Who’s Singling Out Israel?: Fisking Mike Marqusee

The Guardian recently ran an opinion piece by Mike Marqusee on the perennial problem of whether criticism of Israel is anti-semitic. This topic does not seem to be a major focus of his work and it shows. Below a fisking of an article as rife with analytic failures as it is with misplaced moral self-confidence.

Who’s singling out Israel?
Mike Marqusee
May 17, 2006 04:05 PM

In breach of international law, Ehud Olmert has declared that Israel will redraw its boundaries unilaterally, incorporating the major West Bank settlements and maintaining a military presence adjacent to the Jordan.

Well, it doesn’t take Mike long to tell us where he stands. After all, as a specialist in sports, culture, and politics, he knows well the clear and simple issues in international law surrounding the unprecendented case of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Meanwhile, the EU and the US have suspended aid to the democratically elected Palestinian authority, threatening Palestinians with a collapse of public services and deepening penury (see the World Bank report).

Interesting use of “democratically elected” as if that made them legitimate. No hint here that this government has and continues to take public positions that align them with some of the most paranoid and genocidal forces in history. As a result, the perfectly understandable reluctance of the EU and the US to support such a choice — as if choices arrived at democratically were by definition good — becomes a kind of arbitrary cruelty. And behind this, of course, lies a notion of democracy so jejune — any democratically elected government is legitimate, even if the people in their (predictable) folly elect demagogues who will not allow another election — as to suggest they were not paying attention in 8th grade civics class.

Yet those who join this Saturday’s Palestine solidarity demonstration in London will be accused of unfairly singling out Israel. They will be asked: why not Darfur, Kashmir, Saudi Arabia, Burma, Aceh, Kurdistan, Tibet or Western Sahara? It will be suggested that, in this context, adopting the Palestinian cause can only be a reflection of enduring anti-semitism.

Well, that’s one way to set up a straw man. I personally would not argue that it “can only be a reflection of enduring anti-semitism.” I’d argue that it may be that, (although I’d prefer to call it Judeophobia), but that it’s even more strikingly a reflection of a profound ideological confusion and moral failure, in which one supports a cause for “moral” reasons, no matter how immorally the proponents of that cause behave.

One of the ironies of this charge is that for decades the Palestinians were invisible in the western media; not only was there no visible campaign on their behalf, there was scarcely any acknowledgment of their existence. Now, when their cause has at last been taken up by an international movement, that movement is told that its protest is illegitimate because others now suffer the inattention that was once the fate of the Palestinians.

I’m not sure what decades MM has in mind, but it surely can’t be any of the last 4 decades, during which the plight of the Palestinians has received a level of sympathetic attention in the international press far exceeding either their numbers or the degree to which they suffer, and often to negative effect. Surely the coverage of the first intifada (1987-91) far exceeded the attention to, say, the coverage of decades of genocidal warfare in southern Sudan. Having created a false premise, MM then proceeds to what is supposed to be an ironic twist: finally in the spotlight, their protest is illegitimate because of the other movements not in the spotlight. Actually, the argument is, “Palestinians are and have been in the limelight despite their despicable behavior and their self-destructive intransigence at the expense of groups far more deserving of international sympathy both on the basis of their suffering (Sudan) and their refusal to behave like vicious monsters (Tibet).”

All campaigns against specific injustices can be said to “single out” one group or another, and indeed this accusation was made in the 1960s against critics of the US in Vietnam (what about Soviet crimes?) and in the 1980s against the anti-apartheid movement (there were dictatorial regimes run by black Africans). If the requirement is that unless one protests (presumably simultaneously) against all injustices one’s protest against any particular injustice is discriminatory, then there will be no protests at all, including none against Israel – which seems to be what some of those who decry its “singling out” would prefer.

No. The argument is that if you are going to support a movement to help people being oppressed around the world — and singling out is a perfectly legitimate aspect of that support — it should be chosen on the basis of how seriously the people are suffering and how intransigent their oppressors have been. A people who have consistently refused solutions to their problem, who have repeatedly resorted to vicious means as a “principled” tactic, whose leadership systematically victimizes their own people and blames others, and who sympathize with if not actively support a campaign of global religious imperialism — this strikes me as a questionable cause around which to build a progressive movement.

But who’s actually doing the singling out? Israel’s advocates argue that its security situation and its role as a Jewish state are unique, and imply that it is therefore permitted to do things that are clearly prohibited to other states (land seizures, house demolitions, assassinations, mass detentions).

