I recently read an article in Salon about divestment in companies that do business with Israel, especially companies that have direct dealings with the Settlements (“We have a right to engage in non-violent action: Christian leaders refuse to be silenced in struggle for Palestinian rights,” July 4, 2016). I share the author’s admiration for people who protest human rights abuse. I admire those who stand up to bullies, as they suggest that Andrew Cuomo, who opposes the boycotting of Israeli companies, may be. And I stand with the author against Israel’s oppressive behavior towards Palestinians.
According to the Reverend David Gaewski, head of the United Churches of Christ, “… we have a right to engage in non-violent action to bring about change, including using economic leverage. All people and organizations have that right, and it is a right we must defend.” So far so good. Then Gaewski demands that Cuomo “stop denying our rights. Rescind your executive order now!” The article’s author, David Polumbo-Liu, then adds the Babtists, Methodists, and UUA’s to his list of righteous protestors.
Here is the essence of his argument: “The act of refusing to be complicit with injustice, of breaking one’s ties to an oppressive regime, is what these religious organizations, and people of faith, are undertaking. And they are part of a much larger coalition of intellectuals, artists, writers, activists, trade unions, and organizations worldwide, appalled by the unfettered violence of the Occupation.”
I support the right to protest, but I would be far happier if we spread the blame, worldwide. I am not happy to see Israel singled out when abuse is so widespread.
Here’s a deal: let’s boycott companies from or that profit in China. Their human rights record isn’t so good. How about Russia, who, under Putin, has returned the Asian Bear to its good old ways. Let’s boycott companies that profit in Venezuela and Argentina, which hasn’t exactly come clean about the thousands of “disappeared.” Let’s not be stingy with our outrage. What about Zimbabwe, and the many African dictatorships, some of whom have been waging genocidal wars. Then there are all those Middle Eastern countries whose people seemed to breaking free during the “Arab Spring” but rapidly reverted to tyrannical regimes or to brutal, clannish warfare.
Even these lists aren’t fair unless we include the United States of America. For 150 years we have undermined South American countries whose political ideologies did not fit with our own or who threatened American corporations, like American Fruit and Coca Cola. We sell more arms, wreaking more destruction than any nation on earth. We use drones to assassinate “enemies,” a practice clearly at odds with the Geneva Conventions on human rights. Not to mention the “collateral damage” that arises when we send missiles into crowds. We attacked Iraq based on false, trumped up information and killed many thousands during our ballyhooed days of “shock and awe.” How about the Vietnam War, where we bombed and burned millions of civilians in an ill-conceived war. I could go on but you get the idea. The United States, sometimes “policeman to the world,” is the furthest thing from innocent when it comes to human rights abuse. Are we boycotting United States’ goods?
If we are to condemn human rights abuse, then we need to broaden our canvas. We need to extend the blame outward and we need to find solutions that are broader than blaming, then punishing one, small nation.
This raises a key question: Why is it so easy for Americans and Europeans to focus on Israel? One possible answer seems clear to me. There is a long history of anti-Semitism in Europe, and as Donald Trump’s recent Tweet showing Hillary Clinton awash with money next to a Star of David, makes clear, anti-Semitism, fueled by KKK style White Supremacy and, perhaps, by populist animosity towards Wall Street, is alive and well in the United States. It may simply be easy, even gratifying to fall into the deep rut in the road of blame that leads towards the Jews. Personally, I have never focused that much on anti-Semitism. I have often thought that people who saw it around every corner were excessive and paranoid. But I am beginning to change my mind.
The convergence of the American Left and the religious groups noted by Polumbo-Liu signal a tendency in Western nations that frightens me. Those who single out Israel from the long list of human rights abusers are guilty of fanning the flames of anti-Semitism. We know that for millennia those flames do not need too much encouragement. Israel is taken as a symbol of Jews throughout the world, who are then painted with the same brush.
A friend pointed out to me, it’s not the French who are anti-Semitic; it is the Islamic immigrants. I don’t agree with her. I’d say anti-Semitism is quite alive among both groups. As it is in Eastern Europe and beyond. It’s not hard to understand the need for Muslims to lash out at the West. In the Middle East, they have suffered greatly at the hands of European colonialists, almost all of whom are Christians, not Jews, who were also disempowered during those colonial centuries.
I think that Westerners now suffer from a combination of fear, born of Al Queda and ISIS terrorism, and guilt. Those of us who are thoughtful know that we have helped create the conditions of Middle Eastern unrest—much of it in the service of the fossil fuel industries. I think that Westerners feel confused and frightened by the Middle Eastern conflagrations and threats. They don’t know where even to stand. Who are we more against, Syria or ISIS. Should we trust Saudi Arabia or Egypt? And supply them with arms? What about the vast migrations of Middle Easterners into Europe. They arouse compassion, pity, fear, and someone to blame, much as the Mexican migration has served for Americans. I think we have so many, mixed feelings about these dispossessed that we need a straight forward emotion. Why not direct it at Israel.
Here’s another hypothesis: Israel almost seems like home to the American religious groups. They feel some ownership. It is, after all, the birthplace of Christianity. I am guessing that American Christians feel impotent and betrayed that this most Western of countries is behaving like so many other Middle Eastern nations.
Since Israel is so public, so transparent compared to other nations, and so blatant in its West Bank incursions, why not vent their outrage there. I am coming to believe that anti-Israel protest serves as a kind of safety valve to vent and to relieve Americans and Europeans of their own confusion. With such a long and trustworthy tradition of blaming the Jews, Israel has become a convenient target.
I want to reiterate that I despise the near apartheid quality of the Israeli state and its current leadership. I am not defending it. But I do worry that the attack on Israel builds and focuses many older passions that are, themselves, signs of oppression and brutality. And I am angry that the focus of international opprobrium has found such a ready target.