[This is a revised version of a talk given at Yale University on Nov. 11, 2010, at a forum sponsored by Students for Justice in Palestine.]
Stephen R. Shalom, 19 November 2010
(28 Nov 2010: 3 very minor corrections made at the author’s request)
Stephen R. Shalom is a professor of political science at William Paterson University in New Jersey. He has written extensively on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, concerned particularly to take up the arguments of those who attempt to excuse or justify Israel’s actions in the occupation.
As it becomes increasingly difficult to justify Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian people, Israel’s apologists — whether based in Israel or at pseudo-academic centers such as the Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Anti-Semitism — resort to another line of defense: namely, they accuse Israel’s critics of being anti-Semitic. Not the sort of classic anti-Semitism found for example in Hamas’s Charter, but instead the anti-Semitism of an anti-Israel double standard.
What I’d like to do is examine some of these claims of anti-Semitism and double standards and see what merit they may have.
One argument supporting the charge of anti-Semitism goes like this: It is anti-Semitic to hold Israel to a higher standard than other countries. Why, for example, are critics more concerned about civilian casualties caused by Israel in its attack on Gaza in December 2008 and January 2009 than by the United States in its assault on the Iraqi city of Fallujah in November 2004? This is the argument made for example, by Israeli analyst Yossi Alpher.
Alpher, I think, overstates the number of casualties in Fallujah, but let’s agree that both attacks killed large numbers of innocent civilians. So, yes, anyone who cheered the U.S. military in Fallujah and condemned Israel in Gaza would be a hypocrite. But this certainly wasn’t the view taken by leading progressive critics of Israel, whose position was quite consistent and principled: they denounced both attacks for showing an immoral disregard for the welfare of non-combatants; they accused both the Bush administration and the Olmert government of responsibility for grave war crimes.
There was in fact widespread criticism of the Fallujah attack; and the Iraq war as a whole was overwhelmingly opposed by world public opinion. In fact, the only country in the world where a clear majority of the population supported the initiation of the war was Israel. Six months before the war began Israel’s deputy Interior Minister, Gideon Ezra, said regarding a U.S. attack on Iraq “The more aggressive the attack is, the more it will help Israel against the Palestinians. The understanding would be that what is good to do in Iraq, is also good for here.”
I don’t mean to suggest that Israel learned how to treat Palestinians from U.S. behavior in Iraq. Actually, there’s quite a bit of evidence that U.S. tactics in Iraq draw from Israeli experience. For example, Dexter Filkins wrote in The New York Times in December 2003,
“American soldiers are demolishing buildings thought to be used by Iraqi attackers. They have begun imprisoning the relatives of suspected guerrillas, in hopes of pressing the insurgents to turn themselves in….The response they chose is beginning to echo the Israeli counterinsurgency campaign in the occupied territories.”
The press also reported Israeli urban warfare experts briefing U.S. military personnel on what they might encounter in Iraq. But in fact the U.S. military and the Israeli military are so intertwined that it’s hard to sort out the chicken and the egg here. In 2007, for example, the U.S. Marine Corps newspaper reported on a new urban warfare training center in Israel where U.S. troops hoped to later train. The center was built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and funded largely from U.S. military aid, and was said to be preparing Israeli forces for combat in Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon, and Syria.
So it would indeed be wrong to criticize Israeli actions in Gaza in 2008-09 while giving a pass to the United States. But there’s no double standard — there’s a single standard — when we say all attacks that cause massive harm to civilians violate international humanitarian law and should be firmly denounced. And that’s why we denounce both Israeli behavior and that of the U.S. government in Iraq.
A second argument holds that it’s anti-Semitic to criticize Israel for its treatment of Palestinians, when in fact the Arab countries themselves have severely mistreated Palestinians, and refused to take steps to resettle the Palestinian refugees.
