In a July 12 Globe and Mail opinion piece, “Is Israel a normal country?” Ian Buruma raised a number of important questions about why Israel, as he acknowledged, is “judged by different standards from other countries.”
Buruma gave a few reasons for the double standard (although they are only part of a much longer list): the charge of imperialism and colonialism is projected onto Israel, making it bear the burden of the West’s past sins in the Third World; as a democracy Israel inevitably is going to be judged by higher standards than are applied to the surrounding Arab dictatorships; but related to this is what Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit has termed “moral racism” – which Buruma explains as the “bloodlust of an African or Asian people is not taken as seriously that of a European – or other white – people.” In other words, since the West has systematically low expectations of others (but why did Buruma fail to also mention Arab people in this context?), this racism results in intensified scrutiny on those seen to be “like us” – the Israelis.
What Buruma failed to note, however, is the crucial fact that Israel is not only judged by a higher standard than is applied to “Third World” people, it is frequently judged by a higher standard than is expected of the “First World” – of other democracies in the West. We see this most clearly in the emotionally charged rush to judgment by the United Nations and organizations such as Human Rights Watch, which condemn Israel for “war crimes” against the Palestinians while remaining silent when U.S. and NATO forces kill large numbers of civilians in their counter-insurgency operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Buruma went on to fault Israelis for using their role as victims of the Holocaust as an excuse to act brutally and aggressively against Palestinians, implying that this is a wilful policy. Yet, by depicting Palestinians only as victims, not actors shaping their own destiny, he ironically committed the very sin he commends Margalit for recognizing.
Buruma, for instance, ignored the long history of Arab and Palestinian rejection of Israel’s very right to exist. He ignored the fact that previous Israeli governments have tried to reach a negotiated resolution of the conflict with the Palestinians, only to be met with violence that has left the majority of Israelis who favour a two-state solution convinced that they do not currently have a reliable negotiating partner.
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Speaking of “Israelis” – Jim Lederman, who is writing a book on the nature of Israeli society and governance, asked (in conversation from his office in Jerusalem), “Which ‘Israelis’ is he talking about? To Buruma and others like him, the ‘Israelis’ seem to be a formless miasma of oppression.
“That, of course, is not true. Most Israelis, Jew and Arab, are sensible, humane, sentient individuals.”
Lederman is appalled by the failure of journalists to pay any attention to the 70 per cent of ordinary Israelis who comprise what he calls the “rational centre” of the country. “They’ve not only been written out of the story of what is happening here, they’ve been written out of history,” he said. “And it is these people who make the country work, make all the final decisions on policy, and who have to clean up the mistakes their own governments make.”
Lederman added: “Instead, what we get is not even a cartoon or a caricature of ‘the Israelis,’ but a stick-figure drawing – one arm is the settlers, the other arm is the army; one leg is the government, the other is the ultra-Orthodox, and the torso is the ‘occupation.’ But in this case, the head – the people – is invariably left out.
“The situation is exacerbated by the fact the elites in the Diaspora follow the journalists and talk only about the elites. Then, both the journalists and the elites have the gall to claim that the Israeli public is apathetic because they’re not out marching in the streets. Those who count the most are simply too busy working. Nonetheless, when presented with an existential problem or the need to make a fundamental decision about peace, they do rouse themselves and provide the needed legitimacy for compromise. Without their participation and consent, no agreement is possible.”
Paul Michaels is communications director for the Canada-Israel Committee.