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Friday, January 20, 2006

The singling out of Israel

'It doesn't just happen that a whole lot of individuals converge on one cause. There have to be reasons. The movement today to institute boycotts of one kind and another against Israel, but not against other states whose human rights records are worse, and often vastly worse than Israel's - I just name Sudan here to get this point comprehensively settled - didn't come about simply through a lot of different individuals homing in, for a multitude of personal reasons, on the justified grievances of the Palestinians. Either there are good reasons which can be cited to show why Israel is an especially egregious case, and it is those reasons that have induced so many people to single it out for special prejudicial treatment. Or there are not such good reasons - and then there is at least a prima facie case for thinking some prejudice againt the country or its people may be at work.'

Are there valid reasons for singling Israel out? A debate that began with an article from Richard Kuper of 'Jews for Justice for Palestinians' and continued with this from David Hirsh at Engage (with a couple of comments from yours truly) has produced two spot-on posts on normblog, the first from Eve Garrard and the second from Norm in person (quoted above). And now Kuper has come back for more.

I must say Kuper’s case is a remarkably incoherent one. Garrard and Geras challenged him to say whether he thinks Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians constitutes the worst human rights crisis in the world. A straightforward question to which he offers no straightforward answer. Instead, he seeks to justify the singling out of Israel by piling various forms of special pleading on top of each other, evidently believing the resulting edifice will be imposing enough to conceal his evasion of that simple question.

Let’s look at his arguments.

  1. It’s a Jewish thing

    I have real sympathy with this one. After all, I write my blog as a Christian seeking to put my own faith’s house in order. I can quite understand Jews wanting Israel, more than any other state, to have an unimpeachable human rights record, and feeling betrayed when it fails to live up to their standards. So the fact that it has the worst human rights record of all the states in the world run by Jews is quite sufficient reason for Jews to single it out.

    The problems with this argument come when Gentiles get in on the act. For it simply underscores the question why non-Jews get so hot under the collar about Israel. Applying the principle consistently, one would expect WASPs to be busy campaigning over the shortcomings of, say, New Zealand, Muslims to be concentrating their fire on Sudan, and so on. The reality is, of course, different. As I have been documenting ad nauseam in this blog, the singling out of Israel is endemic in mainstream Christian churches. Why? Organize a demonstration against Sudan and the Muslim turnout will be a fraction of what you could expect if Israel were the target. Why?

    The plain truth is that there is a gut feeling abroad that Israel really is the World’s Worst, and if left-wing Jews like Richard Kuper are trying to combat it I have to say they are not doing a very good job, to put it mildly. The suspicion must be that they’re not even trying - the success of their campaign must, after all, depend on non-Jewish support. The potential consequences of the demonization of Israel for the way Jews are perceived are profoundly disturbing. Kuper is entitled to accept these consequences for himself, but clearly the threat of a reinvigorated anti-Semitism affects all Jews (and indeed everyone who wants to live in a tolerant pluralist society), and for that he must be held accountable – even if it has to be done by a Goy like me.

  2. Israel’s so hypocritical

    Kuper’s original article contained this fine piece of nonsense:-

    ‘What so incenses many – and is felt so strongly by Jewish critics of Israel – is its claim to occupy the high moral ground.’

    Well, OK, and the butchers of Khartoum claim to be guided by the moral principles of Islam, whilst Kim Jong-Il promotes himself as the ruler of a socialist paradise. Whereas presumably any regime which announced ‘OK, we have an appalling human rights record, we routinely use torture and we’re actively promoting genocide’ should be met with understanding and compassion.

    Eve Garrard challenged Kuper on precisely this point: does Israel simply have to climb down from the ‘high moral ground’ to satisfy his objections? His answer? The classic ‘Well, yes and no’. Yes, he is appalled by Israeli hypocrisy, but no, it wouldn’t make things any better if they dropped their claims to virtue. And having offered us a litany of Israeli misdeeds (which simply brings us back full circle: the question is still whether they are the World’s Worst) he rounds his rhetoric off nicely by telling Ms Garrard it’s ‘cheap’ of her to expect logical consistency from him.

  3. America backs Israel

    Kuper evidently feels strongly about this, but is unable to articulate why it should justify the singling out of Israel. Rhetorical games with the phrase ‘singling out’ do not count as an answer. This seems to be very much a pudding whose proof should be in the eating. The question, as ever, is whether Israel’s human rights record is significantly worse than those of other states against which Kuper chooses not to campaign. The fact of American support for Israel does not make its record either better or worse.

    There seems to be little substance to this argument beyond the convergence of two mutually reinforcing hate figures. Israel must be appalling because it is supported by America, and America must be appalling because it supports Israel. The half-truth behind the argument is that America does indeed have a record of supporting regimes with dreadful human rights records. But it does not follow either logically or empirically that America always backs the bad guys. Marshall Aid helped shore up liberal democracies in post-war Europe, to take one example. To take another, the invasion of Iraq has, rightly or wrongly, removed a tyrant whose record was, by any objective standard, far worse than Israel’s. So, to repeat, the fact of American support does not automatically put Israel in the dock.

    Equally, even if we accept that Israeli human rights abuses are underwritten by a powerful state that should know better, this is hardly a unique phenomenon. Sudan gets its arms, disgracefully, from China – and passes some of them on to the psychotic Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda. What is Richard Kuper doing about that?

