This past June, US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley slammed the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) for “singling out Israel” for criticism. This is not a new line: the “singling out Israel” accusation is a decades-old tactic that Israel’s proponents use almost any time that Israel is challenged on its human rights record. The rise of the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement calling for economic pressure on Israel for its human rights violations has only amplified the use of this evasive tactic.
At best, critics of Israeli government policies can expect to be accused of imposing an unfair standard on Israel; at worst they can face allegations of anti-Semitism for supposedly singling out the country for criticism. For example, during Parliament’s 2016 debate over a motion to condemn BDS, about a dozen Liberal and Conservative MPs toed this fictitious line when they declared, “Israel is singled out from the rest of the world.” In addition, a few MPs actually suggested that BDS supporters are the new face of anti-Semitism because they “selectively condemn Israel.”
But ironically, what the pro-Israel lobby has been arguing for decades about Israel being singled out is true – as Israel benefits from unparalleled favouritism. Israel has been given preferential treatment for years by Western governments, immune to criticism.
Consider how the world is preoccupied with North Korea’s nuclear program, yet not a single Western government has ever criticized Israel for its nuclear weapons. Consider how the world responds when North Korea shoots a missile over Japan, yet ignored Israel’s airstrikes on targets in Syria, or Lebanon, or Iraq. Rather than being berated for these destabilizing acts, Israel has been rewarded, as the number one recipient of US aid since the end of World War II. In fact, since 1970, the half of the US vetoes at the UN have been used to shield Israel from condemnation.
But why, Israel’s proponents ask, is Israel being boycotted when other countries like Saudi Arabia are also committing human rights violations?
While it is true that other nations commit grave human rights abuses, the boycott of Israel is an explicit call to action launched by Palestinian civil society. It is justified using arguments of international law and has clearly stated objectives. Right or wrong, there is no similar campaign or set of objectives guiding any international boycott against Saudi Arabia. And just as the boycott movement against apartheid in South Africa was not designed to solve the problems in the rest of the world, BDS has objectives that are uniquely specific to Israel-Palestine.
In a similar vein, Israel’s allies suggest that Israel’s critics overlook more urgent human rights crises. “Why isn’t there a larger focus on Syria?” Israel’s champions ask. “The situation there is so much worse.” Indeed, the death toll and human rights violations in Syria this year supersede those in Israel-Palestine. Yet the conflict in Syria began in 2011, and will likely be resolved in the next few years, while Israel’s occupation of Palestine is in its 50th year with no end in sight. Conflicts around the world come and go, yet Israel’s occupation remains, worsening with the bulldozing of every Palestinian home, and the construction of every illegal Israeli settlement unit.
Israel’s champions also ask why the UN seems to pass such a disproportionate number of resolutions condemning the state. Yet honestly, the international community has exercised a maddening degree of patience with Israel.
Despite a scathing 2004 decision from the International Court of Justice and decades of UN resolutions, Israel continues to commit human rights violations with impunity. In December 2016, after almost 50 years in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, UN Security Council resolution 2334 finally demanded that Israel cease all settlement activities in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT), calling them a “flagrant violation” of international law. Nonetheless, as if to spite the Security Council, Israel made three separate settlement expansion announcements within weeks of the resolution, showing utter disregard for international law. To say that the UN is singling out Israel is like saying that the police are singling out a serial shoplifter after his 53rd arrest.
Canada too participates in this favouritism, shielding Israel from criticism. For example, in 2014, Canada boycotted a UN conference that called attention to Israel’s illegal settlement activities.
More recently, a government decision allowed Israeli wine producers to sell inaccurately labelled wines produced illegally in the West Bank and Golan Heights. Making an unwarranted exception to Canada’s own consumer protection laws, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency ruled that it is acceptable to falsely label wines produced illegally in the OPT as “Products of Israel.”
Israel can’t have it both ways. If it’s a liberal Western democracy as it claims, rather than smearing its critics, Israel should face up to its human rights failings. For whether it’s Amnesty International or the UN Security Council, Israel’s critics are only holding it to the standard it has set for itself.