There is no doubt that Palestinians have fared badly in the Arab world. Only in Jordan have Palestinians been eligible for citizenship. In Lebanon, the government fears that allowing Palestinians to become citizens would disturb the country’s delicate Christian-Muslim balance; in Egypt, the shortage of arable land led the government to confine the Palestinians to the Gaza Strip. It must be noted, however, that the Palestinians were reluctant to leave the camps if that meant acquiescing in the loss of homes and property or giving up their right to return. One saw the same pattern during the 1999 Kosovo war. Many Kosovar Albanians who were driven from their homes did not want to leave the refugee camps on the borders for fear this would weaken their claim to later return home.
In any event, it is true that Palestinians have been abused in many Arab countries. One should note, however, that the worst treatment of Palestinians often was carried out in collaboration with the Israelis. So when Lebanese Phalangists massacred thousands at Sabra and Shitila, Israel gave them support, at a minimum firing illumination flares over the camps so that the killers could carry out their grizzly deeds. When King Hussein of Jordan slaughtered thousands in September of 1970, Israel (and Washington) stood ready to come to his aid. When Kuwait expelled its entire Palestinian population following the Gulf War, no voices in Tel Aviv or Washington were raised on their behalf.
It is sometimes implied that the lack of assistance to Palestinians from Arab nations somehow justifies Israel’s refusal to acknowledge and address the claims of the refugees. But if you harm someone, you are responsible for redressing that harm, regardless of whether the victim’s relatives are supportive.
One must distinguish here between the attitude of the Arab states and of the Arab people. Efraim Karsh in a recent op-ed in the New York Times is quite right about the sorry record of the Arab states when it comes to supporting Palestinians, but when he claims to cite a public opinion poll showing that the Arab population shares this indifference, he’s basing his claim on a non-poll that didn’t ask about Palestinians at all. There is in fact deep support in the Arab world for Palestinian rights. And when Karsh tells us that Jordan’s King Abdullah went to war in 1948 not on behalf of the Palestinians, but to grab territory, he’s correct; but what Karsh omits is that Israel was in cahoots with Abdullah, with the two nations secretly agreeing to carve up between themselves the fledgling Palestinian state. So by all means let us denounce Abdullah’s treachery, but this hardly whitewashes the record of Abdullah’s senior partner, the Israeli state.
Some claim that it’s anti-Semitic to demand a state for Palestinians at the expense of the world’s one Jewish state. After all, the Arabs already have 22 states. Why do they need another one?
This argument, of course, is nonsensical. Not all Arabs are the same. That other Arabs may already have their right of self-determination does not take away from Palestinians’ basic rights. There are more than 50 European nations. Is this an argument to deny Hungarians, say, a state of their own? Would anyone think of suggesting that Hungarians could be re-settled in one of the other 50 European states and so don’t need their own state?
The fact that many Palestinians live in Jordan and have considerable influence and rights there — or at least those rights that are compatible with living in an authoritarian monarchy — doesn’t mean that the millions of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation or who were expelled from their homes and are now in refugee camps aren’t entitled to their rights — any more than the fact that there are a lot of Jews in the United States, where they have considerable influence and rights, means that Israeli Jews should be packed off across the Atlantic.
It is anti-Semitic — claims another argument — to be concerned about Palestinian refugees, but not about the approximately equal number of Jewish refugees from Arab lands. In fact, there’s been a population exchange, with Jews from Arab lands coming to Israel and replacing the Palestinians. So nothing needs to be done for the Palestinians.
This argument too is spurious. Jews left Arab countries under various circumstances: some were forced out, some came voluntarily, some were recruited by Zionist officials. In the case of Iraq, Jews feared that they might be harmed, a fear possibly helped along by some covert bombs placed by Zionist agents.
But whatever the case, there are no moral grounds for punishing Palestinians (or denying them their due) because of how Jews were treated in the Arab world. Individual Palestinians are not responsible for the wrong-doing of Arab governments. If Italy were to abuse American citizens, this would not justify the United States harming or expelling Italian-Americans.
