Let’s turn our attention away from the freak disaster that is American politics right now to the debate about whether to boycott and divest from Israel.
Focusing on Israel isn’t my idea, it’s Mitch McConnell’s. I was truly shocked that the first bill the U.S. Senate took up in 2019 had nothing to do with the government shutdown; rather, it was a collection of proposals on the Middle East that included a provision to allow states to punish private companies that choose not to do business with Israel.
The measure failed, but in fact 26 states actually have laws on the books that punish companies that won’t do business with Israel by denying them the ability to get government contracts.
This turns the notion of free speech on its head, and it is appalling how many conservatives who say that companies should have the right to discriminate against gays because it’s none of the government’s business now say that refusing to do business with Israel is something the government can punish you for.
This is nonsensical, un-American and profoundly wrong — especially in the cases of independent contractors that have no contact with Israel at all, but don’t want to sign the equivalent of a “loyalty pledge” promising that their owner-operators won’t boycott Israeli products in their personal lives.
This goes too far, circles back around and goes too far again before crashing in a fog.
But for all that individual Americans and businesses absolutely have the right to boycott a foreign power if they choose, something about the effort to treat Israel as a unique pariah state for its crimes against the Palestinians is bugging me.
I cannot excuse Israel’s actions. There are many pragmatic justifications for their policies in Palestine, but no moral fig leaves left. It’s wrong. No civilized nation should behave this way.
But while we boycott Israel. China is building what can with increasing accuracy be described as internment camps for Muslims. (The New York Times uses the euphemism “forced labor camps” in which inmates are forced to renounce their religion.) For an estimated million Muslims. Or more.
That’s the equivalent of 1 in 4 Palestinians in camps, under brutal conditions, in China. With millions more Muslims (and Tibetans) under constant surveillance and suffering from police harassment, casual arrest, torture and mass deprivation.
None of which is to excuse Israel’s terrible behavior, but if you’re asking me what is the greatest human rights atrocity being committed against a large Muslim population today … it wouldn’t be Israel. It would be China.
In fact, Israel wouldn’t even be the second greatest human rights atrocity being committed against a large Muslim population today. The second, third, fourth and fifth slots would all be filled by Muslim governments. The governments of Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Syria, Egypt and (at the moment) Turkey all have much larger police states and networks of secret prisons for Muslim dissidents than Israel.
As far as occupations go, a compelling case can be made that Russia in Chechnya is a far more ruthless occupying power than Israel in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Now maybe it’s facile and even uncouth to make too much of these comparisons. Fair, I grant you that. But if the point boycott, divestment and sanctions is really to help oppressed Muslims rather than to punish Jews, then I do not understand. Why is Israel the only country being targeted by an active boycott, divestment and sanctions movement?
Where are the academics refusing to meet colleagues from Chinese and Saudi Arabian universities? Where are the students demanding that the U.S. universities and companies divest from China and Egypt? Where are the protests against what the government of Afghanistan is doing to Muslim civilians — with American backing — on a regular basis?
Why only Israel?
Do you know? Because I don’t. If you think Israel’s treatment of Muslims is worthy of a BDS movement, surely you think China and Saudi Arabia’s are too.
The problem with Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians is precisely that it is in no way unique, and frankly often beats the alternative in the parade of human rights horrors. Which is not a compliment, but it is a fact.
Americans have an absolute right to boycott Israel. But if the point is to defend the rights of persecuted Muslims, rather than to punish Jews, then calling out Israel in particular makes no sense. Israel’s tragedy is precisely that it is not a special case.