18 August 2014

Andrew Sullivan / Sam Harris debate: making sense of thereof

Sam Harris and Andrew Sullivan decided to convene a phone conversation as a sequel to a blog post from the former followed by a rebuttal from the latter. The purported aim of the conversation is to compare notes in a civilized discussion, which may lead to better mutual understanding.

The notable thing about the dialog is that it is indeed largely polite and that Sullivan, whose hate of Israel is normally so all consuming as to deprive him of elementary logic and common sense, behaved himself in a (comparatively) benign manner.

It is quite a long transcript, but I persevered and read it through. While Mr Harris presents and defends a pro-Israeli position, he has quite frequently let Mr Sullivan's statements slide without serious opposition. There are several examples of such lenience, possibly for another post. I shall restrain myself to one example:

Sullivan: In this current Gaza war, on the other hand, Israelis are all but protected by the Iron Dome, by Israel’s massive superiority in technology, overwhelming military dominance, huge economic superiority, and by being the most powerful country in the entire region backed by the global superpower. And even though the Israelis are protected from any sort of civilian casualties of any significance, they nonetheless have killed an astonishing number of Palestinian civilians in the past few weeks, including roughly 300 children.
This old and tired trope, easily met by any debater rookie, was passed over by Mr Harris, to my surprise. Possibly having in mind the generally conciliatory tone of the meeting of minds, I don't know. But as I went along reading the whole megillah, something in Mr Harris stance bothered me more and more. Andrew Sullivan, after all, is a known entity and, aside of unusual politeness, nothing was surprising in his position(s). His opponent, on the other hand, was somewhat more elusive (for me).

And I don't even mean this, coming from Mr Harris (the first post in the sequence):
I don’t think Israel should exist as a Jewish state. I think it is obscene, irrational and unjustifiable to have a state organized around a religion. So I don’t celebrate the idea that there’s a Jewish homeland in the Middle East. I certainly don’t support any Jewish claims to real estate based on the Bible.
I wouldn't argue whether/why the existence of specifically Jewish state is more offensive to Mr Harris than, to take one example, that of Great Britain or many many other states wholly or partially defined by prevailing religion. I could ask why state of Israel is chosen (or mentioned at all) as a prime example of that obscenity, irrationality etc? But Mr Harris himself mentions later, in a disarming manner, that "Israel is actually less religious than the U.S., and it guarantees freedom of religion to its citizens", so I'll let it slide. The two following quotes are more difficult to ignore:
I think my being Jewish is irrelevant. I’ve told you that if the Jews decided to assimilate perfectly and cease to be Jews, I would celebrate this decision. And this is how I live my own life. I’m Jewish only in the sense that when it came time to have children, I needed to get screened for the Tay-Sachs gene.
If all the Jews in Israel woke up tomorrow and said “This sucks. We’re sick of being attacked by religious lunatics. Let’s just move to America and forget about this godforsaken desert,” I would fully support it. In fact, it reflects how I live my own life. I’m a Jew who sees no point at all in fighting for land that an imaginary Abraham sanctified with his imaginary footsteps, in thrall to an imaginary God. And I’m more than happy to assimilate and to forget about my Jewishness. I’m just trying to be a rational human being living on the third planet from the sun. And I think all Jews would be well served to do likewise.
These statements even succeeded to mollify (somewhat) Sullivan, who echoed the sentiment:
Sullivan: Let’s try this non-Zionist counter-factual. Any Jew in the world is free to come to America. American Jews are among the most accomplished, integrated, successful, vibrant contributors to American society and culture. And they are among the most popular religious and ethnic groups in the country. They mercifully have peace, security—far away from this kind of Middle Eastern awfulness. So why wouldn’t that have been a credible alternative, rather than actually going in and seizing land from people who—
Dear Sam,

Your atheism is shared by me too. However, your call to assimilation caused me the strongest "someone is walking over my grave" feeling for many years. This is one deja vu case I can certainly do without. From Soviet Jewry declaring their allegiance to Soviet Russia and hailing their successful assimilation with Russians in the late forties of the last century, when Stalin was already planning the cattle carriages transfer to the East. Through German Jews celebrating their assimilation with the great German culture and German people in the twenties and thirties. Through too many other bloody and painful examples, surely going back hundreds of years. Thousands, if we remember the (popular at the time with Jewish elite) assimilation with Hellenic culture way back.

