Friday 31 May 2013

Israel and higher moral standards

"I'm not singling out the world's only Jewish state, I merely hold Israel to a higher moral standard because it claims to be a democracy."

A line I have encountered many times. So here are some thoughts:

If Israel were not a democracy, would you ignore the crimes you claim Israel is guilty of in much the same way that you currently ignore the actual crimes of states like Syria, Iran, China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, North Korea, Egypt, Lebanon etc etc?

If you would ignore Israel's crimes should it not be a democracy, are you suggesting that Netanyahu declare himself dictator and suspend all elections?

If you would continue in your anti-Israel activism, what justification would you now offer seeing as it is on the same moral standings as nations you previously chose to ignore because you felt you could hold Israel to a higher moral standard?

I'm genuinely interested, please answer simply.


  1. Hi Raph,

    I agree in part that there is a seeming (and often no doubt real) hypocrisy on the part of some members of the pro-Palestine movement, but I think we need to be careful.

    Firstly, I have mixed feelings about an argument which says 'why Israel and not everywhere else?'. Whilst that could be a legitimate question if there was a deliberate campaign against a nation based on race, on its own it's not enough to be convincing. After all, all movements have to focus on one issue and try to achieve victory in that. They can't focus on every human rights situation in the world (that argument could similarly be used against anti-apartheid campaigners when the global movement against South Africa took place, or the movements in solidarity with East Timor at the end of the 90's).

    Secondly, one major reasons why Israel gets criticised and not some of the other nations you mentioned is because we (rightly) feel more moral responsibility for the actions of major allies of our governments, ones we often supply a large flow of arms and diplomatic support to. On your list only Saudi Arabia and Egypt are Western allies. If you're serious about wanting to improve the lives of people around the world, you would be advised to concentrate on those areas in which you have most chance of success- namely, on your own government primarily, and then that of your government's allies. Preaching to Russia and North Korea from afar is unlikely to be successful, and may even be counter-productive. But Israel is a nation which the US in particular has huge leverage over.

    Following on from that point, there is more or less a world-wide consensus on a two-state solution to the Israel/Palestine issue. This makes it an easier target for activism (although, I agree, BDS and the like do not fit in with this argument, but I'm not seeking to defend them). It's often hard to think of solutions for something like the situation in Saudi Arabia (although there are solutions for situations in Western Sahara, West Papua and possibly the Kurds, so of course that's not to say that Israel is the only issue with a solution- there is just already an international consensus on what has to be done).

    I hope that provides some progress on the issues you raised.

    1. Thank you for your response, much more engaging than the 'what' I received above!

      If we are going to call it a pro-Palestinian movement, it cannot be limited to Israel. For as long as it ignores Syria's butcher of 2000 Palestinians and counting; Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and the rest of the Arab World's laws which discriminate against Palestinians (ignoring the ones which discriminate against Jews); Abbas' refusal to accomodate any Palestinian refugees from Syria, rather insisting that Israel deal with them; Hamas' treatment of Palestinians in Gaza and so on, it remains an anti-Israel movement, a movement concerned only with Palestinian rights when it can in some way blame Israel.

      Granted your points might be true to an extent but I feel they lie in the same category as "Israel is a democracy" simply because it is yet another excuse for singling out Israel's treatment of Palestinians and not any other country's. It is another excuse put forward to pressure Israel and only Israel into making moves for peace that requires Palestinian cooperation that is never forthcoming.

      There is a fair point to be made in criticising Israel because it is a major ally of the US (and to an extent the UK) but for as long as the movement wishes to be Pro-Palestinian, rather than anti-Israel, it cannot only concern itself with those Palestinians that are affected by Israel. In much the same way that magnetism arises as a result of a magnetic object having certain properties none of which in of themselves are 'magnetism', anti-Semiticism arises from Pro-Palestinian movements which single out Israel (to make moves for peace) and the Palestinians affected by Israel even if some of the individuals within these movement or who support them are not anti-Semitic themselves.

    2. Thanks for the response.

      The Syrian regime's actions are evidently heinous and to be condemned entirely. However the amount of leverage activists and citizens of the West have there is close to 0. They can have far more of an impact on states whom are allied to their own governments, states which their own governments support.

      For me the fact that Israel is a democracy (in the liberal sense of the term) is not something that should particularly enter our calculations. As you are aware, I talk and write about a wide variety of governments who undertake oppressive actions with the support of the West, democracies or not (i.e. Indonesia, both whilst it was a full dictatorship and now, with its semi liberal-democratic institutions).

      I agree that people should expand their criticism to wherever this occurs, especially to other Western backed governments who have undertaken such acts, whether with regard to Palestinians or anyone else (such as Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Jordan, Indonesia, Columbia, Honduras), but this in no way diminishes the issue of Israel's treatment of the Palestinians. One only has so much time and energy, and people often pick an issue or a few issues and stick with those. There isn't a base of activism for campaigning on many of the other issues (West Papua being a primary example), whereas the structure and broad movement already exists for the Israel issue. I'm not convinced that it would be a compelling critique of feminism to claim that what they say has no value if they don't expand their criticism of oppression to all forms of oppression, whether class based, age based, or race based (I'm open to you disagreeing on that point; maybe it would be a legitimate critique).

