NOTE: This article was cross-posted on Mondoweiss.
A few weeks ago, I came across an opinion article in the New York Times called “Chosen, but Not Special” by Michael Chabon. It didn’t lie outright, like Charles Krauthammer blithely stating that there was no humanitarian crisis in Gaza or IDF spokesmen claiming activists on the Mavi Marmara had ties to Al Qaeda.
What Michael Chabon was doing was much more subtle. Realizing he had no way of rationally or legally defending Israel’s violent takeover of unarmed civilian ships in the dead of night in international waters, the utterly preventable killing of nine civilians, and the kidnapping of hundreds more activists and theft of their ships and belongings, he instead resorted to the last refuge of the apologist: Dithering.
If you haven’t read the article, here’s the gist: Jews are very clever, but only anti-Semites believe Jews are so clever that they don’t make mistakes now and then. Israel was a little blockheaded when it came to this whole flotilla thing, but that’s OK, nobody’s perfect.
He says nothing about the need for an independent international investigation, much less any censure of Israel for its ‘blockheadedness.’ The victims of Israel’s behavior—the besieged people of Gaza, the families of the Turks killed and wounded, the thousands of Palestinians rotting in Israeli jails on political or fabricated charges—merit not a mention, apparently unworthy of the subterranean stream of pity he has for the lone Israeli combatant held by Palestinians or even of his condescending pity for the Turkish victims (whom he churlishly calls “the wasted dead with their cargo of lumber and delusions”).
Chabon’s self-involved dithering is one of many methods of taking the spotlight off Israel’s actions and responsibilities when the truth begins to cut too close to home. Another is the old stand-by, changing the subject to China’s repression of Tibet or Saudi Arabia’s repression of women and accusing of anti-Semitism anyone who dares ‘single out’ Israel when other people are doing bad things, too.
As Desmond Tutu said, “Divestment from apartheid South Africa was certainly no less justified because there was repression elsewhere on the African continent.” If global citizens can band together to right a wrong, it’s a positive thing, even if they can’t simultaneously right every other wrong in the world, too. No car thief has ever, as far as I know, been acquitted after saying, “But other people steal cars and get away with it all the time!”
We can ignore Israel’s crimes, which we are complicit in, and talk about the crimes of others instead. But this would make us dictionary-definition hypocrites.
Other apologists insist things are too complicated for anyone without a PhD in Middle Eastern studies to work out for herself, so we should remain ‘neutral.’ On the face of it, this sounds reasonable. It’s a sign of evolved rationality not to act too quickly, to learn as much as you can before taking a leap. This conflict is anything but simple, and our media paints a dim and largely one-sided picture that most Americans can’t make much sense of.
Still, it has never been easier to find ample evidence of Israeli violations of international law that cannot be explained or justified on security grounds, and to see that Israel is virtually never held accountable by any impartial legal system.
Which means that being ‘neutral’ in this case is a bit like being ‘neutral’ during Jim Crow days. Under the system at the time, the courts and the media were anything but neutral, and white people were virtually guaranteed of getting away with discriminating against or even killing black people, no matter the circumstances.
The siege of Gaza, for example, is an act of collective punishment, which is manifestly illegal and, as many Israeli analysts have pointed out, only strengthens Hamas. Judge Goldstone’s report on Israel’s relentless bombing of Gaza in early 2009 that killed 1,400 people, including over 300 children, is available on the world wide web. The International Court of Justice ruled the route of Israel’s Wall built on Palestinian land illegal in 2004, yet Israel continues to build wherever it pleases. Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem are constantly threatened with demolition while Jewish settlements nearby go up at breakneck speed in an open attempt to ‘Judaize’ the occupied eastern half of the city.
In the southern Hebron hills, the settlers’ chickens are allowed more water and electricity than the Palestinians living in the area. Students are denied the right to study where they please, Gazan cancer patients can’t access life-saving treatment, and a father of three with an American wife was recently shot and killed under deeply suspicious circumstances by Israeli police in East Jerusalem, so far with no repercussions. Overall, Israel’s theft and violence have only increased as the Second Intifada wound down and Israeli body counts dwindled almost to nothing.
These were just a few outrages that came to mind first, with thousands more crowding behind them in plain sight. Ignorance is no longer a valid excuse for inaction.
No amount of dithering can mask the fact that Israel illegally boarded civilian boats in international waters on May 31, killed nine people, and kidnapped 600 more in waters where they had no jurisdiction. No amount of whataboutery can hide the fact that Israel engages in ethnic cleansing when it tears down Palestinian neighborhoods to build Jewish ones. No amount of ‘easing the blockade of Gaza’ can gloss over the fact that Israel’s control over an entire civilian population—the occupation itself—is intolerable. Even the West Bank, which for strategic reasons Israel has been treating better than Gaza, knows everything can crumble in a second at the whim of Israel.
Nicholas Kristof put it plainly in the New York Times: “The Israeli occupation of the West Bank is widely acknowledged to be unsustainable and costly to the country’s image. But one more blunt truth must be acknowledged: the occupation is morally repugnant.”
In the face of these bare truths, it’s natural for supporters of Israel’s government to resort to dithering, changing the subject, or fatuously claiming ‘neutrality’ while our country arms Israel, provides it with preferential trade relations, and protects it from international law. These are the only defenses they have left.
It’s our job not to let them get away with it. Silence, in this case, is complicity. As we speak, on our watch, good people are dying and millions more are living without basic freedoms. Doing nothing effectively supports the status quo of allowing Israel’s government to operate with impunity in our name.
If you have a chance, however small, to boycott or divest from companies that profit from the occupation or events that effectively whitewash the occupation, take it. It’s already having an effect, and it’s one of the few effective non-violent ways to make the occupation more costly to Israel than ending the occupation, as long as American and European governments apply no sanctions and enforce no laws.
Next time Israel guns down civilians, bombs a UN compound, or destroys a Palestinian neighborhood, don’t be shy about demanding swift action, impartial international investigations, and accountability. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s ‘too complicated’ for a mere mortal like you to know enough to follow your conscience on the anti-Apartheid struggle of our generation.
Pamela Olson doubts she can convince the unconvinced with one short article. To that end, she is writing a book called Fast Times in Palestine, which seeks to relieve the burden (and excuse) of ignorance in a way that is comprehensive, enjoyable, and universally-accessible.