Thursday, January 01, 2009


Israel sure is a depressing subject. A comment in another post recently reminded me of the curious consensus among both major U.S. parties and all major news outlets that Israel is America's greatest ally and must not be criticized. I was pointed to this document. Assuming this heavily-footnoted paper from March 2006 is accurate in its factual reporting (nearly half of it consists of "endnotes"), the facts are very disturbing. Did you know, for instance, that Israel has killed 3.4 Palestinians for every Israeli lost since 2000, including 5.7 Palestinian children killed for every Israeli child killed? The paper notes other interesting facts:
Since the October War in 1973, Washington has provided Israel with a level of support dwarfing the amounts provided to any other state. It has been the largest annual recipient of direct U.S. economic and military assistance since 1976 and the largest total recipient since World War II. Total direct U.S. aid to Israel amounts to well over $140 billion in 2003 dollars. Israel receives about $3 billion in direct foreign assistance each year, which is roughly one-fifth of America’s foreign aid budget. In per capita terms, the United States gives each Israeli a direct subsidy worth about $500 per year.
The United States has provided Israel with nearly $3 billion to develop weapons systems like the Lavi aircraft that the Pentagon did not want or need, while giving Israel access to top-drawer U.S. weaponry like Blackhawk helicopters and F-16 jets. Finally, the United States gives Israel access to intelligence that it denies its NATO allies and has turned a blind eye towards Israel’s acquisition of nuclear weapons.
In addition, Washington provides Israel with consistent diplomatic support. Since 1982, the United States has vetoed 32 United Nations Security Council resolutions that were critical of Israel, a number greater than the combined total of vetoes cast by all the other Security Council members. It also blocks Arab states’ efforts to put Israel’s nuclear arsenal on the International Atomic Energy Agency’s agenda.
Contrary to popular belief, the Zionists had larger, better-equipped, and better-led forces during the 1947-49 War of Independence and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) won quick and easy victories against Egypt in 1956 and against Egypt, Jordan, and Syria in 1967--before large-scale U.S. aid began flowing to Israel. These victories offer eloquent evidence of Israeli patriotism, organizational ability, and military prowess, but they also reveal that Israel was far from helpless even in its earliest years.

Today, Israel is the strongest military power in the Middle East. Its conventional forces are far superior to its neighbors and it is the only state in the region with nuclear weapons.
Later on, the paper describes how it believes pro-Israel lobby groups manage to maintain a universal pro-Israel position in both major parties and in the mainstream media as well.

I have the sense, and not just from reading this paper, that those who criticize Israel's policies or government risk being called anti-semitic. This is defined on as "One who discriminates against or who is hostile toward or prejudiced against Jews"--in other words, a racist. Not that I think Jews count as a race at all--they're just white people--but racists tend to think they're a race.

How can criticizing Israel (which of course is shorthand for the govenment of Israel) make you a racist?

If one criticizes the American government, are they labeled anti-American? Actually, I do think that has happened, especially in times of turmoil such as the time following 9/11. But nowadays, luckily, that crap just doesn't stick and says more about the name-caller than the name-callee. America, after all, has always had a tradition of freedom to criticize govenment. Besides, the term "anti-American" doesn't have a strong racist connotation the way "anti-semitic" does, and considering that Americans come in all colors, how could it? But somehow, this tiny middle-eastern nation is almost immune to criticism in mainstream media, seemingly on threat of name calling.

Coincidentally as I write this, the latest news headline is that Isreael has killed a top Hamas official. Oh, and much of his family. Oh, and a bunch of other people that happened to be in the same 4-storey apartment building.
GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – Israel dropped a one-ton bomb on the home of a Hamas strongman Thursday, killing him along with two wives and four children in the first attack on the top leadership of Gaza's rulers. As the aerial bombardment escalated, the army said it was also poised to launch a ground invasion. Israel also appeared to be sounding out a possible diplomatic exit from the 6-day-old military offensive against Hamas by demanding international monitors as a key term of any future truce.

The bombing targeted 49-year-old Nizar Rayan, ranked among Hamas' top five decision-makers in Gaza. His four-story apartment building crashed to the ground, sending a thick plume of smoke into the air and heavily damaging neighboring buildings. It killed Rayan and 11 others, including two of his four wives and four of his 12 children, Palestinian health officials said. The Muslim faith allows men to have up to four wives.
Since the official was in Hamas, we can safely assume he was a bad guy (right?), but wait, what about the eleven other deaths? What about the residents of that building, whose possessions were destroyed and who are left homeless?