Not all Jews from Arab lands are refugees. Those Jews who were mistreated in or expelled from Arab countries deserve compensation and a right to return if they so desire. But this is nothing for which the Palestinians bear any responsibility.
It’s anti-Semitic, says another argument, to accuse Israel of refusing to work toward peace when in fact Israel accepted compromises in 1947 and again in 2000, while the Palestinians rejected them.
This claim, however, doesn’t mesh with the historical evidence. In 1947 Jews were only one third of the population of Palestine and owned only 6% of the land. Yet the partition plan granted the Jewish state 55% of the total land area. The Arab state was to have an overwhelmingly Arab population, while the Jewish state would have almost as many Arabs as Jews. This is known in political science as gerrymandering. If it was unjust to force Jews to be a 1/3 minority in an Arab state, it was no more just to force Arabs to be an almost 50% minority in a Jewish state.
Understandably, the Palestinians rejected partition. The Zionists accepted it, but in private Zionist leaders had more expansive goals. In 1937, during earlier partition proposals, David Ben Gurion, who was to become Israel’s first prime minister, wrote to his son,
“A partial Jewish state is not the end, but only the beginning. The establishment of such a Jewish State will serve as a means in our historical efforts to redeem the country in its entirety….We shall organize a modern defense force…and then I am certain that we will not be prevented from settling in other parts of the country, either by mutual agreement with our Arab neighbors or by some other means….We will expel the Arabs and take their places…with the force at our disposal.”
A year later, Ben Gurion told a Zionist meeting: “I favor partition of the country because when we become a strong power after the establishment of the state, we will abolish partition and spread throughout all of Palestine.”
In early 1949, Ben Gurion told his aides: “Before the founding of the state, on the eve of its creation, our main interest was self-defense….But now the issue at hand is conquest, not self-defense. As for setting the borders — it’s an open-ended matter. In the Bible as well as in history there are all kinds of definitions of the country’s borders, so there’s no real limit.”
So this was hardly a case of Palestinians rejecting a fair compromise and the Zionists accepting it. But even if that were the case, this can provide no moral justification for denying Palestinians their basic right of self- determination for more than half a century. This right is not a function of this or that agreement, but a basic right to which every person is entitled. Are Palestinians for all eternity to be denied the fundamental right of self-determination and must they live under foreign control because their leaders may have rejected an agreement in 1947? No one would think of saying that Israelis ought to live under foreign military occupation for seven generations because of the wrongdoing of the Israeli state. But that seems to be the argument with respect to Palestinians.
Even if we think that the Palestinians were wrong to reject partition in 1947, how could that justify Israel taking over a large chunk of the territory assigned to the Palestinian state, and taking over as well half of Jerusalem, which the partition resolution had set aside as an international zone? And how could it justify not just expelling large numbers of Palestinians from their homes and confiscating their property, but also refusing to allow — as the UN continually urged — the return of those Palestinians willing to live in peace with their neighbors?
As for the Camp David talks in 2000, the view promoted by Israeli apologists and the Clinton administration (but I repeat myself) is that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak made an exceedingly generous offer to Yasser Arafat, but Arafat rejected it, choosing violence instead.
A U.S. participant in the Camp David talks, Robert Malley, has shown the falsity of this view. Barak never put any offer into writing and never provided details, so that in Malley’s words, “strictly speaking, there never was an Israeli offer.” The terms of the non-offer, as best we can tell, were to give the Palestinians Israeli land equivalent to 1% of the West Bank (unspecified, but to be chosen by Israel) in return for 9% of the West Bank that housed settlements, highways, and military bases, effectively dividing the West Bank into separate regions. Thus, there would have been no meaningfully independent Palestinian state emerging from Camp David, but a series of Bantustans, while all the best land and water aquifers would be in Israeli hands. Israel would also “temporarily” hold an additional 10 percent of West Bank land. And given that Barak had not carried out the previous withdrawals to which Israel had committed, Palestinian skepticism regarding “temporary” Israeli occupation is not surprising. It’s a myth, Malley wrote, that “Israel’s offer met most if not all of the Palestinians’ legitimate aspirations” and a myth as well that the “Palestinians made no concession of their own.”
