Friday 19 January 2024

Israel's Crimes Do Not Deserve This Much Attention

Israel is a state founded on a principle of ethnic supremacy and a practise of ethnic cleansing at exactly the point in history where these became universally condemned as morally unacceptable. So it is not surprising that Israel gets a lot of criticism, at the United Nations and elsewhere. Nevertheless, the sheer amount of global diplomatic, NGO, and news media criticism directed at Israel is astonishing. (In many years the UN passes more resolutions critical of Israel than of every other country in the world put together - link.) Such disproportionate attention to Israel's crimes is excessive. It allows morally worse crimes to escape global notice and also directs global attention away from where it could achieve more good.

1. Other Countries' Crimes Are Being Unjustly Neglected
A clear case can be made that Israel's governments have historically carried out acts amounting to the highest level 'mass atrocity crimes', i.e. war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity (though probably not genocide), and continues to do so in the present conflict. These are crimes that are by definition the duty of the international community to investigate and attempt to prevent and punish (link). So Israel's actions do deserve the world's attention and condemnation. (Although note the important distinction: criticising Israel qua state and demanding its reform is not the same thing as criticising Israelis as a population or religious/ethnic group.)

We might express this more formally in the following way:

P1: Mass atrocity crimes by governments deserve global attention and condemnation

P2: Israel has committed and continues to commit mass atrocity crimes 


C: Israel deserves global attention and condemnation

This argument is fine as far as it goes. But it misses something important: that many other governments also deserve global attention and condemnation for their crimes! 

We live in a world that is a long way from even minimal justice, where many states remain founded on principles of ethnic supremacy, and frequently commit the most horrific and massive crimes. 

From China to Russia to Japan to Bhutan to Iran to Myanmar to Morocco, most countries in the world are founded as homelands for some privileged ethnic group, with a corresponding right to rule over any other 'foreign' inhabitants unlucky enough to find themselves living there. (Strangely enough, the exceptions to this almost universal racism are the settler colonial societies of the Americas and Australasia, and - belatedly - the old world European countries that colonised them.)

Nor is this merely historical or structural injustice. Many governments (and sub-government actors) around the world are currently busily engaged in mass atrocity crimes, from Uganda's involvement in Congo's civil wars to China's genocidal suppression of Uighurs and other ethnic minorities to the ghastly racialised mass murders of Sudan's civil war.

This is not a 'What Aboutist' argument. I am not saying that other countries get away with doing things just as bad or worse than Israel, therefore, to be consistent, we shouldn't criticise Israel either. I am saying that every country that commits mass atrocity crimes deserves global attention and condemnation for their crimes. This includes Israel but is not limited to it. 

More formally:

P1: Mass atrocity crimes by governments deserve global attention and condemnation

P2: Israel has committed and continues to commit mass atrocity crimes 


C: Israel deserves global attention and condemnation

P3: Other countries besides Israel commit mass atrocity crimes 


C2: Other countries besides Israel deserve global attention and condemnation


My concern is that the level of global attention to Israel's crimes is excessive because it comes at the expense of attending to the crimes committed by others. Thus, the fact that global criticism of Israel's historical and ongoing actions is justified does not mean that the amount of criticism that Israel actually receives is justified. 

Any particular agent (individual, government, newsmedia company, NGO, etc) with possible influence on the direction of the world's political attention should consider that they bear a broader responsibility than they may have realised. It is necessary but not sufficient to ensure that whatever moral issue they raise should be both important and correctly analysed. In addition they should consider whether the aggregate outcome of many such individually justifiable moral choices is likely to create its own injustice, namely the unacceptable outcome of allowing some countries to escape the condemnation they deserve. 

Philosopher Larry Temkin has elsewhere identified the concept of 'Each-We Moral Dilemmas' that may be relevant here. These are a type of collective action problem but in the space of morality rather than personal interest maximisation. The action that it would be morally right for you or I to do as individuals turns out to be the morally wrong thing to do when every individual follows that same apparently correct moral reasoning. 