      Anti-Semitism surely plays some role, but I find it hard to accept that it's widespread, particularly in Western based activist groups (although we may just have to disagree with our intuitions on that front). I don't think that campaigns against Israel's actions necessarily become anti-Semitic regardless of the intentions of the activists (although BDS and Palestinian Solidarity are examples that may be open to your accusation).

      I feel that the gap between our views on this specific point may not be too large, and I accept some of what you say. But I find it hard to believe that you would accept criticism of Israel if it came from those who spread their criticism around to lots of other governments too. Am I right?

    3. The gap in our views is not large at all. I agree that it is not a compelling critique of Feminism to claim "that what they say has no value if they don't expand their criticism of oppression to all forms of oppression, whether class based, age based, or race based" but then Feminism never claimed to be fighting oppression (although it, by implication, obviously is) but rather female oppression. In the same way, fighting injustices against the Palestinian people (whether they are as real as claimed is a debate we can have another time) does lose value if you do not fight injustices against Kurds or Women in the Arab World etc etc. However, fighting injustices against the Palestinian people, for me, loses value entirely when it is fighting injustices against the Palestinian people only when those injustices, in the opinion of the activists, can be blamed on Israel. To be Pro-Palestinian does not allow you to pick and choose which Palestinians you are 'pro' (whilst I would argue that by definition being a feminist activist means you fight for women issues rather than ethnic minority ones, for example) which is exactly what the vast majority of Pro-Palestinian activists are concerned with. So of course their supposed commitment to human rights etc does not necessarily lose value when they concern themselves with Palestinian rights but to concern yourself with the rights of Palestinians is to concern yourselves with the Palestinians suffering immeasurably under Hamas in Gaza, under Assad in Syria, under King Abdullah II of Jordan, Morsi of Egypt, Abbas of the West Bank, Suileman of Lebanon as well as the Palestinians in Israel.

      With respect to your last question, I'd have more respect for them. I can understand your points about Israel receiving aid and it being impossible to focus on every issue etc but I ultimately believe that there is so much anti-Semiticism at the root of Pro-Palestinian movements that concern themselves with Palestinians only when they can blame Israel. I take your points, I really do and for those who criticise Israel but are clearly not anti-Semitic and support Jewish Nationalism just as they support Palestinian Nationalism etc, we can have a proper debate about the criticisms of Israel that they (and I imagine you) may have. Because Israel is not perfect, of course not. So there is debate to be had there, and justifiable criticism of Israeli policy but you cannot debate with people who blindly criticise Israel for Palestinian injustice when they are wilfully ignorant (what I would call real) injustices against the Palestinian people carried out by Arab states right from using them as a pawn in their aim to destroy Israel in 1948 to systematically discriminating against them to this day, blaming Israel for their problems, using that helpful old scapegoat: the Jewish People.

    4. I think we successfully elucidated our differences in a civil manner as always, Raph! On the issue of supporting Palestinian nationalism and not Jewish nationalism I fully agree with you; there is a massive inconsistency on the part as BDS etc. in that area (not to say I'm in favour of nationalism at all as a principle, but if we support it for Palestine we must of course extend that to Israel- and that equally goes for Israelis who support Israeli nationalism but not Palestinian).

      And a full understanding of the complexities of the conflict and wider context should of course be sought be both sides.

    5. There needs to be a 'like' button on here, but I completely agree. What a lovely break from Politics revision this has been!

    6. I think a large part of the disagreement isn't one of principle but rather on the account of facts one chooses to accept. If we hold Israel to the highest possible standards of justice demanded by human rights/civil law (as both Conor and Raph agree is nothing but reasonable) there remains an important question as to what extent those standards are met.

      I think a lot of activists tend to obscure the fundamentally problematic nature of de facto occupation and assymetric warfare while at the same time refusing to countenance the possibility that Israel and its military act under incredibly stringent protocols (I remember reading a few days ago about a general who justified his order to soldiers not to shoot back at a group of protesters because he'd rather 'see them in hospital than in court'). Much of this is a result of information flow - in honesty, Al Jazeera is sometimes more accurate in its reporting then BBC and Guardian. Also there is sometimes a whitewashing of Hamas or Hizbollah operational tactics/goals/attitudes which somewhat undermines a balanced understanding of Israel's defensive necessities.

      By the same token, defenders of Israel have a tendency to overlook injustices that do occur through the heavy handedness of a military bureaucracy and hold a priori assumptions about the justice of every war/battle fought.

      In my humble opinion, these factual disputes are possibly the most divisive.

  2. Its not that people think Israel's crimes are necessarily worse. Its more that they stand out because Israel is a democracy. People expect these things of dictatorships so its more notable when Israel does them

    1. So would Israel be ignored if it were not a democracy?


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