The Great Distraction--Why Protest Against Israel When Countries X, Y, and Z Are So Much Worse?

Write something critical about Israel and you are almost guaranteed that an Israeli apologist will say, "Why are you attacking Israel when all the Arab/Muslim countries surrounding it are so much worse?" They are likely to follow up that since you are focusing your criticism on Israel--the only Jewish nation in the world instead of focusing on countries like Saudi Arabia or Iran or terrorist groups like Hamas or ISIS, you must be an anti-Semite. This attack is used so often because it is one of the most effective tools a hasbarist has to discredit Israel's critics. I have already discussed why being against Israel is not the same thing as being an anti-Semite and how the abuse of the anti-Semite card is used to bully Israel's critics. Today I will concentrate on "Why Israel?"

 

Some of those who criticize Israel or promote BDS may be anti-Semitic, but from what I have seen they are a tiny minority. There are many reasons to single out Israel for criticism, even though there are far worse offenders. I will present the reasons why I concentrate my energies on Israel, but I do not speak for all of Israel's critics. Others may have other reasons.

I must make two observations before addressing this question. First, most of those who ask it really don't care what your answer is. They do not ask the question out of a sincere desire to find out what motivates you. They don't care if you have relatives who are starving in Gaza or if you are outraged that your tax dollars are going to support a regime that enforces an apartheid-like occupation. They just want to discredit you or force you to waste your time defending yourself when you'd rather be exposing Israel's bad behavior or explaining why we shouldn't blindly support it. Second, I can't think of any other cause where such diversionary tactics are used. I have never heard of a poacher who's been caught with the carcass of an endangered animal complaining "Hey, why are you going after me? Global warming is a much greater threat to the world, so why are you wasting your time trying to save endangered species?"

The question of "Why are you attacking Israel instead of X, Y, or Z " is the rhetorical equivalent of a rat with a laser pointer trying to distract a cat from performing her catly duties. I have already written a column explaining some of my reasoning for taking a stance against what Israel does. Here are some more reasons why I focus most of my time criticizing Israel as opposed to ISIS, Hamas, or Iran.

  1. There is no shortage of people criticizing ISIS, Hamas, or Iran. Their abuses are so well known that spending my time criticizing them makes as much sense as going up to strangers and telling them not to look directly into the sun because it is bright. Some things are so obvious that they go without saying. 
  2. Israel is the largest recipient of American foreign aid--to the tune of $3 billion a year. Israel's continued occupation of the West Bank would be impossible, or at least significantly more difficult, without U.S. help. Our country sacrifices international goodwill by being the sole veto against U.N. condemnation of Israel's illegal occupation. It is even possible under a worst case scenario that Israel could ask the U.S. to help it put down a revolt in the West Bank
  3. The United States has greater leverage over Israel than it does over many other countries because we are the only one protecting it against sanctioning U.N. resolutions.  We have a greater ability to influence Israel's behavior, should we decide to do so, than we do of influencing Russia or China.  Thus protesting against Israel actually has a greater chance of accomplishing something useful than protesting against some other countries.
  4. Israel has been trying to goad us into a war with Iran over its nuclear program for a couple of years. In 1992 Benjamin Netanyahu predicted Iran was 3 - 5 years away from having a nuclear weapon. In 1995 he wrote "The best estimates at this time place Iran between three and five years away from possessing the prerequisites required  for the independent production of nuclear weapons." He went before Congress in 2002 and urged us to attack Iraq. He said that if we did, the Iranian regime would probably fall on its own. In September 2012 he went to the UN with a drawing of a bomb and sounded the alarm that Iran would have a nuclear weapon within about a year. Less than a month later the Mossad wrote a memo with a much less alarmist assessment of Iran's nuclear position. The memo's bottom line was that Iran was "not performing the activity necessary to produce weapons. It is working to close gaps in areas that appear legitimate such as enrichment, reactors, which will reduce the time required to produce weapons from the time the instruction is actually given."
  5. AIPAC and other groups responded to Iran's nuclear threat by trying to pass the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2013. The bill, which was co-sponsored by 59 Senators, would have killed any chance for a negotiated nuclear deal with Iran and would have effectively given Israel the ability to drag us into war with Iran at a time of its choosing. Israel is still trying to kill any chance for a negotiated settlement before it has even seen what the final terms of the deal is. Americans For Peace Now has provided a useful guide describing the arguments Israel's supporters use and why they are bogus.
  6. I believe it is important for Israel to be a safe haven for Jews to migrate to if they are endangered by anti-Semitism elsewhere. But true safety in Israel will never be achieved as long as Israel treats Palestinians as second class citizens and as long as it maintains an apartheid-like occupation in the West Bank. Whether Israel, or I, or anyone else likes it, there will never be peace without at least some measure of justice for the Palestinians. The Palestinians will never be able to get total justice--they will never be allowed to arrive en masse into Israel. But Israel must at least acknowledge its crime of confiscating Palestinian land and houses by refusing to allow them to return after the war in 1948 and provide them with some form of compensation. And Israel must work toward ending the illegal apartheid-like occupation in the West Bank. Of course, the Palestinians also need to acknowledge that they share a substantial portion of the blame for the conflict. But Israel, being the overwhelmingly powerful occupying force, must take steps that it is acting in good faith.
  7. Instead, Israel has proven itself to be addicted to building more settlements and are obviously attempting to sabotage any chance of obtaining a reasonbly contiguous Palestinian state, thus ensuring conflict without end. Despite what many Israeli's think, the settlements and continued occupation jeopardize Israel's long-term health. Being against the settlements is not being anti-Israeli, any more than taking donuts away from a 450 pound obese person is being against fat people.

