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Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

The Western World’s Backhanded Compliment to Israel

Here’s a recent (sub-)headline from the prestigious British magazine The Economist: “Why Israel must meet and exceed the requirements of the laws of war.” In response, here’s my “why” question: Why does the (civilized) world fervently insist that Israel adhere to the “laws of war” (Geneva Convention) or even beyond them, when we hardly hear any such remonstrations regarding the behavior of other countries at war? There’s an answer to this that might surprise you.

But first, the world scene. Unprovoked, Russia invaded the Ukraine and for close to two years shoots missiles at cities in reckless disregard of any distinction between civilian and military targets. At the start of that war, there were a few voices heard criticizing such Russian actions, but major demonstrations in the western world were noticeably absent.
Civil wars can be even more gruesome for civilians. Between 2003 and 2020 somewhere between 100,000 to 400,000 ethnic Darfur people have died in western Sudan in that long and deadly civil war. Some international media did raise the specter of genocide there, but that didn’t move “Progressives” around the world to call for action to stop the killing.
What about Muslim horrors?

China has been persecuting its one million Muslim Uyghur population for several years through “reeducation” and forced labor camps. Have you seen any demonstrations about this in Muslim countries? Nary a shout.

Another example – far more egregious: given the length of Syria’s civil war, one need not go into too much detail regarding that highly media-covered conflict in which the dictator Assad had few compunctions about massively killing his countrymen. It’s enough to state that the official count there by the UN’s Human Rights Office of civilian deaths is above 300,000 between 2011 and 2021, representing about 1.5% of its pre-war population! Not genocide, but truly horrendous. Certainly, if Darfur was mainly off the world’s “screen,” the same could not be said regarding the Syrian conflict. Nonetheless, there were very few (if any) protests among Westerners – and certainly not in the Muslim world regarding Assad’s barbarism.
And then we come to Israel, engaged in a defensive war against an enemy who explicitly states that its long-term strategy is to eliminate all Jews from the “Zionist State.” This time, a good part of the Western world (US, Germany, England, France, Italy, et al) backs Israel’s battle against Hamas, but with a caveat: strict adherence to the rules of warfare. This means limiting civilian casualties to the absolute minimum necessary, engaging in “proportional” attacks, and adhering to other post-World War II civilized strictures. The question then becomes: why is Israeli being singled out for this?

It would be easy to simply say “antisemitism” and leave it at that. But such an argument doesn’t hold water for the simple reason that even those countries that support Israel’s war on Hamas are holding Israel to the contemporary rules of battlefield engagement.
The answer lies elsewhere, and can be found (in true Jewish tradition, answering a question with another question) in this query: what is the common denominator among the four examples listed above – that Israel is not part of? (Indeed, one could easily add other war crime countries to the list.) The answer: none of them are democratic regimes; Israel is democratic.

I call this the “hypocrisy paradox.” The world holds a low-to-nonexistent level of civilized wartime behavior precisely for those countries that don’t treat their own people in civilized fashion. True, this could be a function of “realpolitik”: 1- there’s no sense in scolding countries that don’t care much for the good of their own people (in the cases of Syria and Darfur, palpably so); 2- we know in advance that other countries (e.g., Russia, China) couldn’t care less about what the Western world thinks of them.

Israel is different: it’s a civilized country, treating its citizens well; it’s a democracy, based on the rule of law. In short, it cares about how it looks in the eyes of the civilized world because it belongs to that world.

Thus, in a very real sense the pressure on Israel to hew to accepted rules of warfare is a backhanded compliment by the “West” that acknowledges Israel as being a card-carrying member of the civilized world. This entails a burden of sorts in conducting its war, but a burden that we Israelis are willing to bear – not merely to avoid being prosecuted in the Hague but mainly so that as we arise every morning to face another difficult day, it’s still easy for us to look in the mirror and know that what we are doing – and the way we are doing it – is morally correct.

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published four books and 69 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. His new book (in Hebrew, with Tali Friedman): RELIGIOUS ZIONISTS RABBIS' FREEDOM OF SPEECH: Between Halakha, Israeli Law, and Communications in Israel's Democracy (Niv Publishing, 2024). For more information about Prof. Lehman-Wilzig's publications (academic and popular), see: www.ProfSLW.com
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