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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 considerably less to say about violence by Palestinians or 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; plenty of those taking to the streets and campuses to protest the war are people of good conscience and are merely seeking a ceasefire.  But the fury, extent, and lack of balance 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 so 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 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?

Yet an alternative notion is that people protest against what they perceive as Israeli brutality, because they believe that they can influence Israeli conduct due to the fact that Israel is a democracy with close ties to the countries where the protests are taking place and are having an impact on government policy.  This is in contrast to the other cases mentioned above, where protests on college campuses are unlikely to have much of an influence on those situations.  In this regard, how much of an impact is a protest at Columbia University or a letter signed by prominent human rights activists likely to have on the actions of the Syrian government or the Sudanese military?  Probably zero.  While one may question how much of an impact protests or statements are likely to have on Israeli policy, they have a better chance of swaying Israeli conduct and public opinion than would be the case with the other countries mentioned above.  And, given the close ties between the U.S. and Israel, their potential impact on the conflict by influencing U.S. policy is much greater than in those other cases.  After all, it is undeniable that U.S. policy has considerably more influence over Israeli policy and conduct than, for example, does U.S. policy towards the junta in Myanmar.

In this regard, not only does the U.S. have more influence over Israel than it does many other countries, but the political, economic, and military ties between the two countries are so close that one could understandably feel that they bear some responsibility for excessive Israeli violence against Palestinians if they do not speak up about it.  The U.S.’s ties to other countries where oppression is taking place are not nearly of the same nature or order as its ties with Israel.  Not wanting to feel complicit in the suffering of innocent Palestinians, it is understandable that Americans who object to the war or the occupation would want to speak out about and distance themselves from them.  Such resentment simply does not arise in the case of most other countries.  But that is, of course, no justification for supporting the barbarism of October 7 or calling for the destruction of Israel.

Many people undoubtedly seek to rally in support of the Palestinians and against Israel because of the enormous perceived power differential between the two sides.  Most people tend to feel an affinity for the underdog in a conflict rather than for their more powerful adversary — people tend to prefer David over Goliath. They see Israel as a bully that is victimizing the relatively defenseless Palestinians, and, admittedly, Israel’s deterrence strategy of intimidating and deterring foes through highly muscular displays of force plays into that perception.  People who feel powerless — and there are many in America and elsewhere — will relate to the plight of the Palestinians and project their own frustrations onto those on the receiving end of Israeli bombs and artillery in Gaza.  (And it is surely the case that students — many of whom are well-intentioned — like to get angry about things and to express that anger vociferously.)  Protesting can be empowering for those who feel that they have little power, especially if some or all of their demands are met.  But this misperceives Israel’s situation as a nation under continuous siege, completely ignoring the fact that it has had to fight several wars to ensure its very survival.  And there are large power differentials at work in the other cases of oppression and conflict I have cited that do not get nearly the same degree of attention as the war in Gaza.

I see two other possible explanations at work.  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.  The fact that there are a fair number of Jews participating in pro-Palestinian activities, including advocating for a permanent ceasefire, is telling evidence that there is more than just antisemitism at work.

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 motivates them to exploit every opportunity they can to weaken the Jewish state.  And one cannot dismiss the possibility that what also lies behind such antisemitism is a resentment of the financial, professional, and cultural success Jews have enjoyed, especially in recent decades.  Such success may gnaw at the collective ego of groups that have not been as successful.

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 subconsciously.  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.

Those participating in the protests should also recognize that, however satisfied their activities on behalf of the Palestinians may make them feel, the way in which they are protesting is, in many cases, counter-productive to the goal of creating a Palestinian state.  Slogans such as “from the river to the sea …” are bound to alienate and elicit existential fears on the part of Israelis and Jews, pushing off the day when a two-state solution might ultimately come to pass.  Signs and chants supporting Hamas and the October 7 attacks only add to that problem.

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 may 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.]