What do you see when you read the news from Syria? A humanitarian catastrophe? A dictator turning what began as a peaceful uprising into a sectarian bloodbath with no end in sight? Outside powers backing each side for their own cynical ends? Probably, like me, you see a combination of all these things, viewing the country's increasingly bleak prospects with a sense of impotent despair.
I expect this is what Jonathan Freedland sees as well. But sadly, what he also appears to see is an opportunity to attack people who criticise the Israeli government.
In this article a couple of weeks ago, Freedland condemned anti-war campaigners for mobilising against Operation Cast Lead but failing to do the same in protest at the Assad regime's atrocities. Freedland perceives "a bias against Jews that regards an Arab or Muslim death as only deserving condemnation when Israel is responsible".
The charge, effectively of racism, is a serious one, placing a heavy burden of proof upon Freedland to provide real evidence. Inconsistent condemnation of the crimes of different governments scarcely meets that requirement. Perhaps we should examine Freedland's columns over the years, identify the occasions where he has condemned human rights abuses, war crimes, and so on, committed by certain states, then identify all the crimes and abuses by other states that he has not talked about, or has talked about less, and conclude by dismissing him as racist against Arabs, Serbs, or whoever, on the basis of any inconsistencies we find.
Furthermore, for Freedland to claim that, in the eyes of the anti-war left, "an Arab or Muslim death [is] only deserving [of] condemnation when Israel is responsible", is to ignore, say, the march staged in London on 15 February 2003 which brought over a million people onto the streets to protest the impending British and American invasion of Iraq, or the many marches comprising several thousand people that were held against the subsequent occupation. Is the absence of a million-person march in London against Assad proof of widespread anti-Anglo Saxon racism? Or just of a widespread understanding that we focus primarily on our own actions and responsibilities?
The charge that anti-war campaigners harbour "a bias against Jews that regards an Arab or Muslim death as only deserving condemnation when Israel is responsible" is a demonstrably frivolous one, as Freedland well knows. It seems to me to be more than a little disrespectful to genuine victims of racism to level that charge in such a casual manner. Perhaps he believes he's being principled, but its hard to discern any serious thought being placed in service of those principles.
Freedland dismisses the idea that British anti-war campaigners are really focusing on crimes in which Britain is implicated, given that "Britain did not support Operation Cast Lead but called for a ceasefire". I took up this point in a letter to the Guardian, which didn't get published. It read as follows:
Jonathan Freedland ("We condemn Israel. So why the silence on Syria?", 20 October 2012) wonders why people in the UK protested against Israel’s attack on Gaza in 2009-10, given that Britain had called for a ceasefire. But the likely reason why Gordon Brown’s response to Operation Cast Lead differed from Tony Blair’s support for Israel’s 2006 war on Lebanon is that domestic opposition had helped to raise the political costs of supporting Israel’s wars to a prohibitive degree.
The shift in policy was to be welcomed. But ultimately, talk is cheap. So long as Britain continues to arm Israel, we will continue to be complicit in the latter’s ongoing crimes against the Palestinians. Clearly this must be opposed.
Freedland appears to believe that we should not protest crimes in which we are complicit (Israel’s), but that we should protest crimes in which we are not complicit (those of the Syrian regime). There is a word for this: hypocrisy.
It's interesting to note that, just as the Israeli government and its supporters have been using events in Syria to delegitimise their critics, the regime in Bahrain, and its allies, have been adopting the same tactic. I wrote about this in an article for the Guardian earlier this year, just after the controversy over the Bahrain Grand Prix:
One recurring theme in the efforts to deflect criticism of the race was the line that there are worse places than Bahrain. Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmad Al Khalifa, the regime's foreign minister, tweeted: "If any here to cover ugly bloody confrontations, go to syria. Here we have a grand Prix to enjoy". Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone advised journalists to "Go to Syria and write about those things because it's more important than here".
Even David Cameron, while dodging the question of whether the race should proceed and making the standard noises about the importance of Britain's ally undertaking political reforms, echoed the line when he said: "I think we should be clear: Bahrain is not Syria."
I concluded by saying:
it seems dishonourable to use one set of victims of violent state oppression to morally blackmail into silence those attempting to draw attention to the plight of other victims of violent state oppression.
In that piece, I set out the reasons why activists might choose to focus on the crimes of particular states, which above all has to do with our own personal link to those crimes, via our governments, and our ability to affect the events in question. Such simple principles apparently remain impossible to comprehend for those retaining a quasi-religious faith in the benign nature of Western power.
David Wearing is one of the editors of New Left Project. He is a postgraduate researcher at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies.