March 2, 2010

A problem of (pre)occupation

While important, Israel-Palestine conflict should not monopolize discourse

There is an argument one typically encounters among apologists of the Israeli occupation in Palestine: Why focus so much on this one issue when there are so many other, more tragic conflicts going on in the world? Advocates of Palestinian rights are told that by discussing this one conflict, they are distracting our attention from the (perhaps more pressing) conflicts in Sudan, Sri Lanka, Chechnya, Georgia, Tibet, Somalia, Congo, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq…indeed, the list of candidates is endless. Why decry every Israeli wrongdoing, they ask, when Russia, China, and even the U.S. are committing blatant crimes before the world’s very eyes with almost total impunity? To be clear, I consider this argument absurd on its face—there is no limit to the number of issues we can think critically about at any one time. But given the spate of Israel-Palestine events in recent weeks—I am talking about visits by Cynthia McKinney, Moshe Halbertal, Hussein Ibish, Joel Kovel, Ghaith al-Omari, and David Makovsky—it appears to me that other issues are not being given the relative attention that they merit. So it is worth asking: Why, in the midst of so many other humanitarian tragedies around the world, does the Israel-Palestine issue dominate the discourse in the way it does?

There are two weak answers to this question that, I believe, provide minimal insight.

The first is that the Israel-Palestine issue gets the attention that it does because of a longstanding anti-Semitism, which has resulted in a disproportionate level of criticism toward Israel. To be sure, this certainly contributes to the discussion in a very negative way. One can find articles in anti-Semitic journals—the Holocaust-denying Journal of Historical Review, for instance—that focus on Israeli politics and sound like they could have easily come from a “leftist” source like CounterPunch or AlterNet. But while I think some of the anti-Israel discourse is motivated by anti-Semitism, I do not believe that the excessive focus on Israel-Palestine is primarily the work of a hidden anti-Semitic agenda. Reasonable observers need not resort to anti-Semitic criteria to conclude that that the occupation is guilty of many of the things it is accused of.

The second is that the Israel-Palestine conflict, by virtue of its political reality and the sheer scale of human suffering it has produced, deserves the priority it gets on university campuses, among academics and activists. I agree that the immediate problems facing Palestinians—illegal settlement expansion, humiliating checkpoints, segregated bypass roads, the economic blockade of the Gaza Strip, the legal statelessness of millions of refugees, and the scores of people who have been killed—are monumental and constitute a humanitarian crisis that must be addressed forthwith. But the same is also true for the situation facing 300,000 internally displaced Tamils in Sri Lanka, 100,000 of whom remain trapped by the Sinhalese-dominated government in squalid internment camps, in the aftermath of the country’s 26-year civil war. It is also true of the two million Pakistanis displaced by the army’s counter-Taliban military operations, or the millions of Congolese who continue to suffer from the aftereffects of the Second Congo War, the deadliest conflict since WWII. Yes, the frustrated aspirations of four million Palestinians to achieve statehood is a historical tragedy. Yet the same is also true of the 25 million Kurds: the largest ethnic group on earth without a national homeland.

One could perhaps get into those very muddy debates about whose conflict is “worse,” or who deserves more attention. I view these kinds of discussions as unproductive, and I would repeat what I said in my opening paragraph: There is no limit to the number of issues we can think critically about at any one time. My point is that Palestinians do not have anything even close to a monopoly on victimhood, and therefore do not deserve anything even close to a monopoly over the discourse.

However, there is still good reason to pay special attention to this one conflict without allowing it to overtake other issues. Perhaps the conflict is significant for being significant. That is to say, it has managed to dredge up some of the worst forms of ethnic jingoism and authoritarian Third-Worldism and has served as a locus of bad politics for many years, from American neoconservatism to Islamic nationalism. The fact that it is already a priority means that, for those of us who are interested in combating the many ailments that plague political discourse, the Israel-Palestine issue must be a front line of defense. But we should not delude ourselves by enveloping the issue in a world-historical aura while giving comparatively violent conflicts only passing notice.

— Chase Mechanick is a second-year in the College.