How Western obsession with Israel perpetuates human rights violations in the Arab world....

Published: 17 March 2011
Briefing Number 279

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Summary:    In early 2011, popular revolts occurred in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.  Millions of Arabs took to the streets demanding human rights, freedom and democracy.  In Tunisia’s ‘jasmine revolution’, its autocratic ruler was forced from office.  Weeks later, Egypt’s autocratic president of 30 years, Hosni Mubarak, was also forced to stand down.  By early March, Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi was fighting a bloody internal battle to suppress an uprising against his rule.  Popular unrest stirred in many other Arab countries including Bahrain, Yemen and Morocco.  Meanwhile, vivid accounts emerged of domestic torture and systematic human rights abuses by these and other Arab regimes.    

These events took most international commentators and the general public by complete surprise. Why?  A line of commentary has emerged that one reason is because of the total obsession with Israel in recent times.  Quite simply, that obsession has blinded commentators, policy-makers and the public to human rights violations across the Arab world, and helped to perpetuate them. 

This new Beyond Images Briefing contains comments on this theme from three writers, together with comments from UK Prime Minister David Cameron:

  1. Joel Brinkley, in the San Francisco Chronicle
  2. Robin Shepherd, in, in the UK
  3. Nick Cohen, in the Observer in the UK

Key message: Western obsession with Israel has made it easier for autocratic  leaders of Arab states to oppress their people, while the world mostly turned a blind eye.  It is not Israel which is the source of injustice in the Middle East.  It is the demonization of Israel which is in fact a prime source of that injustice. 

Below are verbatim extracts from published articles by Joel Brinkley, Robin Shepherd and Nick Cohen on the theme of obsession with Israel and the way in which this has helped Arab leaders to perpetuate oppression and human rights violations in the Arab world.

We add a postscript containing a recent statement by British Prime Minister David Cameron on this theme, during a visit to the Gulf State of Qatar.   

Joel Brinkley
San Francisco Chronicle Online, 6 March 2011

Joel Brinkley is a professor of journalism at Stanford University, and a Pulitzer Prize winning former foreign correspondent for the New York Times

“For more than half a century, ever since the naqba, the Arab world’s day of catastrophe, the day Israel was founded, Arab leaders have used a consistent strategy to keep their people in line. 

Our life’s goal, they would say over and over, is to take back ‘Palestine’.  Nothing else matters. Deliberately implicit in this was the expectation that their people would stop thinking about their own stunted lives and focus instead on the fight.  

For many years that seemed to work.  Then came satellite TV, the Internet, and over time ordinary Arabs began to realise that Israel had nothing to do with their own circumscribed lives.  All of it was the fault of their corrupt, implacable dictators.

Frustration grew until finally a catalyst – that vegetable merchant in Tunisia who burnt himself up – set the region on fire.  Now the world has been watching actual and threatened uprisings, from Morocco to Iraq and beyond.  They are televised.  All of us can see and hear what the people want.  And one remarkable fact is now patently clear. 

Even after decades of indoctrination, these protestors, in state after state, have nothing to say about Israel.  That conflict is not even a tertiary concern.....

.... Few Arabs hold warm feelings towards Israel.  But for nearly all of them now, Israel is just an unfortunate fact of life, not an obsession. 

Remember, the naqba was 63 years ago.  The most recent Arab-Israeli war [between states – Beyond Images] ended 38 years ago.  Today, well more than half of the world’s Arabs were born years after these events.  The average age in Libya right now is 24; in Egypt it is 25.  These people now know that their dictators’ alarmist warnings about Israel were cynical distractions..... [our emphasis]....”

Robin Shepherd
The – 3 March 2011

Robin Shepherd is a senior researcher with the Henry Jackson Society, and is a former Times journalist.  He is author of ‘Europe Beyond The Pale’

“One of the most noteworthy consequences of the current wave of protests and revolutions across the Arab world is that when you click on the Middle East section of the BBC website something extraordinary happens: you are no longer bombarded, headline by headline, subsection by subsection, with a once familiar word: “Israel”....

And now I am on ‘The Guardian’s Comment is Free blog.  I’ve typed ‘Israel’ into the search facility.  Here’s the response: “No Matches Found”.  This is the Guardian: a paper that according to its own figures, printed 258 comment pieces on Israel last year, and more than 1000 overall – about three a day.   As the estimable media monitoring organisation Just Journalism pointed out (see, this makes for some interesting comparisons with conflict zones accounting for hundreds of thousands of casualties such as Congo (124 items overall) and Sudan (121).