Some Israeli analysts have made a similar assessment. For example, influential commentator Ze’ev Schiff wrote that, to Palestinians, “the prospect of being able to establish a viable state was fading right before their eyes. They were confronted with an intolerable set of options: to agree to the spreading occupation … or to set up wretched Bantustans, or to launch an uprising.”
Another argument holds that it’s anti-Semitic to condemn Israel for occupying the “occupied territories,” since these territories were acquired by Israel in a just war of defense. Israel’s supporters argue that although Israel fired the first shots in this war, it was a justified preventive war, given that Arab armies were mobilizing on Israel’s borders, with murderous rhetoric.
The rhetoric was indeed blood-curdling, and many people around the world worried for Israel’s safety. But those who understood the military situation — in the Israeli government and in the U.S. government — knew quite well that even if the Arabs struck first, Israel would prevail in any war. Nasser was looking for a way out and agreed to send his vice-president to Washington for negotiations. Israel attacked when it did in part because it rejected negotiations and the prospect of any face-saving compromise for Nasser. Menachem Begin, a member of the Israeli cabinet at the time and an enthusiastic supporter of this (and other) Israeli wars, was quite clear about whether it had been necessary to launch an attack: Israel, he said, “had a choice.” Egyptian Army concentrations did not prove that Nasser was about to attack us. “We must be honest with ourselves. We decided to attack him.”
However, even if it were the case that the 1967 war was wholly defensive on Israel’s part, this cannot justify the continued rule over Palestinians. A people do not lose their right to self-determination because the government of a neighboring state goes to war. Sure, punish Egypt and Jordan — don’t give them back Gaza and the West Bank. But there is no basis for punishing the Palestinian population by forcing them to submit to foreign military occupation.
Immediately following the war, Israel incorporated occupied East Jerusalem into Israel proper, announcing that Jerusalem was its united and eternal capital. It then began to establish settlements in the Occupied Territories in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which prohibit a conquering power from settling its population on occupied territory. And despite Israeli government apologetics, it always knew that the settlements were illegal, having been so advised privately by its legal adviser at the time, the distinguished jurist Theodor Meron.
When the war began, the Israeli government lied, saying Israel had been attacked first, but in any event it assured the world that its defensive intentions could be seen by the fact that it had no territorial ambitions. When U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk later reminded Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban of this assurance, Eban “simply shrugged his shoulders and said, ‘We’ve changed our minds.’” Indeed.
Another argument notes that the United Nations, dominated by anti-Semitic regimes, singles out Israel for special condemnation. The General Assembly passes numerous anti-Israel resolutions each year and raises barely a peep about the offenses of others, even when they are far more egregious.
There is no doubt that nations in the UN General Assembly allow all sorts of considerations — from self-interest to power politics to bigotry — to affect their voting behavior. Many of the world’s crimes go unremarked in that body. But the question remains whether the many condemnations of Israel are the result of anti-Israel bias or of Israeli policies that are disproportionately worthy of condemnation.
Here’s a way we can resolve this question. Instead of looking at the General Assembly, let’s look at the UN Security Council. By the undemocratic procedure that prevails in that body, no substantive resolution can be adopted if the United States votes no, because of its veto power. Thus, we can see what the second most pro-Israeli government in the world thinks about Israeli behavior over the years.
Now this test that I am employing is an exceedingly conservative one: many times when Israel indeed warrants the most severe condemnation, the Security Council fails to do so because of the United States’ veto power. 42 times Washington vetoed resolutions critical of Israel. And countless other times, critical resolutions were not submitted because of the certain U.S. veto. And since the end of the Cold War, the Council has been notably quiet on the Israel-Palestine conflict. In 2006, Israel’s UN Ambassador, Dan Gillerman, jokingly told a meeting of B’nai Brith International that the U.S. UN Ambassador John Bolton was “a secret member of Israel’s own team at the United Nations.” The Israeli delegation, he said, was really not just five diplomats. “We are at least six including John Bolton.” But what was farce the first time may become tragedy under the Obama administration, where Washington has offered Netanyahu, in addition to other appalling concessions, a pledge to veto any anti-Israel resolution in the Security Council for the next year if he would freeze settlement construction for three months — though details remain unclear.
