The Middle East You Don’t Hear About

The marquee above the Israeli-Palestinian epic never dims.  Intense interest in the grim spectacle ensures as much.

Many of Israel’s backers are deeply suspicious of the attention.  After all, the world is full of far bloodier hotspots than that riddling the stamp-sized sliver of land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.  Yet it is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and, more specifically, the Jewish state’s role in the hostilities that attract special scrutiny—and criticism.

While many ascribe this to anti-Semitism, other factors also likely figure into the equation, including, as strange as it may sound, a certain positive bias, or philo-Semitism.

One reason for such admiration is Jews’ traditional commitment to social justice.  Find Jews and you are apt to find a community that takes to heart the ancient rabbinic credo, Tikkun olam, or “Heal the world.”  Sociologist Milton Himmelfarb’s humorous quip, “Jews earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans,” highlights one contemporary manifestation of such communitarian high-mindedness.

Yet this righteous tradition that sets Jews apart seems maddeningly at variance with the Jewish state’s four-decade-plus occupation of the West Bank and continued expropriation of land across the Green Line demarcated in 1949.  Selective focus on Israel at least partly reflects frustrated bewilderment at this inconsistency.  High expectations work that way.

Similar expectations do not apply to Arabs, however.  On the contrary.  What happens to Muslims by Muslims in the Middle East tends to be treated as of little consequence.

Look no further than the comparatively muted reaction to intra-Arab violence and conflict—the use of chemical weapons and mass slaughter in Syria, the reemergence of a military dictatorship in Egypt, or savage sectarianism in Iraq, and so on.  The UN Human Rights Council rarely registers complaint, European capitals do not erupt in protest, and social media remains curiously quiet.

What explains this?

It is hard not to conclude that at least part of the answer is prejudice, an analogue of sorts to philo-Semitism, as Muslims have come to epitomize the reviled “other.”

The breadth of Islamophobia across the Atlantic, for example, was reflected by the resounding success in recent European parliamentary elections of reactionary parties with naked contempt for Muslims, such as the UK Independence Party and France’s National Front.

Meanwhile, in Germany, Thilo Sarrazin’s bestseller, Germany Does Itself In, speculates about the inferiority of “Muslim genes,” and in Poland “patriotic patrols” roam bars and nightclubs to ensure Muslim men do not fraternize with Polish women.

It is a similar story here in the US.  “Birther” claims that Barack Hussein Obama was educated in an Indonesian madrassa and the push in some states to ban Sharia law bear this out.

So do polls.  According to a 2012 Arab American Institute survey, Muslims registered the lowest favorability ratings of any major religious group in the US, with more respondents characterizing opinions of them as “unfavorable” than “favorable.”  No other group received a net negative rating.

Curiously, it seems that intolerance, like politics, makes strange bedfellows, as some non-Jewish reactionaries are fervent Zionists.  Take Geert Wilders of the Dutch Party for Freedom.  Wilders once claimed, “I don’t hate Muslims, I hate Islam,” yet he stridently supports Israel, doubtlessly because it represents a bulwark against the Muslim horde.

Others, however, are probably not so much animated by Islamophobia than by what George W. Bush in another context called the “soft bigotry of low expectations.”  They may recoil at Israel’s treatment of the majority-Muslim Palestinians, yet they are not terribly exercised by Arab-on-Arab violence because, well, what more can be expected of such people?

All of this is sadly ironic for the long-suffering Palestinians, more than 4.5 million of whom live outside the West Bank and Gaza, oftentimes in squalid conditions in refugee camps where, variously, they are prohibited from joining certain professions, owning property, and voting.

Useful cudgels whose misery can be used against Israel, Palestinians in the Arab diaspora are even subject to mass expulsion.  More typically, though, they are left to fester in conditions characterized by the International Crisis Group as “a time bomb.”

This has gone on for decades.

Just before the Israeli-Palestinian conflict erupted anew in Gaza this past month, the Syrian government and rebel groups signed a ceasefire, breaking a government siege impacting 18,000 Palestinians at the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus.  Since last July, the camp had been marooned, denied food and medicine.  An estimated 100 residents of the camp starved to death.

You probably didn’t hear about Yarmouk.  Why would you?  Arab abuse of Arabs rarely registers.

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