The Executive Commission of the European Union recently conducted an opinion poll of member states asking respondents to indicate which of 14 countries they believe is “a threat to world peace.” Slightly over half – 52 percent – said Iraq was a threat. Fifty-three percent cited Iran, North Korea and the United States. And 59 percent, the highest percentage, said Israel.
In many circles, the results of the survey were seen as evidence of rising anti-Semitism in Europe. But, that debate aside, it also raises another question that activists working on peace in the Middle East hear all the time: “Why do so many people single out Israel, when there are so many other issues in the world?”
The question itself is spurious. One might ask the same of an activist working on Colombia, Cuba, Tibet, reproductive rights, queer rights or any one of numerous issues, global and domestic. And, like any other issue, people come to activism on Israel/Palestine for different reasons, some more noble than others. For many activists and politicians at this moment, the issue of Iraq is top priority, but Israel/Palestine is never far from the forefront. It serves us well to ask why that might be.
When people work on any one of the myriad problems in this world, it is only natural for that issue to become paramount for them. It often seems that the issue they work on is the most important of all, the injustice they seek to remedy the worst of any in the world. This is the case with Israel/Palestine as much as any other issue. But in this case, it is abetted by other factors.
Because of the particular place Israel holds in its relationship with the United States, it gets more visible coverage than other issues. Naturally, this highlights its activities, and people see a great deal more about Israel in their newspapers and on their televisions than they do about critical issues in Chechnya, Turkey, or the Western Sahara, for example. The obvious religious implications of that part of the world cannot be ignored. The central place Jerusalem holds in Judaism, Islam and Christianity is surely a factor. The mention of battles in Bethlehem stirs the hearts of many Christians, just as conflict in Hebron does for Jews. And religion is not the only raw nerve Israel touches.
Israel’s definition of itself as a Jewish state similarly stirs deep emotions among much of the world. Centuries of persecution of Jews and the heightened consciousness over the past few decades of the horrors of the Holocaust cause a great deal of very appropriate guilt. This can be expressed as either support for Israel no matter what or a good deal of uneasiness and defensiveness in dealing with it. For others, Israel stands as an anachronistic example of a discriminatory ethnic state, which elevates the rights of some people above others simply by virtue of their religion. While those who hold this view would surely be aware that Israel is hardly unique in this regard, they would also point out that such a state is in direct contradiction to Western principles of democracy.
Israel, which promotes itself as “the only democracy in the Middle East” is naturally looked at more closely when it violates human rights. Jews have long presented and been perceived as a people with a traditional and ancient ethical code. Thus, for some, Israel is given the benefit of the doubt, while others, including a great many Jews, expect Israel to meet the standards our own history and culture have set over the centuries. In either case, this leads to increased scrutiny of Israel’s actions.
There is also the sense of Israel as a country of immigrants who displaced the native inhabitants. The Zionist claim to the territory that was called Palestine before 1948 is based on the fact that the Jews once had a national homeland in Palestine and were driven out of it by the Romans two millennia ago, and therefore the dire need of Jews for a state is was naturally satisfied on that land. But critics of Israel see instead a largely European elite immigrating to a new land and causing great hardship for, and conflict with the native inhabitants. In this view, Israel is all too reminiscent of the creation of the countries of the Western hemisphere and subsequent colonialism. The view of Israel as a colonialist state is an old and angry debate. But whatever one feels about this argument, the visceral impact remains for many.
In the Arab world, there can be no doubting the outrage and fury that is felt every day when the latest Israeli action in the Occupied Territories is broadcast. Whereas in the West, periods between major attacks on Israeli civilians are called “times of relative calm”, in the Arab world those periods are seen as times of ongoing Israeli attacks without response. This is welcomed by many Arab regimes, which benefit from their populations venting their rage at Israel and the West, rather than at their own rulers, whose often despotic regimes would otherwise face much more popular ire. It is thus in the interests of these regimes to promote Israel as the root of all evils.
