Steven Frank

Why is the world obsessed with the Palestinians?


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In his recent book, “Reclaiming Israel’s History,” author David Brog explores the question of why, among the millions of persecuted religious, ethnic, and national minorities, many living in dire conditions as stateless refugees, the world seems to focus so disproportionately on the condition of the Palestinian people?  He asks whether they are uniquely entitled to our attention?  It is a legitimate question.

Brog posits several rationales for this phenomenon.  Is it because the Palestinians are a stateless people seeking self-determination?  If so, they are not alone.  The Encyclopedia Of the Stateless Nations cites the claims of over 350 stateless peoples. Many of these are ancient people who have had their own separate identities for centuries.

For example, the stateless Kurds, strong allies of the United States in the Middle East, comprise some 45 million people and their identity dates back to the 3rd millennium B.C. There are 6 million stateless Tibetans whose homeland is occupied by China. Seventy million stateless Tamils, one of the largest and oldest ethnic groups in the modern world, reside in precarious conditions in Southern India.  There are thirty million Igbo in Nigeria, thirty million Sikhs in India, ten million Ahwazi Arabs in Iran, the Basques, the Catalans….

Brog asks whether the focus on the Palestinians is based on the fact that they are, for the most part, Muslims, and the West is particularly sensitive to the charge of “Islamophobia?”  But there are already 50 Muslim-majority nations in the world and 22 Arab countries.  There is one Jewish nation in the world.

If we are to be particularly concerned about another Muslim peoples, what about the over ten million Muslim Uighurs, millions of whom presently are confined to “reeducation camps” in China? Have you ever even heard of the Uighurs? Why is the world not as passionate about the deplorable conditions under which the Uighurs live?

Brog speculates that perhaps concern for the Palestinians stems from the fact that so many are considered to be refugees, a status of particular sensitivity in the world today.  However – – leaving aside the very real question about the legitimacy of the refugee status of present day Palestinians – – what about the other 65 million refuges and people who have been forcibly displaced from their homes? What about the 800,000 Jewish refugees who were forced from their ancestral homes in Arab countries when Israel declared its independence in 1948?  What about the seven million Muslims forced to flee India during the India-Pakistan partition in 1947?  What about the five million refugees resulting from the ongoing Syrian war?

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The elevation of the Palestinian narrative is especially anomalous given that, unlike other stateless people, the stateless status of the Palestinians is largely self-inflicted. They are the only stateless people who have turned down repeated offers of statehood and independence over the last hundred years.  In 1939, 1948, 2000, and 2008 (and on other occasions as well), Palestinians have turned down good faith offers to establish their own independent state if only they would agree to live in peace side by side with Israel.  They have repeatedly rejected these offers out of hand without ever even making a counter-offer.

And they are the only stateless people who have repeatedly and routinely turned to indiscriminate violence and terrorism in pursuit of their goals, including years of hostage taking, plane hijackings, stone throwing, stabbings, and suicide bombings, leaving thousands of innocent civilians killed and maimed.

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Palestinian political violence has not only targeted Israelis, but also Lebanese, Jordanians, Egyptians, Americans and citizens of other countries. Notable attacks include the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre in which a Palestinian terrorist group took eleven Israeli Olympic team members hostage and killed them; the 1974 Ma’alot massacre where Palestinian terrorists took over an Israeli elementary school, held 115 people hostage for two days, and killed 22 children; the 1974 Japanese Embassy attack in Kuwait; the 1980 Paris synagogue bombing; the hijacking of Egypt Air Flight 648 in 1985; and the 1985 hijacking of the Achille Lauro ship where a disabled Jewish-American passenger, Leon Klinghoffer, was shot to death and then thrown overboard in his wheelchair.

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And, of course, there were two years of nonstop terrorism by Palestinians during the second intifada from 2000-2002, resulting in the deaths of over 1,000 Israel civilians (the population equivalent of 50,000 Americans), and another 5,000 seriously wounded.

