The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has said that there is significant evidence that Israel violated international law and human rights during its operation in Gaza at the beginning of this year. While I would not be surprised if this accusation is true, I would be shocked if it made any difference. There is so much unbalanced criticism and unequivocal defense of Israel that almost everything one hears about it is meaningless.
The United Nations has shown it is incapable of fairness with respect to Israel. Resolution after resolution is passed condemning Israel for human rights abuses or other crimes. In 1988 alone (during the first Intifada), the General Assembly passed nearly 20. Is Israel the most evil country in the world? Are there no other human rights abusers? What about all the Arab states so keen on punishing Israel internationally? But because it is easy to blame Israel for everything that goes wrong in the Middle East, people gang up on it. There is no balance: Israel is endlessly disparaged and the real criminals get off scot free. In the end, anything the United Nations says about Israel and its crimes is not even worth listening to.
As a result, many Israelis get angry and self-righteous. International criticism of Israel is self-defeating. Recently, newspapers have been attacking Mary Robinson, former High Commissioner for Human Rights who has criticised Israel publicly and run conferences like the World Conference on Racism in Durban, South Africa in 2001. Mary Robinson, you see, has just won the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama, and the “pro-Israel” camp does not like it. And it is fine that she spoke out against Israel: of course Israeli politicians, the Israeli Defense Forces and the settlers have committed crimes. They should be punished. But why not add to your opprobrium some for Myanmar, North Korea, Iran, China, Russia, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Ethiopia, and while we are at it, the Bush administration’s United States. Half the world is dictatorship and has committed the same crimes when the interests of its elites have been under the same threats as Israelis’ lives are.
Moreover, many forms of punishment inflicted on Israel are collective, such as banning Israeli scholars from international conferences, simply because of their nationality. Am I wrong, or does this sound like racism? But I suppose anyone who does not know an Israeli settler from an Israeli peace activist is not about to vote against blanket sanctions.
Perhaps, in fact, all criticism of these places is self-defeating. Nationalists do not learn from criticism. They get angry with the outside world and care less about what it thinks. The whole point of these resolutions and pronouncements is to influence Israel’s behaviour. But is it working? Are Israelis voting for dovish ministers who promise to dismantle settlements and allow Palestinian refugees back to their old homes? No. Self-righteous Jews continue to tell each other the historical myths that paint Israel as the holiest place in the world. So the message is not getting through.
Criticism is not very effective, and often achieves the opposite of what is intended. By angering people, by showing them how few friends they have in the world, criticism polarises debate and erodes the center of the society against which it is directed. That center is necessary for moderation and peace. Instead of endless condemnation of easy targets, we must work together to end injustice. We must support the people who are finding peaceful resolutions to Israel’s very real problems. One does not make the world stronger by attacking the weak.