On Criticizing Israel
In the past few weeks I’ve had conversations with three Jewish friends about the ethics of criticizing Israel’s policies in Gaza and the West Bank.
Israel is a pariah state; the world pays much more attention to its many wrongdoings than to the terrible events than occur in many other parts of the world. I believe that the inordinate amount of attention paid to Israel in the United Nations, especially in the Human Rights Council (so-called) is partly caused by anti-Semitism. Also, as one friend pointed out, Israel is a democracy, and there’s lots of criticism of its policies from the press, academics, and activists. So there’s lots of information for the Human Rights Council and other agencies to draw on.
Many critics also think of Israel as the last Western colony. People who hold this view often think that all Jews in Israel are from the West. But many Israeli Jews, or their immediate ancestors, are or were from the Middle East. At one point, for example, there was a large Jewish community in Baghdad, which centuries ago was a centre of Jewish learning. Critics of Israel should be aware of the many Middle Eastern Jews who live there and should accept that as the cradle of the three Abrahamic faiths, the Middle East for centuries housed Muslims, Jews and Christians living together. The ethno-religious cleansing facing Christians in some Middle Eastern countries today is another aspect of the tragedy there.
Jewish activists claim that as many as 800,000 Jews were expelled from Middle Eastern countries after the expulsion of Palestinians from Israel before and after Israeli independence in 1948 (on this, see Ian Pappe, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, London, Oneworld Publications, 2006). Some activists think that reparations to Palestinians for their expulsion from Israel should be tied to reparations to Jews for their expulsion from other Middle Eastern countries. I disagree with this point of view: Israel is a sovereign state and it is responsible for what it does, regardless of what other states do. As a pragmatic matter, financial reparation to displaced Palestinians is a crucial aspect of the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Another criticism that bothers me is comparison of Israel to Nazism. A couple of years ago, some students at my university staging “Israel Apartheid Week” put up a poster of a man in striped pajamas lying behind a fence: the idea was to compare the situation of Palestinians to that of Jews in Nazi concentration camps. As one of the students said to me, “Oppression is oppression, right?” But she wasn’t right. If Israel were a Nazi state, there would be no Palestinian problem. The Palestinians under Israeli control would have been long-since murdered. Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli attack on the Gaza strip in 2008-9, would have killed one and a half million people, not (at the upper estimate) 1400. We should be able to criticize Israel without making such a nefarious comparison.
Israeli apartheid week is a week to suggest that Israel is imposing apartheid on Palestinians. Indeed, some aspects of Israeli control of the West Bank resemble apartheid, especially the existence of Jewish-only settlements and the existence of segregated roads (about which I wrote in my post of May 17, 2013) on which Jewish, but not Palestinian, residents of the West Bank can travel. There is also de facto and de jure discrimination against Palestinian citizens within Israel. I oppose all these measures, as I also oppose declaration of Israel as a Jewish state. I am against all full or partial theocracies, even though Israel does not prevent citizens from other religions from practicing their own faith.
But as one of my Jewish friends, originally from South Africa, said to me, apartheid there was a much more pervasive system. Blacks could not vote or form political parties. They were not allowed in “White” cities without passes. And families were often split up, with mothers and children legally confined to Bantustans while fathers worked in the cities or the mines. Everyone was racially classified: families were split up if the government deemed that members did not all belong to the same “race.” This is not a defense of the many discriminatory aspects of life for Palestinian citizens of Israel, but it does point out some of the differences. Palestinians in Israel can vote, can form political parties, and they do have freedom of movement. The government does not deliberately separate their families or use “racial” criteria to judge who can live with whom.
Another criticism of Israel is the contention that Zionism is racism. I am sure there are some Zionists who are indeed racists against Arabs. But Zionism is principally a philosophy that argues for a Jewish homeland. Some Zionists think that means they should be allowed to take over the West Bank, which they call Judea and Samaria. I don’t think they should: again, Israel is a sovereign state, and it should follow international law, which says that its settlements in the West Bank are illegal; indeed, they are theft of Arab land and water. But the key here is, indeed, land, not race. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is about land, although it’s also morphed partially into a religious conflict, in part because of the world-wide rise of Islamism.
So these criticisms of Israel: that Israel is a Western colony; that Israelis are like Nazis; that Israel is an apartheid state; and that Zionism is racism, all have serious flaws. They are rhetorical exaggerations that don’t help to solve the very real problems of Israel’s increasing occupation of the West Bank and its control over Gaza. I don’t like Israel’s policies, but I think the best way to criticize it is to refer to international human rights, humanitarian law, and the laws of occupation. Israel is a state that has the right to exist without being attacked, but as a state, it has to follow the same laws as any other state. We shouldn’t demonize Israel.