The demonstrations and statements that have followed in the wake of the Israeli siege of Gaza should make one wonder why the world is so harshly condemnatory of Israeli conduct, yet has little to say about other nations and groups that are clearly oppressive. Protests, statements by leaders and organizations, social media posts, and other forms of expression have been disproportionately supportive of Palestinians and hostile to Israel. This is a phenomenon that has been brewing for some time, but it has taken on dramatic proportions in the context of Israel’s war against Hamas. So extensive is the carnage and destruction resulting from the war that I could not say that protesting Israel’s actions and calling for a ceasefire are illegitimate. But the fury and extent of the protests we are seeing — especially in comparison to other situations of suffering — are noteworthy indeed. That so many statements supportive of Palestinians do not even mention the barbaric October 7 attacks that precipitated the siege of Gaza and that many protesters seem to support Hamas and also appear to be calling for the destruction of Israel, only add to the troubling nature of what is going on.
Many of us see rank hypocrisy at work, as activists pile opprobrium on Israel’s efforts to rid itself of a genocidal threat on its border, while ignoring other instances of inhuman conduct by perpetrators elsewhere in the world, some of them far bloodier than the conflict in Gaza. Where are the huge protests against Myanmar’s genocidal acts against the Rohingya, the genocide in Darfur, the slaughter in Syria and in Yemen, or the mistreatment of the Uyghurs in China, to name just a few examples? Why do people rush to condemn Israel, but remain silent in the face of these other terrible situations?
I have read explanations of this phenomenon that suggest that this happens because the public expects more from Israel and holds it to a higher standard than it does these other brutal regimes. It is true that Israel is a democracy and that it was born from the ashes of the worst genocide in modern times. But I do not hear anti-Israel activists explaining their ire towards Israel in those terms. I doubt very much that protesters’ actions are motivated by the notion that they are doing what they do because they are holding Israel to a higher standard than applies to other nations. And even if it were the case, is it fair to hold a nation that has confronted existential threats from the moment it was born to a higher standard?
Many people undoubtedly seek to rally in support of the Palestinians and against Israel because of the enormous power differential between the two sides. They see Israel as a bully that is victimizing the relatively defenseless Palestinians, and, admittedly, Israel’s deterrence strategy of intimidating foes through highly muscular displays of force plays into that perception. But there are large power differentials at work in the other cases of oppression and conflict that do not get nearly the same degree of attention as the war in Gaza.
I see two possible explanations. The first is the obvious one that sees antisemitism behind the disproportionate condemnation of Israel. While antisemitism has been spreading of late, I don’t think it can provide a full explanation of what is going on. History has not always been kind to the Jews to say the least, whether it took the form of empires driving restive Jews into exile, the brutality of the Spanish Inquisition, the blood libels and pogroms of Eastern Europe, genocide at the hands of Nazis, or expulsion by Arab countries following Israel’s independence. I would never say that the antisemitism of today matches those horrific episodes. But antisemitism is undeniably alive and well today, and kicking Israel can be a fulfilling way to indulge the prejudice that motivates it and to externalize onto Jews pain that they played no role in causing.
In this regard, Jews have often been treated as scapegoats for problems they did not cause. Related to this is the notion of a powerful, global Jewish conspiracy that controls banking, media, and other important elements of society and that is responsible for the woes of the world. Hatemongers who ascribe to this thinking see Israel at the center of this conspiracy, and that perception will color their view of everything Israel does and motivate them to exploit every opportunity they can to weaken the Jewish state.
But I perceive a related explanation that I think is also at work. As noted above, Jews are one of the most abused peoples in human history. Their victimizers were, of course, non-Jews, who have had to carry the guilt that goes with it, even if they did not personally participate in the atrocities. That can be a heavy psychic load, much of it undoubtedly experienced unconsciously. Vilifying one’s victim – in this case charging them with apartheid and genocide – can be an effective way of lightening that burden, as those who carry out atrocities will not be deemed entitled to our sympathies for the oppression they suffered. Taking this even further, this vilification of Jews and Israel can fuel resentment that can be used to justify their past mistreatment. There is, of course, no way to test this explanation empirically. Asking someone if they are condemning Israel to reduce their sense of guilt over past mistreatment of Jews is not likely to elicit a truthful or meaningful response. But the explanation does seem to carry some intuitive power.
So, what can we do about this? The most important action we can take is to talk about these explanations – to put them out there for people to reflect upon. Perhaps this could make a contribution to turning the tide on the tsunami of denunciation that has rained down on Israel and to promoting balance in the debate over Israeli conduct in Gaza and elsewhere. And, of course, we should point out the hypocrisy of remaining silent in the face of other serious cases of violence and oppression that afflict our world.
[Afternote: Notwithstanding the double standard I see at work as described above, I do think we have passed a tipping point where it seems that the political harm done to Israel by its tactics in Gaza outweighs whatever strategic value they have for Israel. (Much of this has been driven by Netanyahu and his right-wing partners, whose egos, political futures, and hatred of the Palestinians are tied up in the war.) It is for this reason that we are now seeing vociferous objections to Israel’s prosecution of the war, not just from demonstrators on the street, but also from governments that have traditionally been friendly to Israel.]