Is Israel singled out – and why?

israel_flag.jpgAdam Keller, editor of The Other Israel – August 1, 2010. Originally published here
Googling for “Israel singled out” + “anti-Semitism” would immediately get you many thousands of results. All over the world, supporters of the policies enacted by the government of Israel are busily churning out article after article, repeating with minor variations the same message – Israel is being unfairly singled out, harshly criticized for the kind of acts which others are allowed to get away with, and the motive is anti-Semitism.
In a way, this is a second line of defense. There had been a time when this kind of people took the line that Israel can do no wrong. That it is an utterly wonderful place, little short of an utopia, a vibrant democracy and the only one in the Middle East, the home of tireless and dauntless pioneers who made the desert bloom. But this way of looking at things had become increasingly difficult to sustain. There have been too many unsavory TV footages of Israeli soldiers broadcast into every home around the globe, too many nasty revelations, quite a few of them by Israel’s own dissident citizens…

It is far easier to freely admit that Israel is not blameless, that some of its actions and policies do deserve criticism – but as a matter of fact, “everybody does it”. Many others all over the world also violate human rights and/or international law, others discriminate against ethnic or religious minorities, others launch military offensives which claim the lives of innocent civilians. Muslims, it is quite true, have been killed by other Muslims as well as by Israel. So, why pick on Israel, specifically? Why, if not out of anti-Semitism? “Anti-Israelism is the New anti-Semitism”, period.
True, as far as formal international diplomacy is concerned, it is easy to show that – if Israel is singled out at all – it is singled out for a rather lenient treatment.
Should Sudanese President Omar Al Bashir land in any European country, he is bound to be arrested by the local police and extradited to the International Criminal Court in the Hague to stand trial for the misdeeds of his army, and of militias backed by his army; in Darfur. Binyamin Netanyahu need fear nothing of the kind. When private groups attempted to start criminal proceedings against Israeli civil or military officials, the governments of Belgium and Spain enacted legislation to make this impossible, and the British government is about to follow suit.
Iran is facing increasingly tough international sanctions – and increasingly vocal threats of war – for its attempts to produce a nuclear bomb. Israel faced nothing of the kind for its own highly successful enterprise in the same field. (Instead, the Government of Germany provided to Israel, free of charge, several submarines so modified that nuclear-tipped missiles could be installed on them and create a “second-strike capacity”.
Many countries violate human rights in one way or another – but few have the consistent backing a Permanent Member in the UN Security Council. Most proposed resolutions condemning acts by the government of Israel get aborted by the US veto. And even when a resolution gets past this barrier (invariably, after having been considerably watered down), the Government of Israel can (and often does) ignore it brazenly and with complete impunity. Non-compliance by Israel would never entail a second Security Council Resolution, and a third and fourth and a fifth each tougher than its predecessor – such as heralded the end of Saddam Hussein’s regime, and eventually the end of Saddam’s own life.
Still, even if baseless when directed at diplomats and ministers and heads of state, the charge of “singling out Israel” cannot be dismissed out of hand when much of civil society in the world today is concerned. It is a fact – which can be easily proven statistically – that there are intellectuals and university lecturers who write more articles condemning Israeli actions than they write against comparable actions in other countries. It is an easily proven fact that a considerable number of activist groups, and student organizations, and militant trade unionists, and a host of others, are busy passing sharply worded resolutions, and holding protests, and sometimes calling for a boycott against Israel – while falling short of acting as vehemently against each and every culpable country around the world.
