Which Global Conflicts Matter?
Is an Israeli or Palestinian life worth more than a Tigray, Yemeni or Afghan?
The last two weeks have been hard here in Jerusalem.
In Gaza, more than 200 people have been killed since groups in the territory started rocket fire. Many were Hamas fighters, but the Hamas health ministry reports that more than 60 were children. Inside Israel, 13 Israeli citizens and residents were killed, including in inter-ethnic clashes between Arabs and Jews, and ten synagogues were set on fire by racially motivated arsonists.
All of this is heartbreaking. As an Israeli, I found life under rocket fire frightening, I am still a little scared to go out after dark, and I worried for my friends and family who live in cities that were heavily pounded by rockets. As a Jew and a human, I mourn for the loss of innocent Palestinian life, and wish for a speedy end to this round of the Israel-Gaza conflict, a conflict with no victory and no possible winner, only the prospect of a return to quiet.
The Tigray War
a total number of 7819 victims has been reported, which is only the tip of the iceberg as information only gradually becomes available.
Other estimates put the death toll at over 50,000, mostly ethnic Tigrayans massacred in villages and churches by the Ethiopian military and Amhara militias. It’s an ongoing ethnic cleansing and it’s happening right now.
So why is my life so much more important than a Tigrayan? Why does the conflict in Israel and Gaza excite such wide international attention that it’s been the lead story on every news network every day for the last eleven days?
Celebrities and movie stars published statements condemning the violence, and then themselves were condemned for being too ‘neutral’. Massive rallies filled cities around the world. Footballers flew Palestinian flags during games. A convoy in London called for Jewish women to be raped.
Why does no other conflict generate so much attention?
One answer I’ve been given is that unlike the Tigray War, the United States is a financial and political supporter of Israel.
But the US also backs Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrein’s war against the Houthi in Yemen, which has killed an estimated 233,000 people. Many campaigners, especially on the progressive Left, passionately opposed the the Yemen war, but they were never joined by footballers, celebrities or wall-to-wall media coverage.
And, of course, even if American support for Israel might explain why Americans care about the conflict, that wouldn’t explain the rest of the world having the same reaction.
Another answer I’ve heard is that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict affects all Muslims, and there are close to 2 billion Muslims. But wouldn’t the same be true of, say, China’s campaign to ethnically cleanse its Uighur Muslim population via forced re-education, sterilisation, labour camps, banning their culture and religious observance and killing any dissidents? Again, there are many committed campaigners opposing China’s genocide in Xinjiang, but no huge rallies, no mass social media campaigns and no rolling news coverage. The Uighurs are background noise.
I don’t think that “because it’s Israel” is a enough of an answer either, because Israel has been bombing targets in Syria on a regular basis over the last couple of years. If reports from Syria can be believed, Israel’s military has killed far more Syrians, Iranians and Hezbollah fighters than Palestinians in the last two years. Nobody cares about that, either. But maybe that’s because anything in Syria gets thrown in the tragic pit of carnage and suffering that is the Syrian Civil War, which the world stopped caring about years ago.
Part of this is that those tragedies aren’t news anymore. The word ‘news’ itself concedes that novelty is the main driver of what stories get told. If it’s not new, it’s not news. In 2008, when rockets from Gaza and Israeli airstrikes were a daily but low-intensity occurrence, they weren’t leading news either. The media reports novelty.
And yes, it’s easy to hop on a plane to Tel Aviv and be within 90 minutes’ drive of Jerusalem or Gaza. It’s hard, very hard, to hike out days into remote villages in Tigray Region, Ethiopia with no roads or communications to investigate reports of massacres.
But the media also caters to its audience, and clearly there’s an enormous demand for Israel/Palestine stories.
68 people, mostly young children, were killed in a bomb attack on a school in Kabul, Afghanistan on May 9. It was raw, brutal murder. That story dropped quickly out of the headlines when protests escalated in Jerusalem, even before the rockets started flying and people started dying. Dead children in Afghanistan is sad, but Israeli police on the Temple Mount is news.
Often, the most ideologically motivated people are more evenhanded campaigners, even if it doesn’t seem that way.
