A really basic question in the Israel-Palestine debate is “is Israel different from all other nations, or is it the same?” And it’s a question that Israel’s defenders are utterly inconsistent on. On the one hand, they say that of course Israel is different – Jews are alone in the world and Israel is their only defense, the legacy of the Holocaust means that Israel is inherently different and worthy of special protections and exemptions, and the United States and Israel have a unique relationship that must continue. Israel is special. And that specialness is why the US pours billions upon billions into a rich nation, uses its diplomatic capital to protect an already-protected nation, and lends its military might to protect an already mighty country.
The self-same people who argue these things will then turn around and argue that if you criticize Israel you are unfairly targeting a country that is like any other, and if you actually come out and say that Israel is treated differently, you are engaging in anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about Jewish power and influence. In other words, the country that they just said is special and must be treated differently is actually no different from any other country and if you act as though they are special then this is indicative of hatred of Jews. You jump back and forth from stance to stance as is immediately convenient.
So it’s a certainty that anyone who sees the Guardian‘s pathetic firing of Nathan Robinson as an example of Israel’s privileged position within our political discourse will be cast as anti-Semitic. This is inconvenient because Robinson’s firing is an example of Israel’s privileged position within our political discourse. Here are the offending tweets:
Wow. Clearly, bigotry reigns.
The firing has the obvious effect of depriving the paper of one of the few columnists they had who was actually writing compelling and worthwhile stuff. (Like two thirds of people who write for the Guardian have historically been TERFy 60 year old white women who write columns about how, like, emoji are a tool of the patriarchy or whatever.) But it also demonstrates what everyone already knows – there is one set of rules when we talk about Israel and one set when we talk about anything else. And everyone, defender or critic or indifferent to Israel, knows that.
It is inconceivable to imagine that Robinson could have complained about the amount of American money going to any other country and found himself similarly in trouble. Inconceivable. Complaining about foreign aid is one of the great American past times, despite the fact that we spend vastly less on it than most people assume. We are allowed to express unfettered unhappiness with American aid unless we are talking about one particular country. Take out a list of every country on earth and tweet out “The United States spends far more on [country] than it should.” Note the reactions. When you get to the Is, I promise you will encounter a very different reaction to Israel than you do to Ireland. And, again, everyone knows this, most certainly including people in the think tank and political lobbying world who are paid to shield Israel from criticism, a group of people who’s existence is somehow controversial despite the fact that you can, like, meet them IRL. Every rich country has lobbyists, including Israel.
Is the special treatment of Israel due to some vast Jewish conspiracy? No, it’s because of a confluence of political and historical factors that have very very little to do with protecting the Jewish people. Principal among those are America’s traditional need to influence the greater Middle East due to the region’s unique resources and geography; the strange confluence of interests between Saudi Arabia, the guarantor of America’s access to Middle Eastern oil, and Israel, due to mutual antipathy towards Iran; the quiet but continuing influence of American fundamentalist Christian movements that believe the existence of the state of Israel is necessary to bring about the End Times; a lingering attachment to the “War on Terror” that is actually a barely-hidden antagonism to Muslims such as those in Lebanon and Palestine; the inertia of the Cold War and the American tendency to define all over countries by their potential to help or hinder US aggression against its enemies; and so on. Israel is different for many reasons.
What makes the discourse about Israel different is that the people who defend Israel long ago weaponized anti-Semitism as a way to silence anyone who steps out of line with their program. No other lobby has successfully pulled this off; those who professionally buff China’s image in the United States (because, again, all countries have lobbies) have not successfully equated criticism of the CCP with Sinophobia, but I’m sure they would love to try. And were they to succeed I would happily challenge that condition as I’m doing with Israel right now. But allegations of anti-Chinese bigotry do not result in anything resembling the consequences of allegations of anti-Semitism, and that’s the difference.
The real irony is that the immediate condemnation (and often worse) of anyone who says that Israel is treated differently is in and of itself an example of Israel being treated differently. You do not get fired for suggesting that our discourse is uniquely protective of Belarus.
One weird instantiation of Israel’s unique discursive place comes when people compare consideration of Israel to various countries considered bad actors. “Why are you singling Israel out for criticism? Why aren’t you BDSing Iran?!?” Which again depends on the flatly mendacious notion that there’s nothing different about US treatment of Israel. The US does not give billions to Iran; in fact it uses sanctions to impoverish the Iranian people. The US does not diplomatically shield Iran; in fact it uses all of its diplomatic muscle to isolate Iran. The US does not lend its military capability to Iran in myriad ways; in fact that US military would like nothing more than to cluster bomb Iran into oblivion. The people “singling out” Israel are not defenders of Palestinian rights but the government of the United States and the pro-Israel lobby.
Why don’t we do BDS against Iran? That would be something!
Boycott – there’s precious little from Iran that Americans buy, so what would we boycott?
Divest – there’s very little investment in Iran from the United States, so what would be divested?
Sanction – we’re already crippling the Iranian economy and hurting the Iranian people with sanctions; what more sanctions do you want?
I suspect that, in fact, the people who get mad about “singling Israel out” know very well that Israel is treated differently in a whole host of ways, and they think that’s a good thing. And that’s a position we can argue! The Israel debate would be vastly healthier if pro-Israel voices would just say “we treat Israel differently than any other country, and that’s a good thing, and here are the reasons why.” Just make an argument of affirmation: yeah, Israel’s different, as it should be, and should remain so. Then we argue it out. This continued insistence that there is literally nothing special about how we debate Israel, when people find their careers upended if they criticize a country that takes billions of American dollars and uses them for profoundly questionable purposes, makes liars out of all of us. Why continue the pretense? For what possible reason? Well, cui bono – because it enables the Israel government to do whatever it wants without censure.