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Cantor's Comment - Parshat Beha'alotcha                              May 29, 2021 18 Sivan, 5781

05/28/2021 09:29:12 AM


War crimes, crimes against humanity, apartheid – it is not only because of the recent clashes between Israel and Palestinians that these terms have been invoked around the world in condemnation of Israel.  But for many decades, from the halls of the United Nations to the battle cries of protesters, claims such as these have been made by those who have stood against the Jewish state, the only democratic, pluralistic, inclusive and truly free nation in the middle east.  In response, Israel, the Jewish people, and supporters of Zionism have long pointed out the double standard of accusing Israel of these atrocities while largely ignoring the egregious human rights violations committed by North Korea, Iran, Syria, China and others.  Many understandably see this response as a terrible argument—that if Israel is indeed the just and moral state that it claims to be, then surely the fact that other countries have committed worse atrocities cannot be used as an excuse, and that Israel’s actions should and must be judged appropriately.  However, if we take a moment to investigate how this clear bias against Israel translates to the formulating of international law and, in turn, world opinion, it turns out that this may be one of those rare instances when whataboutism might actually be making a very important point.

Whataboutism is a defensive pivoting argument that attempts to shift the discussion away from an issue by basically pointing to a bigger fish to be fried.  Back in 2017, John Oliver did a piece on whataboutism, and since he was so kind enough to weigh in with his enlightened opinion on the middle east conflict recently, let’s begin with his understanding of whataboutism.

In this case, John Oliver is absolutely correct, both about how whataboutism is often abused in the media, and about how annoyingly effective it can be at deflecting accountability.  However, in this next clip, Hillel Neuer, head of the NGO UN WATCH, is defending Israel at the United Nations Human Rights Council, seemingly using the same whataboutism tactic.  See if you can tell why when Neuer does it, it’s a lot different.  

By asking Algeria, Egypt, Syria and Iran “where are your Jews”, Neuer attempts, perhaps in vain, to reveal what’s really going on, speaking to the legitimacy of UN Human Rights council itself.  With no degree of subtlety, Neuer is pointing out that the council is composed of human rights abusers ironically tasked with defining what constitutes human rights abuses; and by an amazing coincidence, this body has come to the consensus that human rights abuses can be defined in such a way as to not only single out the one nation they would prefer to see wiped off the map, but also to determine that this country’s offenses are so horrifying, so inhumane, that taking the time to point out those violations is critical enough to deserve a permanent council agenda item, #7, at every meeting.  No other country gets this honour – not Syria, not Iran, not North Korea, not Russia, not China… just Israel.  By doing so, the Human Rights Council loses all credibility to accuse anyone of an actual human rights abuse.  It’s not whataboutism, it’s not even a case of the pot calling the kettle black, it is revealing the sham that is the Human Rights council which has distorted facts to suit the geo-political interests of its constituent nations while simultaneously providing a convenient means of sweeping their own atrocities under the proverbial rug.

It wasn’t always this way.  The League of Nations, as the UN was called back in 1948, voted to give the Jews a state in the region which the Jewish people eagerly accepted.  At the time, only a few of the nations of Africa and only about half of the Arab and Muslim nations were member states.  But in 1975 the balance of influence in the United Nations began to change when communist Cuba fought to forge a coalition with other communist UN delegations in order to take on the United States.  At the same time, a number of Muslim states banded together in order to use the same tactic to take on Israel.  The communist and Muslim coalitions soon realized that by uniting and supporting each other’s initiatives, they would constitute a power voting block within the UN, and by focusing their collective attention on Israel, they could also simultaneously whittle away at the influence of Israel’s closest ally, the United States.  Today the UN is ruled not by universal morality, but by consensus which, by definition, includes the world’s worst abusers; abusers who have discovered that with a bit of mutual back scratching, it is possible to pass the most self-serving resolutions.  It is corrupt partisan politics on a global scale that has resulted in the normalizing of comments like this:

Now, I don’t really want to go into a whole segment explaining why this is awful, mostly because it’s a topic that’s been covered very well by a lot of other YouTubers, so I’ll link to a couple of them in the description.  But suffice it to say that applying a term like apartheid to the state of Israel is offensive, wrong, ignorant and beyond disrespectful to the real memories and experiences of people who actually suffered horribly under real apartheid.

This week’s parsha is B’ha’alotcha.  The burden of leadership is becoming so exhausting for Moses that God finally tells him to get some help.  Seventy elders of Israel are called to the Ohel Mo’ed, the Tent of Meeting.  The Torah describes God drawing on the spirit of Moses, and causing it to rest on the seventy elders which caused them to speak in ecstasy.  In what really amounts to a ceremony in which Moses shares the burden of his leadership with the seventy elders it is odd the way the Torah describes the elders as “speaking in ecstasy”.  The commentators suggest that by this the Torah means that the 70 elders received the gift of prophecy, a connection to God that until then had been reserved only for Moses.  By this we understand that these 70 elders were imbued with an understanding that helped govern the people, like Moses, in accordance with God’s principles, completely setting aside their own ambitions and agendas.

Would it be so, that we could count on our leaders, at home and around the world to all set aside their own ambitions and agendas in order to serve the greater good.  Personally, I believe there is such a thing as the moral majority – the idea that humanity as a whole is fundamentally good such that the majority of people stand up for common sense and decency.  But the structure of modern leadership rewards the ruthless, the unscrupulous, to the point that it is hard to know in any given election whether those individuals who have succeeded enough to win a place on the ballot truly believe in serving the greater good.  In the end, the United Nations has probably done more good than harm, mediating conflicts, addressing crises and working towards global causes such as climate change.  But it is also a governing body that suffers from its own special version of corruption and bias to which Israel’s conscience is not accountable.

Shabbat Shalom

Mon, July 4 2022 5 Tammuz 5782