

    Many religious groups have adopted BDS, along with many academics and higher education bodies.

    There is – of course – a problem for countries like the UK and the USA in pursuing this kind of policy.
    Both countries promoted policies of imperialist expansionism and colonialist settlement in the past.
    Arguably, Britain should never have issued the Balfour Declaration thus threatening Palestinians.
    Arguably, US expropriation of North American indigenous lands is mirrored by the zionists today.

    It must be hard for any US citizen to demand the return of Palestinian land to Palestinians.
    Could not the same argument be made where native North American land – all of it! – is concerned?

    Ultimately, all the ills of colonialism may have to be reversed in future by paying compensation to both the indigenous victims of colonialism as well as the descendants of those who “settled” there being able to return back to their original places of origin without financial loss.
    Who exactly will pay for all this and just where all the people involved will end up is very much open….

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    • A.Alexander

      This Jew-hater with his endless ,old as the world accusations never undestands himself as the stupid loudspeaker of thousand years old hate propaganda.

      • johndowdle

        Why does A. Alexander self-describe him(?)self in the way outlined above?

  • Susan_Nicholson

    Totally on board with your thoughtful article, which seems long overdue. Of course who better than non-religionist humanists to help sort out this conflict in a rational and just manner. We hope this will become a topic at the next AHA meeting. Let us know if there are people in the Boston area who would like to meet and discuss it. Susan Nicholson and Charlotte Andrews, Gloucester

  • indibooboo

    You propose an edict for who should do what, without any support for your position. If you remove the religious aspect of the conflict, you are left with the difficult question of how do we as humans determine what political entity ‘should’ have control over any particular swath of land. The question has been answered in many different ways. Treaty, war, first to settle, first to govern, longest to govern, likelihood of positive stewardship, etc are some examples, and looked at through the lens of each of those ways, Israel wins out. You might have different criteria, but at least you should make an argument under those criteria. It is not a reasonable default assumption that if religion was removed, the Palestinians would have more rights.

    By the way, out of all the land that was politically granted, four times as much was given to create Jordan than to create the new Israel. Should this land be partitioned? Should we give Texas back to Mexico? Everything back to the Native Amercans? Which natives . . . the one’s that were here when we arrived, or the remnants of the ones that were conquered by them?

    Which brings me to the final frustration with this organization. Which side of this conflict you agree with, has little to do with your belief in god or whether you are a humanist or not, and more to do with your predisposition on this incredibly complex issue.

    If you are going to publish an article on an issue, and title it to imply that humanism mandates a certain position, at least require an argument rooted in the principles of Humanism.

    • Default

      I wholeheartedly agree, and commented a similarly on an article criticizing the Jewish National Fund as racist

  • A.Alexander

    Is there any reason to lose the faith and remain the leftist,with the naive answeres for the complexity of being? Jewish settlements has nothing common with the Arabs` struggle.

    • johndowdle

      All international diplomatic, legal and political opinion is that the so-called “settlements” are illegal, whereas the struggle of the Palestinians is perceived everywhere as just.