The Far Left, for example, did try to bring mass attention to Yemen for years. It’s not the Far Left’s fault that the public didn’t care about Yemen but does care about Palestine.
It’s not Amnesty International’s fault that their reports on Bangladesh, Hungary and Zimbabwe get so much less media coverage than their report on Israel.
It’s the public that cares about Israel and Palestine. And it’s the same public that doesn’t seem to care about almost any other international issue.
Part of this is that the whole world does feel some sort of special ownership over the Israel/Palestine conflict.
Of course, that ownership isn’t really true, or at least no more true than it is about any other conflict. But for billions of people around the world, the Israel/Palestine conflict feels like it’s about them in a way that just isn’t true even for conflicts that countries are directly involved in. The mass protest against the UK’s role in the Iraq War in 2003 took place under the dual slogans of ‘No War in Iraq — Freedom for Palestine’, presenting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as parallel to the UK’s military itself actually invading Iraq. That’s a bit weird.
In the US, masses of right-wing evangelical Christians who’ve decided that Israel is the first step towards the Second Coming of Jesus, creating a toxic mix of religion, eschatology and conservative politics.
At the same time, parts of the US progressive Left imagine the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the context of America’s racial history of slavery and Jim Crow, identifying Palestinians as ‘black’ and Jews as ‘white’. This parochial worldview converts a complicated conflict into some sort of allegory for American racial injustice rather than its own story.
Other countries have their own ownership narratives: Britain held the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine until Israel was created, France was the colonial power to the north holding Lebanon and Syria, Germany has a special relationship with Israel due to the Holocaust.
Even further back, civilizational medieval wars between Christianity and Islam were fought over control of the Holy Land. The Eastern Roman Empire (Christian Byzantium) first lost modern Israel and Jerusalem to Arab invaders in the seventh century, and the territory changed hands again a few times during the Crusades. The religious-intellectual ancestors of most of the world’s population all feel at least some sense of connection and ownership.
Antisemitism and Islamophobia
I didn’t really want to include this point, but there’s no avoiding it. Views about Jews and Muslims are a big part of how the world relates to Israel and Palestine. The wave of attacks against Jews in Europe and North America this last week shows how much antisemitism is still a factor.
Some of the conservative support for Israel is rooted in Islamophobia, particularly a civilizational Christian Islamophobia, too.
Both of these have their inverse: philosemitic attraction to Jews and an orientalist attraction to Arabs and Muslims also draw more attention to the conflict.
A great deal has been written about this already.
Telling our Stories
As someone who lives here, all this attention can feel a little gratifying at times. Sure, Israelis would rather the protests were supporting Israel, and Palestinians complain the media is biased against them.
In general, both Israelis and Palestinians try to get the conflict into the news more often. Nobody on either side wants to be ignored. I’ve lost count at the number of times I’ve heard other Israelis complaining that the international media didn’t cover, say, a stabbing attack by a Palestinian. But honestly, is a racist stabbing global news? Unfortunately, racist stabbings happen in cities around the world every day.
Isn’t this all just “whataboutism”, a crude attempt to deflect attention from the conflict?
I’m not sure. I don’t think so. But Whataboutism doesn’t win anyone any arguments anyway. Injustice is still injustice even when you can point to worse injustice.
And everyone has the right to choose their own activism. If you campaign against sexual harassment in Western workplaces, for example, and someone says “women have it worse in Somalia”, that’s both true and irrelevant. There’s nothing hypocritical about campaigning for what you believe in for whatever reason you choose.
So, in some sense, it doesn’t matter if there are worse conflicts, bigger atrocities or more urgent crises. It’s legitimate to care about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, just like it’s legitimate to campaign against violence in Northern Ireland and ignore the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Asking anyone “why don’t you protest the thing I care about instead?” is pointless.
Still, I wonder how I’d feel if I was Syrian, Yemeni, Uighur, Afghani or Tigrayan, watching the death and destruction all around me. Would I be jealous of the the global protests, the rallies, the celebrity statements and the rolling media coverage Israel and Palestine receive?
Would I be angry that the world thinks my life is less important than a Palestinian or an Israeli? Or would I accept that nobody cared about me?
Hoping for an immediate and lasting ceasefire in Gaza and Israel.