On Friday, several sources reported that U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon had “admitted” that the State of Israel faces unfair treatment at the United Nations. The European Jewish Press reported that in a meeting with students in Jerusalem, Ban replied to a participant’s question saying “Unfortunately, because of the [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict, Israel’s been weighed down by criticism and suffered from bias—and sometimes even discrimination.”
We on the left don’t often like to bring it up, but it’s the truth: Israel is often singled out for behavior that goes along unmentioned in other countries, often in much greater measure. Resolutions condemning Israel carry a nearly ritualistic quality at this point, yet blatant human rights abuses in other countries in the region (Saudi Arabia comes to mind) and around the world (China, anyone?) often appear to barely register on the official U.N. radar. The ongoing brutality in Syria provides an unfortunately apt example: While many member states have clearly wanted to take a stronger stand all along, for others the mere notion of harsh language was a bridge too far.
And that is wrong. That is wrong, and unfair, and frankly unhelpful to anyone wanting to build genuine, lasting peace anywhere in the world, not least Israel/Palestine.
Not because Israel shouldn’t have to answer for its behavior in the occupied territories. Of course it should—I’m a firm believer in the universality of human rights law, and as an Israeli, it’s a matter of no small concern to me that my government is often far too happy to trample Palestinians’ innate human rights in pursuit of political and territorial gain. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights should be studied closely in Israeli schools and by Israeli diplomats, and when evidence of violations is found, those responsible should be held responsible. And the occupation must end, full stop.
But when the international community singles out one country’s bad behavior while all but ignoring that of others, we send a clear message that our concerns are not centered entirely on the question of human rights—and it makes it very easy for the country in question to shrug off the criticism.
In an ideal world (a world in which, alas, we will never live), we would make equal demands of each other. We would insist that not only must Israel behave a certain way, but so must Saudi Arabia, China, Syria, the Hamas government in Gaza, and indeed the American, British, Canadian and Australian governments. I don’t know of any culture that has a lock on good behavior, or any government that doesn’t abuse power, often in pursuit of a goal that it deems righteous and worthy.
The fact that Israel gets called on the carpet so often is wrapped in a multitude of sometimes contradictory factors. Within its internationally recognized borders, for instance, Israel is a fully functional democracy (which is to say: flawed, like every other fully functional democracy) and as a result, much of its government’s bad behavior is exposed by Israel’s own citizens. That can’t happen in countries without a free press, so countries without a free press often get away with more.
Then there’s international politics, not least the fact that Israel enjoys the almost unqualified backing of the world’s single most powerful nation. Yelling at the U.N. is one of the few ways that those who oppose Israeli policy can get an international hearing—and for all the umbrage that Israel takes, you would think that it’s had some kind of impact. I don’t know if you’ve checked, but the occupation continues merrily along, gobbling up land that is not Israel’s to gobble, even in the face of peace negotiations with the people to whom the land belongs (the rather limited E.U. sanctions that were only recently introduced notwithstanding).
There’s also the fact that the world has always known better how to deal with violence between two distinct peoples than with civil wars. There’s habit, inertia and institutional bias. And yes, Virginia, there’s some anti-Semitism, too. Everywhere you go in the U.N., you’ll find diplomats who hate another people for little but their faith or skin—the opinions of former U.S. Ambassador John Bolton regarding Muslims serve as an excellent example here.
Yet rather than look only at the imbalance, bias, and occasional genuine anti-Semitism, as an Israeli and as a Jew, I would rather focus on what we’ve done wrong, and what we can do right. The fact that there are other bad actors out there doesn’t cleanse our bad acts or make them anything but what they are.
Is life at the U.N. fair? No. Do Israel’s abuses (bombing civilian areas of Gaza, for instance) occasionally come in direct response to the abuses of other parties (rockets fired out of Gaza into Israeli towns)? Yes.
That still doesn’t render the human rights of Palestinians an optional concern.
I’m glad that Ban made the comment he made, because honesty is very important. Now I would like Israel to be honest, too, and rather than endlessly fight its critics, take responsibility for its actions.
In an ideal world.