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Why Israel and not Sudan, is singled out - The West's "Human Rights Complex"

By Charles Jacobs, 10/5/2002

Harvard President Larry Summers recently criticized those on his campus who speak in the name of human rights but selectively censure Israel while ignoring much greater problems in the Middle East. He described the divestment campaign at Harvard singling out Israel "among all the nations as the lone country where it is inappropriate" for universities to invest, as anti-Semitic ''in effect if not intent.''

But human rights (and media) attention is often disproportionate to the severity or urgency of human conflicts. What determines their focus is not mainly anti-Semitism. It is something else.

An instructive case is Sudan. Atrocities there exceed every other world horror. For ten years the blacks of South Sudan have been victims of an onslaught that has taken more than two million lives. Colin Powell calls it "the worst human rights nightmare on the planet." Yet with the important exception of the black Christian community here, there has been a disturbingly muted reaction from the well-known American human rights champions. The media covers the deaths in Sudan only occasionally.

Do rights activists and editorialists care more for Palestinians than for blacks? Surely not. It is the nature of the conflict, I propose, not the level of horror, which determines the response of Westerners.

In Khartoum, a Taliban-like Muslim regime is waging a self-declared jihad on African Christians, and followers of tribal faiths in South Sudan. Non-Arab African Muslims are also targeted for devastation. Two million people have been killed - more than in Bosnia, Kosovo, Somalia, Haiti, Rwanda and Burundi combined. Tens of thousands have been displaced, one hundred thousand, according to the U.S. Committee on Refugees, forcibly starved.

Western lack of interest is all the more stunning as Khartoum's onslaught has rekindled the trade in black slaves, halted (mostly) a century ago by the British abolitionists. Arab militias storm African villages, kill the men and enslave the women and children. Accounts by journalists, Catholic and Episcopal Bishops in Sudan, abolitionists -- and by the survivors themselves -- depict unspeakable horror. In these African pogroms, after the men are summarily slaughtered, women, girls and boys are gang raped - or have their throats slit for resisting. The terrorized survivors are forced-marched northward, and distributed to Arab masters, the women to become concubines, the girls domestics, the boys goatherds. I went to Sudan and saw for myself the scars on bodies of former slaves. There are photos of fingers, even a nose chopped off of boys who lost their masters' goats. (

Given the sympathies of the human rights movement, it is hard to explain why victims of slavery and slaughter are virtually ignored, no, turned away, by American progressives. How can it be that there is no storm of indignation at Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch who, though they rushed to Jenin to investigate false reports of Jews massacring Arabs, yet care so much less about Arab-occupied Juba, South Sudan's black capital? How can it be that they have not raised the roof about Khartoum's black slaves? Neither has there been a concerted effort by the press (the Globe is a partial exception) - even the progressive press -- to pressure American Administrations to intervene. Nor has the socialist left spoken of liberating the slaves or protecting black villages from pogroms, even though Wall St. helps bankroll Khartoum's oil business, which finances the slavery and slaughter. What is this literally murderous silence about?

Surely it is not because we don't care about blacks. Progressives champion oppressed black peoples daily. My hypothesis is this: to predict what the human rights community (and the media) focus on, look not at the oppressed; look instead at the party seen as the oppressor. Imagine the media coverage and the rights groups' reaction if it were "whites" enslaving blacks in Sudan. Having the "right" oppressor would change everything. Alternatively, imagine the "wrong" oppressor; say if Arabs, not Jews, shot Palestinians in revolt. In 1980 ("Black September") Jordan murdered tens of thousands of Palestinians in two days. We saw no divestment campaigns, and we wouldn't today.

This selectivity (at least in America) does not come from the hatred of Jews. It is "a human rights complex" - and is not hard to understand. The human rights community, composed mostly of compassionate white people, feels a special duty to protest evil done by those who are like "us." "Not in my name" is the worthy response of moral people. South African whites could not be allowed to represent "us." But when we see evil done by "others," we tend to shy away.

Though we claim to have a single standard for all human conduct, we don't. We fear the charge of hypocrisy: We Westerners after all, had slaves. We napalmed Viet Nam. We live on Native American land. Who are we to judge "others?" And so we don't stand for all of humanity. The biggest victims of this complex are not the Jews who are obsessively criticized, but victims of genocide, enslavement, religious persecution and ethnic cleansing who are murderously ignored: the Christian slaves of Sudan, the Muslim slaves of Mauritania, the Tibetans, the Kurds, the Christians in Pakistan, Indonesia, Egypt.

Seeking expiation instead of universal justice means ignoring the sufferings of these victims of non-Western aggression, and making relatively more of the suffering of those in confrontation with people like "us." If the Israelis are being "profiled" because they are like "us," the slaves of Sudan are ignored because their masters' behavior has nothing to do with us.

In America, it is not predominantly anti-Semitism that causes the human rights community to single Israel out for intense criticism. It is rather our failure to apply to all nations the standards to which we hold ourselves. The effect, as President Summers correctly said, is anti-Semitic. But it is also the abandonment of those around the world in the worst of circumstances whose oppressions we find beside the point.

A version of this article appeared in the Boston Globe on 10/5/02


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