 

Condemning Israel May Prevent The Spread of Anti-Semitsm

 

Condemning Israel when it is in the wrong and holding a light up to its excessive behavior is one of the best ways to combat anti-Semitism outside of Israel. Israel's apologists will undoubtedly say that it is wrong to attack Israel because doing so will only contribute to anti-Semitism. They will say the BDS movement, for example, is loaded with Jew haters. They will say that there has always been anti-Semitism and there always will be anti-Semitism, and it is wrong to attack the only true refuge for Jews against anti-Semitism. In fact, they will say, anyone who excessively focuses their criticism on Israel is anti-Semitic. They are partly right--there always has been anti-Semitism, and there will probably always be a low-level baseline of anti-Semitism. But they are wrong to state that it is anti-Semitic to focus criticism on Israel. It is anti-Semitic to hate Jews because they are Jews. It is not anti-Semitic to hate Israel's occupation or what it has done to the Palestinian people or that Israel has been trying to sabotage a deal that could provide a peaceful resolution of the Iranian nuclear issue. It would be wrong to attribute all anti-Semitism to Israeli bad behavior, but it is just as wrong to ignore the fact that Israeli aggression creates an enviornment outside of Israel where anti-Semitism can become more virulent and widespread. It is not a coincidence that anti-Semitism became more virulent in the aftermath of the Gaza war last summer. J.J. Goldberg's article, "What Happens in Israel Doesn't Stay in Israel" is absolutely essential reading on this point. Here are a few highlights

...there’s a difference between what’s traditionally known as anti-Semitism and the recent wave of hostility toward Jews on various continents. The old anti-Semitism was a hatred of Jews because of myths and fantasies disconnected from reality like drinking Christians’ blood or killing God.
 
The new anti-Semitism includes some of that, but it starts with something else: an anger at Jews over something that actually happened. Israel was created on land that Muslims, like it or not, considered part of their sacred waqf, the indivisible House of Islam. Many Muslims haven’t gotten over it. Hey, Osama bin Laden wanted Spain back.
 
Moreover, thousands of Palestinians were displaced, which generates its own anger. And many more Muslims get angry when they see large numbers of fellow Muslims getting killed, as happens periodically. There may be good reasons why those deaths happened, but not everyone is open to reason. Some hotheads will look for a target to vent their anger. Some thugs might blow up a bus in Haifa. Others might attack Israel’s best friends in, say, Paris.
 
This doesn’t excuse, it explains. Explaining is the first step toward solving. Rage at Israel can lead to actions that are thuggish, sometimes criminal, occasionally murderous. But it’s not necessarily the same as the world’s oldest hatred. It’s a fine distinction, but an important one. If someone hates you because of a delusion, there’s nothing you can do. If a person is angry with you because of something that actually happened, you have choices. . . . 
 
[ The Jewish People Policy Institute] produces an "annual assessment" summarizing the year’s key challenges. Because of the Jewish Agency’s status in Israeli law as a "national institution" of the Jewish people, the institute can present its assessment each year to a special meeting of the Israeli Cabinet, which then votes to accept it. . . .
 
