Israel under a microscope

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.



  1. I think you present good and reasonable explanations. You were also careful to avoid framing it as a justification which is often the subtext of such questions.

    Ultimately, I think Israel is “under a microscope” because it is an effective tactic. As to why it’s effective, I’d add to your points:

    (1) Your description of the past makes sense, but the present UN Human Rights Council includes many human rights violators. HRC is primarily effective against those countries which are sensitive to HR and, ironically, protect the worst HR abuses. This is part of a larger pattern in the UN…

    (2) Post-colonialism (and the UN in general) cannot effectively handle non-democracies or displaced people. So, Israel is directly in its moral blind spot which is naturally exploited by motivated interests, thereby exacerbating the problem.

    The US is trying to make it work in Iraq and Afghanistan but, unlike Israel, the US does not need any of the land, there is no question of borders or excluding citizenship to survive, the US cannot be readily attacked, and, most importantly, the US seems to be convincing those populations.

    There’s also Russia and China, which are in a different boat. Can you think of any other post-colonial conquerors / occupiers?

  2. 1) Yeah, I’d agree. The “human rights community” is also reinforced by opportunists and tyrants who speak the language of human rights for their own purposes.

    2) Good point. The modern state system doesn’t do well with non-states or countries that don’t play by the rules. I’d say that’s a pretty good list of occupiers. All except Israel are powerful enough that no one can really say much to them.

    One thing that I might disagree with you about is that the microscope is more than an effective tactic. There’s an objective concern: over the course of the last century, Palestinian Arabs have slowly been pushed and bought out of their lands first by Zionists and then the state of Israel. The territory that was left to most of them to live in, the West Bank and Gaza, has been occupied and increasingly settled by Israelis. It’s a situation that most people wouldn’t take lying down.

    The Palestinians themselves and certainly the surrounding Arab states are far from faultless in this history. Israel doesn’t deserve to be singled out and its governance of the Palestinians is hardly as draconian as it could be, but there’s also a sincere reason for the opposition to the occupation.

    We also talked about the Palestinian “boycott” and the definition of Israel’s territory in another post. I’m hoping to get back to you this week on that. Until then, here’s something to show Israel can be fairly “flexible” in the way it presents its territories:

  3. Fair point, though there are also Palestinians in Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria that are often ignored, much less have a microscope on them. It’s not like the Palestinians who fled went to other parts of their country. As I understand it, they didn’t actually have a country or even a distinct culture.

    In general, refugees dwindle and disperse over time, but UNRWA’s uniquely broad definition includes the descendants of residents who became refugees in 1948. Couple that with the practical impossibility of determining heritage and migration, and you have a problem that is designed to grow by definition. Consider Illegal Arab immigration into Palestine, e.g. the first result.

    I also think the distinction between attacking vs. buying land is significant, as it was for Abraham.

    Is the question of the “microscope” whether there is some legitimate complaint, or why Israel is scrutinized more than other occupiers? I thought the latter, since there have been a multitude of legitimate complaints throughout history which faded away for lack of attention and pursuit.

    You imply that Israel is not “powerful enough” to escape the microscope, which is probably the biggest factor, but the US is powerful enough and it also bears some similar scrutiny. I suspect it is because both are more open societies and they react to charges of impropriety. The same does not apply to China and Russia, so the microscope is less effective against them.

    The Ibish article is impressive. I don’t have the depth of knowledge to challenge its details which I assume are correct. There is surely incoherence between the various UN Security Council resolutions and treaties and the Israeli position.

    However, I don’t really expect the UN itself to be coherent nor unbiased, particularly when it comes to Israel. And it sounds like there is even incoherence within Israel itself in how different parts try to acheive their goals, perhaps working Israel into a corner, as with the classification of the settlers.

    But, for example, it seems obvious to me that the territory where there are Israeli settlers is significantly different from the territory which Hamas or the PA fully controls. If international law cannot see the distinction, it is flawed or incomplete.

    Israel is in a fairly unique position in this slow motion transfer of power due to the carefully oscillating attacks, retaliation, ceasefire, rearmament, lather, rinse, and repeat. I’m not at all surprised that it doesn’t quite fit into the standard rules.

    Clearly, however, the rules are part of the battle. The US also runs into this issue.

    • This has taken me awhile, but here goes:

      You wrote: “You imply that Israel is not “powerful enough” to escape the microscope, which is probably the biggest factor, but the US is powerful enough and it also bears some similar scrutiny. I suspect it is because both are more open societies and they react to charges of impropriety. The same does not apply to China and Russia, so the microscope is less effective against them.”

      Yes, I think open societies are more often targeted. I also think that there’s something about the critique of US power and the critique of European power in history that seems to invite criticism. The US and Europe have been powerful and also presented themselves as models for all to follow, and also haven’t lived up to their own standards (welcome to human history, right?). But the fact that Western culture and standards have been so triumphant in the 19th and 20th centuries, affecting almost every country and culture on the globe, means that the West is often criticized for its failure to always be as right as it promised it would be. Decolonization has played a big role in this, and I think that Israel gets targeted by anti-colonial thought for the reasons that I stated.

      I think that the similarity between Israeli-settled areas and Palestinian areas is that they are both part of the occupied territories from the 1967 war. Most people think that Israel doesn’t have the right under international law to build the settlements here, so by this interpretation the refusal to give in on that means that you have to treat all the territories the same. A lot of those settlements, if there is a peace agreement, will probably become part of Israel, with land given to a Palestinian state from Israeli territory. But expanding settlement activity has carved into Palestinian territories and taken water resources and agriculture from them. At its most reckless, settlement activity disregards the Palestinian people already there. But of course that’s not the case with building a kindergarten in an already-existing community. If I may oversimplify, the law should also recognize that the money I have taken from you is still your money, regardless of whether I have it and am spending it as we speak. (That was just a hypothetical, no need to check your wallet or bank account.) I recognize that it’s hardly that cut-and-dried; there are usually lots of mitigating factors.

      Thanks for the article on illegal immigration. The first link does strike me as too biased: Eretz Israel means “Greater Israel,” usually meaning that Israel gets all of the West Bank and Gaza too. Whether or not the Palestinians were a community, which is definitely a disputed issue which I don’t know how to judge yet, there are people who live there. Notice that several of the articles quoted on the post refer to “Palestinian” immigrants, which suggests to me that these are refugees or their descendants coming back to what they see as their land. I doubt that there are many non-Palestinian Arabs (defined as people who have their roots in Israel and the Palestinian territories) that are coming to live there. And yes, the Arab states have treated them badly and don’t care much about them. Further, the Arabs of Palestine (and other states) made a HUGE mistake by not accepting the partition in 1947-48. At the same time, how many people just accept the giving of their land to people who hadn’t ruled the area, or even lived there in great numbers, from 133 AD to the late 1800s?

      Let me conclude by echoing your excellent point: “the rules are part of the battle.” We can’t let the worst actors and agendas determine the rules so that Libya always passes and Israel always fails.

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