By Evan Gottesman
Leftists often shame Democratic Party politicians, Jewish liberals, and their allies with the epithet “progressive except on Palestine.” The underlying message is that these standard-bearers of the left have a blind spot for Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. However, it is neither Democrats nor liberal Jews whose morals are inconsistent when it comes to the Middle East. Rather, it is the far left that suffers from a blind spot — on everything outside Israel and Palestine.
The ongoing wars in Syria and Iraq make even the First Arab-Israeli War of 1948 look like a playful tussle. This makes it all the more curious that the Israeli-Palestinian dispute generates such intense responses when compared with other regional wars. A visit to the Middle East tab on the International Socialist Review website shows one article (a book review) on Syria, one on Iraq, and five on Israel. The Nation has a special tab devoted to Palestine on its home page and the only Middle Eastern conflict mentioned in its “World” section is the one between Arabs and Israelis. Moving into more “mainstream” media, The New York Times provided far more extensive and frequent coverage of the Gaza conflict than it currently is on Yemen.
So, do people simply expect unspeakable violence as the norm in Iraq and Syria? Or do people simply not know about the situation and lack the desire to learn? (I suspect the latter.) Some will actually defend the narrow focus on Israel. Their argument asserts that because Iraq and Syria are experiencing internal conflicts it is none of our business, or because Bashar al-Assad and the Islamic State do not benefit from U.S. government funding, they fall lower in the hierarchy of global ills. Apparently, suffering only merits attention if it can be traced back to Washington.
However nonsensical, for the sake of argument, let us play by these rhetorical rules.
Imagine a powerful Middle Eastern state, propped up by the United States, waging war against a weaker opponent across its border. There is undeniably a power asymmetry between the combatants, but the stronger party views its opponent as a threat on its periphery and a proxy for a neighborhood rival. This script will sound very familiar to those acquainted with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel is the Goliath with American blessing, its enemy is Hamas, and the puppeteer in the Gaza Strip is Iran.
What few realize is that this formula fits neatly into another conflict in the region. Neighborhood heavyweight Saudi Arabia, a close ally of the United States, is in the midst of a military intervention across its southwestern border in Yemen. Riyadh aims to crush a rebellion by Houthi militants, which the Kingdom views as an extension of Iranian influence.
Since March, Saudi airstrikes in Yemen and ground combat with the Houthis have killed 3,260 people including 1,500 civilians, of whom hundreds are children. Currently, 1.3 million are displaced, and medicine, food, and clean water are in short supply. Peace talks between the rebels and the exiled Yemeni government collapsed in June. On July 10, the UN achieved a humanitarian ceasefire to coincide with the Islamic festival of Eid-al-Fitr—the end of Ramadan. The truce proved brittle, however, and was violated within hours.
Last year’s Gaza war evoked the righteous fury of the far left like few conflicts have before. It did not take long before the outrage reached fever pitch. Even in the early days of the fighting, before the ground invasion, leftists were already preparing the case against Israel as if they were magistrates of the International Court of Justice. Many floated claims of genocide in Gaza. In Europe, protests took on an overtly anti-Semitic flair when rioters attacked Jewish businesses, properties, and synagogues.
This attracted little attention last summer, and if it was noticed at all by Israel’s detractors then, it is surely forgotten now. Universities erupted with talks of boycott and debates on Israel’s very legitimacy as a state. In the United States, many activist circles adopted the slogan “from Ferguson to Gaza, intifada, intifada!” Israeli soldiers were suddenly agents of the very worst evils in American society, history and facts be damned (also, “Damascus” and “Homs” do not rhyme with “intifada”).
Today, there are no accusations of genocide and the slogan “from Baltimore to Sana’a” has yet to find its way to America’s streets or cyberspace. Most people across the political spectrum are silent on the situation in Yemen. Reports released by the United Nations and human rights groups on last summer’s bloodshed in Gaza generates far more anger than the fighting going on in the Arabian peninsula at this very moment.
This is not even the first Saudi war in Yemen. Never mind the atrocities the House of Saud commits behind the walls of its own fiefdom: The last time Riyadh intervened against the Houthis in 2009-10, 8,000 died and 300,000 were displaced. Saudi Arabia, it should be noted, benefited from $78.9 billion in U.S. arms sales and grants between 1950 and 2006. During a comparable timeframe (1949-2007), Israel received considerably less ($53.6 billion). The United States is not treaty-bound to Israel’s physical defense as it is to the Philippines, Japan, and the NATO allies. Make no mistake: Israel is indeed a close American ally. But its relationship with Washington is also not so exceptional that it should merit singular obsession.
Isreali officials are not infallible and Zionism is not a sacred doctrine. But Israel is only one country in a very big world that plays hosts to an array of democracies and dictatorships, heroes, villains, and demagogues many have never heard of. Take Uzbekistan’s president Islam Karimov for example. Karimov has held power since his nation was a constituent republic of the Soviet Union. His troops killed 800 protesters in a single day in 2005. The Uzbek regime still benefits from varying degrees of American, European, Russian, and Chinese support. Meanwhile, the Andijan massacre is (at the very best) a historical footnote for most people, many who cannot place Uzbekistan on a map.
Of course, brutal excesses like those demonstrated in Central Asia, Yemen, and around the world do not immediately justify actions taken by Israel or any other state. However, responses should be measured to the scale of human tragedy. This is an exercise in perspective, something many elements on the left clearly lack. Failing to address such disorganized priorities is not only naïve, for many, it reeks of anti-Semitism.
Evan Gottesman is a foreign policy writer and analyst based in the New York City area. You can follow him on Twitter at @EvanGottesman.
[Photo courtesy of Chris Yunker]