For example, Keynes' Paradox of Thrift is an each-we dilemma in the space of personal interest maximisation. For any particular individual it makes sense to save money as a hedge against economic risk. However, if large numbers of individuals follow the same reasoning then the actual consequence of their attempts to protect themselves will be to reduce aggregate demand in the economy and hence create more risk for themselves as cycles of production cuts and job lay offs cascade through the economy. 

In the case of Israel there is a 'Paradox of Blame'. When most agents with influence on the direction of the world's political attention correctly come to the conclusion that Israel deserves to be criticised, the unintended and unjustifiable aggregate outcome will be that Israel will receive a lot of criticism while other countries will escape the criticism they deserve. 

The solution to the problem is to move from an individualistic to a collective perspective on global justice. Instead of considering only whether the particular country we want to criticise deserves blame, we should step back and consider which bad countries are not receiving the blame they deserve.

Expressed more formally:

P5: Other countries besides Israel deserve global attention and condemnation

P6: Israel's crimes presently receive so much attention that other countries do not receive the global attention and condemnation they deserve 


C3: We should draw attention to the crimes of other countries besides Israel

2. Beyond Desert to the Effectiveness of Global Attention

So far I have been talking only in terms of whether states that behave in evil ways receive the global attention and condemnation that their conduct intrinsically deserves. But of course an important feature of such attention is that it is supposed to also achieve an end, or at least reduction, in the amount of evil being done. Hence, the vast global political attention currently focused on Israel is meant to achieve changes in Israel's behaviour, whether directly (as when Biden's administration tries to coax Israel's war government into pausing operations and allowing more aid into Gaza) or more indirectly, as when citizens of other countries try to put pressure on their own governments or multinational corporations to put pressure on the Israeli government. Even the 'information warriors' retweeting their outrage on social media (though bearing an obnoxious resemblance to sports fans) can be understood as having an impact on what people think that other people think about an issue, and hence amplifying the political support for acting against Israel.

Can the extreme focus of global attention on Israel's crimes be justified by such instrumental considerations? This requires thinking somewhat differently, taking up a quantitative, comparative and agent-relative perspective on whether condemning Israel is the best way to use whatever influence we may have to direct global political attention against the perpetrators of mass atrocity crimes.

I am sympathetic to this argument. The Effective Altruism movement is famously concerned with maximising the amount of good that individuals achieve with the resources they are willing to donate. It recommends for example donating to charities that can save children's lives in poor countries for a few thousand dollars each by distributing anti-mosquito bednets, rather than to universities that can build a new library wing for a few hundred million dollars. (The simple rule to follow is: never give to one cause when you know that another cause could do more good with that same amount of money.) I have long thought this approach interesting but profoundly limited in its goals and resources without a political dimension (previously).

An Effective Politics movement would follow effective altruism in being concerned to maximise the amount of good one achieves in the world, and not other things such as one's good intentions or matching bad behaviour to the moral condemnation it deserves. However it would differ from effective altruism in at least two important respects:

  1. It would be concerned with political agents' obligations to direct our surplus political (rather than economic) capital to where it would do most good.
  2. It would apply to organisational agents (states, NGOs, corporations, etc) as well as individual humans

Obviously maximising the good one achieves via politics is far from straightforward. The outcome of a political intervention depends a lot on factors outside one's control or foresight, including what other people do (in support or opposition to your intervention), social institutions, economic events, and so on. Thus, unlike the kind of reliable linear relationship between inputs and outputs that the Effective Altruism so values about micro-interventions in poor countries (this much money = this many bednets = this many statistical lives saved), politics is characterised by much more dramatic and uncertain relationships between inputs and outputs. Sometimes a relatively small political intervention results in an entire country taking a different path (such as Armenia's Velvet Revolution). Sometimes a huge and sustained intervention achieves nothing, or even the opposite of what was intended (such as America's invasion of Iraq). 

However, even if we cannot put exact numbers on the expected payoffs of different political interventions, assigning approximate magnitudes seems feasible and would allow us to build a partial ranking based on their probability of success multiplied by their value if achieved. 

What might this look like?

