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The dangers of exceptionalism: Israel , the USA and others

By Stuart Rees - posted Thursday, 9 August 2012

In international relations, exceptionalism refers to a flouting of the treaties and resolutions to which all countries are expected to adhere.

The contagious political disease - exceptionalism - infects many countries, in particular Israel when faced with UN resolutions to promote Palestinian independence. In it’s attitude to that issue, Israeli policy  has been supported by US politicians as though the two countries are one and the same. In a speech in Jerusalem on July 31st, Republican candidate for the US Presidency Mitt Romney said, ‘We serve the same cause and we provoke the same hatreds in the same enemies.’

Critics of Israel’s exceptionalism  are often derided  as anti Semites, a charge which has been accompanied by  accusations, ‘What about Australian Aborigines ?’. ‘Put your own house in order’ , ‘You sound like an Iran supporter ‘,  ‘Turn your attention to the brutality in Syria.’  


Taking Critics Seriously

The gist of such comments is contained in the remark,  ‘You can’t criticize me unless you criticize others first’. That remark sounds like the last refuge of the scoundrel but I’ll try to take it seriously, starting with a look at the recent human rights record of Israel’s closest ally the United States.

 America likes to claim that it has been the leading defender of liberty yet former President Jimmy Carter has argued why his country is no longer entitled to that accolade. US citizens’ rights to privacy can be violated by warrantless wiretapping and government mining of electronic communications. Alleged enemies, including US citizens, can be targeted for assassination. Half of the 169 prisoners left in Guantanamo Bay have been cleared for release  yet have almost no chance of ever retaining their freedom. A handful of the few being tried in military courts have been tortured by water boarding more than 100 times yet such torture cannot be used as self defence because it’s conducted in order to protect ‘national security’.

In the same vein which prompts derision against anyone who criticizes Israel, critics of US government policies can be dismissed as ‘anti- American’ or, if they happen to be US citizens, un American , unpatriotic or even as traitors. In defence of America, such critics compare the US human rights record with that of China whose 1984 Tiananmen Square slaughter of students has been succeeded by suppressing any citizen who challenges the State. On July 1st almost half a million Hong Kong citizens heckled the visiting Chinese President  Hu Jintao and demanded an end to one party rule. A popular internet video says that the Communist Party is ‘brainwashing  Hong Kong’.  

Until  the revolution which overthrew President Mubarak, Egypt remained a beneficiary of US financial and military support and was an ally of Israel.  But an unwritten condition of that US-Egypt -Israel alliance was to ignore the Egyptian governments’ police state practices - arbitrary arrests, torture, the rendition of prisoners from overseas and  the banning of opposition parties. Following the June 2012 election of an Islamic Brotherhood President, albeit under continued military control, nothing much seems to have changed. Egyptians are said to be concerned about their economic rights but not to care about free speech, under age marriage or female genital mutilation. British television journalist Tim Sebastian recently interviewed a young woman in Cairo. She explained, ‘I do not fear the Muslim Brotherhood. I do not fear the army. I fear my own people – their mentality. They will not defend my rights.’  

‘But it’s not just America, Egypt and China ‘ the critics might say. What about Russia whose latest oppression includes the imprisonment and subsequent trial of the gutsy young women from the band Pussy Riot who sang in a Moscow cathedral calling on the Virgin Mary to ‘throw Putin out.’ ?


Russia’s former satellite – Ukraine – has been imitating Big Brother. The former Ukrainian Prime Minister Julia Tymoshenko is serving a seven year prison sentence on charges generally viewed as politically motivated. Musician Elton John played in Kiev prior to the final of the European Soccer Cup in June and in the middle of his performance he pleaded  with Ukrainians to stop beating up gay people. In a May speech to Germany’s lower house of Parliament Chancellor Angela Merkel likened Ukraine to its authoritarian neighbor Belarus. ‘In Ukraine and Belarus, people are still suffering under dictatorship and repression.’

Not Only Israel and America

This  list has ignored well known human rights abusers, the Burmese military junta, Mugabe’s Zimbabwe and the Sri Lanka Singhalese government. At risk of appearing to ignore the demands to ‘pay attention to your own back yard’, admission also needs to be made about human rights in Australia.

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About the Author

Stuart Rees is Professor Emeritus of the University of Sydney and Founder of the Sydney Peace Foundation. He is the former Director of the Sydney Peace Foundation (1998-2011) and of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies (1988-2008), and a Professor of Social Work (1978-2000) at the University of Sydney.

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