The violence continues to this day.  Recently, an American citizen, Ari Fuld, was stabbed to death, outside a grocery store by a 17-year old Palestinian from the West Bank.  In 2016, thirty-nine year old Daphne Meiir was slaughtered in front of her three children in her home by a fifteen year old Palestinian terrorist. Also, in 2016, a seventeen year old Palestinian entered a private home, and stabbed a thirteen year old Jewish girl, Hallel Yaffa Ariel, to death as she slept in her bed.

Remarkably, the official Palestinian governing authority has created the Palestinian Authority Martyrs Fundto pay a monthly cash stipend to the families of Palestinians killed or imprisoned in the course of killing Jews in terrorist attacks.  It is called pay for slay.”  Immediately following the recent slaying of Ari Fuld, the Palestinian authority announced that it would begin monthly payments to his killers family.  It has been estimated that such payments amounted to almost $350 million in 2017.

And so, the question remains:  why, of all the stateless refugees in the world, does the world champion the cause of the Palestinians.


Over the years, I have often asked this question of friends, relatives, strangers, Israelis and Palestinians.  Curiously, no one has directly answered my question. No one attempted to explain why the Palestinians are uniquely worthy, among the worlds stateless peoples, of the worlds attention, sympathy or support. No one made an effort to explain why the Palestinians are featured above the Kurds, the Tibetans, the Tamils, the Igbos, the Sikhs, the Ahwazi, the Uighurs, the Basques, the Catalans, or the millions of refugees from the ongoing Syrian war. No one claimed that the Palestinians are the most desperate people in the world or the most worthy of statehood.  The silence is particularly odd given the large number of individuals, groups and organizations that have chosen to elevate the Palestinian cause above all others.

Even more curious, is that no one attempted to refute my suggestion that perhaps the Palestinians were entitled to even less sympathy than others because of two distinguishing factors that set them apart:  they have repeatedly rejected offers to obtain what they claim to seek (an independent state of their own) and, unlike other stateless refugees, they have engaged for decades in indiscriminate violence and terrorism in pursuit of their goals.

I did receive several replies which are worth mentioning, not because they make a specific case in support of the Palestinian cause (which they did not), but because they are typical of the responses made by people who generally support the Palestinian cause, especially on college campuses.

One response from a dear friend is the following:

So to answer the central question of your headline Why the Palestinians?I think the answer is Why the Blacks? Why the Transgenders? Why the women? Why the Muslims? Why the handicapped? Why the Syrians? Why the Jewish people? I think people are feeling wary of picking this group of victims instead of that one.

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Of course, the flaw in this response, is two-fold. First, it suffers from a specious moral equivalency that assumes that all peoples who are suffering are equally entitled to our sympathy and support regardless of how they ended up in their particular circumstances or whether their condition is largely self-inflicted. But this is neither morally nor factually correct. We routinely pick and choose among the afflicted and determine who are most worthy of our time, our resources, and our support.

Equally significant, this respondent failed to address the two distinguishing features of the Palestinian cause which I had posited. If he had, he would have acknowledged, that – – unlike the Palestinians – – African-Americans, transgenders, women, Muslims, the handicapped, and Syrian refugees have not repeatedly rejected plans to accommodate their needs. And – – unlike the Palestinians – – none of these groups have routinely resorted to violence and terrorism to achieve their goals. That is why, in part, they are entitled to our sympathy and the Palestinians are not. I seriously doubt that my friend would extend his sympathy and support to African-Americans, transgenders, women, Muslims, the handicapped, and Syrian refugees if they repeatedly refused good faith offers to remedy their conditions and engaged in random and horrific acts of terrorism.

Another response I received was along similar lines. This respondent stated:

I have issue with the premise of judging empathy. In a world that needs more empathy, stratifying which issues are more worthy or just of our empathy seems unimportant to having empathy in the first place.

Here again, the response seems to be that all people, regardless of their own actions, are equally entitled to our empathy.But that simply is not the case. We do not empathize with homophobics or white supremacists or misogynists because their causes are seriously flawed and not worthy of our empathy. We pick and choose whom we empathize with based on the merits of their causes.

