The Big(gest) Problem With Obsessing Over Israel

This is cross posted by Matthew Ackerman, a Middle East Analyst at The David Project.

For years, because of the numerical superiority brought to bear by Arab League and Organization of the Islamic Conference member states, the UN has pushed out a regular stream of anti-Israel resolutions, working papers, statements, and related flotsam designed to defame the Jewish state. From 2003 until today, more than 40% of human rights resolutions passed by all UN bodies have focused on Israel, an extraordinary figure.

Although now it can seem difficult to believe, the same was not always the case with human rights organizations and related prizes and other goodies governments and other bodies hand out in support of individuals fighting oppression and injustice around the world. And while we seem to live in a world in which the existence of a range of these kinds of organizations is taken for granted, it’s important to remember that they are nearly all of relatively recent birth. The most important of these organizations in the US, for example, is Human Rights Watch. It was founded only in 1978, and has only in the past 10 years made Israel a primary focus of its work.

HRW is instructive in other regards as well. It was founded as Helsinki Watch and designed to monitor the compliance of the Soviet Union and its satellites behind the Iron Curtain with theHelsinki Accords, signed in 1975, with specific provisions guaranteeing freedom of expression and religion to individuals in communist countries. So like other human rights organizations, its moral authority grew almost entirely out of its ability to cast a spotlight on the abuses of oppressive regimes.

But with the collapse of communism in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, it became an organization in search of a mission. It found it by widening its scope to include things like criticism of the Allied bombing campaign in the first Persian Gulf War in 1991 and highlighting the problem of unexploded land mines, which in the 1990’s was a Western cause célèbre, not least because of the interest in the effort showed by the late Princess Diana. That work even won HRW a Nobel Peace Prize, which is a direct ticket to international notoriety and, of equal importance, greater funding dollars.

In other words, the expansive growth of democracy, capitalism, and freedom following the dissolution of the Soviet Union made the question of human rights a far more difficult one to tackle. It was relatively (though not as much as it should have been) easy to stand against communism’s injustices: there were powerful states that employed thuggish security forces whose role was to deny basic freedom of expression to the populations under their control. But the problems affecting people in, say, the Niger Delta are more difficult, conceptually, to tackle. The leadership of the country controlling the area often looks and feels democratic, yet is prone to awe-inspiring abuses of its population and sudden shifts in political tempers. The problems revolve not as much around state-control as the weakness of state institutions and endemic corruption in the institutions that do exist. The solutions, therefore, are not at all clear.

Making it all the more difficult for many of the people most engaged in human rights and related organizations is the fact that all of the remaining overt tyrannies in the world are non-Western. Theoretically this shouldn’t be a problem. Denial of the freedom to think and feel as one wishes is just as relevant in Tiananmen Square as it is in Philadelphia. But, warped by guilt over past Western colonialism and racism, many find government abuse of those rights far more difficult to speak out against when it happens in Riyadh instead of Prague. Hence they have learned to split the difference, following faddish concerns by Westerners over things like landmines, which are undeniably bad but don’t point the finger directly at the immorality of anyone who doesn’t hail from Europe or America.

Today, a truly great and important Western human rights organization would find a way to break through that curtain of silence to enable us to talk forthrightly about the unacceptability of the continuing existence of tyrannical regimes around the world, no matter the color of the people who run them or the increasingly distant colonial past any of those countries might have endured. The recent awarding of a Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo is a commendable example of the power these organizations can wield when their remaining moral stature is directed against tyrannies. But, coming only one year after the Nobel committee awarded the same prize to an American whose only accomplishment had been to be elected the president of the greatest democracy in the world, it rings hollow.

Which brings us back to Israel, because there perhaps is no faddish human rights cause that has gained greater currency in the past 10 years among the Western publics who have come to support human rights organizations than the Palestinians. The underlying reasons aren’t tough to suss out: Israel looks and feels “Western” and “white,” the Palestinians look and feel the opposite, and Palestinian nationalism has similar smells to the anti-colonial liberation movements that grew up in Africa in the 1960’s and later. So, as with the morally pleasing struggle against apartheid South Africa, these campaigners get to avoid the panic-inducing question of non-Western tyranny and stand on behalf of a “native” liberation movement against a white oppressor. Really, for a young political activist groomed on glory tales of the fight against the Vietnam War and segregation, what could be more emotionally satisfying?

Let’s leave aside the question of the ridiculous nature of the comparison to focus just on what this does to the cause of the movement for greater respect for human rights for all people everywhere, because its effect is catastrophic. In the first case, it misdirects resources away from where they could have the greatest effect (shaming China’s communist leadership, for example). And in the second, it obfuscates the nature of the problems in Israel and the territories, which are real, to say nothing of how it draws the public’s attention away from deeper human rights issues.

But the biggest problem with the focus on Israel is probably the damage it does to these organizations’ credibility and even, by extension, the cause of human rights in general. A report released this month by the Brookings Institution noted that the excessive focus by the UN on Israel damaged the credibility of UN human rights representatives around the world and listed the “credibility and moral power of the United Nations” as the first of several factors that “facilitate positive state action.”

So, while it might feel awful good for European parliamentarians to shortlist Breaking the Silence for the Sakharov Prize, it disastrously undermines the cause they claim to believe in. For many of us, the negative impact these efforts have on the security of the citizens of the world’s lone Jewish state is enough to not recommend them. But people who care about human rights but not much about the fate of 6 million Jews living in the Middle East should be equally concerned.

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