One of the strangest and most fundamentally disingenuous lines of criticism used to attack critics of Israel’s brutal occupation of Palestine is that we are “singling Israel out,” that we pay special attention to Israel in a world of bad actors, and that this is indicative of obsession and, of course, anti-Semitism. The accusation is illegitimate on its face; America’s relationship to Israel, in terms of monetary aid, military aid, cooperation between intelligence services, and diplomatic protection at the UN and elsewhere, is unlike any other in the world. Read The Intercept’s exhaustive reporting on the incredible degree to which the United States supports Israel’s government and military. There is no relationship in American diplomacy –none– that is comparable to that between the United States and Israel. It is a wholly unique connection, unique in the depth of our support and in how unconditional that support is. The incredibly powerful Israeli lobby in American politics, which has earned very close to unanimous support for the Israeli government in Congress, has singled out Israel through those efforts. That’s just reality.
Our moral responsibility to Israel is different from that of antagonist nations because we have a hand in Israel’s actions. George Scialabba summarized this case recently:
The anti-imperialist/anti-totalitarian distinction is misleading because, broadly speaking, one side (Cockburn’s) is protesting crimes that their readers can readily, as citizens, do something about, and in fact are ultimately responsible for, while the other side (Berman’s) is not. Abuses by Castro and Chavez, and crimes by Saddam and Iran’s ayatollahs, are undoubtedly real. But the U.S. government did/does not support those regimes and was/is not responsible for their crimes.
I would argue that this is both basic political theory and basic morality. We bear moral responsibility for those things that we can control. I am a citizen of the United States, and the United States makes Israeli apartheid possible. I am therefore responsible for it in a way that I am not responsible for the theocratic thugs in Tehran or Saudi Arabia. It’s just a fundamental failure to understand the meaning of responsibility to suggest that we are too focused on Israel in comparison to other bad actors. And it’s the self-same lobby that accuses us of singling Israel out that has done everything to make this relationship unique.
So too with our media. It’s bizarre to read pieces like, for example, this insufferable piece of ethnic discourse policing by Shmuel Rosner, arguing that American Jews have a responsibility to censor themselves when it comes to Israel, and maintain the view that it is Israel’s critics who are singling Israel out. Rosner asks American Jews to treat Israel differently than any other issue in the broad sweep of our democratic conversation. He is charging them with prioritizing the ethnic and religious priorities he has invented for them over their democratic responsibilities. Shmuel Rosner has singled Israel out. Is Rosner guilty of anti-Semitism? Or consider this piece by Tim Murphy of New York Magazine. Murphy’s piece asserts that, in New York politics, Israel is the third rail, and he quotes many New Yorkers who feel that way. Is he making it up? Are they? Is he anti-Semitic to acknowledge this dynamic? If this is an accurate depiction of a fundamental difference in how Israel is discussed, how are critics of Israel the ones doing the singling out?
I know many fearless and combative political people who simply never speak or write about Israel. They have weighed the risks, they tell me, and find them too dangerous to make speaking out worth it. That is a kind of singling out, and one which comes not from critics but from the toxic rhetorical environment that Israel’s most aggressive defenders have created, through the constant conflation of criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism. I have often asked professors and mentors about how to engage politically while building an academic career. I have been counseled in many different ways on this question. But what is striking is the number of professors and mentors, Jewish and not alike, who have said to me “just not Israel.” Engage, debate, invite controversy– but not about Israel. Yes, I suppose they are singling Israel out. But they are not doing so to cast aspersions on the country. Rather they are trying to counsel me in a way that they think is a matter of simple professional self-defense.
Maybe all of these people who say that criticizing Israel represents a particularly dangerous form of controversy are anti-Semitic, I don’t know. I think, instead, that Israel is “singled out” because Israel’s many powerful defenders have made the topic of Israel singular, singular in the broad sweep of American politics– singularly ugly, singularly toxic, singularly dysfunctional, singular risky. And I also believe that Israel is singled out because of the singular hopelessness of its brutal, racist occupation, and the vast architecture of political and rhetorical defense that has been erected to justify it. It’s the bleak reality of the ritualistic punishment and oppression of a living people, in the name of defending “the region’s only democracy.” That’s singular.