The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has sharpened the challenge of balancing human rights with security needs to the point of agony. The Israeli government has faced the challenge time and again, in increasingly complex and difficult ways, of properly balancing the human rights of Palestinian civilians with the need to assure Israeli security needs against Palestinian militants who do not hesitate to target Israeli civilians while using their Palestinian civilians as human shields. Meeting this challenge was not left to the Israelis alone. Many human rights organizations made it their vocation to protect the rights of Palestinian civilians from Israeli intrusions.
In their zeal to protect and assure the human rights of Palestinians they repeatedly denounced Israeli violations in the severely judgmental ways: accusations of “war crimes” and “crimes against humanity.” In many cases such accusations became lethal narratives, weapons used by Palestinian militants to justify their targeting Israeli civilians, to feed their rhetoric of genocidal hatred.
Among the many such examples, consider the events in the Spring of 2002 when the IDF besieged the Jenin refugee camp, the central operations of the campaign of suicide bombings that had killed hundreds of Israeli civilians in the previous year and a half, and showed no sign of abating. Palestinians accused Israel of massacring hundreds, something both the NGOs and the mainstream news media repeated.In fact, only 52 Palestinians died, the vast majority combatants, and 23 Israeli soldiers died trying to keep the casualty figures for the Palestinian civilians as low as possible. What anti-Zionist forces speak of to this day as the “Jenin Massacre,” was actually the most exemplary (some would say insane) sacrifice of one’s own soldiers’ lives to spare enemy civilians, far beyond the highest demands of warfare under the Geneva Conventions.
More than one person has noted this extraordinary “double standard” whereby the global human rights community accuses Israel of terrible failings – racism, apartheid, war crimes – while somehow falling silent before, oractively excusing Palestinians for violating even the most elemental standards of decency, not just to Israelis, but in their treatment of their own people.Those who note this disturbing pattern.Justifiably ask why Israel has become the “chosen” villain, the most loudly criticized country in the global human rights scene. Some wonder aloud whether their motivation might be more a desire to attack Israel rather than to protect innocent Palestinians.
But even as the pro-Israeli activists scream double standards and Jew-hatred, those they criticize insist it’s just Israel’s way of shutting up “any criticism.” While more of the self-critical might admit that “we expect more of Israel” (and we don’t expect anything from the Palestinians), almost all would deny the (subtle) racism that reveals about the base moral standards to which they hold Palestinians. Overall, on the contrary, they insist: “We are not singling out Israel; and any attempt to argue a double standard is just an attempt to change the conversation.”
Now, we have a litmus test to resolve this debate between Israel and her “human rights” critics, a way to determine whether it’s concern for the victim or hostility to the perceived victimizer. For more than two years a civil war has wracked Israel’s neighbor, Syria. There we find “violations of human rights” besides which even the worst Israeli violations pale. There in two years more people have been killed than in 65 years of Arab-Israeli wars, far more civilians have been killed and more than double the number of refugees have been driven out in a Naqba (catastrophe) of immense proportions. Both sides of the conflict have shown not just contempt for civilians’ lives, but even targeted civilians. They are unquestionably guilty of “war crimes… and even crimes against humanity.”
Anyone with genuine concerns for the hundreds of thousands killed, maimed, murdered and raped, driven from their homes, left to die, would surely see this as a far greater “humanitarian catastrophe” for the poor Syrians, than any momentary crisis the Israelis have caused in their short military operations. All but the Syrians in all but the most protected pockets of the land today would consider life in Gaza or the West Bank an immeasurable improvement over the terror that rules their land and their lives.And yet, in comparison with the “flotillas” of human rights activists eager to shield Palestinians from Israelis, we somehow find little compassion expressed for Syrians, much less activists putting their bodies on the line, to protect Syrian civilians. Could it be that their empathy for Arabs who are the victims of Arabs, no matter how severe the victimization, are less meaningful to them than Arabs who are victims of Israelis, no matter how trivial?
This suggests that the human rights community, at least those who are sincere members of it need to examine and reexamine themselves and their motivations. They need to ask themselves if their agenda has not been hijacked by people with an obsession over blackening Israel’s face, who have abused the language of human rights and the denunciations of its violations, not out of some over-zealous but understandable humane concern for those who suffer, but rather motivated by a political agenda which may well be both dishonest and hypocritical, and which has blinded the global community to far more serious problems than those of Israel, one of the most highly self-regulating countries on the planet. Declining to do so would constitute a double failure and a double loss to the world: it would be a tragedy for the people who are literally dying for help in Syria and Jordan and Lebanon and Turkey (and elsewhere in the world, like Sudan), and it would strengthen the cynical and manipulative abuse human rights and weaken the noble, respectful, and moral effort to establish and defend them around the world. Let the many human rights organizations who have done so much to battle, delegitimize, and criticize Israel, start giving just some of their time to Syria a people so eager and desperate for help. Let them give the Syrians a moment, let this be the moment of truth.
Published in The Jewish Advocate (Boston) May 9th, 2013