So my procedure will have a lot of what social scientists call type I errors — instances where Israel deserved extreme condemnation, but didn’t get it — and very few type II errors — cases where it was wrongly condemned.
So what does this extremely conservative test of Security Council resolutions reveal?
It shows that Israel has been criticized, condemned, and censured by the Security Council — including by the United States — more than any other country in the world: for its military attacks on its neighbors, for its annexation of territory, for its refusal to apply the Fourth Geneva Convention to the Occupied Territories, for refusing to withdraw its troops, for taking hostages, for deporting civilians, for seizing a civilian airliner, and on and on. [For details, see Appendix.]
Is there a double standard? Absolutely. But the double standard is in Israel’s favor. Why? Because no other nation with such a record of violations of international law and of the resolutions of the Security Council and other UN bodies has been as immune as Israel from Security Council sanctions. Iraq was of course sharply condemned by the Council, but the condemnation was not just words: the Council authorized military action in 1991 and more than a decade of the harshest sanctions. South Africa was frequently criticized by the Security Council, and an arms embargo was imposed. Thanks in part to the obstruction of the United States, Britain, and France, the sanctions against Pretoria were quite limited, but nevertheless there were sanctions. Portugal was often condemned for its colonial and military policies in Africa, and it too was the subject of sanctions. Serbian behavior was the subject of numerous Security Council resolutions, and military action was authorized. In the case of Israel, on the other hand, its record-breaking numbers of U.S.-backed Security Council condemnations were not accompanied by any sanctions at all.
The final argument I want to consider says that surely Israel does not have the worst human rights record in the world. So why is it getting picked on?
There are three points to note here.
First, the UN does have an inherent bias to pay inadequate attention to domestic matters. There is a tension in the UN Charter: on the one hand, articles 55 and 56 of the Charter commit member states to respect human rights; on the other hand, article 2 section 7 stipulates that the UN has no right “to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state.” This tension is not surprising given that the leading powers at the UN’s founding were the Jim Crow United States and the Soviet Union under Stalin.
In a few cases, the UN has gotten involved in domestic human rights issues, most notably in the case of South Africa, but in general even unpopular states have avoided criticism for their internal affairs. This is true even of Israel. In the many resolutions condemning Israel over the years, they are almost entirely focused on its treatment of people in occupied territories or people who have been forced across international borders or civilians in neighboring states — not its treatment of its internal population. So, yes, one can name numerous states whose domestic human rights record is worse, far worse, than Israel’s, but how many states are there whose human rights record in occupied territories is worse than Israel’s?
It could certainly be argued that Indonesia’s murderous occupation of East Timor was worse. Because of Indonesia’s political clout the UN was pretty ineffectual in dealing with the Timor situation. Indonesia had the backing of many non-aligned states, and its invasion and occupation were abetted by the United States. Among the countries that didn’t think Indonesian behavior was so bad, however, was Israel, which abstained on the General Assembly resolutions condemning Indonesia’s invasion. Morocco’s rule in Western Sahara is another awful occupation — but Washington and Paris have prevented any UN sanctions against Morocco, and maintain close ties with Rabat. Israel too is on good terms with the Moroccan government. Sixty-four countries currently recognize “the right of self-determination of the Sahrawi people,” but absent from this list are the United States and Israel. Thus, the two governments that most vociferously complain that Israel has been singled out for criticism have been rather muted in their condemnation of other occupations. On the other hand, some of the leading defenders of the Timorese and Sahrawi people have also been sharp critics of Israeli treatment of the Palestinians.
