Some people argue that Israel is being singled out unfairly for criticism while similar or worse atrocities and human rights abuses have been carried out in other countries, including Sudan, the Congo, Rwanda, China, Kosovo, Iraq, etc.  These people ask why human rights activists and the UN do not criticize these other places as much as they criticize Israel?  Israel is not the worst human rights abuser in the world, nor does the Israel-Palestine conflict have the highest death toll, so some people think it may be anti-Semitic to focus criticism on Israel.

It is true that Israel neither is currently, nor has it ever been the worst human rights abuser in the world, and there are many worse conflicts and human rights abuses happening in the world that are too often ignored

by the international community.  For example, millions of people have been killed in fighting in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the past ten years, and most of the world has not paid much attention to this ongoing humanitarian crisis.  While many other human rights abuses in the world also need attention, there are also many legitimate reasons to criticize some of Israel’s policies.  And while some anti-Semites do choose to single out Israel for criticism, that doesn’t mean that the majority of criticism of Israel is therefore motivated by anti-Semitism.  Also, just because we can point to other worse conflicts and human rights abuses doesn’t mean that we should then ignore Israel’s actions or the rights of Palestinians.  Because American taxpayers also happen to be the number one sponsor of the Israeli military, we also perhaps have a greater obligation to ensure that our taxes are not directly supporting Palestinian oppression.

It is untrue that human rights groups or the UN ignore other problems in the world(1).  Human rights groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International focus their attention and campaigns on abuses in many different countries, and only a small percentage of their work focuses on the Middle East and Israel.  And, while the UN Human Rights Council has perhaps focused its attention disproportionately on Israel in recent years, the UN has also imposed sanctions on other countries for their failure to abide by UN resolutions, including Iraq in the 1990s, and they currently have a variety of sanctions against several countries.

In many cases, the international community has not only permitted Israel to carry out military actions,

ignore UN resolutions, and continue policies that wouldn’t be tolerated for other countries, but Israel retains wide international support.  For every time Israel has been singled out for censure by the UN, for example, Israel has also been singled out by the protection of U.S. vetoes in the UN Security Council(2).

It is true that international criticism of Israel is growing, especially since the recent Gaza War (Operation Cast Lead) and the Israeli raid on the Gaza flotilla, and that the Obama administration has called on Israel to halt settlement construction, but Israel has generally maintained wide international support in the West throughout the years despite its ongoing military occupation of the Palestinians.

For example, when Saddam Hussein flouted UN resolutions and international laws (after the end of earlier U.S. support) and tried to invade and occupy Kuwait in 1991, the U.S. responded by invading Iraq with full UN support.  When Slobodan Milosevic and Serbia perpetuated ethnic cleansing of Kosovar Muslims, the U.S. and NATO bombed Serbia in retaliation and sent troops into the region to intervene.  It’s true that international laws are not universally respected, and they are also routinely ignored by the U.S., but Israel, unlike many other countries, has been able to ignore them for years with no real negative consequences from the international community.

Many Arabs and Muslims do tend to focus more criticism on Israeli actions than on abuses by other countries (and sometimes their own governments, which do not allow open criticism).  Some claim that this focus is simply due to anti-Semitism, but this focus is also understandable because these countries have been most directly and negatively affected by Israel’s actions and the conflict.  They also feel a sense of cultural and religious connection to, and thus empathy for, the Palestinians.  The countries of Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria have all been engaged in a series of wars with Israel since its founding in 1948, some of these conflicts were initiated by Arab countries, and some were initiated by Israel.  While Egypt and Jordan have officially made peace with Israel, the other neighboring nations still have outstanding grievances with Israel that have yet to be resolved.  Despite the empathy most Arabs and Muslims feel for the Palestinians’ situation, most Arab and Muslim leaders have done little to put pressure on Israel since the late 1970s.  It is also no coincidence that many Arabs and Muslims have been critical of U.S. policies in the region because, like Israel, and unlike other countries, the US has intervened politically, economically, and militarily in the affairs of the region during the past few decades(3).

There are also a few unique aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Israeli policy that warrant and explain international criticism.  Israel’s 40+ year-old occupation of the West Bank (and until recently, Gaza) is the longest running military occupation in history that still exists today(4), and the Palestinian refugee population remains the largest in the world(5).  Israel also receives by far the most foreign aid from the United States of any other single country(6), and it has one of the strongest military forces in the world(7).  The situation in Israel-Palestine (though unique in many ways) is also one of the last vestiges of colonialism in which a predominately European-descended and more powerful ethnic group has colonized land populated by a non-European, indigenous population. 

Some people argue that to be fair, human rights activists and others should equally criticize the Palestinians for violent acts like firing rockets or acts of terrorism.  Most human rights organizations and international bodies, including the UN, do routinely condemn Palestinian acts of terror(8), but some other critics of Israeli policies and military actions, as well as supporters of a boycott movement have targeted Israel--even if they do not support violence or terrorism as a tactic of resistance.