When analyzing the objectivity with which an issue is reported, it helps to imagine how rhetoric and news coverage would change if an act committed by one side in a conflict were instead committed by the other side. For example, the excellent book Confessions of an Economic Hit Man says that, in Latin America, the CIA is widely suspected to have assassinated Panama's populist leader, a fundamentally good man named Omar Torrijos, as part of an effort to regain some control over the Panama canal. The next leader, Manuel Noriega, refused to give the U.S. its desired power over the canal, and eventually the U.S. launched a small invasion of Panama in order to depose Noriega. In the process, somewhere between 2000 and 5000 civilians were killed.

To detect a lack of objectivity in the media--as absurd as it may seem--I think it's worthwhile to imagine if a well-liked U.S. president such as Barack Obama were killed in a mysterious plane crash. A foreign intelligence agency is suspected in the "accident", and the same agency is suspected in a similar accident a few months ago that killed another popular leader. Would the American media pay little attention, as they did to the incident in Panama? And what if a foreign force invaded Washington, D.C., killing thousands of civilians and capturing the President? Would the American people be more aware of this than when their own country invades Panama? Would the American people tolerate having only "ballpark" civilian death estimates that range from 300 to 5000, as noted on Wikipedia? Would some Americans automatically assume that the invasion was justified, as they do when America invades another country?

I suppose it's to be expected that Americans care a lot more about the death of their own rather than the deaths of foreigners caused by their military. Still, is this not a lack of fairness and objectivity? And is there not something wrong?

Fun fact: death estimates in the Iraq conflict range from 100,000 (a bare minimum based on official reports only, see to nearly a million (an extrapolation of the 2006 figure of 655,000 put out by the John Hopkins report.) I don't really understand why, but for each and every U.S. soldier killed there (and there are a lot of those, as most Americans are no doubt aware), something like 25 Iraqis are killed. Or maybe 200, I mean who's counting? Of course, I don't mean to imply that Americans killed them; rather, the chaos caused by the horribly mismanaged invasion somehow empowered all the most evil elements of Iraq and neighboring states, other than Saddam himself of course.

Sorry, my mind wanders. Anyway, when I was a child I was taught that we are all brothers and sisters. Not all of us Americans. Not all of us North Americans. Not all of us English-speakers, but all of us human beings. We are all valuable in the sight of God, and all men are created equal. I hold fast to that ideal. I believe that an Iraqi or Panamanian hurts as much when dismembered as an American. I believe that people around the world have as much right to a livelihood as we do. Do you disagree?

Are Americans far more valuable than others? First-worlders far more valuable than third-worlders? Jews far more valuable than Palestinians? If you don't think so, then sit up and take notice, for the facts on the ground suggest otherwise.

So getting back to Israel, let's try reversing the situation. What if you heard that Hamas dropped a one-ton bomb on the 4-storey apartment building lived in by a top Israeli official, which killed him and 6 immediate family members and 5 unlucky others? I would think: "a top Israeli official lives in an apartment building?" and then: "oh dear, a lot of Palestinians will die for this".

But I think a lot of Americans simply wouldn't know the difference. I studied the history of Israel in high school, but by the time I got to university I had forgotten just about everything I knew, and I came to realize this when I got into a conversation with an Arab pizza place employee, and embarrassed myself with ignorant statements. For example, I thought that both Palestinians and Israelis killed one another in suicide bomb attacks, more or less in equal numbers. I guess I was too busy in my job (writing software for said pizza place) that I lost track of the world outside--the world on which America has a tremendous effect while its citizens aren't looking. And isn't that the story of most Americans?

Even though Israel may be the keystone of America's relationship with the world, most Americans know little about the conflict there. And according to the paper I introduced at the beginning, this is just the way the powerful lobby group AIPAC wants it, because the facts are not flattering.

I don't know the solution to this conflict, but I think reconciliation, compromise, diplomacy, and forgiveness--not proud displays of military force by Israel (or desperate acts of terrorism by Palestinian militants)--will have major roles to play. I worry that Israel always takes the latter approach because its unique relationship with the U.S. makes it invincible. I have heard there is a military culture in Israel's government--is this culture, I wonder, more prominent than the military culture in the U.S. government? In any case, I don't think that culture will ever come to an end as long as the U.S. props it up, and the U.S. will not stop propping it up until somebody starts saying "hey, maybe Israel doesn't deserve to be our greatest foreign-aid recipient" or "hey, maybe there's something morally wrong over there" or "maybe Jewish lives aren't quite worth 3.4 times as much as Arab lives".

And nobody in mainstream media and mainstream politics will say that until Americans learn enough about the situation to respond "hey, maybe he's right!" So please, learn a little more about this issue, and be ready to wonder whether decades of U.S. foreign policy is bringing this 50-year conflict to a close--or preventing a peaceful conclusion.

P.S. I know that there is plenty of blame to go around: Palestinians kill Israelis too. It's just that only one side actually has the power to end this conflict, and with great power comes great responsibility. And hey, happy new year! I have no doubt that 2009 will be an odd year. Numerically speaking.