For the likes of Alan Dershowitz and Nathan Sharansky and Ben Dror Yemini, this is a clear and sufficient proof of anti-Semitism. The proper course for a genuine upholder and defender of Human Rights should be to compile a full and comprehensive list of all violators (Amnesty International used to be a fairly reliable source for such, except that nowadays Amnesty has also become stained with “singling out Israel”). Then, a rota of pickets should be set up in front of all relevant embassies, with the Israeli one visited for three-quarters of an hour every third Monday, and anyone overstaying this quota by more than ten minutes would stand condemned as an anti-Semite (or a self-hater if a Jew oneself, or a traitor if an Israeli citizen, or all three combined…)
In practice, of course, the government of Israel and its adherents are well aware that public campaigns, to achieve any result, must be focused on a specific issue – which necessarily means that somebody in “singled out”. To cite one prominent example, the eminently successful worldwide campaign of the 1970’s and 1980’s, conducted under the slogan “Let My People Go!” was based on singling out the Soviet Union as against all other countries violating the Human Rights of their citizens; and on singling out Soviet Jews as against all other oppressed Soviet citizens; and singling out Soviet Jews wanting to leave their country as against those wanting to stay and have their rights respected at home; and on singling out Soviet Jews wanting to go to Israel as against those wanting to go somewhere else (the latter were the target of a particularly vituperative campaign…).
The result of all these forms of singling out is that Russian has become Israel’s de-facto second language, with Russian-speakers comprising some 20% of its population (a large part of them not being recognized as Jews, and not being able to get married in Israel – but this is a subject for another article…) An unfocused general campaign , against all forms of injustice everywhere, singling out nobody, would hardly have achieved this (or any) result.
Still, granted that focusing on a specific issue is the indispensable precondition of a successful campaign, the reason why it is particularly Israel which has become the target of such a campaign still needs to be looked at. It is my contention that the singling out of Israel for a special consideration and a treatment different from that given to anybody else is nothing new, nor has it always been directed against Israel. In fact, it has been actively initiated and promoted by Israel itself, or rather by the Zionist movement at the very inception of the project which would culminate in the creation of Israel. Zionism very specifically and explicitly asked the international community to be singled out for a very specific and very unique privilege, which was never ever granted to any other group anywhere else. Namely, the right to claim a land as its “National Home” on the basis of ancestors having lived in this land 2000 years ago.
In 1897, when Theodore Herzl and his fellows held the First Zionist Congress in Basle, national movements have already been a regular feature on the international agenda for about a century. Zionism has taken up many of the tenets and practices of European Nationalism – in particular East European Nationalism.
After all, many of the founders of Zionism had started out as patriotic Poles, or patriotic Magyars, or patriotic Germans, people who had wanted nothing more than to be accepted as equal citizens of the country where they lived – and who, faced with a painful and humiliating anti-Semitic rejection, recoiled into forming a national movement of their own. And naturally enough, it was modelled on the kind of nationalism they had known. And still, there was a major difference.
It is all too common for national movements to gain widespread international sympathy for the plight of the oppressed ethnic group they seek to represent – and once gaining state power, to engage in discrimination and oppression of other groups. And it is common for national movements to make sweeping territorial claims, often based on the narrative (historical or mythical) of some ancient warrior king. The Biblical King David, whom ardent Zionists cited, was far from the first such.
Still, the essential aim of all other national movements I ever heard of was to get control of a core area where their own ethnic group constituted the whole of the population, or at least an overwhelming majority. None but Zionists had ever put forward a claim for a country in whose entirety its ethnic group constituted at the time less than ten percent of the population, making implementation of its aspirations dependent upon a radical change of the status quo in that country.
Many factors converged to make possible the Zionist success in getting such a claim endorsed by the international community.- utterly unique, and sharply singling out Zionism and Israel from everybody else in the world.
There was a widespread, genuine sympathy for the persecuted Jews and horror at the Russian pogroms in the early days of Zionism, later dwarfed by the Nazi genocide. But side by side with this was the frankly racist wish to “get rid” of what were often portrayed as “the flood of East European Jewish hordes”, – and Zionism seemed to offer a convenient way of getting these “hordes” as far away as possible, out of sight and out of mind for respectable Europeans.
Even so, it would have likely been impossible but for the fact that the land claimed by Zionists was the well-known “Holy Land”, a land whose Biblical past was widely seen as far more important than its present. For centuries, Christian pilgrims had gone there to look for the shades of the past, “to walk in the footsteps of Jesus Christ”. Often, they regarded present-day inhabitants of the land as an unimportant appendage, shadows fleeting through the ruins of past glory.