Okay. Let’s say none of these things were legitimate. Does that put Israel anywhere near the status of villain of an unprovoked and brutal occupation (Chinese in Tibet), slave trading (Mauritania, Sudan), or genocide (Sudan)?

Those who demand that Israel conform to international law and standards of human decency are challenging this kind of singling out, calling for an end to Israel’s special exemption.

Special exemption from? China, USSR, India, all the Arab and Muslim countries don’t defy international law and standards of human decency? The notion that Israel — which has the most active, effective and vociferous human rights community in the world — has a “special exemption” illustrates precisely the syndrome MM denies exists, that is, the singling out of Israel for opprobrium when there are so many more flagrant cases needing international attention.

The US singles out Israel for military and diplomatic support. Over the last 30 years it has been by far the largest recipient of US foreign aid. The US also regularly uses its security council veto to shield Israel from condemnation. And Israel is the only country in the region permitted by the US to possess nuclear weapons.

This is a nice summary of Walt-Mearsheimer. There are good reasons for the US to single out Israel for this support, which even W-M acknowledge for the past. As for the UN, MM presents the US shielding Israel from condemnation as if it were some unfair intervention, as if the UN were not part of a huge problem that reflects the very issue MM denies — singling out Israel for obsessional and unjust condemnation. And this is a distortion that hurts everyone. As Anne Bayefsky put it about a recent UN decision:

The Arab drive to destroy the state of Israel has debased the U.N., sullied its charter, perverted the meaning of human rights, and ransacked international law and its highest Court. How many more of the universal ideals upon which our world depends must be desecrated before we say “enough”?

And when Western columnists speak of the UN as if it were a functional moral entity, they enable the very failures they claim they want to protest.

Finally, the idea that the US “permits” Israel to have nuclear weapons and doesn’t permit others, and still more misconceived, that Israel having nuclear weapons is the same as, say, Egypt or Jordan or Iraq having them, shows just how profoundly lacking in understanding MM is in his grasp of the differences between Israel and the surrounding Arab-Muslim nations. He, presumably, would never be so “racist” as to suggest that Arab political culture is far less responsible than Israeli. (On the contrary, one would suspect he’d argue the opposite.) But one wonders if he would be in favor of his neighbor in London giving the keys to a fully armed and loaded tank to his crack-addicted delinquent son. For crack cocaine read conspiracist hate-mongering.

Since the US’s aggressive global posture provokes extreme disquiet in many parts of the world, it’s not surprising, unjustified or anti-semitic that its closest ally in the Middle East is widely viewed not as a rogue regime but as part of a larger system of domination – and as a prime example of western double standards. In a world shaped by western domination and resistance to it, the Israel-Palestine conflict is correctly seen as pivotal.

Here we have a nice confluence of American and Israeli Derangement Syndrome. Colin Meade has a good post on the gap between perception and reality specifically in connection with the Walt-Mearsheimer essay. The US’s “aggressive global posture” has been hyped by precisely the people who desperately want to believe (why?) that the US is an imperial power, a militaristic society, an aggressive bully.

Now this is a huge topic, worthy of a long post by Neo or someone of her abilities, but briefly, as an historian familiar with the behavior of cultures that have had the kind of military superiority over their neighbors that the US has (and that includes both the Europeans of the 16-20th century and the Arab world of the 7th-17th centuries), I can safely say that no culture with the power-differential that the US enjoys, has ever been more restrained, more tentative, more reluctant to use its power to dominate others. If that nevertheless appears to be too much for some of utopian sensibilities, that’s not a reality that I think needs confirmation. Indeed, I suspect that a fair amount of the hostility to the US in Europe and Arabia comes from resentment that we occupy the position they feel is rightly theirs. As one study showed, cited by Lee Harris in Civilization and Its Enemies (chap. 11), while many people all over the world dislike the USA, they do not want the USA to have a rival in power.

To take the perceptions of people who a) have no sense of the depth and viciousness of the aggression coming from Islam, and b) a hypersensitivity to American aggression, and base judgments about whether Israel is a “rogue” regime, and whether Western support for the only place in the world to have any concern for the civil rights of others, is “a prime example of double standards” is to step right through the looking glass into the bizarro world of Leftist moral insanity that has, since 2000, become the dominant discourse among “progressives.”

Britain also singles out Israel for support. Annual UK arms sales to Israel have doubled over the last year to £25m, and since 2000 the UK has sold £70m worth of arms to Israel, including tanks, helicopters, mines, rockets, machine guns, teargas, leg irons, components for fighter jets and surface-to-surface missiles.

