With much of the world singling out Israel for criticism — and ignoring some pretty vile abuses elsewhere in the Middle East — it is easy to buy into the argument that targeting the Jewish state alone for criticism is ipso facto illegitimate. After all, if a concern for human rights abuse alone does not explain the fixation on Israel, well then, the very character of the Jewish state must.
This argument, frequently voiced by supporters of Israel, is fundamentally misguided, just as it was a generation ago in my home country of South Africa.
During the 1970s, as the South African government was consolidating and violently defending its system of racial debasement, an international movement to oppose apartheid was slowly building steam. Unions, academics, artists, religious organizations, the governments of recently de-colonized countries, the United Nations and others were mobilizing to delegitimize and ultimately overthrow apartheid.
At the same time, barely 2,000 miles to the north, Idi Amin was ruling Uganda in a way that made South Africa’s apartheid regime look like a model of restraint and pacifism. During his eight years in power, Amin was responsible for the death of approximately 300,000 Ugandans and untold misery for many others.
By a straightforward moral calculus, the Ugandan regime was even worse than the one in South Africa. Even with a more nuanced moral appraisal — one which took into consideration the particular evil of the interracial character of South Africa’s repression and the assault on dignity it represented for black communities around the world, as well as South Africa’s responsibility for violence beyond its borders, such as in Angola’s civil war — one would be hard-pressed to argue that Amin’s regime did not deserve condemnation more than John Vorster’s apartheid government.
Does this mean, then, that the criticism directed at South Africa was illegitimate, that the singling out of the apartheid regime was unfair?
Surely not. For one thing, the reasons of efficacy were compelling. White South Africans elected the apartheid government and could therefore change government policy. Furthermore, they benefited from international trade, relished participation in international cultural and sporting events and claimed for themselves the mantle of “European civilization.” In other words, through the white electorate, the apartheid regime appeared vulnerable to international pressure. What’s more, the anti-apartheid movement could collaborate with an indigenous opposition movement that was organized and had highly articulate representatives in major cities around the world. For these reasons and others, a mass movement against apartheid had genuine prospects for success that one against Amin did not.
And yet that cannot quite be all. While these reasons may be intellectually satisfying, they do not seem descriptively accurate. Intelligent people did not come to their anti-apartheid activism after careful deliberation between Uganda and South Africa. But that is not fundamentally to their discredit.
Shelby Steele, the conservative African-American intellectual, writing recently in The Wall Street Journal, called racial intolerance the failure of the imagination. He argued that “democracies expand individual rights… by asking men to put themselves in the shoes of women, whites in the shoes of blacks.” Imagination, he declared, “is the only way to common humanity.”
It seems to me that all causes are functions of the imagination: By envisioning ourselves in another situation, we are drawn to a particular injustice and caught up in a particular cause. After a relative of mine had a bout with breast cancer, my sister donated money to breast cancer research for the first time. The sufferers of breast cancer fired her imagination in a way that the victims of tuberculosis in, say, Tanzania did not.
Somehow, the victims of apartheid South Africa caught the imagination of millions of people of all races around the world, made them empathize with their plight and labor for their freedom. Somehow, too, the victims of Amin’s Uganda did not. Was this unfair? Perhaps it was to Ugandan victims, but it was not, in any sense, unfair to South Africa.
Yes, some of those who condemn Israel and who seek divestment are motivated entirely by an animus to Jews and, if there is a meaningful difference, to the existence of a Jewish state. But many and perhaps most are not, even if they have never uttered a word in anger about Syria’s tin pot dictatorship or Iran’s brutal theocracy. The motivations for supporting a cause are too complex to be reduced to the single thread of bigotry.
Many of today’s activists imagine themselves as Palestinians, though not as subjects of Syria or Iran, just as millions imagined themselves as black South Africans, but not as black Ugandans, and American women imagine themselves as victims of breast cancer more readily than as sufferers of tuberculosis. The truth is that people rarely address the very worst problems — but that doesn’t make them insincere or their various causes less valid.
Governments behave similarly. The United States fought a war over Kosovo, but not over Chechnya. It helped launch prosecutions for atrocities in Rwanda, but not in Cambodia. And, yes, it is on the brink of war with Iraq, one rogue state that is attempting to develop nuclear weapons, but not with North Korea, another member of the “Axis of Evil.”
The measure of criticism, ultimately, must be internal, not external. We should judge the justice of a cause not in relation to other causes, not in whether it is the best possible cause or a cause that would be better applied elsewhere, but in whether its goals are just and its tactics morally sensible and strategically appropriate.
To reject criticism of Israel because it targets the Jewish state alone cedes ground in the debate and feels like a cop-out. It is far better to accept the right for others to single Israel out for criticism and challenge that criticism, exposing the bias and incoherence so often present.
Gideon Maltz, a native of South Africa, is a business analyst at McKinsey & Company, a management consulting firm.