[The Jewish People Policy Institute's 2013 assessment] added prophetically, "Israeli military action might provoke reactions/backlash against Jews and Jewish communities in the Diaspora." . ..one section [of the JPPI's 2014 report] is devoted to "The impact of Israel’s policies on the security and wellbeing of Jews around the world." It warns: "There is clear evidence that periods of tension between Israel and its neighbors raise the frequency and severity of harassment/attacks on Jews in locations around the world." . . . 
 
"Thus," the report says, "it is understandable that Jews around the world… worry about those [of] Israel’s policies that damage its image internationally. When Israel is seen by other nations — as it is by some today — as a country that endangers the world, Jews around the world, whether they want to be associated with Israel or not, bear some of the consequences.
 
"This isn’t a popular view these days. Most observers who discuss the new European anti-Semitism describe anti-Israel feelings as a "pretext" or "cover" for old-fashioned anti-Semitism. They’re partly right, of course: Hamas and others have dredged up passages form the Quran that demonize Jews horribly. Some imams rail about international Jewish conspiracies. But they’d have a much smaller audience for their ravings if Israel could find a way to lower the flames in the conflict.

 

Goldberg is not the only one who has noticed the connection between Israeli violence and the rise of European anti-Semitism. You should read this column by Multiple Emmy winner Barry Lando. Lando writes that

leaders of most major Jewish organizations publicly defended Israel's incursion into Gaza --despite the fact that many European Jews were also upset by them.

In France, for instance Roger Cukierman, the head of the leading Jewish organization, the CRIF, called for a massive demonstration in support of Israel's actions in Gaza and attempted to get the French government to outlaw a march that others had called to support the Palestinians. He also condemned French President Francois Hollande for appealing to the international community to end the "massacre" going on in Gaza….

 
Since the CRIF supposedly represents the views of France's Jewish community, is there any wonder that not just French Muslims conclude that France's Jews support Israel's actions against the Muslim population in Gaza, and whatever else the Israeli government is up to?
 
(Unless more Jews in France and elsewhere are willing to speak out publicly about their disagreements with organisations like the CRIF and AIPAC and Israel's policies, that's the way it's going to be.)…
 
An outspoken Israeli writer, Uri Avnery, for decades one of the most acerbic critics of his country's policies, has pointed out the irony: Israel, created as a haven from anti-Semitism for Jews around the globe, has instead, by its actions, become the greatest promoter of anti-Semitism world-wide.

And Alon Ben-Meir, professor of international relations and Middle East studies at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University agrees.

Regardless of where they may live, the Jews need not bend backwards to please their enemies, but the onus falls especially on Israel to do the right thing and stop feeding fuel to the fire.
 
It is not by sheer accident that the whole world, including Israel's closest friend and ally -- the US -- rejects the settlement enterprise and the continued occupation, and it is not accidental that there is a spike in global anti-Semitic incidents every time the Israeli-Palestinian conflict flares up.
 
Netanyahu must accept the fact that the occupation is one of the main causes (but not the source) behind the recent rise of anti-Semitism. Instead of focusing on ending it, he is calling on French Jews to immigrate to Israel only to "become oppressors" of the Palestinians.
 
Reaching an equitable peace agreement with the Palestinians will not eliminate anti-Semitis . . . But it will, at a minimum, regress anti-Semitic fervor.

As J.J. Goldberg notes, the definition of "anti-Semitism" has morphed over the past few years from a hatred of the Jewish people to a hatred of Israel as the Jewish State. This new definition was introduced by Israel's apologists to try to attack and discredit those who criticize or deligitimize Israel. As I've explained elsewhere, this new definition of anti-Semitism allows pro-Israeli hasbarists to play the victim by smearing their opponents with the taint of an age-old hatred based on pure unreasoned evil. Of course, this new definition of anti-Semitism is a false one. This new definition of anti-semitism is a sham. And this sham anti-Semitism is to real anti-Semitism as shampoo is to real poo.

This sham definition of anti-Semitism hurts Jews in two ways.

