FOREIGN POLICY JANUARY 17, 2011
Consider three recent items from the awful universe of human rights violations.
According to Reporters Without Borders human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, having been held in solitary confinement and denied visits in Tehran’s Evin prison for more than 100 days, began her third hunger strike in December. Then, as her health deteriorated, according to the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, she called it off. According to CNN:
“Sotoudeh was the attorney for Arash Rahmanipour, one of two men executed by the Islamic republic in early 2010 after being charged with being an enemy of God and belonging to a banned opposition group.”
Meanwhile, in another cell in the same prison, one of Sotoudeh’s clients, a Kurdish journalist and human rights activist named Mohammad Sadegh Kaboudvand, who has been held since 2007, recently suffered his second heart attack in seven months, having been denied hospital treatment. Kaboudvand was sentenced to eleven years for creating a human rights organization in Iran’s Kurdish region.
And, a thousand miles to the southwest, Ha’aretz reports that Israeli "leftist activist Jonathan Pollak was sentenced to a three month jail term ... and ordered to pay NIS 1,500 for taking part in a mass protest against the blockade of the Gaza Strip, involving cyclists in Tel Aviv, in January 2008.” Pollak “refused the offer of Tel Aviv Magistrate's Judge Itzhak Yitzhak of a sentence of community service, arguing that he does not accept the claim that he did anything wrong.” According to Pollak’s lawyer, Gabi Lasky:
“In a country where rabbis are not called in for questioning when they are suspected of incitement against Arabs, on the basis of freedom of expression, it is inappropriate for the state to demand that Pollak be jailed for participating in a demonstration. Lasky said that when motorcyclists blocked the Ayalon Freeway to protest the rise in insurance costs, or firemen blocked Route 1 to protest their low wages, no one arrested them and no charges were brought against them. Lasky argued that Pollak was singled out because of his political activism.”
The question raised by some people who regard themselves as friends of Israel is whether it is morally wrong—a self-hating act of “moral equivalency,” perhaps even an exercise in “delegitimization”—to object to Pollak’s conviction. Doesn’t this anarchist make common cause with some people who hate Israel, even think it has no right to exist, even possibly some who hate all Jews everywhere without fine geographic distinctions? Have the people he demonstrates with sworn loyalty oaths to the Jewish state? Anyway, why isn’t he grateful that he lives in a democracy—an endangered one, yet? Isn’t it located in a tough enough neighborhood? And so the chain of prefatory remarks that are required of me goes, until it becomes clear that I had better shut up about Pollak unless I want to be told (as I was recently, in an online comment) that I’m no Jew at all and I ought to go back to Yemen.
Now, as attorney Lasky assumed, to be singled out is on the face of it not only unjust but unpleasant. Like the charge of selective arrest or selective prosecution, the charge of selective condemnation is a rhetorical trump card. And logically it does have a certain force. If I am a person who cares about human rights, shouldn't I take special care with my condemnations, and perform my due diligence first?
But if the identical standard is to be applied to injustice everywhere before I can condemn any injustice anywhere, then I cannot legitimately condemn any particular injustice before establishing that—on an objective scale—it is more worthy of condemnation than other injustices I might have mentioned in the same breath. I would not be entitled to condemn Injustice A unless I had first rank-ordered injustices to ascertain that Injustice A is worse than Injustice B. Before opening my mouth I would have to put my sources in order, conduct all-encompassing 360-degree-around research, sifting through lists of experts for the ones I deem most reliable, looking for ways to discredit the others. Having conducted my investigation I could report back that, to the best of my knowledge, A is worse than B and that accordingly I condemn the perpetrators of A. If I have not gone to the trouble, it must be because I am “biased.”
There are people who say that if I am “pro-Israel,” I should not mention Jonathan Pollak, or at least not very loudly or very often—or if I do mention him, it should only be after I first mention Nasrin Sotoudeh and Mohammad Sadegh Kaboudvand, and point out that what the Islamic Republic of Iran has done to the two of them is far worse than what the State of Israel has done to Jonathan Pollak; or perhaps I should advise him to cool it because, after all, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is worse than Benjamin Netanyahu. Which on some objective scale posted in the universe, is surely true. If I were asked whether I would rather be in Nasrin Sotoudeh’s shoes or Jonathan Pollak’s, I would of course prefer Pollak’s. In the great parlor game of what-about, almost anyone would choose Pollak. So if I say that Jonathan Pollak has been treated unjustly without quickly affirming that of course Nasrin Sotoudeh and Mohammad Sadegh Kaboudvand have been treated much worse, the reason must be that I am “anti-Israel.”
But consider in what direction this slippery slope slides. If I were to tick off the acts of awfulness committed in the world last year, I might never get around to Sotoudeh or Kaboudvand. I might never, for example, get out of Congo, China, or Sudan. To a visitor from another universe, it might seem laughable that the same vocabulary is used to cover all the ground under the baggy tent of terms like “injustice” and “human rights abuses.”
Categories are blunt instruments. But instruments they are. We use them for moral judgment and criminal prosecution. We also use them for vanity’s sake. How delicious it is to reply to the charge that B has been treated badly by insisting that A has been treated worse. They torture routinely; we only water-board the 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. They, the white South Africans,s et up a maniacal classification system to implement white supremacy; we stop short of anal-compulsive thoroughness. Good for us. Now there’s a standard to which Jews can proudly repair: Better than apartheid.
So, if I am appalled at the conviction of Jonathan Pollak for riding his bicycle in Tel Aviv, it is not because he ranks at the top of a global list of most horribly persecuted. It is not because Israel is a worse human rights violator than the Islamic Republic of Iran, or because Israel has any less right to exist. I might feel obliged to single out Pollak, in fact, because as a Jew I am particularly offended that a government that purports to defend the interests of Jews acts in such a grotesque fashion. In fact, I feel a distinct shame when a government that purports to represent the homeland of the Jews acts shamefully, and as an American, a special revulsion when my government contributes actual dollars to the state of affairs that exercises Jonathan Pollak (and I don’t mean on his bicycle).
So I defend Jonathan Pollak as I defend Nasrin Sotoudeh and Mohammad Sadegh Kaboudvand. If the prosecutors of Pollak wish to make common cause with Sotoudeh and Kaboudvand, they ought to think about the ways in which their prosecution contributes one tiny bit more to the strengthening of their enemies, and the ways in which the state of Israel would benefit from becoming more decent than it is.