When the two most senior Amnesty officials presented their new report in Israel they struggled to answer the most basic questions. Their responses, writes Shany Mor, were ‘a mix of exasperation, ignorance, self-contradiction, and conspiratorial magical thinking’.
Most of the meta-event around the Amnesty apartheid report followed a grimly predictable script. The outlandish claims, the colourful pdf’s, the outraged responses, the too-smart-for-you response that the outraged responses were only drawing attention to the report — and the relative indifference of nearly everyone who is not involved in the western ‘debate’ about Israel and its conflict with the Palestinians (including most Israelis and Palestinians).
But in one corner of the media there was a very minor event that didn’t quite go according to script. This was a short interview that the Times of Israel’s diplomatic correspondent Lazar Berman conducted with the two most senior Amnesty officials presenting the report. Berman asked Agnes Callamard, the organisation’s Secretary General, and Philip Luther, its Middle East and North Africa Research and Advocacy Director, a few entirely reasonable questions about the report and its context, none of which should have been surprising for them, and yet they struggled to provide answers even to the simplest ones.
Their responses to simple questions were, for the most part, a mix of exasperation, ignorance, self-contradiction, and conspiratorial magical thinking. Luther in particular was almost comically unprepared for the most obvious of questions, and he seemed genuinely resentful at being asked them.
The most obvious question, of course, is why the obsessive and disproportionate focus on Israel in the human rights community. There are a few coherent, even if not terribly persuasive ways, to deal with the question. One would be to argue that all of the attention of Amnesty, HRW, the UNHRC and others is completely justified because Israel truly is a unique evil on the global scene and much worse than all other countries combined. Another would be to deny completely that there is a disproportionate focus on Israel. And a third would to be acknowledge it, maybe claim that it is a problem of other organisations, but argue that in this specific case it is not what is happening.
What is incoherent is trying to do all three, which is precisely what Luther does. He wants to ‘push back’ on the idea that there is a large focus on Israel. Two sentences later, he tacks in the other direction: ‘I’m not sure what the problem is.’ And later again ‘I don’t think there evidence for that.’ When confronted with the specific example of the UNHRC, which year after year passes more resolutions against Israel than all other countries combined, Luther is flatfooted. He avoids the question, isn’t sure about the facts. He seems unaware of the ‘permanent item’ dedicated to Israel on the Commission’s agenda, when no such item exists for any other country.
No one expects an Amnesty director to sound like AIPAC speaker. But it is not expecting too much for someone whose entire professional life is dedicated to the topic of human rights in the Middle East to have an opinion of some kind on the matter.
And it’s jarring that people who believe so fervently in human rights don’t see something amiss in this. Let’s imagine a village with 193 families in it, and the local police assigns one of its only cops to follow only one family’s car and constantly measure its speed, and the tax department goes over every receipt of this same family looking for irregularities, and a grand jury sits permanently to investigate any possible crimes of this same family, and the local paper has a reporter permanently assigned to sniff out any infidelities or disputes inside the family. You don’t need to be an expert with 20 years experience (as Luther reminds us in the interview he has) in the field of human rights to understand what is wrong with this situation.
When Berman comes back to the UN issue one last time, Luther gives perhaps the most astonishing response. He says Israel has actually managed to ‘shut down scrutiny using the power of its relationships’ and charges that the UN is actually a locus of inaction because Israel ‘has influence over powerful allies who then manage to stop it, stop the scrutiny.’
And that of course is the appeal of anti-Israel activism in the West: the sincerely held belief that by engaging in it you are somehow standing up to dark powerful forces at home. There’s a word for this pathology.
Besides the conspiratorial tone (there will be more of that in the interview), it’s an odd claim to make when elsewhere Luther argues that Amnesty can’t investigate other countries for the crime of apartheid precisely because they, unlike Israel, are actually able to stop scrutiny of their actions.
That’s not even the furthest extreme of Luther’s conspiratorial claims. Later in the interview he claims that what makes it hard to see the apartheid in Israel is the ‘smokescreen’ created by Israel’s ‘democratic system’ and ‘judicial institutions.’ These, according to Luther, ‘make it challenging to disentangle’ the picture of the apartheid he and others claim to have found. What he refers to as ‘the Israeli state’ is ‘a driver of complexity and a driver of resources unnecessarily spent on investigations by anybody.’
