First off, let me be clear that I do not condone Israel’s official use of sarcasm, wit or anything else that could be construed as more entertaining than the turgid pronouncements of native English-speaking governments. Since my childhood I have been told that government and humor don’t mix.
But in mid-April, when dozens of would-be “flytilla” protesters descending on Ben Gurion Airport from England, France, Belgium and other European countries were handed a letter on official stationery, written in an English that sounded an awful lot like that of the prime minister, few expected that their heartfelt protests would be so summarily, efficiently quashed. Most Israelis were more interested in the letter than in the protest itself, and with good reason. It was a lot more clever.
“Dear activist,” the letter teased. “We appreciate your choosing to make Israel the object of your humanitarian concerns.
“We know there were other worthy choices,” the letter continued. “You could have chosen to protest the Syrian regime’s daily savagery against its own people, which has claimed thousands of lives.
“You could have chosen to protest the Iranian regime’s brutal crackdown on dissent and support of terrorism throughout the world… [or] Hamas rule in Gaza, where terrorist organizations commit a double war crime by firing rockets at civilians and hiding behind civilians.”
You know what comes next. “But instead you chose to protest Israel, the Middle East’s sole democracy, where women are equal, the press criticizes the government, human rights organizations can operate freely, religious freedom is protected for all, and minorities do not live in fear.”
And so, a people that escaped pogrom and persecution just to find itself grappling with terrorism, un-neighborly Palestinian self-immolation on the altar of “resistance” and the sheer insanity of life in the Middle East allowed itself a little comic relief at the expense of young upper-middle-class European protestors. Satire, it turns out, can be wielded just as ferociously by a government as by a penniless romantic ideologue quill-bearer yearning for someone else’s huddled masses to be free.
But the real point of the letter was not the laugh.
For the repeated failures of the recent flotillas and flytillas show something essential about the “Palestinian problem.” It is a true humanitarian problem with many different responsible parties—world apathy and hypocrisy, Israeli fears and miscues and, above all, fickle and violent Palestinian leadership that cares far more about its cause than its people. It is, on the one hand, intractable—for so long as Palestinians refuse to irrevocably disavow violence, Israelis will never give them a state. On the other hand, it pales against the unthinkable, yet far more soluble, outrages across the region that have been given a bye for decades by rights organizations, world bodies and the hordes of globe-trotting humanitarian protestors.
“We therefore suggest that you first solve the real problems of the region,” the letter concludes, “and then come back and share with us your experience. Have a nice flight.”
Certainly the crafters of the letter will be accused of changing the subject. But while it adds little to the discussion of “Israel/Palestine,” a story that has never suffered from lack of coverage, the letter does suggest something useful about the activists.
It forces the question of why a young American or European would choose to protest Israel rather than Syria or Iran or Hamas. One explanation, of course, is old-school anti-Semitism, which I’m willing for the sake of argument to grant is true only in a small minority of cases. A second is relevant mostly for Jews: For many of them, protesting Israel is less a humanitarian gesture than a way of distancing themselves, of flying with the contrarian flock, of showing the world, their parents, and themselves what they are not.
But there’s a third explanation, equally true for Jew and non-Jew alike: That far from being the self-assertive world-changers they so desperately want to be, they are in fact the dupes of a powerful consortium of oil-rich Arab governments and global bodies that long ago turned human rights activism into a tragic parody. Other players in this game include European politicians and media outlets feeding an Israel-as-Nazi narrative that plays so well because of its puerile irony and just-shy-of-anti-Semitic undertone. And of course the Islamists who, in seeing the very existence of a free and creative society in the Middle East as a casus belli, are just easier to befriend than to fight.
“Global citizens” targeting Israel or its West Bank policies may think they are simply responding to a humanitarian wrong. But in choosing what to protest, every young activist must choose one thing and not another. In our choices, we reveal not only our priorities but also our insecurities, our distortions, our ambitions and our emotional debts. Whatever the psychology behind it, when we knowingly choose to ignore the world’s worst problems and focus our fury on Israel alone, we are no humanitarians at all.
David Hazony is author of The Ten Commandments: How Our Most Ancient Moral Text Can Renew Modern Life.