  4. The holy places

    Israel ‘controls religious sites whose fate is of special significance to three world religions’, says Kuper. But what exactly is the issue here?

    For a start, ‘controls’ is a pretty misleading choice of word. The Christian holy places in Jerusalem are run by assorted groups of monks who seem to cause far more problems for each other than the Israeli state ever does for any of them. The Dome on the Rock is controlled by a Muslim outfit called the Wafq. If you haven’t read Irshad Manji’s book, do, and enjoy her hilarious account of her brush with these guys. It’s safe to say their attitude towards women could use some updating – but don’t blame the Israelis, they’re keeping well out of it. As for the Western Wall, we all know that if you’re the Prime Minister of Israel you should be very careful about showing your face there in case you start an uprising. Control?

    As a Christian, there are two things I’d want to say on this score. Firstly, I really don’t have any problem with my faith’s holy places being under the jurisdiction of a state which has an exemplary record of religious tolerance. I’d be an awful lot more concerned if Hamas were in charge. Secondly, however unhappy I was, I wouldn’t want to see a single life taken to alter the situation. The last Crusade ended about eight hundred years ago. Christians are, or should be, more concerned with people than with real estate, however significant to the history of their faith.

    On the other hand, I fear not all Muslims see things quite the same way. That’s certainly a problem. But a reason for boycotting Israel?

  5. All the troubles of the Middle East

    Says Richard Kuper, ‘You could add that the Middle East is a tinderbox and Israeli policies contribute to making it more unstable. What happens there can have terrible repercussions for us all.’

    Well, yes, you could add that, but to what purpose? How big is Israel’s contribution to Middle Eastern instability? Bigger than Syria’s or Iran’s? The answer must presumably be in the affirmative, if this is to be an argument in favour of singling Israel out. In which case we’re deep into Protocols territory. Again there is a half truth here. The Middle East is indeed highly unstable, for complex historical reasons. One feature of that instability is that lots of powerful people find it useful to have a scapegoat – Israel, who else - and the scapegoating becomes in itself part of the instability. Need I name our good friend President Ahmadinejad? To cite this as part of the case for boycotting Israel would seem to fall fairly and squarely under the heading of ‘blaming the victim’.

So, sorry Mr Kuper, but the question remains unanswered: ‘Why single out Israel?’


Cyrus said...

Fingers with minds of their own department. Just spotted that I wrote 'David Hirst at Engage': make that 'Hirsh'. David Hirst is a very different animal who is not, I fancy, likely to be found writing for Engage. Apols.

Anonymous said...


As usual, you have written a terrific article. I note a couple of points.

I do not think that it is appropriate to hunt for the world's worst human rights abuser. I do not know how we would decide.

In the race to find the world worst human rights abusers, where does Britain fit on the scale when faced with the sort of circumstances faced by Israel? It all depends on where one sits, I suppose. I note this with the Northern Ireland sitution in mind. My impression is that Israel's behavior was at least as good as Britain's - perhaps even better than Britain's -. But that is my opinion. A could jeasily declare, by some scale, Britain to be among the world's worst human rights abusers. Such, after all, was the view taken by the USSR and, in a different time, by the Nazis. Again, it all depends on where you sit.

A problem with Europeans holding opinions about Israel is that they have an inconsistent scale of human rights. You explain that clearly in your article. In the case of Europe, that opinion is, I trust, fueled by many things, about which more below. One point, however, at the outset is that Europe's political and economic relationship with the Arab regions and the presence of large numbers of immigrants from that region in Europe tends to bias opinion. And, no doubt, people tend to see their own "interests" - as they perceive it, at least - as the general interest of mankind. Which, given the importance of the Arab regions to Europe and the integration of Muslims into European society, explains most of why Europeans see justice in circumstances where, if a more careful assessment is presented, we have a country seeking to defend itself against a genocidal ideology. [Which is not to deny Palestinian Arabs rights but to note that there is no getting to such rights where it where genocidal clothing.]

One of the major issues with the dispute is the unwillingness to employ realistic measures of the behavior of the parties. And, stating the matter a bit differently: how do countries behave when their enemies attack their civilians out of principle? My bet is that no European country would stand for what Israel has suffered on a regular basis but, instead, would move to deal - whether or not wisely - decisively with the issue. And, if such a country did nothing, the country, in my view, would be consumed by the violence.

Another major issue, which feeds the notion as serious human rights abuser is poor press coverage, particularly in Europe. It is worthwhile to compare how incidents are covered in Europe and the US - assuming each, in an incident, has its own reporters -. European reporters tend to play up the Arab side's case. American reporters tend to be more even handed, with the Jenin "massacre" being a paradigm in which no major US paper claimed a massacre had occured but, instead, only an accusation that lacked corroboration. What was noted primarily in the US is that there was a battle with casualties on both sides.

Also closely related are the reports by groups like HRW and AI. Such groups issue reports which condemn violence by Israel often without relationship to context. Moreover, at least one - perhaps both - have taken a position regarding the appropriate resolution of the conflict and, needless to say, their position reflects how they view Israel's place in the world - or lack thereof -.

Lastly, unlike in Europe, in America liberal thought does not side so strongly with the Palestinian Arabs. Only the far, far left makes Israel's sins a cause celebre. While such people have considerable voice on campus, it is not clear how much, if at all, they affect more than the fringe element of students or, more immediately important, general society.