These passages were rightfully mocked online, but it’s worth pausing over what he is saying and the psychological process he is describing. He knows Israel—ahem, ‘the Israeli state’—is guilty of not just committing a grievous crime but of being a grievous crime. But what he observes are a complex set of practices and institutions that don’t quite appear to be the unvarnished evil he knows is there, and to him this is not cause to revisit his assumptions, but actually further proof of just how nefarious the ‘Israeli state’ is.
In activist circles this is known as ‘washing,’ the belief that when Israel appears to be doing something good or at least not purely evil, that this is nothing more than a deliberate feint designed to fool the weak-willed, and that the deliberate feint which the righteous have identified is actually proof of just how awful the Israelis actually are. So there is pink-washing, green-washing, yellow-washing, aid-washing, vaccine-washing, sport-washing, and so on.
Throughout the interview, Berman keeps asking why Amnesty chose to investigate Israel, and why it did so now. The democratic ‘smokescreen’ isn’t the only reason, even according to Luther. But whenever Berman asks for others, there is no coherent answer coming. Luther assures Berman that in the next year Amnesty will be examining other countries for possible apartheid, but he refuses to divulge which. Luther doesn’t want to talk about China, because he’s not a China expert. His field is MENA (Middle East and North Africa).
So Berman asks him about countries in the Middle East, and uses Amnesty’s definition of apartheid (‘systematic attempt to dominate’). When he gets to Syria, Luther answers with a terse ‘all right,’ whereas on Turkey he just says ‘maybe we’ll get there. I don’t know,’ adding that Berman is ‘hung up on the idea’ that Amnesty is selectively choosing to investigate one nation and not another and that ‘this is somehow so important.’
Well, yes, I suppose Berman and others are hung up on the idea. And if we’re already in a conversation about racism and bigotry, it seems like a pretty reasonable idea to be hung up on. It also seems like the kind of thing a human rights activist would care about or have an opinion about. In fact, it seems like the kind of thing a human rights activist would absolutely hate being accused of and do as much as possible to refute. Or maybe just it’s a hang up. Alright.
Anyway, as Luther is keen to point out, it is not the case that Amnesty has only accused Israel of apartheid. It also issued a report in 2017 accusing Myanmar of committing the crime of apartheid.
This is perhaps the biggest red herring in the entire interview. A comparison of the Myanmar report and the Israel report only serves to make Berman’s questions even more urgent and Luther’s answers even more inadequate.
The Myanmar report deals with specific policies of institutionalised discrimination and forcible population transfers in Rakhine State (one of 21 regions in the country) affecting a minority that comprises roughly 1 per cent of Myanmar’s total population. The Israel report casts the entire existence of Israel as a tainted enterprise. The very basis of Israeli society is a putative crime.
The Burmese government could conceivably implement each of Amnesty’s policy recommendations tomorrow and Myanmar would continue to exist. The recommendations proposed for Israel would end the existence of a Jewish state and leave its six million Jews vulnerable to mass murder and expulsion.
Another big difference: The claims against Myanmar will not be used to mobilise violence against ethnic Burmese around the world.
And another: The Myanmar report is a response to an actual event happening. A massive campaign of state-sponsored violence got underway in 2016 and took a particularly violent turn in 2017. No surprise that a major human rights organisation issues a damning report in 2017.
On Israel, there is no major event, no watershed, no legal or diplomatic change of any kind that would precipitate such a radical conclusion.
Israel conquered the West Bank and Gaza in 1967 and ruled over both directly until the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in 1994. The complicated patchwork of self-rule and shared control in the West Bank is the result of the OSLO II agreement in 1995.
The only major change since then was the 2005 withdrawal of Israeli soldiers and settlers from the 20 per cent of the Gaza Strip that had not been handed over in 1994. There has been no legal change since then.
So why now? Luther says, ‘I cannot tell you the strategic reasons in terms of the focus [on Israeli apartheid]. I can just give you in generic terms.’
It wouldn’t be such a riddle if it were just one report. But Amnesty’s report joins at least two other major human rights organisations’ glossy tomes which in the past year have made the same conclusion with the same fanfare.
