The recent offensive in Gaza has, once again, put Israel in the spotlight. And once again, if you take a look at the progressive press, you will see it right there: Israel equals Western Imperialism, South African Apartheid, even Nazi Germany. There is no denying that the situation in Gaza in particular, and the occupied Palestinian territories in general, is a tragic one. And as an occupying force, Israel does bear responsibility for human rights abuses that occur among Palestinians. However, it is also clear that what happens in Israel does not even begin to approach some of the most infamous human rights crisis of this decade, such as what happens in Sudan, Somalia or Congo.
Even human rights groups acknowledge the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not the worst contemporary humanitarian tragedy. For example, the Amnesty International 2007 annual report “offenders’ list” included places like Sudan, Congo, Iraq; these conflicts literally account for millions of deaths and many millions more of displaced refugees, yet Israel’s worst offenses are cited as the construction of the separation barrier and the war in Lebanon, which was actually initiated by Hezbollah.
A recent article in Front Page Magazine online ranked the Arab-Israeli conflict only as 49th in terms of fatalities since 1950. Even the “The Observer” Human Rights Index in 2000 (the last year it was published), listed Israel only in 31st place in terms of the severity of human rights abuses, and even on their weighted table, which has been greatly criticized because of its methodology that is heavily biased against more developed countries, placed Israel only in 8th place.
Nevertheless, you wouldn’t know that judging by some of the recent trends: the inclusion of Israel as the only a permanent item on the UN Human Rights Council agenda, boycott calls by unions in places like Britain, Canada and South Africa, constant condemnation by human rights groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, etc.
So, why is Israel singled out? Many Jewish organizations blame it simplistically on anti-Semitism. Granted, anti-Semitism and anti-Zionist sentiment might be part of the problem, but given the fact that this criticism is so widespread and in some cases coming from former friends of Israel (e.g., former U.S. President Jimmy Carter) I am reluctant to believe that it is the major factor affecting the emphasis on Israel.
The fact is that when you carefully examine the criticism, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is many times viewed and analyzed at an affective level rather than a rational one. I believe part of it has to do with the fact that it is one of the only two major conflicts between a “Western” developed nation and a Third World, non-Western people left in modern times. Indeed, of the other 48 conflicts analyzed in the Front Page Magazine report, only 11 are still continuing, and of these, the only other international one is the Iraq conflict, in which a developed country is responsible for the deaths of people in a developing nation.
Look at other of the major human rights crises is the world: in places like Sudan, Congo, Indonesia or Myanmar the crisis is the result internal infighting. Even Iraq, which is viewed as caused and exacerbated by the U.S., its mostly a conflict between Iraqis of different ethnic and faith groups. Israel is the only Western nation that occupies the territories of what should be a sovereign people. That allows for easy, simplistic black and white cognitive categorizations. Rationally, it is not nearly the worst human rights tragedy of the contemporary world, but it is the only one easily categorized as clear cut: West-East, Rich-Poor, Colonizer-Colonized, Good and Evil. For example, look at what Tom Hickey, chair of the University and Colleges Union in England and author of an anti-Israel boycott resolution, wrote to justify his proposal while ignoring the worst humanitarian crises:
“In the case of Israel, we are speaking about a society whose dominant self image is one of a bastion of civilization in a sea of medieval reaction. And we are speaking of a culture, both in Israel and in the long history of the Jewish Diaspora, in which education and scholarship are held in high regard. That is why an academic boycott might have a desirable political effect in Israel, an effect that might not be expected elsewhere.” (British Medical Journal, July 2007).
Israel is singled out because it is easy to feel good about a conflict in which we can simplistically recognize the butcher and the victim, to support the weak, the abused, against the tyrant. Just browse some of the blogs, and you will see Israel and Zionism repeatedly depicted as Satan, as monsters, as worst than Nazis. When demonization of a nation is legitimized, it is easy to hate.
More moderate and reasoned calls for boycotts just feed this frenzy. And then, there is no need to think. No need to understand that the conflict is complex, multifaceted and two sided, even if the conflict is asymmetrical because of the overwhelming superiority of the Israeli forces. And when there is no need to think, all that is left is the emotion, the feelings of hatred, of disgust, of revenge. A solution, however, cannot be achieved by giving-in to this tendency of name-calling and boycotting that oversimplifies the issue and legitimizes the hate. It has to come through the rational analysis and understanding of a complex reality. And that is what our challenge really is.