Yet Jack Straw argued that aid to the PA had to be cut because taxpayers did not want their money funding terrorism. Meanwhile Olmert declares: “I believe with all my heart in the people of Israel’s eternal historic right to the entire land of Israel” – meaning up to (or even beyond) the Jordan – and is praised for a willingness to compromise. Hamas retains a claim to the same territory, with roots in living memory rather than Biblical mythology, and is subject to punitive sanctions.

Okay, help me here MM. Olmert says Israel has a right to it all but is willing to compromise, even to withdraw unilaterally. Hamas claims the right to the same territory, adamantly refuses to compromise and defends its right to resort to genocidal tactics, using the language of paranoid anti-semitism that easily competes with the Nazis for viciousness. What’s the comparison?

And as for the living memory rather than biblical mythology — when in living memory were the Arabs of the area from the Jordan to the Mediterranean a self-ruling autonomous political entity rather than the subjects of a foreign empire?

Our government’s complicity in the injustices meted out to the Palestinians is both greater in degree and more immediate than our complicity in Kashmir, Darfur or Tibet. In a sense, that makes it our duty to single out Israel for protest. To deny that duty is to divorce protest from politics, to turn it away from the centres of power and render it abstract and ineffectual.

This brings us face to face with the moral narcissism of the “anti-war” movement of 2003. My government’s complicity in the Arab-Israeli conflict means that I have a special debt to pay, lest I be implicated. Or as a number of BU students said to me, “I don’t one one hair on one Iraqi child’s head injured by weapons paid for by my taxes.”
“And what about the children injured by Saddam?”
“That’s not my business.”

So turn a complex issue in which Britain has as much guilt for cruelty to Israelis as it does to Palestinians, into a simplistic morality play, and assault Israel as a rogue nation for its behavior towards the Palestinians, but turn your back on people who are subject to genocide by forces in league with the Palestinians.

It is also argued that the anti-Zionist ideology of many in the Palestinian movement singles out Jews by denying them, uniquely, a state of their own. Again, the historical selectivity lies with the accusers. Does opposition to a Sikh state in Punjab (Khalistan) – among the objectors to which are many Sikhs themselves – imply anti-Sikhism? Afrikaaners formed a distinct religious, linguistic and cultural group – yet that didn’t entitle them to a state of their own. In Sri Lanka, there has been a long struggle for an independent Tamil homeland, but that demand is not supported by all Tamils; nor is it generally perceived among those committed to democratic rights as a wise, just or feasible solution to the island’s ethnic conflict.If there were as many states as their are ethnic identities, the UN would have to expand exponentially.

This is reminiscent of the British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin’s remark after the Holocaust about the Jews being pushy and wanting “to get too much to the head of the queue” in the search for a nation of their own. Sikhs, Tamils, Afrikaaners… I’m sorry did I miss something? Do they have a millennium long history of insecurity living among peoples who periodically sought to destroy them (including the English and the Arabs)? Do they have a historical (not mythical) record of political independence some three millennia ago which they remembered every day of those 3000 years? Have any of them undergone a systematic effort to exterminate them without any nation — not England, not the US, and certainly not any continental European country — lifting a finger to save them? Have they emerged from 2000 years of diaspora still sufficiently determined to have a nation of their own so that they brought a long-dead language back to life?

I’d say that anyone who can trivialize the need and desire of the Jews for a nation and turn it into one of thousands of ethnicities that the world can’t possibly accommodate, is either profoundly ignorant (and shouldn’t be writing columns) or mean-spirited beyond the bounds of moral decency. Had the Palestinians, whom he seems determined to support no matter how they behave, showed one tenth the impulse to self-determination, they’d have a state and we wouldn’t have a problem in the Middle East.

Crucially, even in the most clear-cut cases of national self-determination, there is no right to build a state on land already inhabited by others, nor to sustain an ethnic majority in a state through the dispossession of others.

Just how does he think Britain, France, the United States, Russia, or just about any other state was established? How does he think the “Arab world” from the Atlantic to Iraq came about when, in the early 7th century, Arabs were a collection of tribal clans in the Saudi peninsula? As far as “dispossessions go, actually, the arrival of the Zionists to Palestine was a golden opportunity for the Arabs there to achieve their independence from… wait for it… the English!