Such was the mind-set of Christian Zionism which preceded and heralded the Jewish one. A mind-set which made plausible for this one specific country an idea that would have seemed the strangest of lunacies anywhere else: to turn the clock back two or three thousand years and restore the land to remote descendants of those who lived in it in past millennia. And in turn, the idea became plausible to mainstream opinion makers and decision makers in key Western countries, not all of them devout Christians themselves.
For all that, the Zionist movement never gained an unconditional international endorsement for its demands and aspirations. Throughout his career, Herzl dreamed of gaining for Zionism an International Charter. By considerable effort and quite a bit of luck, later Zionists got two of them – both of crucial importance, but neither providing an unrestricted license to dispossess and displace the people which Zionism found in the land, who would become known as Palestinians.
In the 1917 Balfour Declaration, His Majesty’s Government declared that it would “view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people” – but “it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”. Thirty years later, the United Nations at last explicitly authorized fulfillment of the Zionist dream by the creation of a Jewish State in Palestine – but with an Arab State at its side. In effect, Zionism can be seen to have signed a contract with the international community. Fair treatment of the Palestinians and respect of (at least some of) their rights as the clear condition for the recognition of its own national aspirations.
It took very long before Zionism would be seriously accused of defaulting on its part of this deal. In 1948, in the aftermath of the Holocaust, the young Israel was internationally applauded as a plucky David defeating a vicious Goliath. It is hardly remembered that at this time Zionism and the young Israel had been a progressive cause, supported worldwide by much the same kind of people who would nowadays support the Palestinians, and for much the same reason – sympathy for the underdog.
In 1949 Israel was accepted as a member of the UN without being asked to give up the territory which was not assigned to it in the partition plan, and the Palestinian refugees were regarded mainly as a humanitarian problem to be given a humanitarian solution. The Israeli position – that what the Palestinians lost in 1948 was forfeited due to their intransigence – was generally accepted on the international arena (and is in fact still so accepted). It was only after 1967 that Israel started to be seen as a Goliath rather than a David.
It is now 2010 – 113 years after the First Zionist Congress, 93 years after the Balfour Declaration, 63 years after the UN Partition Resolution, 43 years after the beginning of the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. It would be very difficult for even the most brilliant lawyer to seriously assert that the leaders of Zionism and of the State of Israel had kept their part of the deal made with the International Community. By every possible standard, the civil and religious rights of the non-Jewish communities which existed in Palestine in 1917 have been grossly prejudiced, over and over again. The Jewish State in Palestine was created in 1948 and greatly overstepped the boundaries set for it by the United Nations, while the Arab State in Palestine is yet to come.
And thus, to go back to the question posed at the beginning of this article: Is Israel singled out, by international civil society if not (yet?) by international diplomacy? Yes, it is. Is it unfair and biased? To my view, it is not. It is but a quite fair demand upon Israel to pay at least part of a long-overdue debt, and keep their part of a contract which Israel’s Founding Fathers solemnly signed.
Yes, there are many countries whose conduct fully deserves condemnation – but none was given such a unique privilege as the Zionist movement was given, none had made such a binding obligation in return for being given such a privilege, and which it failed to keep.
In recent years the State of Israel has been vociferously criticized for planting settlers in the occupied territories – which it can be argued that China is also doing in Tibet; and for killing civilians in the bombings of Gaza, which it can shown that Americans and Europeans are also doing in Iraq and Afghanistan; and for lethally raiding the Gaza Aid Flotilla, for which some apologists also tried to find various precedents and parallels. Yet Israel is singled out because it, and it alone, is in obvious default of a fundamental obligation, an obligation which was the condition for Israel coming into being in the first place.
The plan which is now on offer – and had been on offer for quite a long time – gives Israel the possibility of settling this debt on quite comfortable conditions. The West Bank and Gaza Strip, which are to be given up and become the State of Palestine, are after all little more than 22% of what was Mandatory Palestine, and by giving them up Israel would be intentionally recognized as having at last discharged its debt and kept its obligation. But continued persistence in refusing to pay the debt – continuing it until the international balance of power has fundamentally changed, some years or decades from now – might put Israel at the risk of what happens to those who fail to pay their debts: going into liquidation.