In the recent debate over the proposed boycott of Israeli goods by the Park Slope Food Coop, it was asserted that critics of Israeli human rights abuses are unjustly “singling out” the Jewish state. They are “ignoring” the human rights abuses committed by other governments and eliding the criminal actions of the Palestinians.
One hears the same argument wherever and whenever the subject of the Israel-Palestine conflict is brought up. What about Syria? Iran? North Korea? Myanmar? Zimbabwe? What about Hamas? Why is Israel the target of condemnation when others engage in far worse depredations?
To say that Israel is being “singled out” is to say that it is being unfairly vilified for doing the same sorts of, presumably “bad,” things that other states are doing; it’s to grant, in other words, that Israel is doing something “wrong.” But the implied acknowledgment of Israeli misdeeds by those making this argument is a discursive feint; Israeli transgressions, if specified at all, are glossed over as nothing but garden-variety misdemeanors. Indeed, it’s not that Israel is being “singled out” that’s driving those deploying this discourse to apoplexy. It’s that Israel is being accused of pursuing criminal policies at all. Israel, they believe, is a victim, not a perpetrator. It’s a beacon of civilized democracy in an ocean of Oriental despotism and barbarism. It’s a “light unto the nations,” boasting “the most moral army in the world” and the gay-friendliest city on the planet.
Those who assert that Israel is being “singled out” aren’t interested in assessing where to rank Israel on the scoreboard of global human rights violators. They’re just setting listeners up for an old familiar punch-line: Why is Israel being “singled out?” Because the world hates the Jews. Why do some Jews harp on Israel’s depredations? It’s because they hate themselves.
The charge of “singling out” is at once disingenuous and obfuscatory. It’s another way of saying that substantive criticism of Israel (not to mention organized political and economic action, including boycott and divestment, in support of such criticism) amounts to anti-semitism. It’s intended to stifle criticism — and indeed, honest discussion — and thereby distract attention away from the real-life conditions in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza: from the house demolitions; the land theft; the “administrative detentions;” the de jure and de facto deprivation of elementary rights of assembly and speech; the relentless settlement building; the roadblocks, checkpoints, and general interruption of free movement; the theft and wildly unequal distribution of water; the containment wall built on Palestinian territory; the settler violence against Palestinian individuals and property; the use of banned weaponry; the collective punishment of the entire Palestinian people; the bantustanization of the West Bank; the violations of international law; the blockading of Gaza; the manifest racism; and the daily harassment and indignities consciously and systematically imposed on an occupied populace.
To defend such policies and practices is morally impossible. To equate the actions undertaken by the Israelis with those of the weak and stateless Palestinians is ethically obtuse. To ignore altogether the events on the ground in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza by raising the hoary accusation of anti-semitism, wrapped in the packaging of “singling out,” is unconscionable.
Of course, the fact still remains: As appalling as Israeli policies may be, they still aren’t so dastardly as to put Israel at the very top of the list of human rights violators. So why do people (like me) devote so much attention and passion to castigating Israel?
There are several compelling reasons.
First of all, as Peter Beinart recently observed, “We all intuitively understand the rationale for focusing on those offenses over which we have more control, even if they are not the most egregious. If that weren’t the case, how could an American justify focusing her attention on the misdeeds of the government of the United States?”
There’s not a whole lot the U.S. government – or ordinary American citizens – can say or do to improve the human rights situation in Zimbabwe or Syria (both subject to U.S. sanctions since 2003), in Myanmar (subject to sanctions since 1988), in Iran (subject to sanctions since 1979), or in North Korea (whose government the U.S. has never even formally recognized). Trumpeting the misdeeds of these regimes might be psychologically and ethically satisfying, but is politically meaningless, not to say, redundant. It’s sort of like ranting at East Germany perfidy, c.1960.
But Israel? Not only has America withheld substantive criticism of its policies, but the U.S. government and U.S. citizens are, and have long been, the most important global enablers of such policies. Indeed, if the U.S. has historically “singled out” Israel, it has been for special protection, assistance, and cover for its daily crimes against the Palestinians. Whether we look at U.S. military assistance to Israel (amounting to $8.2 million a day in fiscal year 2011, more than 18% of the entire Israeli defense budget),or at private American tax-deductible gifts to illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem (including to some of the most violent, fascistic and dangerous crackpots in the region), America and Americans have played the role of Israel’s pre-eminent arsenal, financier, diplomatic supporter, and propagandist. To suggest, under such circumstances, that Israel is being “singled out” by its American critics can only be considered a sick joke.
The idea, moreover, that, as moral actors, we are each obliged soberly to calibrate the world’s injustices and respond only to those we have disinterestedly calculated to be the “worst,” is manifestly preposterous. Life being short and energy finite, each of us is capable of engaging in only so many political battles. The criteria we use for selecting which ones to fight involve a variety of considerations, objective and subjective, conscious and unconscious. This doesn’t mean we’re justified in ignoring, let alone whitewashing, injustices that don’t emotionally engage us. It does mean, however, that it’s absurd to condemn people who devote themselves, for example, to fighting against predatory banking practices or fracking or the Chinese occupation of Tibet or human trafficking on the grounds that there are more heinous injustices in the world.
The struggle against South African apartheid was, for many Americans, an especially important cause. It wasn’t that conditions in South Africa were necessarily the worst in Africa or in the world. It was that many people felt that, given America’s own history of white racism and settler colonialism, they had a special obligation to combat apartheid, an obligation made even more morally compelling and politically meaningful because of the long-standing support and collusion extended to this regime by successive U.S. governments.
As an American whose country is abetting Israeli crimes I find the cause of Palestine similarly compelling. As an American Jew, I find the Jewish Establishment’s thuggish efforts to whitewash Israeli crimes, exploit Islamophobia, muzzle dissent, and prevent the U.S. from framing a coherent foreign policy to be especially deplorable (not to mention, dangerous). When prominent American Jews revile critics of Israel as traitors and blood enemies, otherwise enlightened Israelis go about their daily business oblivious or insensitive to the repressive realities only a few kilometers away, and the occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza enters its 45th year, the Jewish claim to some sort of special communal commitment to “justice” rings more hollow than ever.