Why didn’t they? Because of the inveterate, zero-sum, ethnic cleansing mentality of the Arab elites.

This very notion of Israeli displacement of the Palestinians adopts that Arab zero-sum mentality at its crudest — not what one would expect from a progressive who, in principle at least, is committed to positive-sum outcomes. The idea that a) the advent of a population to an area where there were half million people in 1900 and there are almost 10 million in 2000 and b) the (potential) creation of two independent states where there had previously been none, constitutes “displacement” strikes me as strange to say the least. Let us not forget that when the displacement happened, it was the Israelis who accepted a two-state solution and the Arabs who refused. As one commentator noted:

The Arabs’ claims confronted with Jewish claims; I fully understand that any minority would prefer to be a majority; it is quite understandable that the Arabs of Palestine would also prefer Palestine to be the Arab state number 24 number 25 or number 26 – that I quite understand. But when the Arab claim is confronted with our Jewish demands to be saved, it is like the claim of appetite versus the claim of starvation.

As for the Palestinian “refugee problem,” let’s put the blame where it belongs — the hard zero-sum choices of the Arab league who started a war of extermination, and the continuing use of these refugees as hostages by the Palestinian “leadership.”

Indeed, the problem of settlements on the West Bank and Gaza Strip is not one of too many, but of too few: why didn’t the PA use their chance at Oslo to start moving people out of the camps and onto the territory over which they got control? Primarily so they could continue to get the support of well-intentioned (?) dupes like MM.

Behind the claims that criticisms of Israel are disproportionate or unbalanced lies a wilful blindness to both the scale and persistence of Israel’s offences: the occupation itself, now completing its 39th year; the illegal settlements and the separation wall, condemned by the international court of justice ; the daily violations of human rights; and the sustained, indiscriminate violence against densely populated areas (in one week in April the Israeli army fired more than 950 artillery tank shells and 46 F16 missiles into Gaza, killing 19 Palestinians, including three children). While the west punishes Hamas for its rhetoric, Israel is permitted to create facts on the ground, carving out new borders and subjugating the Palestinian population by force.

I don’t know where the statistics come from, although I have no doubt that MM is a regular consumer of Pallywood information. But let’s even grant that the statistics are true. Note how not a word here touches on the steady mortar fire from Gaza, nor the suicide terrorism — both the actual cases and the far more numerous attempts which, thanks to the “condemned” separation wall have been thwarted. Talk about “wilful blindness.” What is it that makes someone incapable of resisting simplistic moral narratives?

Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians may not be the worst of the crimes against humanity currently being committed, but it is more than horrifying enough to warrant indignation and positive action. At this moment in our society, the prevailing sin is apathy and complicity, not “one-sided condemnation of Israel”.

Well, I guess you could argue that if your society’s problem is apathy and complicity, then better to strike out at anything than do nothing. But of course, if in striking out at Israel you attack people who, for better or worse, are fighting a battle against the forces of global Jihad, against people who share the same attitudes and desires as the people committing genocide in Darfur and southern Sudan, or suicide terrorism against their fellow Muslims in Iraq, or honor-killings in your own back yard, then maybe you’re not the brightest penny in the bunch.

Yes, indiscriminate acts of terrorism against the Israeli population are wrong and a cul-de-sac for Palestinian politics. But why should those acts absolve Israel from its responsibilities or invalidate nonviolent, democratic protests such as Saturday’s demonstration? The obstruction of peaceful methods of redressing injustice only makes acts of terrorism more likely.

Wow. Now we get a mention Palestinian terrorism. (And it’s not even a concessive clause… it’s a concessive sentence. We have to wait till the next sentence to get our “But…”) Absolve Israel from its responsibilities? To whom? To protect its own population with things like the highly effective separation barrier and retaliatory fire against areas firing bombs at their population? What measures would the British have taken had their population been subject to the kind of revolting assaults that the Israelis have been? What country — not bent on suicide — would respond with more restraint?

And as for the peaceful demonstration in London… why not peacefully demonstrate against the Palestinian cul-de-sac? What on earth makes MM think that a demonstration in support of people who have “freely” chosen a government “rhetorically” committed to ethnic cleansing and genocide — do read their own words — will not encourage terrorism? Such demonstrations do not support justice; they encourage the further victimization of both Jews and Arabs. Presumably this is not what MM wants. So what’s he doing?

One of the saddest features of the accusation that Israel is being singled out is the assumption that the only reason people around the world would gather behind the Palestinian banner is that they hate Jews. The possibility that support for the Palestinians arises out of an awareness of the injustices they have suffered, out of compassion for the underdog, is discounted out of hand.