The fact that so many self-styled human rights organisations all arrived at the same conclusion at the same time despite there being no legal change and no landmark event on the ground is proof that anti-Israel activism is a social activity more than a political one. It is a profession of faith and of membership in the community of the good rather than an effort to change policy or even to make an authentically political action.
Luther doesn’t shy away from the charge that Amnesty’s report was sparked by the reports of other human rights organisations. He presents it as responding to ‘a growing debate’ and elsewhere refers to this as ‘external factors… that [are] part of the strategic landscape.’ Again, one needn’t be an expert in human rights, bigotry, or due process to understand just how shoddy such reasoning is or how it might lead an investigator of any kind to only seek bias confirming findings.
In this case, the ‘strategic landscape’ was calling for a renewed public avowal of the central tenets of faith in its larger ecclesiastical community as to who is evil, who is outside the community of the good, who it is that stands in the way of the message of light, whose powerful networks seek to divert the righteous from the path of truth.
Pressed one last time to say something, anything at all, about the seeming obsession with Israel of Amnesty and the rest of the human rights community, Luther interrupts the journalist interviewing him with a rhetorical question that is supposed to definitively end the debate: ‘How many other countries have a fifty-year occupation?’
But all this does is reveal even further just how unserious his grasp of the Arab-Israeli conflict is.
An occupation is not the cause of a conflict; it is usually the outcome of one, and it lasts as long as the conflict is unresolved. To discuss the occupation without mentioning (1) how it came about and (2) why it persists is manifestly unserious.
In this case, it came about (1) because a coalition of Arab armies was defeated in a war whose openly stated and broadly celebrated goal was to destroy the Jewish state and murder and expel its people.
It lasted because (2) following defeat there was a near total refusal to reach any peace agreement which would end the occupation.
Wherever there has been a willingness to come to terms with Israel, occupied territories have been recovered. But to acknowledge any of this is verboten for Amnesty and the broader human rights community, where there is no conflict at all, only a racist and irredeemably evil Israel.
‘Occupation’ as Amnesty uses isn’t a legal or territorial description, but an assignment of moral culpability to the Jewish state. This is why it was so important to Amnesty to redefine occupation in 2005 in a way that the term had never been used before so that it could still be applied to the Gaza Strip.
The point is that Israel can leave a piece of territory, but the mark of Cain stays with it. This is true regardless of which of three methods Israel might use to try to end the occupation.
If it endeavours to reach a final status peace deal with the Palestinians, but the Palestinians reject this three times in the same decade and pursue suicidal terror instead, that is Israel’s fault.
If it just leaves a piece of territory entirely without even getting a peace deal, that is an ‘open-air prison’ and Amnesty and other humanitarians will invent whole-cloth a new definition of occupation suited just for that.
If it carries partial withdrawals in accordance with an international agreement establishing an interim phase which is then frozen because the Palestinian side refuses to reach a final status deal, then the complicated overlapping power-sharing arrangements get refashioned as ‘fragmentation’ and ‘parallel legal systems’ which form the basis of the apartheid calumny.
And that’s the point of redefining apartheid especially for Israel too (something all three reports, which claim to be based on ‘international law’ but none of which use the actual legal definition of apartheid, and each of which invents another unique one): even if Israel were to effect a full and unconditional withdrawal from every bit of disputed territory, it will still be tainted.
There is, however, one very effective way to end the occupation, and it still boggles the mind that it isn’t the top of the agenda for all the activists and intellectuals who claim to believe that ending the occupation is their first and foremost priority.
That way is called making peace.
Nothing in the Amnesty report and nothing in this absolute car crash of an interview suggest that its authors or the intellectual community they represent assign any importance at all to that.
They are welcome in Ramallah to sit with the Palestinian president (as Callamard did the very next day after this interview) and present their report precisely because no one imagines for a second that they might criticise the PA’s human rights violations, its delayed and cancelled elections, its pay-for-slay sponsorship of terrorist families, its antisemitic incitement, or the Holocaust denial of the president himself.
Their recommendations include no criticism for the refusal to make peace with Israel and no call for any affirmative action that might lead in that direction.
On the contrary, they insist the Palestinians waste one more generation on demonisation of an enemy they can’t defeat rather than pursue a reconciliation for the benefit of all. They will fly home. The people they presume to help will stay right where they are.