Stephen Harper prides himself on seeing the world in black and white. It fits with the decisive image he forges at home, but it falls morally short when applied to problems outside Canada, as the prime minister showed in Israel when he offered a superficial assessment of a complicated problem. Harper praised Israel for having “anchored itself in the ideals of freedom, democracy and the rule of law” and accused the country’s critics of being motivated by a hidden anti-semitism. He then jettisoned his democratic ideals by welcoming the “return to stability” in Egypt brought about by a military coup against the elected Muslim Brotherhood.
There are sound reasons to stand beside Israel against those who wish it away. But Harper could have expressed solidarity without slipping into the narrative of a beleaguered Israel almost without fault. Israel is a powerful state that thoroughly dominates Palestinians, and it most certainly does not practice democracy in the West Bank territories it has occupied militarily for 47 years. If there was democracy in the West Bank, the West Bank would not be under Israeli control.
Harper’s speech showed his aversion to the complexity of the calamity. Does the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement that targets Israel harbour an anti-semitic strain? Most certainly. But it also includes Jews who see it as peaceful leverage against an occupation that violates noble Jewish — and universal — ideals of democracy. Are Jews and others who defend Israel’s right to exist but refuse to tolerate its human rights abuses also anti-Semites? When Harper says those who accuse Israel of running an apartheid state are the “face of the new anti-semitism,” does he include Israelis such as the editors of Haaretz who decry the different legal regime imposed on Palestinians as apartheid? Sadly, a toxic hatred for Israel exists in some Palestinian quarters, just as there is racism toward Palestinians from many Israelis. The principled response to the bad habit of singling Israel out for condemnation is not to scream: “But look over there!” It is to condemn abuses wherever they occur.
Too many people refuse to see the flawed humanity on both sides — and lack the curiosity to discover it. This issue of Policy Options tries to counter that view with a photo essay on Palestinian life in the West Bank, without the clichés of rock-throwing youths. We also present a perspective from Cairo that exposes the flaws in praise for stability. Do they show the whole picture? No. The world’s most difficult troubles tend to be complicated. Those who don’t see that are simply refusing to look.