Why Has Israel Come to Occupy So Much of the Left’s Attention?

Haifa University in Israel. Photograph: David King

Haifa University in Israel. Photograph: David King

Why Israel?

Claude S. Fischer writes:  Why Israel?—that is, why boycott Israel and not, say, China?—has become a central question in the bitter arguments over the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. The latest brawl followed the decision of the American Studies Association to endorse a boycott of Israeli academic institutions, its first and only such endorsement. The question of why Israel has arisen over boycotting Israeli scholars, Israeli companies, Israeli hummus, American companies that sell to Israel, Israeli music venues, and so on.

That Westerners of Arab, Muslim, or Jewish heritage get involved (on both sides) might be taken for granted; many have deep personal commitments. But why do so many leftish Americans and Europeans who have no personal stake in the Palestine-Israel conflict focus on it? To be clear, the question is not one of justification—whether Israeli policymakers or the boycotters and other critics have moral standing for the positions they hold. What concerns me here is explanation: Why has Israel come to occupy so much of the left’s attention?

Leading anti-Israel activists on the left do not give the naïve answer that they single Israel out because Israel is singularly deserving of it. Whether the concern is political oppression, civilian war deaths, or the displacement of native peoples, they would acknowledge that there are far worse offenders.

Last November a U.N. interpreter, having forgotten that her microphone was on, put it this way, “When you have . . . like a total of ten resolutions on Israel and Palestine . . .  C’est un peu trop, non? [It’s a bit much, no?] . . . There’s other really bad shit happening, but no one says anything about the other stuff.”

One valid answer to why Israel? is simply: why not Israel? This was, in effect, the answer that Curtis Marez, president of the American Studies Association, gave: “one has to start somewhere.” Whatever other really bad shit is happening does not erase the deaths of several hundred civilians in the last Gaza war, the destruction of Palestinian farmers’ livelihoods, or the confiscations of land. That many other countries might better deserve to be the rogue or pariah nation is, for many on the left, a side issue; Israel is on the agenda now. Fair enough.

Yet we must ask why Israel is the first and, for many, only nation on the moral outrage agenda. The critics provide several answers, but they are strained, post hoc rationalizations.

One often hears some variant of this explanation: Israel earns her singular damnation because of her singular privilege in American foreign policy. One version, also provided by the president of the American Studies Association, argues that critics place Israel on the top of the list because she is the largest beneficiary of U.S. military aid (an almost-fact; right now, Afghanistan is the largest recipient).

This logic, however, has not been consistently applied. First, over the years, American aid has gone to many tainted nations in East Asia, Latin America, and more recently Egypt, Iraq, and Pakistan, but the left has not and does not target them for boycotts. Second, the greatest aid the United States delivers is not money but the lives of its military men and women. American soldiers have not fought and died for Israel, as they have for, among others, South Korea in the 1950s, South Vietnam in the 1960s, Kuwait in the 1990s, and Iraq and Afghanistan in the 2000s. While leftists often opposed these wars, they did not argue that American assistance should make the assisted nations targets of boycotts. (Conversely, apartheid South Africa, which the left did boycott, was never an American aid favorite.) Third, although the volume of U.S. financial aid might rationalize Americans scrutinizing Israel, it cannot explain western Europeans doing the same.

A variant of the claim that America’s unique treatment of Israel accounts for the left’s unique interest in Israel is that the Jewish nation’s political clout in the United States gives it unique protection and immunity. If normal politics cannot get the United States to rein Israel in, then a movement of private citizens must target the malefactor.

The logic fails here, too. First, the premise of Israeli clout is exaggerated. Were it so great, the United States would long ago have bombed Iran, never have sold advanced fighter jets to Saudi Arabia, not repeatedly pressed Israel to retreat from conquered territory, and so on. Second, it is not true that Israel gets a unique pass from the United States. American presidents routinely waive official human rights restrictions on aid to and trade with sketchy countries such as Egypt, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Yemen, and Colombia. While the left has objected to those policies and to those regimes, it has not called for boycotts of their institutions. Third, Israel hardly has unique clout or immunity in Europe (except perhaps in Germany) and, yet, the European left treats it uniquely.

Read the rest….

Boston Review


4 Comments on “Why Has Israel Come to Occupy So Much of the Left’s Attention?”

  1. genomega1 says:

    Reblogged this on News You May Have Missed and commented:
    Why Has Israel Come to Occupy So Much of the Left’s Attention?

  2. Richard M Nixon (Deceased) says:

    Reblogged this on Dead Citizen's Rights Society.


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