By a macabre coincidence, I had just about to comment on Ayn Rand’s take on Israeli-Palestine relations, as revealed in her speech to the West Point graduating class of 1974, when Hamas launched its October 2023 attack. Not a good time to be writing about that area, I thought, but then I looked at the note at the end of the passage (which was also the end of the talk) and I saw the words ‘thunderous applause’.
Those cadets who were applauding so loudly would now be in their early seventies, and retired, but very possibly still influential. Retired military men seem to be wheeled out (sometimes quite literally) whenever there is a crisis involving armed conflict, so what their applause for Ayn Rand’s views may have more than historical significance. They could still be influencing their attitudes thought today.
So what did she have to say? It was this:
I am, incidentally, in favour of Israel against the Arabs for the very same reason. There you have the same issue in reverse. Israel is not a good country politically; it’s a mixed economy, leaning strongly to socialism. But why do the Arabs resent it? Because it is a wedge of civilization—an industrial wedge—in part of a continent which is totally primitive and nomadic.
Israel is being attacked for being civilized, and being specifically a technological society. It’s for that very reason that they should be supported—that they are morally right because they represent the progress of Man’s mind, just as the white settlers of America represented the progress of the mind, not centuries of brute stagnation and superstition. They represented the banner of the mind and they were in the right.
The most obvious thing about this is that, yet again, Rand is demonstrating her remarkable, and quite possibly wilful, ignorance of history, and also, in this case, geography. It is, of course, not possible to guess what she meant by ‘part of a continent’ but the fact that she referred to Israel as ‘a wedge’ and that by that time, following Israel’s success in the Six-day War, the West Bank and Gaza were already under occupation, indicates that it was more than just Palestine she referred to. However, the boundary can only be extended a little further before it takes in Damascus, reputedly the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, and, of course, Palestine itself includes Jerusalem, and numerous other urban sites with histories going back thousands of years. As for the non-urban population that was in place before Jewish settlers began arriving in numbers, only a tiny proportion could be classed as nomadic. They were, dominantly, farmers and pastoralists.
Figure 1. Google Earth image of northern Gaza and adjacent parts of Israel, dating from before the October 2023 phase of the conflict. Note the intensive, and very productive, agricultureal development in the Israeli Negev, and the contrast with the almost exclusively aurban environment of Gaza, largely populated by Palestinian former farmers and pastoralists and their descendants.
Ayn Rand’s distorted view of history had its root in, and is in turn reinforced by, her so-called ‘philosophy’. At its heart is her division of humanity into the deserving and the undeserving, coupled with her habit of classifying whole swathes as undeserving, simply because of their failure to live according to her own precepts. The Amerindians were undeserving because (she claimed) they “did not have any property rights—they didn’t have the concept of property; they didn’t even have a settled, society, they were predominantly nomadic tribes; they were a primitive tribal culture, if you want to call it that—if so, they didn’t have any rights to the land, and there was no reason for anyone to grant them rights which they had not conceived and were not using” That was also her approach to the Palestinians. They were, to her mind, “totally primitive and nomadic”, and therefore had no rights.
History, however, teaches a rather different lesson. It is, that where two distinctly and identifiably different groups of people occupy the same space, and one group abrogates to itself ‘rights’ that it denies to the other, then that is a system that can be maintained only by force, and the longer it exists, the greater the force needed to maintain it, and the greater, and uglier the consequences. Extremism will increasingly flourish, on both sides of the divide. Discrimination will engender resistance, resistance will be met with greater oppression, passive resistance will become violent, promoting violence in response, in a spiral that can end only if the root cause is removed. That removal can happen in several ways.
One group may exterminate the other.
One group may eject the other from the land that they formerly shared.
The two groups may physically divide the land between them.
Or equal rights may be granted by the oppressor to the oppressed.
Each option has consequences, and only the people of Israel are in a position to decide which of those alternatives will be adopted.
Ayn Rand’s so-called ‘philosophy’ will be of no help to them whatsoever when it comes to making that decision.