It’s not an assumption, and it’s not a blanket condemnation of all who gather behind the Palestinian banner (although much of MM’s analysis consists of building a straw man of blanket condemnations and simplistic formulations). But the idea that there’s something very strange about people who support the Palestinians because they think that the sole source of their suffering comes from the Israelis, that compassion for the underdog necessitates unwavering loyalty not to the people suffering but to the demonizing narrative of their leadership who visibly victimize them, that supporting the scapegoating of Israel will somehow serve the case of justice, hardly seems like “discounting out of hand.” It’s called reasoned criticism. And instead of discounting that criticism out of hand with the kind of skewed presentation MM has treated his readers to, maybe he should reconsider his knee-jerk support for unthinking underdoggism.

Yes, criticism of Israel may be at times be tainted by anti-semitism, and there is no doubt that in parts of the developing world anti-semitic mythology has become intertwined with support for the Palestinians. In this country, however, that can be fairly said of no more than a minute fraction of the Palestine solidarity movement. In contrast, support for Israel is frequently coloured by anti-Arab, anti-Muslim or western supremacist sentiments.

Well, I guess it makes sense to go out in a blaze of glory. In the “developing world” anti-semitic mythology has become intertwined with support for the Palestinians, but not in England! What was Lenin’s definition of a useful idiot? And when one realizes that George Bernard Shaw was one of them, one realizes that no amount of intelligence can protect one from becoming that kind of idiot.

By all means, take action on Western Sahara, Burma and Tibet. But don’t let the fact that these and other issues enjoy a relatively low profile in Britain prevent you from adding your voice to Saturday’s protest against Israel’s systematic oppression of the Palestinians – carried out with our assistance.

It must be nice to live in a world of such simple-minded clarity and moral certainty. Especially when you are surrounded by other people — writers, editors, “thinkers” — who keep telling you how good you are. The only real problem is that this kind of lamentably indulgent and lopsided thinking is not cost-free. The very “justice” those demonstrators thought they were supporting in the rally was, and will be, betrayed by their “allies” in a war not merely on Jews, but on the very civil society whose notions of justice they claim to serve. And in the process of such lame analysis, the “Left” will contributes to its own suicide.

3 Responses to Who’s Singling Out Israel?: Fisking Mike Marqusee

  1. [...] tyushas are being launched, as they will be, from schools, hospitals and mosques. [and the Western media and NGOs jump on the casualties to deplo [...]

  2. Alan Bernson says:

    The Charter of Hamas, the Charter of Fatah and the Charter of the PLO openly declare that the national objective of Palestinians is (a) to physically destroy Israel and (b) to then destroy its Jewish inhabitants.

    The Palestinians get injured only when they are carying out attacks whose objective is to further their genocidal goals.

    Why would any person of good will provide them with sympathy ? Do those sympathetic supporters love Arabs or hate Jews.

  3. Alan Mark says:

    The part that really amazes me , is how some of the neighbors to Israel can make the claim that it is the Israelis who are the aggressor to the region? Let us do the math: Israel who fought many wars since 1948 and with all of the sophisticated weapon systems, highly skilled and well educated military personnel, state of the art technologies and expertise…..why then has it remained the size of New Jersey and not that of Saudi Arabia? The answer is clear; the are defending the lives of their own people and securing their own borders. No where do they have an interest in expansion. In fact, they have given up territories at their own peril. The neighbors need to wake up to realize, Israel is there to stay.

    RL: You make a point in a really interesting way that I’ve tried to make repeatedly. All empires start small — Persian, Greek, Roman. When certain small groups, driven by an unapologetic lust for power (the Romans embraced libido dominandi as their birthright), develop the right formula for conquest and control/dominion, they go very far. Had the Israelis this kind of desire, their military superiority would have made them the dominators of the Middle East, and the oil-wells would have been in their hands. And once the oil-flow secured and regularized, the rest of the world would have dropped all their “moral” objections.

    This is indeed what the Arabs assumed they would do and feared… thus their paranoid fantasies about the two stripes on the Israeli flag symbolizing the Nile and the Euphrates, the scope of Israeli territorial ambitions. The pathetic thing is that the “post-colonial” school has adopted the Arab fantasy as the basis of their critique of imperialist Israel. What imperial power has a demographic base of voters who say, “we don’t want to be occupiers!”?

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