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.