These responses are especially relevant to the current crisis on college campuses where the Palestinian cause has become a cause celebre and intertwined with the more legitimate causes of the LGBT community, womens rights, Islamophobia, and other matters worthy of our attention. The fact that the cause of Palestinians and their embracing of anti-Semitism and violence has inexplicably been connected to other causes on campuses only lessens the value of those other causes.

What in reality does the plight of LGBT victims and victims of sexual assault have to do with the cause of a people who have embraced violence and terrorism? Do campus activists really want to make support for Palestinian suicide bombers a litmus test for students wanting to support the plight of transgenders and the disabled?

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Middle East Protest at UC Berkeley Campus


The overwhelming responses to my question have focussed not on the Palestinians themselves but rather upon their antagonists, the Israelis.  The respondents effectively conceded that the Palestinians are not particularly worthy of our attention on the merits of their case, but that they had become so because of the reaction of the Israelis to the existential threat the Palestinians posed.  The question turned from why the Palestinians?to why the Israelis?”  However, even inverting the question does not justify the elevated status of the Palestinian cause.

Many contend that the Palestinians are entitled to unique status among the stateless peoples of the world because the Israelis have put them in a desperatecondition (desperate people do desperate things…”), their land is occupied by the Israelis, the Israelis are building illegal settlements in their territory making a two-state solution impossible, the Israelis recently passed a nation state law putting Palestinians at a civic disadvantage, and other such claims all directed at the actions of the Israelis – – not the merits of the Palestinian cause.  Without getting into these arguments at length here, they do nothing to bolster the Palestinians case.  (On the Israeli occupation,see here; on Israeli settlements, see here, on the nation state law, see here.

This is because there are many stateless peoples who are in desperateconditions, some even more desperate than the Palestinians.  Consider the ten million Muslim Uighurs, millions of whom presently are confined to reeducation campsin China.  Many stateless people are living in their ancestral homelands under occupation by foreign governments such as the Tibetans.  Many stateless people have seen settlements built on land previously inhabited by their ancestors such as the Greeks in present day Cypress.  

And yet none of them – – other than the Palestinians – – have repeatedly rejected offers to remedy the conditions under which they suffer.  None of them have resorted to extreme violence and terrorism, including stabbing innocent civilians outside grocery stores or slaughtering children in their beds at night.  Why are the Palestinians given a pass on their self-inflicted status and horrific acts of violence because of alleged acts of the Israeli government?

Others argue that the conduct of the Israeli government in building a security fence between Israelis and Palestinians (resulting in inconvenient checkpoints through which Palestinians must pass in order to enter Israel proper) entitle Palestinians to our sympathy and support.  But this argument fails to recognize why the Israelis found it necessary to build a security fence and set up checkpoints in the first place.  Does anyone seriously believe it is because the Israelis (with two million Arab citizens, hundreds of thousands of black Ethiopian Jews, and millions of Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews (essentially Arab Jews, expelled from their ancestral homelands in Arab countries and who constitute half the population of Israel) are racistand engage in apartheidpractices?

No, the reason the Israels built a security fence was as a defensive move to protect its citizens from the horrific suicide bombers during the second intifada in 2000-2002.  Prior to the building of the fence, Palestinian terrorists could just stroll from their villages in the West Bank into Jerusalem and blow up pizza parlor or a bus.

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Since the fence was constructed, the number of such attacks has declined by more than 90%.  Even the Palestinian terrorists have admitted the fence is a deterrent. Islamic Jihad leader Abdallah Ramadan Shalah conceded that the terrorist organizations had every intention of continuing suicide bombing attacks, but that the separation fence is an obstacle to the resistance, and if it were not there the situation would be entirely different.”    

So we have now entered a twilight zone where it is not the merits of the Palestinian cause which elevates its status, but the self-defensive acts of the Israel government in taking steps to prevent the Palestinians from slaughtering its people that have somehow ennobled the Palestinians.

Still others maintain that because Israel vociferously claims to be a democracy, more should be expected of it than other more autocratic regimes. Again, this is not an argument in favor of the merits of the Palestinian cause, but a charge directed against the State of Israel in order to justify the special treatment accorded the Palestinians.  

