Of course not. But for many people across the world and at my university, it seems to be. Recently my study association BASIS organised a trip to the Israeli Embassy for our members. This provoked an interesting response from students who felt that by visiting the embassy they would be promoting ties between the association and “a country that violates international law”. They felt that either a boycott or harsh questions were necessary to avoid this promotion. But BASIS has visited the US embassy before without complaint and is planning to visit the Russian one. I’m sure most of these people would visit the Chinese or Cuban embassy. So is what Israel does really that bad? How do they measure up compared to other countries? And why do we seem to be so obsessed with its actions?
Firstly though, it is clear that Israel is breaking international law and grinding the Palestinians down in very clearly thought out ways. Ever since the Six Day War in 1967 Israel has slowly but surely broken apart the West Bank (still occupied territory) to ensure that no real Palestinian state can ever survive there, using methods requiring the oppression of an entire people. Their wars in Lebanon and Gaza also show complete disregard for the lives of civilians on the other side, with places like Beirut and Gaza being bombed indiscriminately. These are all things that galvanise people across the world into supporting Palestine – and boycotting Israel.
However, Israel is hardly unique in its actions. Russia’s proxies in Ukraine are currently ruling over 3 million people in the Donbass region, showing little regard for human rights. Russia itself is becoming steadily more authoritarian, and back in the 90s carried out two wars in Chechnya that killed immense amounts of civilians. China suppresses all basic human rights, especially in Tibet, a traditionally separate region. Furthermore, most other countries in the Middle East have an equally bad human rights record, and Israel is the most free country in the region. Yet for these countries there are no calls for academic boycotts, and university associations rarely get together to protest Saudi oppression of women, or Emirati treatment of migrant workers.
So why the specific animosity towards Israel? One reason is that its conflict with Palestine gets so much coverage from the international media. Everything that happens there is closely analysed from every angle, so we get a lot of information about Israel’s actions. What Russia did in Chechnya flew under the radar for the most part. Another reason is simply that the plight of the Palestinians is a popular cause at the moment, and maybe a cause whose time has come. Like the Vietnam War in the 60s and apartheid in the 80s, every new generation has a cause it wants to get behind.
There is another reason though why Europeans especially have a problem with Israel, as well as the United States. Both countries are very nationalistic and use military force regularly. Here in Europe people find that difficult to stomach. After conquering most of the world and nearly wiping itself out in two World Wars, Europe in the late 20th century has mostly given up on force and nationalism. Europe relied on the US to protect it from the USSR during the Cold War. We have the EU to bring us together and solve our differences peacefully and in the most boring, bureaucratic manner possible. Except for France and Britain (and even they’re struggling), Europe is not a big military power anyone. This means that when Europeans see a nationalistic, ethnic based state like Israel using force to protect its interests, we get annoyed. Nations aren’t supposed to do that anymore, it’s simply wrong. Unfortunately for Europe though, the rest of the world doesn´t quite see things the same way.
Finally, while we should criticise Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, we do need to pay attention to how we do that. For over a thousand years Europe treated the Jews appallingly, telling where they could live and how they could act – an attitude punctuated with violence and culminating in the Holocaust. This of course doesn’t justify Israel’s actions, but it’s understandable that many Israelis have little time for European critics. Before we start boycotting an entire nation, we need to be aware of our own biases, and accept that not every situation is black and white.
No post this coming Sunday, as I’m on holiday with friends on the island on the Dutch island of Texel.