It is important to remember that the “conflict” is not one of two equal sides.  While there may have been more reciprocity in the early years of the conflict during the British Mandate period, for many years now, Israel has possessed a strong military force equipped with state-of-the-art weapons technology (much of it made in the U.S.), and the worst threats it currently faces are from crude and inaccurate Qassam rockets.  While these weapons are a form of illegal terrorism because they both physically threaten and psychologically terrorize Israeli civilians, they have resulted in very few civilian casualties(9).  From the mid-1990s through the Second Intifada, Israel was targeted by Palestinian suicide bombers, and hundreds of Israeli civilians were killed.  While some suicide bombers were affiliated with militant groups, including Hamas, many suicide bombers were also angry individuals acting on their own accord.  Israel has the most powerful military in the region, but the Palestinians are militarily weak.  Israel militarily occupies the West Bank and controls the lives of millions of Palestinians, including those in Gaza—not vice versa.  The situation is not reciprocal or equal.

In addition to these unique aspects, international attention may also sometimes focus on the Middle East conflict because of the religious significance of the region.  The land of Israel/Palestine, especially Jerusalem, is central to all three major monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  So, naturally, people of all three faiths would focus on this region more than many other conflict regions in the world.

As international activists focus some of their criticism on Israeli policies, the U.S. singles out Israel to receive more foreign aid than any other nation in the world--totaling about $3 billion dollars per year.  This aid, most of it military, is given to Israel every year even though many other countries that are suffering from economic problems and poverty may need aid more than Israel does.  The fact that the richest and most powerful country in the world singles out Israel for support and admits to having a “special relationship” with it may also contribute to international anger over this situation and the fact that the U.S. turns a blind eye to Israel’s actions.  Moreover, many American conservative Christians also single out Israel for special support, often monetary, due to their belief in certain biblical prophecies about Armageddon(10).  International criticism of Israel may be growing, but Israel continues to enjoy more American support than any other nation in the world, which by itself is perhaps a legitimate reason to scrutinize Israeli policy.

Some have argued that another legitimate basis for criticism of Israel is the contradiction between its stated values as a democratic society(11) and its oppressive policies, much in the same way that the United States was rightly criticized for racist and hypocritical policies against its African American population in the past.  In many ways, international critics are holding Israel accountable for not abiding by the very values it claims to stand for.  Even Israel’s own High Court has rejected many of its government’s policies as illegal(12).  Aside from the U.S., the other biggest human rights abusers in the world today are all totalitarian nations that often do not even claim to respect human and civil rights.  When Israel’s actions and policies are placed in the context of those of other democratic free societies, it becomes clearer why it is deserving of legitimate criticism.  The U.S. and many European nations have all likewise engaged in oppressive colonial exploits in the past, including the French in Algeria and the U.S. in Vietnam, and the U.S. continues to do so today both openly and clandestinely--all actions that also have deserved and received international criticism, but this should not excuse Israel’s present actions and policies.

Similar arguments about being unfairly singled out have also been made by leaders of other nations that have incurred international criticism or even sanctions for their actions, including South Africa, Sudan, Iran, Iraq, and China.  When international human rights activists pursued a boycott campaign against South Africa for its apartheid policies, they were accused of unfairly singling out South Africa by the white South African apartheid regime and their closest supporters.  Few people argued, however, that supporting a boycott of South Africa indicated a special or unique hatred of white South Africans.

While criticism of some of Israel’s policies is legitimate, there are anti-Semites out there who do unfairly single out Israel and Jews for any number of “evils.”(13)  These people often may not care about human rights abuses by other nations, and they may assert that the actions of the state of Israel represent the wishes or feelings of all Jews or are a result of the inherent “evil” of Judaism. They will probably hold other anti-Semitic attitudes as well.  There will always be anti-Semites who will find any reason to criticize Israel and the Jewish people, but the fact that they exist does not mean that it is therefore illegitimate to criticize Israeli policies.

It is also important to remember that Jews everywhere have legitimate historical reasons to fear

anti-Semitism(14), and it is thus important for activists who care about human rights in Israel to

recognize and address these fears rather than simply ignoring or minimizing them.  Jewish history

includes many examples of being unfairly singled out for criticism and worse.  This fact cannot be


  1. Stephen R. Shalom offers a good discussion of Israel’s claim of being singled out:


  3. Some other reasons that Israel may be singled out:


  5. Other articles on the same topic:



  8. Former Israeli negotiator, Daniel Levy, discusses “pro-Israel” claims of bias

  9. against Human Rights Watch:


Endnote sources:                          
















Why is Israel being singled out for criticism?