What is it with us Jews that makes us so blind to reality? Yes, American Jews today are all that Andrew Sullivan says. Today. Only about forty years after the (formal) end of the tradition to reject Jews applying to some private clubs (I wonder how many of those are still practicing it on the sly?). Today, when the muddy waves of Internet carry uncounted examples of the worst Jew-hate ever, a good part of it coming from American sources. Henry Ford is more alive today for a certain category of Americans than he was way back, when still wasting oxygen. And who can tell what would happen if (or rather when) a serious economic upheaval hits the blessed United States? Who will be presented then as a guilty party for all to hate and serve as scapegoats? Make an educated guess...

There is religion and there is nationality. I don't actually recall any Jew-hater checking whether the targeted Jew is an atheist, no sir. And from a long (and sometimes educational) experience I can tell that no Jew-hater was ever hindered in his Jew-identification by the fact that the Jew in question feels totally assimilated. And the only thing that sticking our heads in the sand ever brought is the convenience to our enemies when applying a stick to our collective arses.

Well, but after all I can see the truth of this (last quote, I swear):
Well, I’m still a Jew in the sense that I know a good pastrami sandwich when I see one.
Me too, me too, Sam. Do you like your pastrami with garlic? Lots of garlic?

(Yeah, it is another tricky test of Jewishness, to be sure).


Dick Stanley said...

An Ashkenazi test, anyhow. Who are these clowns to decide whether they should/can be a Jewish state? America arguably was founded as a Christian country and still, I believe, has more practicing Christians than anywhere else. Piss Upon Them both now and forevermore.

SnoopyTheGoon said...

Of course, an Ashkenazi test for an Ashkenazi. He seems to be thoroughly confused between religion and nationality. Somewhat unsurprising when talking about Jews, but still his penchant for explaining everything by religion takes him to absurd results.

David Sigeti said...

Snoopy, this is one of your best posts ever, an eloquent and heartfelt (because so personal) statement.

It is beyond appalling that we are having to deal with the argument that antisemitism can be eliminated by assimilation, within living memory of the near extermination of German Jewry, which was the most assimilated Jewish community in the world just prior to the Shoah. In fact, the severe failure of the strategy of assimilation to provide a general solution to antisemitism was already manifest by the time of the Dreyfus affair in the 1890s, when the French crowds shouting, "Down with the Jews," converted Theodor Herzl from an extreme assimilationist to Zionism. That we have to deal with such a massively discredited idea now is at least as bad as the way African-Americans were being told, in the 1950s after a human lifetime of Jim Crow, that there was no need for anti-discrimination laws and that if they just behaved themselves, all racism would disappear.

The inability of self-defined liberals and progressives to understand this basic point is just unbelievable (at least for this liberal).

SnoopyTheGoon said...

Thanks David. It bothers the heck out of me that we, the Jews, don't seem to be able to learn anything from the past. On he other hand, it proves that we are just like everyone else. Which is a small consolation.

Akaky said...

I see. Well, if Israel as a Jewish state offends, how about Israel as a state for Jews? It seems to me that Jews rate a state, the same as almost anyone else who isn't a Kurd, and that a state for Jews would eliminate all of this religious talk, unless, of course, that the religious objection is just malarkey and what they're really objecting to is the existence of Jews in a place where their existence is not conditional on the bien-pensants' good will. But it could never be that, you know; that would be anti-Semitism and we all know that Jew hatred is too louche for words. Only the bitter clingers would be that way.