In Defense of a Double Standard

By Or Amit

Those who routinely criticize Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians are often accused of partiality and selective moral outrage. Why complain of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians when in Syria Assad is exterminating hundreds of thousands and ISIS is finishing the job? Where was your criticism when Saddam Hussein was gassing the Kurds? Why are you not calling on the West to intervene in North Korea, where at any given moment some 200,000 slaves are worked, starved, and tortured to death in Stalinist gulags? If you care about human life and dignity, should you not invest your efforts in dealing with the worst cases of human rights violations rather than with the relatively minor case of Israel’s occupation of Palestine? Why do you support a boycott of Israel and not of North Korea, Syria, or Saudi Arabia? Such are the questions directed at persistent critics of Israel.

The belief that the world is focusing unfairly on Israel is neither a recent phenomenon nor is it confined to the murky hinterland of the Israeli right. Ha-Olam Kulo Negdenu (“the entire world is against us”) is one of Israel’s founding canards and as a child I was used to hearing it whenever any action purportedly inimical to Israel’s interests took place, from a UN vote to denounce Israel’s policies in the occupied territories to a foul called on an Israeli basketball player. Many Israelis believe that if the world is going to hate them anyway, they might as well do as they please.

Despite this endemic paranoia, questions of selective attention are worthy of a thoughtful response. After all, the world is a nasty, brutish place and replete with oppression and human suffering. The Israelis and occupied (as opposed to displaced) Palestinians, taken together, make up about twelve million people, or roughly 0.18% of the world’s population. Why, then, focus on Israel when much of the globe is burning hotter? In answering that question, the first thing to do is not to deny its reasonable premise. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict does indeed receive disproportional international coverage, and several greater conflicts and crises receive scantier acknowledgement. The task is to explain and justify the disproportionate coverage, not to refute it.

One reason for shining the spotlight on Israel is that unlike almost all countries in which routine human rights violations occur, Israel is a democracy, and a fairly stable one at that. Israelis don’t have to live under Netanyahu’s rule of ultra-nationalism and fanaticism; they choose to. Netanyahu and his ilk, past and present, aren’t a band of marauders who took over Israel by force and violence; they won open and largely fair elections by voters who knew, or at least should have known, what the Bibi bloc stood for. Consequently, the world may and should influence the direction Israel takes by informing the Israeli public, by criticizing its leaders and its populace and by making Israelis feel uncomfortable about the direction they have chosen for their nation. The same media attention would do little good in Syria or North Korea: the people there did not elect their leaders and they cannot remove them from power by peaceful means.

Access to information plays an important role here. Israel is a highly-developed, industrialized and technologically-advanced nation. Most of its population is proficient in English and enjoys efficient, inexpensive and largely unfettered access to the internet and to foreign and domestic press sources. Israelis should know what their leaders stand for and they should be aware of the horrors of the occupation, uncovered for many years and in excruciating detail by Israeli heroes such as Gideon Levy and Amira Hass as well as by the foreign press. Whatever Israelis don’t know they choose not to know, and the world ought to pour harsher criticism on a high-knowledge democracy than on citizens of benighted informational caverns.

A comparison with the United Kingdom may be instructive. The Troubles in Northern Ireland lasted for decades and cost thousands of lives, but—considering all that has taken place in the world in the second half of the twentieth century—the Troubles were small potatoes in world affairs. Still, this Protestant-Catholic religious-nationalist conflict made more headlines than human rights abuses in the Soviet bloc, famines in Africa and dictatorial excesses in South America precisely because the United Kingdom was a Western democracy and a world power whose citizenry had most of the information it needed to make informed electoral and personal decisions. Consequently, the world expected the UK to resolve the situation quickly and peacefully. Having failed to do so, the British could hardly accuse their critics of anti-British sentiments or of anti-Protestant bigotry.

There is one important difference between the British and Israeli situations, though: the British did not employ a powerful public relations campaign to justify their actions abroad, and any criticism of a nation should be proportional not only to the motives and effects of its policies but also to intensity of its propaganda campaigns. There is no pro-Assad lobby on Capitol Hill, and ISIS leaders can hardly be said to have the ears of policymakers in Europe. To denounce Assad, ISIS, or Kim Jong-Un on any platform is to preach to a particularly pious choir. Israel, on the other hand, has the most powerful foreign lobby on Capitol Hill, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), known in Israel almost exclusively as “The Jewish Lobby” (Ha-Shdula Ha-Yehudit). By some estimates, AIPAC is second only to the AARP in its influence on American politics. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL), an organization specializing in finding anti-Semitism behind any criticism of Israel or Zionism, is also very powerful. In addition, Jewish-American and pro-Israeli journalists, businessmen and politicians hold great sway in American politics and media, and billionaire Sheldon Adelson has gone as far as creating a Pravda-like daily rag, Israel HaYom (“Israel Today”), which is distributed gratis in Israel and serves as a mouthpiece for Netanyahu and the right. Israel is hardly the world’s most iniquitous nation, but its propaganda machine is by far the most vociferous.

The effectiveness of this propaganda machine is attested to by all serious American presidential candidates—past and present, left and right—who are effectively forced to voice unqualified commitment to the United States’ “only ally in the Middle East” and to the continuation of military and political aid to Israel, the largest recipient of American foreign aid. As most of this aid goes to the Israeli military, American taxpayers may rightfully view themselves as unwilling contributors to the Israeli oppression machine, and their denunciation of it should be more strident than their denunciation of other atrocities in which their dollars take no part.

Yet their protest is drowned by the perpetual din of Israel’s well-heeled and ever-churning propaganda machine. Small, independent organizations such as the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, the non-profit B’Tselem, Mondoweiss and a few artists and activists (e.g. Roger Waters), whose combined wealth is less than Adelson’s pocket change, do their best to spread the word that the occupation must end and that the Palestinians deserve freedom and dignity. When those in this small and impecunious camp of protesters are accused of being too selective or too shrill, they are justified in claiming that they must be, for they play David to an Israeli public relations Goliath.

I began by stating that accusations of selective moral outrage should not be dismissed without proper consideration but I’ll end by advising against imputing too much intellectual integrity to those who hurl these accusations. A man who beats his wife can hardly claim that he is being targeted unfairly while his neighbor beats his wife even more brutally. Likewise, an apologist for Israel can hardly claim that his country’s crimes should be put on a geo-political back burner until the Arab world is democratized and Korea is unified. Ultimately, any attempt to point to greater evils is merely an attempt to deflect attention from Israel’s crimes.

– Or Amit is a freelance writer living in Dresden, Germany. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com. 

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