But there is much more to this than a gentle dig at the liberal-left media establishment’s obsession with the Jewish state. Ask yourself this: prior to the current crisis, how many Britons had the remotest notion that Libya was a clan-based society?  That has emerged as a central element of any serious analysis of how things might transpire in that country, and now features in the reporting widely.  So why has such basic information taken so many of us by surprise? 
The obsession with Israel is not just making us sick – societally, morally, civilisationally – it is also making us stupid [Our emphasis]. People watching and reading the major media outlets can tell you the names of suburbs of east Jerusalem.  Ask them to name the capital city of Jordan and most will struggle....

The bright lights of information and publicity suddenly go dark over the Middle East when Jews cannot be held responsible for the misbehaviour...”

Nick Cohen
The Observer, Sunday 27 February 2011  

Nick Cohen is a lead columnist on the Observer newspaper in the UK, and author of ‘What’s Left? How Liberals Lost Their Way’

“The Arab revolution is consigning loads of articles, books and speeches about the Middle East to the dustbin of history.  In a few months, readers will go through libraries or newspaper archives and wonder how so many who claimed expert knowledge could have turned their eyes away from tyranny and its consequences.

To a generation of politically active if not morally consistent campaigners, the Middle East has meant Israel and only Israel.  In theory, they should have been able to stick by universal principles and support a just settlement for the Palestinians while opposing the dictators who kept Arabs subjugated.  Few, however, have been able to oppose oppression in all its forms consistently. The right has been no better than the liberal-left in its Jew obsessions.  The briefest reading of conservative newspapers shows that at all times their first concern about political changes in the Middle East is how they affect Israel.  For both sides, the lives of hundreds of millions of Arabs, Berbers and Kurds who were not involved in the conflict could be forgotten......

... Far from being a cause of the revolution, antagonism to Israel everywhere served the interests of oppressors. [Our emphasis] Europeans have no right to be surprised. Of all people, we ought to from our experience of Nazism that anti-Semitism is a conspiracy theory about power, rather than a standard racist hatred of poor immigrants.  Fascistic regimes reached for it when they sought to deny their own people liberty.  The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the forgery the far-right wing of the decaying tsarist regime issued in 1903 to convince Russians that they should continue to obey the tsar’s every command, denounces human rights and democracy as facades behind which the secret Jewish rulers of the world manipulated gullible gentiles.....

Syrian Ba’athists, Hamas, the Saudi monarchy and Gaddafi eagerly promoted the Protocols, for why wouldn’t the vicious elites welcome a fantasy that dismissed democracy as a fraud and justified their domination?  Just before the Libyan revolt, Gaddafi tried a desperate move his European predecessors would have understood.  He tried to deflect Libyan anger by calling for a popular Palestinian revolution against Israel.  That may or may not have been justified, but it assuredly would have done nothing to help the wretched Libyans.....

...[Meanwhile,] the European Union, which did so much to export democracy and the rule of law to former communist dictatorships of Eastern Europe, has played a miserable role in the Middle East.  It pours in aid but never demands democratisation or restrictions on police powers in return [This also applies to the EU’s failure to demand an end to Palestinian media incitement against Israel as a condition of further aid – Beyond Images].  That will have to change if the promise of the past month is to be realised.  If it is to help with democracy-building, Europe will need to remind itself as much as the recipients of its money that you can never build free societies on the racist conspiracies of the Nazis and the tsars.  They are and always have been the tunes that tyrants sing.....”

Postscript – British Prime Minister David Cameron, on tour in Qatar

During a visit to Qatar, British Prime Minister Cameron alluded to this theme. After taking a series of questions on Israel from Qatari students, Cameron said (according to a report on Bloomberg, 23 February 2011) that “some Middle East rules were using the Israeli-Palestine conflict as a distraction from their own oppressive regimes.”  Cameron reportedly continued as follows:

“In too many countries in the Middle East, some rulers say to their people ‘be angry about that. Don’t be angry about the fact that you live in a non-open society...”

A related Beyond Images resource:

“Israel is the root cause of the problems of the Middle East” (Beyond Images Briefing 205, dated November 2007)