In the West, Israel’s Western heritage (a condition that exists due to the European heritage of the Israeli elite and despite the fact that the majority of Israelis, Jewish and non-Jewish, are not of European descent), placed as it is in the heart of the Middle East, makes it a further cause of fascination. For people across the political spectrum, it represents a Western outpost in the East. Whether it is viewed as a pioneering outpost or an unwelcome invasive presence depends on one’s political perspective. But in either case, this condition is yet another factor in the extra attention Israel gets.
All this is added to the most obvious factors in the extra attention that Israel gets: the importance of oil in the global economy; the “special relationship” between Israel and the United States; the enormous, vocal support of Israel by major Jewish and Christian organizations; and one of the largest (and the most prominent) refugee populations in the world. Israel’s supporters work hard to get Israel positive coverage, to project an image of Israel as a noble state, a haven for its people which is under constant attack. American officials frequently talk about Israel as a special ally to the US and people around the world pay attention to the fact that America runs almost constant political interference for Israel.
Until the late 80s, and the first intifada, Israel enjoyed the extra attention its issues received. The Israelis were widely seen as the “good guys”. In the wake of the 1967 war, where Israel was seen through a Cold War prism as the ally of the West while Syria and Egypt were viewed as Soviet clients, a virtual love affair with Israel began. The Cold War dynamic (much more real in terms of publicity than in the actual politics of the region) continued through the 70s and 80s. The first intifada was the turning point. Images of Palestinian youth hurling rocks at Israeli tanks and the relatively non-violent nature of the uprising brought a different view of the Israeli occupation to Europe and, to a lesser extent, to the United States.
Through all of this, Israel and its supporters have never sought to lessen Israel’s public exposure. On the contrary, there has only been an increased attempt to garner more and better publicity. No doubt, there are those who highlight Israel’s aggression more than others’ because they are committed to doing harm to Jews. But as we can see, there are far more obvious and clear answers as to why Israel is paid so much more attention than anti-Semitism.
Yet this does have some major pitfalls for those of us engaged in this work. There remains a great deal to do in shifting public opinion on the Israel-Palestine conflict. We serve ourselves ill if we paint a picture lacking perspective. For 25 years, Indonesia occupied East Timor, wiping out over one-third of the Timorese population, while the world stood silent. Morocco’s ongoing occupation of Western Sahara has seen 80% of the native population of that region transferred and living in squalid refugee camps, mostly in Algeria. Again, the world has stood silent. Crimes against humanity abound in this world. The ongoing, and utterly pointless, American embargo against Cuba, China’s continuing occupation of Tibet, violent conflicts in the former Soviet Union, Turkish projects to wipe out Kurds and Kurdish culture, and the potential nuclear confrontation between Pakistan and India are all threats to “world peace” just as grave as anything happening in Israel/Palestine. The entire continent of Africa, still embroiled in post-colonial conflict and ravaged by AIDS while America prevents affordable drugs from going to that continent is a crime of mass murder by any standard. The destruction of Afghanistan, first by America’s allies, the Taliban, and later by America itself when it tired of its allies; the destruction of Iraq, first by war, then by sanctions and then by occupation; major upheavals in Central and South America, with the clear involvement of the United States; there are many other areas of conflict and crime in the world. Ongoing American efforts to stifle global environmental laws, as well as continuing floods of small arms into war-torn areas are equally criminal. It would be a much better world for all of us if the suffering of the Palestinians were unique. Sadly, it is not.
There is no doubt that the brazen aggression of the Sharon government has cast a greater spotlight on Israeli crimes against the Palestinians. There is no doubt that Israeli aggression during the current intifada has increased instability all around the world. There is good reason to focus specifically on the Middle East and the Israel-Palestine conflict as a fulcrum for much of what is happening in the world. And the suffering of the Palestinians is severe. But let us not forget that the Israeli occupation happens in the context of a political world rife with suffering, with violence and with war. Let us not, in our eagerness to express the gravity of the situation in Israel-Palestine, place that conflict outside of its perspective. To do so undermines our efforts and only aids those who work to prolong the occupation and prevent any justice from coming to the Palestinians.