Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Personal Politics and Supporting Palestine

Bret Stephens in the Wall Street Journal pointed out that Israel arouses a level of condemnation that never seems to apply equally elsewhere.[1] I have seen a similar theme on social media: why do many individuals who vocally support Palestine remain silent on other conflicts and tragedies around the world, many of which have a higher mortality rate than the Israel/Palestine conflict? (Examples provided include fighting or persecution in places like Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, Ukraine, and Nigeria).
The implication of this theme is that Palestinian supporters either perceive the lives of others around the world as less worthy of support, or that the real reason for their support of Palestine is actually a hatred for Israel (with the unspoken accusation of anti-Semitism).
I believe this theme is designed to silence supporters of Palestine by making them question their motives and a) instil a sense of guilt over their support of Palestine and/or lack of support for other causes and b) fear being labelled anti-Semitic.
In response to this theme I wondered how I could justify my own support for Palestine as opposed to many other conflicts. I found I have several interconnected reasons. Below I explain these and attempt to justify why personally I vocally support Palestine while remaining largely silent over other conflicts and tragedies.
1.     The primary justification behind my support of Palestine is probably the most superficial – the privilege of personal choice. I choose to be vocal about Palestine. Others are free to be vocal about other topics, whether they are conflicts, illnesses, human rights, or even hobbies or television series. Similarly, a reader has free choice to disagree with or ignore my support.
2.     My second justification is my belief in resisting imperialism. The imperialist power of the world is the United States and Israel works hand-in-glove with them against the Palestinians. Of course there are other victims of imperialism around the world but my interest mainly lies in the Middle East.
3.     My third justification is the context around the Palestinian conflict. The military occupation of Palestine is the longest in modern history, ongoing since 1967. There is also the injustice of Palestinian displacement stretching back to 1947 and longer. Israel has repeatedly attacked Palestinians, as a collective several times just this century and as individuals on a daily basis. There is also a huge disparity of power between sides, with the massive economic and military power of Israel against little more than determination and resolution of the Palestinians. All this is summed up by UK MP Dr Phyllis Starkey:
Israel’s continued occupation of Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, its violations of the Geneva Conventions: in continuing to expropriate Palestinian land and settle their own citizens in the occupied territories, to demolish homes, deprive Palestinians of their freedom of movement, visit collective punishment on relatives of militants and on the entire population of Gaza through the continuing siege, arbitrary arrest and imprisonment (including imprisonment of children) and targeted assassinations, not to mention the wholly disproportionate military action against Gaza with its wilful disregard of civilian casualties. Israel’s apparent impunity for these multiple violations, and its failure to comply with UN resolutions, are a threat to international law and the authority of the UN as well as showing a complete disregard for the human rights of the Palestinians.[2]
4.     My fourth justification stems from the collusion with Israel from my own country. Australian politicians have repeatedly whitewashed Israel’s crimes, not only to their domestic audience but also at the United Nations. Likewise, the Australian media is largely silent or pro-Israeli in its reporting on events. This in turn heavily influences the perceptions of the Australian people, who are generally ignorant of the issue or hold sympathy for Israel as a “victim of terrorism.” As an Australian I feel responsibility to speak out to hold my politicians to account, to call out the media when they are biased, and to educate and influence my fellow citizens.
5.     Finally, for some of the same reasons outlined above, I believe Palestine is one of the main problems of the world and there is no topic which more urgently requires attention. Not only does the occupation affect the Palestinians themselves, but the conflict also creates tensions in the region and has the potential to cause further conflicts.
Now that my reasons are explained, I would like to state what vocal support of Palestine does not mean. It does not mean that the suffering and death of other people is less worthy. To suggest that someone focusing on Palestine regards the lives of non-Palestinians as less worthy is akin to saying someone who raises awareness for breast cancer doesn’t care if people die of other illnesses.
Secondly, supporting Palestine is not anti-Semitic. The persecution of the Palestinians is carried out by the Israeli state, and I emphatically refute the equating of criticism of Israel or Zionism with anti-Semitism. As Richard Falk recently wrote, this equating…
…allows Israel to hide its criminal policies and practices toward the Palestinian people by invoking the memory of the Holocaust and the long history of Jewish victimization, and thereby inhibit criticism. Also, it leads many people to believe that there is no difference between Jewish identity and Zionist solidarity. This fosters a tendency by some non-Jews to regard Jews as an ethno-religious-political category, even if they have no connection with the state of Israel, and hence responsible as a people for the victimization of the Palestinian people.[3]
Falk concludes this false anti-Semitism actually encourages real, racist anti-Semitic behaviour. 
So are there any alternatives to focusing on Palestine while ignoring other conflicts? Two options come to mind: to champion every cause, or do nothing. In the first case, one would need to dedicate their entire life to speaking out against every war, injustice, illness and environmental disaster – I do not see how this is humanly possible. The latter case of doing nothing is certainly an option, but how does that help in any way? Some people doing something, as narrow as focusing on one topic may be, is better than nobody doing anything.
These are the reasons I speak in support of Palestine ahead of other issues. If that makes me some sort of hypocrite then so be it. But chances are the same label could be applied to anyone if their interests and passions are examined.

Coincidentally, soon after I wrote this I listened to an interview with David Burchell on Counterpoint with Amanda Vanstone.[4] The interview carried the following description:
Why is humanitarianism seen only through an ideological lens? It's not supposed to be a political value, is it? And yet it seems that we only manage to summon up sympathy for our (politically) favoured 'others'?
Why, for example, do some people see the current situation in Iraq purely in terms of Western neo-colonialism? When the lives of millions are at risk, and hundreds of thousands are currently refugees there.
Why are we not more interested in refugees as a global humanitarian crisis? Why are we only able to focus on folks in boats?
The interview touched on people’s focus on the suffering of Palestinians and not the religious minorities in Iraq such as the Yazidis. Burchell concluded that in most cases our humanitarian views are (unfortunately) based upon political beliefs. I would agree with this to a large extent. However, at the same time I believe people can feel sympathy for the suffering of different groups, but as I argued above, it is probably impossible to speak out for all groups.
In addition, the argument of humanitarianism for political purposes can be applied to governments themselves – as much as people may be considered hypocritical for their selective actions, so too can governments. For example, governments ignore certain tragedies (Gaza) but move quickly to intervene to save others (Yazidis). This is not altruism but geopolitics – saving the Yazidis (and others in Iraq) has provided the excuse for US and its allies to restart military actions in the Middle East. For over 70 years of Palestinian suffering Western governments have done little – and yet the average person is accused of hypocrisy and seeing humanitarianism “through an ideological lens.”
Finally the question of “why some people see the current situation in Iraq purely in terms of Western neo-colonialism” is quite easy to answer – because the West has a very poor record of acting for purely humanitarian reasons but a very long history of colonialism.

1. Stephens B 2014, ‘Palestine and double standards’, Wall Street Journal, 4 Aug 2014, http://online.wsj.com/articles/bret-stephens-palestine-and-double-standards-1407194971  
2. Starkey P 2010, ‘Why is Palestine important?’, The Platform, http://www.the-platform.org.uk/2010/02/03/why-is-palestine-important/  
3. Falk R 2014, ‘Two types of anti-Semitism’, Global Justice in the 21st Century, http://richardfalk.wordpress.com/2014/09/01/two-types-of-anti-semitism/ 
4. ABC 2014, ‘Australia update’, Counterpoint, 15 Sept 2014, http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/counterpoint/australia-update-september/5739618

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