Anti-Israel activists spin tales about alleged Israeli human rights abuses to instill hostility against the Jewish state. They have had an impact, but not one desired by most fair-minded people.
The false allegations have served as a decoy, distracting the UN, NGOs, churches, students and the wider public from the real human rights abuses occurring in the Middle East.
The activists invoke and misapply human rights principles to accuse Israel of abuses that are rare in pluralistic, democratic Israel, but are rampant elsewhere in the region. Their hostility to Israel trumps their commitment to the very human rights values they claim to uphold, and gives a pass to real human rights violators in the region.
Consider the ongoing subjugation of women throughout the Middle East.
“Honor killings” – the barbaric murder of women who “shame” their families through unapproved relations with males, by violating codes of behavior or dress, or by being victims of rape – are the most egregious example of women’s oppression. Honor killings are prevalent in Iraq, Jordan, Turkey, the Palestinian Authority (Gaza and the West Bank), Yemen and elsewhere in the region. In Israel, honor killings are outlawed and treated as murder.
Women face other injustices, including lack of laws to protect them from domestic violence, family law that requires “obedience” to husbands, and forced acceptance of arranged marriages. A woman’s testimony in court is worth less than a man’s. In several countries, women cannot travel to foreign countries without approval from a male relative.
Saudi Arabian women must have a male escort when they go outside their homes.
The rising incidence of mobbing, sexual assault and gang-rape has made many Egyptian women fearful of walking in public without a protector. Women throughout the Middle East “suffer from unequal citizenship and legal entitlement [and] inequality of opportunity.” Their “political and economic participation remains the lowest in the world,” according to the 2002 UN Human Development Report. Yet, rather than calling for reform of these unacceptable conditions, anti-Israel activists clamor for international denunciation of Israel, where all women, including Arabs and Jews, enjoy legal and institutional equality.
Consider the oppression of gays in the region. While Israel is among the world’s most progressive nations on gender and sexual issues with the military’s gay policy of “don’t ask, don’t care,” and Tel Aviv has been identified as the world’s top gay tourist destination, gays elsewhere in the Middle East face severe persecution.
Homosexuality is a crime with punishments ranging from imprisonment in Syria, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Morocco to flogging, stoning, hanging, or beheading in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Yemen.
Though homosexuality is not illegal everywhere, gays are often arrested under laws against “lewd conduct” in Egypt, and they experience police harassment and torture in Egypt and the Palestinian Authority. In Iraq, a campaign of extrajudicial executions, kidnappings and torture of gay men began in 2009. Gays may also be the victims of honor killing.
Palestinian society “has no mercy for sexual diversity,” according to a gay Palestinian website. Gay Palestinians know that Israel is a haven for them, and many have fled to Israel where they seek asylum with the help of Israeli human rights groups.
But far too many anti-Israel activists and their supporters don’t seem to care.
Instead, they want to defame the only gay-friendly, progressive country in the Middle East.
Consider another injustice that should claim our attention: Middle Eastern countries’ lack of freedom and tolerance for religions other than Islam. Saudi Arabia does not permit the public practice of any non-Muslim religion. Conversion from Islam is punishable by death in Iran, Saudi Arabia and Sudan, and is illegal in the Palestinian Authority, Gaza, Jordan, Egypt, Oman, Qatar and the UAE. The Baha’i are oppressed in Iran and unwelcome elsewhere, except in Israel where they built their international religious center.
In the past 60 years, Jews have been forced to flee North African and Arab countries where they had lived for millennia.
Virtually no Jews remain in Arab countries where they were once an integral part of the social tapestry.
Today, Christians face increasing persecution in the region though Christianity was born and developed in the Middle East and was once a dominant religion.
This increasing persecution has led to the flight of Christians. In Iraq, the Christian population has plummeted to 500,000 from an estimated 1.4 million just a decade ago. In Syria, more members of the small, ancient Christian community are fleeing from the rebel Islamists. Last month, Libya arrested over 50 Christians for allegedly proselytizing to Muslims. They could get death sentences for their crime.
In Gaza, Hamas has persecuted the small Christian population whose numbers have dropped by almost 60 percent since Hamas took over in January 2006. Under the Palestinian Authority, the percentage of Christians in Bethlehem dropped from 74% in 1945 to 28% in 2007. In Egypt, Coptic Christians face increasing intimidation and brutality with violent attacks and burning of their churches.
Yet, the pseudo-human rights activists demand that attention be focused on Israel, where religious freedom is protected and where 15 different religions enjoy official status.
Yet, the anti-Israel campaigners consider championing these groups or protesting the region’s gender, religious and political apartheid politically less important than maligning Israel. When people call attention to these abuses, they are often silenced with accusations of Islamophobia.
People across the Middle East pay a high price for this misdirection. Their needs are forgotten. The human rights groups who should champion them because they appear to care about the Middle East, are too busy demonizing Israel and simultaneously ignoring the human rights abuses of the PA and the reactionary Hamas regime in Gaza. The most dangerous outcome is that these principles, distorted beyond recognition, could cease to be useful moral yardsticks for bringing desperately needed reforms to the Middle East.
Roz Rothstein is the CEO of StandWithUs, Roberta Seid, PhD, is the education research director at StandWithUs and teaches at UC Irvine.