Friday, July 13, 2012

Why pick on little Israel?

When discussing or debating Israel/Palestine, supporters of Palestinian rights inevitably encounter someone who says, “Why pick on poor little Israel? So, maybe there's a problem there. It's nothing compared to Sudan, Syria, Tibet, etc. People being oppressed and starved all over the place! Why get all worked up about Israel and not serious problems? You must be an anti-semite, or an Arab, or Muslim, or a fellow-traveler.”

The excerpt below from The Journal of Palestinian Studies has a good answer to this sort of question.

excerpt from (with added bold type emphasis by me):
Reflections on the Meaning of Palestine
Author(s): Alain Gresh
Reviewed work(s):
Source: Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 41, No. 1 (Autumn 2011), pp. 67-81
Published by: University of California Press on behalf of the Institute for Palestine Studies

What Does Palestine Represent?

Palestine’s place at the heart of the Holy Land and of a Middle East rich
in oil explains in part why it has often been front page news, at least since
1967. But for many years the Palestine problem aroused scant indignation or
attention. Neither the destruction of an entire society in 1948–49 nor the
millions of refugees crowded into miserable camps had much of an impact
on a Europe still traumatized by World War II. After 1967, there was a certain
mobilization in support of the Palestinian fedayeen by extreme leftist groups
within the framework of anti-imperialist solidarity, the exaltation of “armed
struggle,” and grand dreams of revolution. But it was not until Israel’s 1982
invasion of Lebanon and the eruption of the first intifada (the “revolution of
stones”) in 1987 that Palestine solidarity spread beyond militant groups.
Les Temps modernes, the most influential French cultural and intellectual
periodical of the post-World War II era, came out with an edition just after
the June 1967 war that provides an excellent example of the uneasiness with
regard to Palestine that prevailed among the French Left, including those
who had been deeply engaged in the struggle for Algerian independence
and decolonization in general. In his preface to the review, of which he was
founder and editor, the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre did not even attempt to
hide his discomfort:

I wanted simply to recall that, for many of us, there is in
this response [to the war] an affective dimension which, for
all that, is not just a passing effect of our subjectivity but
rather the result of historical and perfectly objective circumstances
that we cannot soon forget. Thus are we allergic to
anything that could in the least resemble anti-Semitism. To
which many Arabs would respond: “We are not anti-Semitic
but anti-Israeli.” Doubtless they would be right, but can they
change the fact that, for us, the Israelis are also Jews?2
In fact, this “reticence” within the European Left concerning Palestine
bordered on blindness. Palestinians as such were hardly even mentioned in
1967, while the threat to Israel, presented in the most alarmist terms throughout
the 1960s, was totally without foundation since Israel, supported by the
United States, could defeat all the Arab countries put together. As Sartre’s
preface makes clear, the conflict in Europe was seen through the lens of anti-
Semitic persecutions and the “legitimate aspirations of the Jewish people for
a country.”

Before returning to the question of anti-Semitism, let us try to reformulate
Serraf’s concern and instead ask ourselves why, after decades of disinterest,
Palestine suddenly became a “universal cause,” as the philosopher
Etienne Balibar put it. Why, during Operation Cast Lead in January 2009, did
everyone from Latin American peasants to French young people to veterans
of South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle turn out in massive demonstrations
to denounce Israel’s aggression against Gaza?

Why is it that at a certain moment a cause is able to mobilize public opinion
across the globe?

Why, for example, did Vietnam occupy such a privileged
place in the world’s imagination as of the 1960s, or South Africa a little
later? Was it justified? The United States at the time said that communism was
responsible for crimes far more serious than the U.S. intervention in Vietnam.
The apartheid regime, meanwhile, claimed that there
were far fewer violent deaths in South Africa than
under this or that African dictatorship. The murder
of the student leader and activist Steve Biko by the
apartheid police in September 1977, a year after the
Soweto riots, touched off far greater indignation than
the elimination at the same time of thousands of
opponents of the Ethiopian dictator Haile Mariam Mengistu. In other words,
so many arguments raising the same point that Serraf made about the Israeli-
Palestinian conflict being less deadly than the “little wars” on the borders
between Uganda and the Congo.

Be that as it may, and whether we like it or not, international public opinion
is not formed by death tolls alone. It also responds to the symbolism of situations.
At a given moment, a conflict can express the “truth” of an entire era,
spilling beyond the narrow confines/boundaries of its geographic localization
to acquire a universal significance.
Despite their differences, Vietnam, South
Africa, and Palestine are all on the fault line between North and South. The
history of the last century was no doubt marked by the two world wars; by
the emergence, rise, and fall of communism; and by the consolidation of U.S.
power. But it also witnessed the emancipation from the yoke of colonialism of
the great majority of the world’s population, who had fought for the right to
determine their own destiny. Vietnam symbolized the struggle of a small Third
World people against the greatest power of the North. South Africa encapsulated
a revolt against a white-dominated segregationist system; Palestine, the
last survival of European settler colonialism, crystallizes the aspirations for a
world that has turned the page on two centuries of Western domination.
What, then, is the meaning of Palestine? What does it represent? First,
colonial domination by the West. Next, an ongoing injustice characterized by
a permanent violation of international law. Finally, the logic of double standards
applied by various governments, adopted (in essence) by the United
Nations, and theorized by a significant number of Western intellectuals. At
the crossroads between East and West, South and North, Palestine symbolizes
at one and the same time the old world, marked by the hegemony of the
North, and the gestation of a new world founded on the principle of equality
between peoples.

Serraf was right, though perhaps not in the way he intended. The coverage
of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict does obey different rules from those
prevailing in other conflicts, and Israel is judged by special standards. Indeed,

is there another example of an occupation condemned for more than forty
years by the United Nations without there being either results or sanctions? Is
there another case where a conquering power has been permitted to implant
almost a half million settlers in the territories it occupied (which under international
law represents a war crime), without the international community
emitting more than faint verbal condemnations with no follow-up?

The case of Iraq is emblematic of the West’s sliding scale of values. Within
four months of Saddam Hussein’s August 1990 invasion of Kuwait, the United
Nations had condemned the aggression, given the green light for the creation
of a military coalition against Baghdad, and launched a war of massive
destruction followed by a deadly embargo that lasted more than ten years
and culminated in the U.S. invasion of 2003. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis
have lost their lives since August 1990; the country is in tatters. Imagine for a
moment that on 3 August 1990 the United States and the European Union had
instead demanded (as they have for decades in the case of Palestine) that the
“two parties” sit down for negotiations “in good faith” in the aim of reaching
an agreement; twenty years later, Kuwait would still be occupied.
Cloaking themselves in a reading of the Jewish genocide that absolves Israel
a priori of any responsibility for possible war crimes committed since 1948,
the West refuses to apply the same criteria of analysis and judgment to the
Palestine conflict that it has applied to Iraq, Serbia, or Iran. In other regions, one
hears demands for international law, human rights, freedom of the press, and
the right of journalists to cover wars, and about the importance of observing
proportionality in military responses. Serbian exactions against the Kosovars,
often real but sometimes exaggerated by the international media, served to
justify NATO’s military intervention against Serbia in March 1999. But when
one of the most powerful armies in the world bombs the minuscule territory of
Gaza, into which over 1.5 million people are crammed, deliberately devastates
the infrastructure, destroys schools and hospitals, and kills hundreds of civilians,
the Western governments find countless justifications for what elsewhere
would be called war crimes, if not crimes against humanity....

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