It’s true Israel is singled out – here’s why

This is a guest post by Matt Hill

I was worried my last piece at this site – ‘We need to have a serious talk about Israel-Palestine’ – was too blandly agreeable to provoke much comment. I needn’t have worried: my appeal for a reasonable debate about the subject led to a gratifying deluge of criticism.

A few posters found my words overly saccharine, perhaps even cynical (Discredited Andrew: ‘I hate to read this stuff more than anything else’). I can sympathise with that: claiming the middle ground can be a useful rhetorical means of portraying your opponents as extreme. I hope I was clear that I don’t value neutrality in and of itself. On controversial topics, such as whether the Holocaust actually happened I try to steer a middle course (following Bill Hicks)  – between those who consider Holocaust deniers annoying idiots and those who consider them evil fucks.

Indeed, more than a few posters doubted my claims of moderation (Peter: ‘Hill as an honest broker? What a joke.’). That’s fair enough too: what’s moderate from one point of view may seem extreme from another, and I’ve made no secret of my sympathies for pro-Palestinians (while holding several opinions they would consider anathema). But while I have all kinds of strong views, a few of which I mentioned in the article, I hope I have enough common ground with most Harry’s Place readers occasionally to play the role of, as it were, an emissary from planet Palestine.

 A few posters even seemed to like what I wrote. But the vast majority of dissent was summed up by Ohad: ‘Palestinian intransigence is what makes the conflict unresolvable for now’. I admit I was surprised by the vehemence and uniformity of those who disputed my claim that the Palestinians are eager for peace. I hope to have the chance to address that issue soon – after I’ve done some homework.

At times it felt, rather dauntingly, like I was being asked to defend every single claim made by supporters of the Palestinians. For now I want to answer just one criticism that appeared several times beneath my piece. Nick (in South Africa) drew attention – with a rather felicitous turn of phrase – to the ‘gimlet-eyed obsession’ the issue commands in the Muslim world. Lamia complained that too many ‘British liberals’ feel they have a right to ‘weigh in’ on either side of an issue that has little to do with them. These, and other comments like them, are versions of the common complaint that Israel is singled out for special criticism compared with other nations. The argument often comes with the implicit or explicit suggestion that this is due obsessive prejudice against Israel – or outright anti-semitism.

First, let’s acknowledge one obvious fact: Israel is singled out for special criticism, way out of proportion to its misdeeds. Take, for instance, the monstrous regime that hijacked the Iranian Revolution of 1979. If its campaign of Cromwellian joylessness is sometimes darkly humorous (for many years its chief cinema censor was – true story – blind), its frequent bouts of murder, torture and persecution of women are anything but. Compared to Iran, Israel is an oasis of democracy, freedom and culture. Let’s agree it’s a different story beyond the 1967 lines, even if we won’t agree whether that’s due to security needs or senseless oppression. We can also agree there are far worse countries in the Middle East that aren’t subjected to a fraction of Israel’s scrutiny. Neither is Israel’s situation unique: Kashmir has been fought over  since 1947; Turkey has occupied northern Cyprus since 1974; the  1982 Hama massacre in Syria claimed more victims than Deir Yassin, Qibya, Sabra and Shatila and Operation Cast Lead combined. But how many western liberals know much about any of these facts?

 Some anti-semites undoubtedly use criticism of Israel as an outlet for their racism, and many supporters of the Palestinians let their anger at Israel blur into hatred of Jews. I wish more pro-Palestinians would make it clear such views have no place in their movement. But I can’t convince myself that anti-semitism is one of the main reasons Israel is singled out for special criticism. Here are some reasons why.

First, Israel singles itself out for special evaluation. It is the ‘only democracy in the Middle East’, with the ‘most moral army in the world’. Its idealistic founders hoped it would be, not just superior to its neighbours, but a ‘light unto the nations’. It claims to be at the front line of the ‘clash of civilisations’, a western outpost in a sea of barbarism and tyranny. If you claim to belong to the world’s respectable states, you must expect to be judged by their standards.

Second, precisely because Israel is a democracy that’s concerned about its global image, there’s a sense it’s susceptible to world opinion. We can argue all day about the despicable treatment of women in Saudi Arabia, but until we give up our addiction to their oil, they won’t take the blindest notice. Criticism of Israel, meanwhile, might just have an effect.

Third, many observers in the west – especially in the UK and US – have special reasons to take an interest in Israel. Both countries have many citizens with links to the region (my parents live in Israel, for instance). The British mandatory government played a special part in fomenting the Israel-Palestine conflict. And the US provides more financial, strategic and diplomatic support to Israel than any other country (Egypt, following close behind, is largely paid to play nice with Israel). It’s similar elsewhere: a high percentage of French citizens are Muslims, making Palestine an electoral issue in that country; and Germany’s reasons for taking an interest in the conflict are obvious.

Third, Israel controls some of the world’s most famous religious sites – from the Temple Mount or Haram-al-Sharif in Jerusalem to the remains at Qumran – and believers all over the world have a passionate interest in what happens to them. (There are also a depressingly large number of people, primarily in the US, who believe supporting Israel is somehow a way of ushering in the battle of Armageddon – supposedly a good thing. The less said about them, the better.)

Fourth, by its very nature Israel will always have some of the most eloquent and effective critics in the world: I mean, of course, dissenting Jewish intellectuals. If there is a Kashmiri Noam Chomsky, or a Cypriot Avi Shlaim or David Grossman, I’m afraid I don’t know of them.

Indeed, there are several ways in which Israel’s special treatment proves beneficial. It is the only country in the world the US allows to keep nuclear weapons without pressure to sign up to the Non-Proliferation Treaty.  The US almost automatically vetoes any resolutions against it at the UN Security Council. It is the only country, so far as I know, that refuses to define its own borders (a sine qua non, normally, for statehood).

Ultimately, if I believed that, when people complained about Israel’s special treatment, they meant that they wished people cared as much about other oppressed peoples as they do about the Palestinians, I’d sympathise. But I can’t help thinking that some of them mean: if only people cared as little about the Palestinians as they do about the Cypriots or Kashmiris.