Washington, of course, was outspoken in its denunciation of the horrendous human rights violations accompanying Iraq’s takeover of Kuwait. But Iraq was hardly given a pass: as noted, the condemnations of Iraq were near unanimous and both sanctions and military action were approved by the Security Council.
A second point to make about human rights double standards is that it makes sense as Americans that we should focus attention on the crimes of our own government or those enabled by our own government — that’s where we have the greatest moral responsibility and where we can make the most difference. So, yes, there were two horrible atrocities in 1982 in the Middle East: Israel’s invasion of Lebanon and Syria’s massacre in the city of Hama. But Israel was significantly armed by the United States. It was given diplomatic backing by the United States. So it’s appropriate for Americans to be critical of crimes for which they bear some significant responsibility and which they could stop. Syria, on the other hand, was not armed by Washington. The artillery shells that fell on Hama, unlike the cluster bombs that fell on Lebanon, were not made in the United States. The United States did not run interference for Syria in the UN. Americans bore little responsibility for the destruction of Hama and could do little to stop it.
Related to this point is a third one: it is reasonable to allocate one’s time on the basis of likely impact. To spend a lot of time writing books or articles opposing something that everyone opposes is not a very effective use of one’s energies. So of course one should not refrain from signing an ad protesting, say, Syria’s actions in Hama, and even more so one shouldn’t offer apologetics on behalf of the Syrian government; but to write reams of pages criticizing Syria for its atrocities in Hama is pushing against an open door. There probably wasn’t a single U.S. commentator who praised Assad for his butchery. So there was nothing really to debate. In the case of Israel, however, there are a large number of commentators who loudly defend everything that country does. There are celebrated moralists like Elie Wiesel who have gone on record stating that it is improper to criticize Israel outside its borders. When Stalinists of old used to reflexively defend the Soviet Union no matter the circumstances, it was easy to see apologists at work. Unfortunately, there are many prominent commentators in the United States who have this same sort of slavish devotion to Israel. Those willing to speak the truth accordingly have a greater obligation to refute the lies that are so common in our public discourse: and that means criticizing Israel.
Anti-Semitism is one of the world’s foulest ideologies. But if we want to minimize it, then instead of attacking those who criticize Israel’s abuses, it would be far more effective to join those critics in urging Israel — which calls itself the state of the Jewish people — to end its abusive policies.
But What Could Israel Do?
5 June 2010
[T]he simplest answer to [the] question of what Israel could do to maintain its security in place of a blockade is that it is precisely the blockade that causes the threats to Israeli security. Without the blockade, there would be no obstacle to negotiating a long-term ceasefire, which would mean the end to rocket fire and other threats to Israel’s legitimate security interests. Read more »
Palling Around with Terrorists – Obama and the Israel-Palestine Conflict
June 5, 2010
From the beginning of his administration, Obama declared that he was concerned over the humanitarian crisis in Gaza and that he wanted the blockade of Gaza loosened. But Israel ignored him and the United States did nothing. Fifty-four Representatives urged the United States to apply real pressure on Israel to lift the blockade, but to no avail. There was and remains a very simple solution if Obama genuinely wants to mitigate the effects of the blockade: namely, the United States could do what Rep. Brian Baird of Washington suggested: break the blockade. Just sail supplies in by sea. Israel certainly isn’t going to sink U.S. navy vessels. Read more »
The United States and Gaza
May 5, 2009
But in creating this nightmare for the people of Gaza, Israel didn’t act alone.
It had the support of Egypt, which kept the Rafah crossing closed. It had the support of the European Union, which joined in the shunning of the elected representatives of the Palestinian people.
And most importantly, Israel had the decisive support of the U.S. government. Many of the weapons used by the Israelis in their ferocious assault were provided by the United States: the aircraft, the helicopters, the bunker-buster missiles. But the United States provided as well crucial diplomatic backing, making sure that no resolution would emerge from the Security Council that could interfere with Israel’s agenda. Read more »