  1. It dilutes the impact of the word "anti-Semitism". When people start to think that being anti-Semitic means merely being against Israel instead of being against Jews because they are Jews, then being seen as anti-Semitic will no longer be widely viewed as such a terrible thing--especially when Israel behaves in ways that shocks the conscience. It is important for Jews to maintain the power of the "anti-Semite" label to use during those times when it is truly justified. Overuse and abuse of the term will diminish its ability to raise the alarm when it is truly needed. Diluting the power of the "anti-Semite" label could easily have the "boy-who-cried-wolf" effect.
  2. Using the word "anti-Semite" to mean "hatred of Israel or its policies" instead of "hatred of Jews because they are Jews" blurs the line between Jewish people and the state of Israel. It makes it appear to many non-Jews, especially Arabs and Muslims--that Israel does what it does on behalf of all Jews and that all (or almost all) Jews support Israel unquestioningly without reservation. Of course this isn't true. Many Diaspora Jews (and some within Israel itself) challenge the justice and wisdom of Israel's actions. But the distinction between dissenting Jews and Israeli activity becomes lost to those who constantly hear that if you are against Israel you automatically hate the Jewish people. Bibi Netanyahu only added to this confusion when he claimed he was going to speak before Congress as the representative of the entire Jewish people. Perhaps this at least partly explains why 20,000 American Jews signed J Street's petition denouncing Netanyahu's claim to represent them.

 

Bibi Netanyahu once boasted that "America is a thing that can be easily moved." Even though there are many worse actors than Israel, it is important to speak out so that America isn't moved in a direction that is not in America's national security interests. We should seek out some measure of justice for the Palestinians because it is the right thing to do. But if that is not enough, then we must speak out because blindly allowing Israel to do whatever it wants to them jeopardizes any chance of ever reaching a peace deal and could theoretically put America's national security interests at risk. Speaking out when Israel tries to sabotage any chance for a nuclear deal and drag the United States into war is necessary to protect our national security interests. And speaking out against Israel's excesses can be the best way for American and European Jews to limit the spread of anti-Semitism.

 

Update 3/2/15: I just added the third point to the now 7 point list above.

Update 3/5/15: Former AIPAC employee MJ Rosenberg writes that he hates Benjamin Netanyahu because he is  "undermining the security of Jews in the United States by suggesting ("I speak for all Jews") that we are less than full Americans, that our loyalties are divided (which is the case for a few, but hardly most)"  Read the whole article

Update 3/7/15: MJ Rosenberg wrote another must-read article last August explaining how Israel's actions in the West Bank and Gaza have contributed to the growth of anti-Semitism around the world.

Update 5/6/15: Alon Ben-Meir wrote an outstanding article explaining how the rise in Anti-Semitism is largely attributable to Israel's behavior.  I can't recommend this article highly enough.  READ IT!  Here are some excerpts.

What has added potency to the substantial rise in anti-Semitism in recent years is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Israel's defiance of international norms of conduct, its leaders' sense of righteousness and arrogance, and the image they project to the outside world. . . .
 
I maintain that the continuing occupation remains the single most potent cause behind the rise of anti-Semitism. .. .
 
There is a common failing shared between anti-Semites, Islamic militants and radical Zionists; namely, an epistemic failure -- a belief in their own moral infallibility, which leads to arrogance, indifference, complacency and a sense that one does not need to provide a justification for one's words and deeds. It also can lead to ruthless acts of violence. . . .
 
It is unlikely that anti-Semitism will be eradicated someday, as there will always be bigots who derive perverse satisfaction in divesting themselves of moral responsibility, for whom hatred of the Jews has an almost intoxicating, delirious effect.
 
However, the current rise of anti-Semitism can be curbed. Israeli leaders and the public must return and recommit themselves to the moral principles that gave birth to the state of Israel.
 
They must begin by engaging in an honest public narrative based on the reality of coexistence with the Palestinians in which Israel finds itself, and not a fictional, self-indulgent narrative that distorts the truth about the rights of the Palestinians which even a fool can discern. Israel's poor public relations projects the country as conceited, and the old and tired talking points are dismissed as empty, self-convincing gospel.
 
Netanyahu's claim that he represents world Jewry is a false claim and only implicates the Jews as partners to the repugnant occupation and the ill treatment of the Palestinians. Israel's provocative actions need to be curtailed -- first and foremost by ending the expansion of settlements and halting the annexation of yet more land.
 
Israel's conduct in the territories does nothing but add fuel to the expanding fire of anti-Semitism. Israel is the only country that has maintained a military occupation for nearly 50 years, in defiance of the international community. The Holocaust, incomparable to any catastrophic event in human history, must not be used to justify oppression of the Palestinians. The Israelis' complacency about the occupation damns Jews all over the world and as long as the occupation lingers, anti-Semitism will continue to rise.