On Facebook, my high school friend and I were discussing the Gaza flotilla incident in response to a link that I posted (this reaction from Jeff Goldberg). My friend actually lived in Israel served in the Israeli army after high school. As we talked, he said that he believed that the Israeli government had made mistakes but was also put in a no-win situation by the flotilla. In our exchange, he also wondered why Israel was under such a microscope when so many of the member countries of the United Nations have, in the last few centuries, done the things that they accuse Israel of doing today.
This was my attempt at an answer to that question. I’m looking forward to his response, but I thought that I would post my explanation here too, sort of run it up the flagpole and see who salutes it.
1. In the post WWII era, there has been at least a rhetorical commitment to a global human rights in a more powerful way than has probably ever existed, and there is an institution (the UN) that is supposed to have some influence on that. The confluence of concern and an institution (however flawed) give the human rights point of view a much more powerful voice. When Britain was in India, this confluence didn’t exist. The 1947 partition that endorsed a Jewish state is one of the manifestations of this human rights internationalism, as is the ongoing UN presence among the descendants of the Palestinian refugees.
2. After WWII, we also entered the postcolonial period, where former European colonies in Asia and Africa and European mandates in the Middle East were gaining independence. The Arab world connected Israel with imperialism, not accepting the claim that Zionism was a re-establishing of Jewish presence in the Middle East. Instead, they interpreted it as a further insult to Arab hopes for independence and self-determination. These tensions obviously go back at least as far as the early 20th century, when European Zionists were settling in greater numbers in Palestine/future Israel. The Zionism = imperialism equation was a powerful one for much of the world, which sympathized with non-European peoples trying to determine their own destinies, and Palestinians and other Arabs received this sympathy. The suffering of the Palestinian refugees (perpetuated in part by the Arab states who kept them at arms’ length and used them as political tools) and the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip played into this narrative.
From what I can tell, the European origin of many of the early Zionist immigrants played a role in this equation. Also, there are some elements of European superiority and Arab backwardness that characterized the thought of Herzl and other early Zionists. These things probably lent support to the equation of Zionism and imperialism, while ignoring the Jews’ oppression in Europe and the inspiring Zionist narrative of rebuilding a Jewish culture.