This argument, however, assumes that Israel is not fulfilling its responsibilities as the only democratic country in the Middle East. However, this contention ignores the fact that nearly two million Arabs are living in Israel with full rights of citizenship, almost twenty percent of the entire population.  Arab Israeli citizens are elected to Israels parliament, serve on its Supreme Court, are prominent in the arts, cinema, theatre, the literary world, the business world, and where they feel discriminated against, are free to take their case to the Israeli courts which often rule in their favor.  

Most important, Arab Israelis are voting with their feet.  There are no long lines of Arab Israelis waiting to go to Jordan or Syria or any where else in the Middle East where they are totally free to emigrate to.  In a recent poll, eighty-two percent of Israeli Arabs said they would rather be a citizen of Israel than of any other country in the world.

Arab Israelis who are gays and lesbians are free to choose their lifestyles without fear of being thrown from a rooftop as LGBT peoples in other Middle Eastern countries often are.  Where else has a government carried out two covert operations to rescue their black brothers from death and famine in Ethiopia and bring them back to live freely in their homeland?

What other democracy than Israel, including the United States, warns civilian populations of impeding military actions in retaliation for rocket attacks, as Israel does in Gaza? Would the United States or England or any other democratic country in the world have reacted in such a relatively restrained manner to seventy uninterrupted years of war and savage terrorism?

As one Bernie Sanders supporter recently stated in making the progressive case for Israel:  “most Israelis are Middle Eastern and African; Americans would call them people of color. * * * This country is a progressive exemplar worth singing about.

Others argue that because Israel receives significant financial aid from the United States, American taxpayers rightly should consider Israels actions with particular scrutiny. There is some truth to this, but Israel is not the only or even the largest beneficiary of U.S. aid in the Middle East. In 2016, Iraq received $5.1 billion in American assistance; Afghanistan got $5 billion; Israel, $3.1 billion; Egypt and Jordan $1.2 billion each; and Saudia Arabia received $730 million. In short, the amount of taxpayer funds provided to Israel pale in comparison to the overall dollars provided to Arab and Muslim countries.

Moreover, U.S. military aid to Israel comes with a big string attached: all the funds must be spent purchasing arms from U.S. manufacturers, creating jobs and financial benefits to American taxpayers. And, finally, U.S. aid to Israel is not a charitable contribution nor is it the result of undue pressure by the Israel lobby.Rather, every administration since 1948, Republican and Democrat, has determined that it is in the national security interest of the United States to support Israel because Israel stands in the forefront of the war on terror and provides vital intelligence to our government.

Thus, at the end of the day, we are still left with the unresolved question – – why this obsession with this conflict? There does not appear to be any legitimate argument why the Palestinians are uniquely entitled to our sympathy and support.  In fact, quite the contrary, because of their rejectionism and reliance on horrific acts of terror, their cause is diminished, not strengthened.  And the argument that, even if the Palestinians are not themselves worthy of our empathy, they are legitimate subjects of concern because of the actions of the Israelis also proves to be bogus and pretextual.  Where does that leave us?

It leaves us here.  The astute commentator Thomas L. Friedman pointedly observed in the New York Times on October 16, 2002:

Criticizing Israel is not anti-Semitic, and saying so is vile. But singling out Israel for opprobrium and international sanction – – out of all proportion to any other party in the Middle East – – is anti-Semitic, and not saying so is dishonest.

Although one must be extremely cautious in using the caustic term anti-Semitic,what other explanation is there for the obsession with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict? Why else are the Palestinians singled out among all the stateless peoples in the world as deserving of their own state and Israel is singled out for disproportionate opprobrium?  

Isnt it past time for activists, especially students on campus, who support the legitimate grievances of African-Americans, women, the disabled, and the LGBT community but, also inexplicably include the Palestine cause in their movement, to ask their leaders:  why the Palestinians?

About the Author
Steve Frank is retired after a 30-year career as an appellate lawyer with the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. His writings on Israel, the law and architecture have appeared in numerous publications including the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, the Baltimore Sun, the Jerusalem Post, the Jewish News Syndicate and Moment magazine.
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