What would you do if your neighbor were launching rockets at your cities? It’s the question every supporter of Israel’s war in Gaza hurls at every American critic. And it’s a question Americans find extremely hard to answer. They find it hard to answer because they know what America would do. And it would make Israel’s actions in Gaza look tame.
Revealingly, the question is rarely asked the other way: What would you do if your people had been under occupation for almost 50 years and your territory was blockaded by air, land, and sea? It’s rarely asked because we Americans can’t easily imagine ourselves as a stateless people. I suspect this goes to the heart of why people in the developing world generally identify more strongly with the Palestinians than Americans do. If you live in Nigeria or Pakistan, the experience of living under the control of another country yet not being a citizen of that country is fairly recent. (White) Americans, by contrast, have to go back all the way to 1776.
What Americans can identify with is being a powerful country attacked by Islamist terrorists. We don’t have to speculate about how we’d act. We know. And while we argue with each other about the wisdom of recent military operations, we don’t generally question their morality. Herein lies the true brilliance of the “what would you do” question. It asks Americans to apply the same level of scrutiny to Israel’s “war on terror” that we apply to our own. And it works because, overall, our level of internal scrutiny isn’t that high.
The analogy between our respective Mideast conflicts is not exact, of course. The United States has no equivalent of Gaza: an adjacent territory from which we’re being attacked and whose borders we control. But after the Gulf War, America and its allies did impose a blockade of sorts against Iraq because of the threat (allegedly) posed by Saddam Hussein. And that blockade may have caused the deaths of several hundred thousand Iraqi children. After that, America invaded and occupied Iraq in a war that killed perhaps another half million Iraqis (though figures vary widely depending on the study). Tens of thousands more civilians have died in America’s war in Afghanistan. Currently, the U.S. levies sanctions that make it hard for Iranian hospitals to import life-saving drugs. And U.S. drones—which routinely violate the sovereignty of countries in the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia—have killed roughly 2,500 people, many of them civilians, since Barack Obama became president.
My point isn’t that these policies are self-evidently immoral. It’s that Americans are no more likely to consider them immoral than Israelis are to morally oppose their government’s war in Gaza. Yes, many Americans are tired of America’s war in Afghanistan. Many were outraged by the Bush administration’s war in Iraq. But even then, the source of their outrage was mostly the way Bush officials sold the war, and the toll it took on American soldiers. It was much rarer, at least in the mainstream media, to hear commentators denounce the war primarily because of the number of Iraqis being killed. It’s the same with drones, where sharp moral criticism is largely confined to America’s left fringe. The morality of American sanctions policies—first against Iraq and now against Iran—barely comes up at all. Our foreign-policy discourse is far more self-interested than that.
Americans who want Israelis to challenge their country’s blockade and military campaign in Gaza because Gazans are suffering are asking Israelis to live up to a standard we rarely meet ourselves. Think about it this way: Hamas is a violent, frighteningly illiberal movement whose terrorist attacks enjoy some popular support from a population chafing under occupation. So is the Taliban. American critics want Israelis to focus not merely on Hamas’s brutality, but also on the underlying occupation that fuels it. But how many mainstream American commentators apply that same standard when the Taliban kills our troops?
All of which is to say that when Israelis complain about a double standard, they have a point. That doesn’t mean Israel’s behavior is justified (I don’t think it is)—only that it passes the depressingly low standard that America, when responding to threats in the Middle East, generally sets for itself.