Well, the Israelis have been at it again. Boarding a humanitarian flotilla that was bringing humanitarian supplies to a besieged population on the Gaza strip, the Israeli military shot at least 9 people dead and once again displayed a worrying degree of disdain for UN resolutions and basic human decency. It has been roundly condemned in the Western media.
Yet, similar things happen elsewhere in the world with much less media attention given to it. UN humanitarian convoys in Africa are ambushed frequently without making the international headlines. By the standards of that region in recent times, the behaviour of the Israelis shows immense restraint and civility. So I ask myself why Israelis are held to higher moral standards than others; who are we to make any judgments on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at all; and why should we care at all? As Australians we seem to be outsiders to this conflict, have limited understanding of the history of the conflict, and little political power in the world to influence these events. By what moral code should we then judge the actions in that little corner of the world?
The first moral lens we can use to look at the conflict is a selfish historical one: the bigger the conflict and the more directly Australians are affected, the more it should matter to us and the more entitled we are to a moralising opinion, even if that opinion is uninformed. Through this lens we should be unconcerned by the conflict. The conflict seems to have little, if any, historical importance at all to us, since we live far away with very few Jews and Palestinians within our borders. So we must be concerned by it because of other moral lenses.
The second lens we can use is the one that economists like to speak of: the world-utilitarian point of view. The bigger the conflict and the greater the potential for escalation, the more an Australian world do-gooder should be involved.
Once again, we can be brief. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a footnote in history, not worthy of more than a minutes’ notice on a grand tour of history. A minor skirmish between two relatively small groups with a death-toll in the tens of thousands (maximum) that doesn’t even appear in a top 100 of the conflicts of the 20th century (see the Oslo peace data and derived sites on the death tolls for the major wars and atrocities of the 20\21st century). For instance, the conflict in Sri Lanka between the Tamils and the Singhalese is much more vicious and violent, and probably much easier to solve if the international community took greater interest. The conflict in Darfur between Muslim black Africans and Muslim Arabs is far bloodier, more cynical, and heart-rending than the odd bomb or boarded ship passing between the Israelis and Palestinians: how can the systematic rape and large-scale displacement of a whole people of millions get less attention than a conflict with less deaths than the road-toll of your average Easter holiday? And we haven’t even talked about the big war of our time, the conflict in the Congo, by far the world’s bloodiest conflict with an estimated maximum death toll of 6 million. This death toll is about the same size as the entire population of Israel.
Even at this very moment, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict wouldn’t make a top-10 list of big conflicts. The oppression of the various minorities in Myanmar, the simmering conflicts in Haiti and the Dominican republic, the internal unrest in Pakistan, etc., are all on a far greater scale and have greater potential for world-level damage than the Israeli conflicts: surely the internal instability of a nuclear power like Pakistan is of far greater world significance than the contest between a spider and its fly?
From a world-utilitarian point of view, one can thus rightfully accuse onlookers of racism for giving more attention to an intra-Semite tiff than the murder and mayhem of millions of blacks, muslims, and Dravidians.
The third lens we can use is intra-group moralising. This is the notion that the world is roughly divided into a few groups and that it is the responsibility of each group to keep its deviant members in line. Within this point of view, the conflicts in Darfur and the Congo are a problem for the Africans, the conflict in Sri Lanka is a problem for India and the conflict in Tibet is no-one’s problem but simply a matter of internal Chinese affairs. Applying this same logic, the conflicts involving Israel are the domain of ‘the West’.
Do the Jews belong to the West? I would say they do, linguistically, genetically, religiously, economically, culturally, and historically. The majority of the Jews live in the West and have intermingled with the West for two thousand years. You cannot intermingle for that long and be a separate genetic and cultural entity. The Jews are part of the fabric of Western culture, and a prominent part at that. The Jews are like the Goths, the Vandals, the Teutons, the Vikings, the Celts, the Slavs, the Huguenots, the Protestants, the Basques, and, yes, the French: part of the rich tapestry of ‘The West’.
Within this lens, Israel is ‘our’ joint responsibility. It is up to us to set the moral boundaries within which Israel can act, and indeed the boundaries within which it has to a large extent acted in the last 60 years. Just think of how Israel has remained within contemporary ‘Western morality’ all these years and has changed with it. Israel has not committed any great genocides, has not engaged in eugenetics, has not forced conversions upon others, is democratic, and is still an integral economic and cultural part of the West.
Even morality within Israel has mimicked the changes in the rest of the Western world. For instance, as the Western world has become more sensitive to the needs of other groups, so has Israel. Homosexuality has become acceptable in Israel in the last 50 years, as it has become acceptable in the Western world. Overt racism on the basis of colour has become unacceptable in the Western world, as it has in Israel. Israel’s treatment of its Arab citizens is on the edge of our morality, i.e. it has been of the apartheid variety, again a Western invention (dare I say, a Dutch invention).
A nice example of the way Western morality affects the Israelis is the 2009 promise of the Israeli PM Olmert that they would react ‘disproportionately’ to any future bombs from the Gaza strip, in direct defiance of international law and Western public opinion. Following protests from non-US politicians (!), the phrase ‘disproportionately’ was taken out of the official government announcement.
We thus have the role of being one of the millions of moralising Western onlookers, shaking our heads when our brethren are out of line and supporting them when they are threatened. Club Troppo is but one of millions of discussion groups that perform this vital group role, and though none of these small groups matters individually, together they amount to an enormous degree of pressure on Israel, which has historically felt obliged to respond to this moral pressure because it wants to belong to the Western world (a large part of the moral agonising within the Jews community outside Israel is of this type. This boat incident has sparked another such round of Israeli navel gazing).
So our humanistic role during this boat incident is to shake our heads and remind our Israeli brethren that the Palestinians and their supporters are humans too and that we expect Westerners to behave with more restraint when they face a much weaker opponent.