China's Communist Party directly controls the lives of 1.4 billion people, and threatens the lives of tens of millions of others in territories it lays claim to (going on for 20% of the world's population!). Moreover, in its 100 year history the CCP has established itself as the greatest threat to China's people, by killing far more Chinese citizens than every external enemy of China throughout history put together. It is currently busy committing genocide against its Uighur (10 million) and Tibetan (7 million) ethnic minorities (the deliberate destruction of them as a people), and also seems to be in the early stages of similar policies against other ethnic and religious groups (Koreans, Mongolians, Christians, etc). It seems reasonable to conclude that the CCP is the cause of very significant amount of evil in the world, and that ending its current genocidal projects and deterring it from future mass atrocity crimes would make the world a significantly better place.

The obvious problem with trying to stop China's government from doing evil things is that China is a very powerful country that responds extremely aggressively and punitively to even mild moral criticism, let alone stronger political interventions like economic sanctions (because it sees global politics, like everything else, through the paranoid prism of possible threats to its rule). Thus although the benefits of changing China's behaviour would be huge, the probability of achieving such changes is very small (though worth continuing to track). So the expected pay-off of directing more than token criticism towards China is close to zero. Agents committed to Effective Politics should look for better targets.

Is Israel a better target for effective politics than China? On the one hand, a mere 15 million people live in Israel and the territories it occupies (<0.2% of the world's population), and total Palestinian deaths from all Israel's wars put together before 2023 add up to around 30,000. So it seems like the stakes are considerably lower. On the other hand, perhaps Israel previously killed relatively few Palestinians (compared to how China would have behaved) because Israel is more vulnerable and responsive to global moral scrutiny and condemnation, partly due to Israel's greater dependence on the goodwill of liberal democracies and hence the views of the ordinary people in them. (And the global attention on Israel has resulted in more obvious achievements: international aid to Palestinians amounts to several hundred dollars per person per year, almost the highest in the world). Moreover, the stakes in the current conflict seem quite high. Israel has created famine conditions for the 2.2 million residents of Gaza and already killed about 1% of the population. Stopping this would be a significant achievement. 

Nevertheless, I am skeptical that the huge amount of global political attention being directed at Israel will pay off enough to make up for the bads that attention could have prevented elsewhere. To repeat, my concern is not that criticism of Israel's crimes is unjustified, but that the world's almost obsessive focus on criticising Israel comes at a high moral cost. For example, here are 3 cases which not only deserve global attention and condemnation, but also seem fairly amenable to global political pressure.

  1. Pakistan's military caretaker government has already begun forcibly deporting some 1.7 million Afghan refugees back into the tender mercies of Taliban rule. Pakistan is a relatively weak country whose government is vulnerable to political pressure and bribery, especially on an issue like this which is not particularly important to it.
  2. The 2 warlords fighting to rule Sudan have deliberately targeted civilians with famine and genocidal mass murder. 7 million people have already lost their homes and livelihoods. This conflict has received almost no regional or global political condemnation (e.g. zero UN resolutions). Actually, almost the opposite is true: the genocidal warlord Dagalo was politely received by various heads of state in his recent tour across Africa (Dagalo's twitter feed). By comparison to the case of Israel, Sudan's war seems far more amenable to external intervention (aid, sanctions, and perhaps even military intervention), not least because unlike Israel the geopolitics is so much simpler (only one external player - the tiny UAE).
  3. Modi's Hindu supremacist political movement seems committed to transforming a country of 1.4 billion from a secular, multi-ethnic republic into an empire, i.e. a country run by and for only one of the peoples that make it up. Arguably no mass atrocity crimes have yet been committed, but India is on a dangerous path. In the effective politics approach, one doesn't have to wait for the massacres to happen to condemn what's going on (preventing mass atrocity crimes is better than punishing them). 

Summing up

Israel's crimes deserve global attention and condemnation. But it would be unjust to limit our attention to its crimes. Many other countries are committing mass atrocity crimes that also deserve condemnation. Moreover, global attention is justified not only by the nature of the crimes, but also by the possibility that global political pressure may have some positive effect in deterring or mitigating mass atrocity crimes. By that standard too, it seems that we should be criticising many other countries besides Israel.