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The dangers of exceptionalism: Israel, the USA and others

By Professor Stuart Rees

In international relations, exceptionalism refers to a flouting of the treaties and resolutions to which all countries are expected to adhere.

The contagious political disease – exceptionalism – infects many countries, in particular Israel when faced with UN resolutions to promote Palestinian independence. In it’s attitude to that issue, Israeli policy  has been supported by US politicians as though the two countries are one and the same. In a speech in Jerusalem on July 31st, Republican candidate for the US Presidency Mitt Romney said, ‘We serve the same cause and we provoke the same hatreds in the same enemies.’

Critics of Israel’s exceptionalism  are often derided  as anti Semites, a charge which has been accompanied by  accusations, ‘What about Australian Aborigines ?’. ‘Put your own house in order’ , ‘You sound like an Iran supporter ‘,  ‘Turn your attention to the brutality in Syria.’

Taking Critics Seriously

The gist of such comments is contained in the remark,  ‘You can’t criticize me unless you criticize others first’. That remark sounds like the last refuge of the scoundrel but I’ll try to take it seriously, starting with a look at the recent human rights record of Israel’s closest ally the United States.

America likes to claim that it has been the leading defender of liberty yet former President Jimmy Carter has argued why his country is no longer entitled to that accolade. US citizens’ rights to privacy can be violated by warrantless wiretapping and government mining of electronic communications. Alleged enemies, including US citizens, can be targeted for assassination. Half of the 169 prisoners left in Guantanamo Bay have been cleared for release  yet have almost no chance of ever retaining their freedom. A handful of the few being tried in military courts have been tortured by water boarding more than 100 times yet such torture cannot be used as self defence because it’s conducted in order to protect ‘national security’.

In the same vein which prompts derision against anyone who criticizes Israel, critics of US government policies can be dismissed as ‘anti- American’ or, if they happen to be US citizens, un American , unpatriotic or even as traitors. In defence of America, such critics compare the US human rights record with that of China whose 1984 Tiananmen Square slaughter of students has been succeeded by suppressing any citizen who challenges the State. On July 1st almost half a million Hong Kong citizens heckled the visiting Chinese President  Hu Jintao and demanded an end to one party rule. A popular internet video says that the Communist Party is ‘brainwashing  Hong Kong’.

Until  the revolution which overthrew President Mubarak, Egypt remained a beneficiary of US financial and military support and was an ally of Israel.  But an unwritten condition of that US-Egypt -Israel alliance was to ignore the Egyptian governments’ police state practices – arbitrary arrests, torture, the rendition of prisoners from overseas and  the banning of opposition parties. Following the June 2012 election of an Islamic Brotherhood President, albeit under continued military control, nothing much seems to have changed. Egyptians are said to be concerned about their economic rights but not to care about free speech, under age marriage or female genital mutilation. British television journalist Tim Sebastian recently interviewed a young woman in Cairo. She explained, ‘I do not fear the Muslim Brotherhood. I do not fear the army. I fear my own people – their mentality. They will not defend my rights.’

‘But it’s not just America, Egypt and China ‘ the critics might say. What about Russia whose latest oppression includes the imprisonment and subsequent trial of the gutsy young women from the band Pussy Riot who sang in a Moscow cathedral calling on the Virgin Mary to ‘throw Putin out.’ ?

Russia’s former satellite – Ukraine – has been imitating Big Brother. The former Ukrainian Prime Minister Julia Tymoshenko is serving a seven year prison sentence on charges generally viewed as politically motivated. Musician Elton John played in Kiev prior to the final of the European Soccer Cup in June and in the middle of his performance he pleaded  with Ukrainians to stop beating up gay people. In a May speech to Germany’s lower house of Parliament Chancellor Angela Merkel likened Ukraine to its authoritarian neighbor Belarus. ‘In Ukraine and Belarus, people are still suffering under dictatorship and repression.’

Not Only Israel and America

This  list has ignored well known human rights abusers, the Burmese military junta, Mugabe’s Zimbabwe and the Sri Lanka Singhalese government. At risk of appearing to ignore the demands to ‘pay attention to your own back yard’, admission also needs to be made about human rights in Australia.

The UN’s Human Rights Commission says that the Australian government’s 2007 Intervention in the Northern Territory and its subsequent Stronger Futures legislation has undermined the key principles of self determination contained in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous peoples, which Australia endorsed in 2004.  The persistence of Australia’s mandatory detention for refugees is accompanied by legislation which exempts the secret service ASIO from appraisal of its practices, including the entitlement to keep secret the grounds on which certain refugees are deemed a ‘security risk’. Exceptionalism also infects Australia.

As each day passes, the details of human rights abuses accumulate and attentive observers  will have recognized my failure to mention Palestinians’ violence towards Israelis let alone the brutalities dispensed by Middle East neighbours Saudi Arabia and the repressive, Sunni dominated Bahrein.

This acknowledgment about omissions from the list of exceptional abusers shows how unrealistic is the demand that advocacy of the rights of Palestinians must be preceded by an inventory of others’ indifference to international law. But such a demand remains a convenient means of deflecting attention from Israel, or the USA, and permanently postponing justice for the Palestinians.

If Palestinian independence is to be realized, the political and diplomatic dam which protects Israeli  governments’ assumptions that they are exceptional, will have to be broken.  Many Israelis do not like particular groups, such as students involved in Talmudic studies, being entitled to exemptions to military service.  In consequence, Prime Minister Netanyahu said he would cease the entitlement of  ultra Orthodox Jews and Arab citizens not to serve in the Israeli military.  ‘We are citizens of one state,’ he said, ‘and we must all participate in bearing the burden of service to the state.’  At that point the right wing religious parties protested, Netanyahu gave way and a small chance of lessening exceptionalism within Israel disappeared.

Many countries disregard the principles of self determination and when criticized they make the cornered schoolboy’s plea, ‘Others are as bad or worse, so why pick on me ?’ If that plea is accepted,  dangerous consequences  follow: the powerful stay unaccountable, destruction is claimed to be a form of freedom, principles of humanity are depicted as only for the faint hearted and human rights are ignored.

Challenging the American Government’s collusion with Israel’s exceptionalism  may provoke the usual derision from those who say ‘anti Semite, clean up your own act, they’ve suffered more than others so that entitles them to special treatment.’ Such time worn remarks may follow this article, or, maybe, the derision will be less than the last time I wrote about Israeli killings, stealing of land and water and the well practiced thumbing a nose at international law or UN resolutions.

An exceptional child, scientist, musician or athlete might merit special treatment but arguments about individual entitlement are different from those principles which stress State responsibility and accountability.  In an interdependent world where international law sets standards, countries  should not be able to claim to be exceptional.

Published on ON LINE  opinion  – Australia’s e-journal of social and political debate – on Thursday, 9 August 2012: http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=13966