Free Inquiry
Appeared in Free Inquiry, vol 35 issue 3

Middle East Deadlock: Where Do You Stand?

Perhaps the World’s Shortest Argument Against Israel

Tom Flynn

What follows is my personal opinion and should not be interpreted as the official position of the Center for Inquiry, the Council for Secular Humanism, or Free Inquiry.

I am critical of Israel for several reasons, but in the interest of brevity I will focus solely on the simplest and most foundational one. I will express it as succinctly as possible. It may constitute the world’s shortest argument against Israel. Keep your eyes open. Inattentive readers might overlook it.

I mean it. Don’t blink.

Here goes: Discrimination is wrong.

All right, some readers might find that too short. So here it is again, in just slightly greater detail: Discrimination—whether on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion,1 or any mixture thereof—is wrong. It is wrong whether the discrimination was intended to harm a target group or benefit it. And it is wrong whether the discrimination was undertaken with good intent or ill.

Obviously, as a secularist, I object with special vehemence when a government discriminates on the basis of religion.

Consider the State of Israel. Consider even the concept of the State of Israel. Discrimination is built into its foundations. It cannot be avoided. For Israel to serve its purpose as homeland for the Jewish people, it has to display preferential treatment toward Jews. Consider the Law of Return, adopted two years after Israel’s formation. It provides that any Jew, no matter where in the world he or she currently lives and no matter what citizenship he or she then holds, may live in Israel and, upon fulfilling proper requirements, become a citizen of Israel. (In 1970, it was extended to persons of Jewish ancestry and their spouses.) That is an extraordinary immigration policy, probably the only one of its type on the planet. Yes, the Law of Return is well-intentioned. It is meant to benefit, not harm, the group it singles out. But the fact remains that it singles out a group, one defined by an arbitrary attribute (religion, ethnicity, or both). Therefore, it is discriminatory. It can scarcely be otherwise.

I am a secularist, which is to say that, among other things, I am a cosmopolitan and an opponent of sectarianism. The nondiscrimination principle introduced above is one of my core principles. I think it is profoundly wrong when a polity grants explicit, preferential advantage to any religious, racial, or ethnic group. It is just as wrong as when a polity imposes explicit disadvantage—that is to say, when it singles out a group for oppression. Preferentialism and oppression are the two faces of one foul coin.

Israel is a state that was created from scratch in large part for the purpose of engaging in discrimination. Yes, it discriminates for the benefit of those it singles out, and yes, with largely benevolent intent. But still it discriminates. Israel cannot be what it was meant to be unless it advantages Jewish identity beyond the bounds of fairness. For that reason, I cannot support it.

But it is not enough to say that Israel discriminates for the benefit of religious and/or ethnic Jews. When that well-meant and preferential discrimination occurs, it is unavoidable that others will be disadvantaged; some social goods are in finite supply, and their distribution is in effect a zero-sum game. I’m willing to accept that some mistreatment of Palestinians is a collateral effect of Israel’s persistent efforts to benefit its Jewish citizens—that it is not motivated by active hatred or by an explicit desire to do the Palestinians harm. But I suspect that makes little difference to those Palestinians who are harmed. Again, discrimination is wrong even when it is well-intentioned and beneficial in intent. The oppressed remain oppressed, no matter how well-intentioned toward others their oppressors may be.

Since Israel’s formation, we have been able to see several further experiments in racial, religious, and ethnic discrimination that came after it. All ended badly. Consider South Africa’s ruthless privileging of whites during its apartheid years. More extreme examples might include deplorable efforts to create ethno-religiously homogeneous populations by means of ethnic cleansing (the Balkans) or outright genocide (Rwanda).

Defenders of Israel generally revile the comparison with apartheid South Africa. They claim the two should not be compared because South Africa discriminated according to race, while Jewish identity is not a racial attribute. That strikes me as a distinction without a difference. Whether based on race, ethnicity, or religion, all discrimination is objectionable. It can also be argued that comparing Israel with South Africa is unfair because South Africa’s vicious repression of blacks was more odious than any collateral damage Israel may have inflicted in the course of benefiting its Jewish citizens. I expect that the Palestinians killed during Israel’s recent offensive in Gaza would disagree, if they could. (Then again, those Israelis who have lived in fear of Palestinian rocket-fire would probably lodge objection to that. Much complexity must be set to one side, if only temporarily, when we focus on a foundational principle.)

I concede that racial discrimination of the sort practiced in apartheid South Africa is not identical to the ethno-religious discrimination that occurs in Israel; the two are distinguishable. Still, as forms of discrimination, both are invidious.

In the same way, United Nations General Assembly Resolution 3379 (1975), which rebuked Zionism as “a form of racism and racial discrimination,” was incorrect. As we have seen, to the degree it is embodied in Israeli policy, Zionism does not discriminate according to race. It discriminates according to religion and ethnicity. Again, discrimination is discrimination. Perhaps we should say that Resolution 3379 was wrong by a technicality. I remain regretful that it was revoked.

Both preferentialism and oppression—whether on racial, religious, ethnic, or other arbitrary grounds—are wrongs that secular humanists should be quick to abhor. Yes, the situation at the end of World War II, with hideous disclosures of Nazi genocide pouring forth, was extraordinary. It may have come as close as anything could to justifying a systematic effort to discriminate in favor of world Jewry. Yet, discrimination is still wrong. On my view, not even the vast wrong of the Holocaust vindicates the further wrong of establishing a nation founded, inescapably, on discriminatory principles.

While I’m being brief, allow me to sound off on one of the most common, and to me, wrongheaded accusations that people hurl at one another when debating this topic: the accusation that to be critical of Israel in any way is to be anti-Semitic. (I’m sure some will hurl that my way after they read this essay.) I categorically reject that notion, but since brevity is a virtue, I will stand aside and let Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter, dispatch it for me: “[A]n anti-Israel bias is not the same as anti-Semitism. To argue as much is to claim an altogether unique immunity for Israel, untouchable by the kind of criticism that is normally directed at the conduct of states.”2

In much the same way that oppression is the flip side of preferentialism, an insistence that Israel and its conduct must be above criticism is the obverse of the insistence that, say, any speech Muslims find offensive should be banned. Surely a commitment to (lowercase) free inquiry must reject both.


1. National origin, sexual orientation, and many other attributes also belong on this list. But the attributes most relevant to this discussion are race, ethnicity, and religion.

2. Zbigniew Brzezinski, “A Dangerous Exemption,” Foreign Policy, July–August 2006: 63

Tom Flynn is the editor of Free Inquiry.

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