We may be quietly witnessing these days an important change in Middle Eastern history. The calm, rational human emphasis on ethical behavior and the quest for peace and justice could be triumphing over the attempt to spread victimization and hysteria and to overlook violent and criminal behavior.
This development was clear this week in the United Church of Canada’s vote to boycott products from Israeli settlements. This was in contrast to the exhortations by former U.S. State Department and White House official Dennis Ross – a stalwart of the pro-Israel scene from his post at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy – that the United States should withhold financial aid from Egypt if it violates the Camp David peace treaty with Israel (because Cairo is sending more military assets to the Sinai to combat terrorists attacking both Israel and Egypt).
While world attention in our region focuses on Syria, transformations across North Africa, the situation in Iraq, and Iranian-Israeli tensions, more and more people around the world – including mainline churches, labor unions, academics and some Western government investment funds – are judging Israelis, Palestinians and others in the Middle East according to their actions, and are demanding that all parties abide by a single, universal standard of justice and law.
Here Israel is increasingly portrayed as perpetuating against the Palestinians apartheid-like behavior that the world rallied to defeat in South Africa a few decades ago. Actions to counter Israel’s many unjust policies are coordinated by the growing Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Campaign for “freedom, justice and equality.” BDS advocates in favor of boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israeli or international companies, goods and services “involved in Israeli policies violating Palestinian human rights and international law.”
The two largest Protestant church denominations in North America (the U.S. Presbyterians and the United Church of Canada) have both voted to boycott the sale of products made by Israeli settlements on Palestinian lands. This is a significant breakthrough, because mainstream, ordinary North Americans who used ethical principles to passionately debate the consequences of Israel’s settlements policy ultimately rejected and rebuked these Zionist tactics. The pro-Israel lobbies worked hard to stop this trend, but largely failed in the end, mainly because Israel’s behavior was judged according to universal legal and moral criteria.
I was honored to be invited to attend the Presbyterian Church Congress in Pittsburgh and speak for the successful resolution to boycott products from Israeli settlements. In the process I experienced the fascinating spectacle of the pro-Israel lobby at work in the United States. The lobby usually prefers working in the political shadows, but was forced out into the open air here. The pro-Israel groups, including some Christian zealots, mainly repeated old arguments that seemed less and less convincing. Portraying Israel as a threatened, vulnerable society surrounded by aggressive neighbors contradicted a reality visible to all – namely that Israel is stronger than its neighbors, and continued to steal and colonize their land, and to subjugate and traumatize Palestinians through assassinations, sieges, mass imprisonment, water theft, travel controls and other problematic actions.
The majority of Presbyterians grappled mightily and emotionally with how they could best constructively promote justice and peace for all. They ultimately accepted that the Israeli occupation and colonization of Arab lands were illegal and immoral underlying drivers of tensions, injustices and violence, and needed to be redressed.
In this wider context, Dennis Ross’ call for the U.S. to sanction Egypt for its policies in Sinai is a timely example of how the pro-Israel lobbies seem to place Israel’s interests above those of anyone else, including the Palestinians, everyone else in the Middle East, or perhaps even the United States. Ross wants the U.S. to withhold essential aid to Cairo if Egyptians, among other things, do not “respect their international obligations, including the terms of Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel.”
Such fervent pro-Zionist bias that makes Israel’s well-being the benchmark of assessing others’ policies – without demanding the Israel respect international legal obligations in an equal way – is routine for American pro-Israel groups. However, millions of people across the world increasingly reject Zionist supremacy and Israel-first rules as the way to deal with the quest for peace and justice for all in the Middle East. Instead, seeking justice and equal rights for Israelis and Palestinians alike, they expect both sides mutually and simultaneously to respect the same body of international law.
The contrast of the ethics-based conduct of leading North American churches with the pro-Israel bias of Dennis Ross’ political universe in Washington marks a potentially major change under way. In the important interaction among universal ethics, narrow lobby group interests, and national policymaking, more and more groups around the world are insisting that justice and ethics matter, and must shape policy.
That humane and activist approach ultimately defeated South African apartheid, and could well temper the excesses of Zionist colonialism and its shrinking band of apologists around the world.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR. For a roundup of the activities of the BDS campaign, go to www.bdsmovement.net/2012/bds-at-7-9206.