How Can an Atheist Support a “Religious” State Like Israel?

by | Oct 20, 2019 | Middle East & Israel

We should recognize Israel’s fundamental nature as a free society, and lend it our moral endorsement so long as that remains a defining feature

Q. You’re an atheist, and yet you call for supporting Israel—a self-defined “Jewish” state? Isn’t that utterly hypocritical?

A. I am an atheist, and in the book I lay out a case for supporting Israel against our common, particularly Islamist, foes—not because of any Biblical claims to the land, but despite Israel’s religious aspect. I argue for backing it in the name of a secular, individualist moral principle: the principle of individual freedom.

If one values human life, freedom, and progress, then one should stand with Israel—as well as with everyone else in the region who seeks genuine freedom, including those among the Palestinian population who do. By the same token, one should stand against the movements and regimes hostile to freedom. I argue that we should support Israel precisely because (and to the extent that) it respects and upholds freedom.

Freedom is a rare and precious political value that we, like all other nations, need to live up to and champion. We should recognize and celebrate the momentous achievement of any country that actually protects individual freedom—and in the Mideast, Israel is the only country that does so. Israel, like the world’s other free societies, is riddled with political problems and flaws, including a distinctive tension over religion’s place in politics, which I examine in the book. I view Israel’s religion-state tension as a serious problem. But significant though Israel’s problems and flaws are, they are worlds away from the pervasive dictatorship, authoritarianism, and theocracy of the Middle East.

What I argue in the book is that we should recognize Israel’s fundamental nature as a free society, and lend it our moral endorsement so long as that remains a defining feature.

That’s a standard that we should apply to any country. If a country’s political character changes—if, say, it veers toward authoritarianism, as in the case of Turkey—we’d have to change our assessment of and relationship with it. Conversely, if an authoritarian regime moves toward genuine freedom, such a welcome change must factor into our approach and policy toward it.

The argument I lay out in the book contrasts sharply with viewpoints invoking the Bible’s say-so, looming End Times, or any other supernatural dogma. Instead, my argument is predicated on upholding—and thus exhibiting integrity to—the secular, individualist moral principle of freedom.

Soon after I finished writing What Justice Demands: America and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, I was discussing the book with a colleague, who asked me, “Why do you resist calling this a ‘pro-Israel’ book?” My answer: because the conventional meaning of that term (like the corresponding term “pro-Palestinian”) is unhelpful. My view contrasts starkly with views commonly tagged with that label.

The label tells you vaguely about the conclusion someone holds, but not the basis for that view, whether the reasons for it are sound, or what the view entails in practice. Compounding the problem, it suggests that there’s some uniformity among views deemed to be “pro-Israel,” when in fact there is no such uniformity. On the contrary. Four different people can hold what appears to be the same conclusion—but for four different reasons, which may be good, mixed, bad, or thoroughly irrational. For example, some people are avidly “pro-Israel” because they see that country’s religious elements as fulfilling Biblical prophecy. By contrast, my book argues for supporting Israel despite its religious aspects—and I’m critical of its lack of a separation between religion and state. Fundamentally, my book is pro-individual and pro-freedom.

What I’ve tried to impress upon you in this essay is that my book offers a distinctive analysis, and it is distinctive precisely because of the reasons for my conclusions. Underlying my approach is the individualist moral perspective of Objectivism, the philosophy of Ayn Rand. That, in the end, is what makes the book stand out so sharply in the intellectual landscape.

I invite you to engage with the book’s argument. Once you do, I expect you’ll have comments, questions, criticisms, objections. Please, send them my way. I always learn from such feedback, and while I cannot promise to respond to each note individually, I’ll look for opportunities to address points of general interest.

A version of this article appeared in New Ideal. (c) 2019 Ayn Rand Institute. To learn more about the proper method of analyzing the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, and how to bring peace and human flourishing to all of the Middle East, read Elan Journo’s What Justice Demands: America and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.

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Elan Journo is director of policy research at the Ayn Rand Institute. His latest book -- What Justice Demands: America and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict -- is on American policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Visit his website at


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