When I was in college, a few friends and I took Richard Falk’s course on international relations. We were just undergraduates, and while we were majoring in politics, we were not concentrating in international relations, but rather in political theory. So we wanted what the course catalogue promised: an introduction to the field of international relations. What are the main theories? What is the history of the field? What are the cutting edge-issues today?
Instead, we got a semester of flaccid gobbledygook. No rigor, no engagement with the leading writers holding different views. I wish I had kept my notes and materials so I could demonstrate this to you. Instead, a kind of naive utopianism that I couldn’t take seriously. And I was what passed for a leftist back then!
Needless to say, I put Professor Falk out of my mind, though occasionally I would read about him in the news denouncing Israel for this, that, or the other. In the past week, though, Professor Falk has outdone himself by writing a recent report released by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia. The report goes further than prior UN documents, asserting: “Israel has established an apartheid regime that dominates the Palestinian people as a whole.”
How to react to his? Many people have already rejected the conclusion of the report, including the UN’s Secretary-General and the US Ambassador to the United Nations. Instead of doing the same thing, I thought it would be interesting and telling to look at what else the ESCWA has been doing recently. The ESCWA has eighteen members: Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, the UAE, and Yemen. All, of course, are Arab countries (I say Arab countries rather than Middle-Eastern countries, because Israel is not a member, and Arab countries rather than Muslim countries because Iran is not a member). Its mission is to provide “a framework for the formulation and harmonization of sectoral policies for member countries, a platform for congress and coordination, a home for expertise and knowledge, and an information observatory.” Like other UN bodies, it issues a lot of reports. What kind of lens does the ESCWA focus on its own members?
If you want to find very serious human rights problems in the Arab world you don’t have to look far. Pick a country. Here is an excerpt from the State Department’s most recent human rights report on Egypt:
Other human rights problems included disappearances; harsh prison conditions; arbitrary arrests; a judiciary that in some cases appeared to arrive at outcomes not supported by publicly available evidence or that appeared to reflect political motivations; reports of political prisoners and detainees; restrictions on academic freedom; impunity for security forces; harassment of some civil society organizations; limits on religious freedom; official corruption; limits on civil society organizations; violence, harassment, and societal discrimination against women and girls, including female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C); child abuse; discrimination against persons with disabilities; trafficking in persons; societal discrimination against religious minorities; discrimination and arrests based on sexual orientation; discrimination against HIV-positive persons; and worker abuse, including child labor.
“Limits on religious freedoms” and “societal discrimination against religious minorities” refer to the Copts among others. The Coptic Orthodox Church is ancient. Millions of Egyptians are Coptic Christians—somewhere between 6% and 18% of the population. The State Department report notes that the Egyptian government punished several Christian students for defaming Islam; a mob of Muslim Egyptians “burned several Christian-owned homes and stripped naked an elderly Christian woman whom they paraded through the streets” after rumors spread of an affair between a Muslim and a Christian. I don’t mean to pick on Egypt, but it’s clear that there are significant issues about the country’s treatment of its religious minorities, as is the case in many other countries.
I wondered what one of the ESCWA’s recent reports, the Arab Development Outlook: Vision 2030, had to say about this. I chose this report because it’s a large-scale report that addresses many of the issues facing the Arab world. The report puts the difficulties facing the region in historical context, pointing to colonialism, a lack of peace and security, and poor governance as barriers to the regional development the report wants to foster. In other words, it puts the regions’ problems in historical and cultural context—perhaps not as you or I would, but still, the report shows an understanding of the difficulties of the situation the Arab countries face, as it should.
What mention does it make of the region’s Christian minority? None. Well, with one exception—in its discussions of Israel:
Jewish Israelis enjoy full citizenship and civil rights, and their co-religionists around the world have the right of return or aliyah. Palestinian refugees are denied that right on account of them not being Jewish. Muslim, Christian, Baha’i and Druze Arabs, among others, are divided into several groups. Those living behind the Green Line and who have never sought refuge elsewhere are citizens of Israel, albeit with fewer rights than their Jewish counterparts.
So here it is. The ESCWA writes a report addressed at the Arab world that puts the region’s problems in historical context rather than simply making demands of Arab governments, and it nevertheless manages to ignore a major human rights problem in the Arab world altogether. The report is, in other words, pretty generous to the Arab states in question. And to the extent the report is supposed to be a constructive, problem-solving kind of report, that’s fine. (You might wonder why the authors of the report thought it okay to write: “Creation of a Palestinian State would need to be accompanied by political reform in Israel to eliminate discrimination between Jewish and non-Jewish citizens, especially with regard to the right of return.” How is that a fair point, given the de jure Arab and Muslim nature of most of the Arab states? But let’s leave that to the side).
But when the topic is Israel, the ESCWA doesn’t take this generous approach at all. It commissions Professor Falk the polemicist to blast Israel and to tar it as an apartheid state.
This is an example of the double standard that the Israelis regularly decry, and with reason. If, for every other state in the world and every other problem in the world, we make an effort to see both sides, to understand the complexity, and to see that both sides to the conflict in question have some good reasons for their views, but if we treat Israel as a unique pariah—well, if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, you know what to call it.