Altruism and Hamas

Many people find it hard to comprehend the widespread approval being showered upon Hamas. How, they wonder, can the perpetrators of unspeakable atrocities, captured on video for all to see, elicit the sympathy of tens or hundreds of thousands in the civilized West? Isn’t the evil of Hamas—and all its Palestinian supporters—indisputable?

Certainly, a growing anti-Semitism is at work. But the more fundamental explanation is the one provided by a schoolteacher in Atlanta, as reported in the Nov. 5 NY Times (“Across the Echo Chamber, a Quiet Conversation About War and Race”). She posted the following message on Facebook, defending her unequivocal backing of the Palestinians against Israel:

“The actual history of this situation is NOT COMPLICATED.  I will ALWAYS stand beside those with less power. Less wealth, less access and resources and choices. Regardless of the extreme acts of a few militants who were done watching their people slowly die.”

She is stating the essence of a moral code that is accepted by virtually everyone today: the code of altruism. According to that code, need is the ultimate standard of morality. If others are in need, nothing else matters—you have a duty to satisfy their needs.

Altruism is not a code of benevolence and goodwill. It is a code that says your life belongs not to you, but to anyone who displays a need that you are able to fulfill. It commands you to devote yourself, not to your own goals and your own happiness, but to the demands of all who are needier than you. It does not matter why someone is in need—it does not matter that fulfilling that need would be an act of injustice—you must sacrifice your money, your energies, your judgment in the name of altruism. You must subordinate everything to which you are justly entitled, in order to provide what someone is not justly entitled to. That is what self-sacrifice means: surrender everything, including your convictions about what is right, so that someone else’s needs can be met. And the more unjust your surrender is—i.e., the more unworthy, the more guilty, the recipient—the greater is the sacrifice and therefore the more imperative it is that you make it. That’s what altruism requires.

By the standard of justice, Israel is deserving of support. But by the standard of altruism, since Hamas needs your support—since Hamas is poor and besieged and helpless— you must take up its cause.

In stark contrast to Gaza, and the rest of the Arab world, Israel is a basically free country. Its inhabitants are free to express opinions without being jailed or executed, and an independent press, including many Arab publications, flourishes there; no independent press—Arab or non-Arab—is allowed in Gaza. Israel recognizes the freedom to practice one’s religion, and dozens of active mosques exist there; in most Muslim states, the public practice of religions other than Islam is not tolerated. Israel has free elections, and even Arab political parties are represented in the Parliament; the Arab world is dominated by dictatorial theocracies, kingdoms and emirates.

Every Arab living in Israel enjoys far greater freedom than any Arab in the Muslim countries of the Mideast.

Yes, the residents of Gaza live in poverty and oppression—but their condition is the product of the choices they and their governing body have made. According to altruism, however, it does not matter why someone is suffering. It does not matter that the homeless bum down the street is responsible for his misery because he is an alcoholic or a drug addict—he is needy, and you must sacrifice for his sake. It is selfish of you to insist that he clean up his life and find a self-supporting job—he is in pain, and you have a duty to relieve it.

Similarly, it is deemed irrelevant that Hamas is the cause of the suffering endured by Gazans as Israel retaliates for the Oct. 7 barbarism. It does not matter that the Palestinians’ commitment to aggressive war against Israel is the overriding cause of their plight. It does not matter that, by the standard of justice, Israel is the true victim. All that matters is that the Palestinians have “less power . . . less wealth, less access and resources and choices.” I.e., because their need is greater, their moral claim on us is stronger.

No, most people—unlike this teacher on Facebook—do not fully embrace altruism. But it is she who is applying that code consistently. And those who do not agree with her conclusions need to start questioning the validity of that code at its root.

HB: You nailed it. The other factor is loss of respect for—loss of the very concept of—reason.