Amnon Rubinstein, a former Knesset member and minister from Israel’s left-wing Meretz Party, made an important point in today’s Jerusalem Post. The uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt took the West by surprise, he wrote, because Westerners know almost nothing about what goes on in undemocratic societies. And this ignorance stems largely from the fact that the bodies it relies on to provide information — the media and nongovernmental organizations — devote most of their energy to the low-hanging fruit, exposing real or imagined failings by democracies, instead of focusing on dictatorships, where getting information is much harder.
The openly pro-Palestinian reporter Amira Hass provided an excellent example in Monday’s Haaretz. At a Ramallah store where everyone was watching Al Jazeera, an employee asked if she had caught what a Tunisian protester just said: that “the Palestinians’ situation is better than that of the Tunisians, that they [the Palestinians] have food.”
I told him this was the same impression members of Egyptian solidarity delegations had upon visiting the Gaza Strip after Operation Cast Lead [Israel’s 2009 war with Hamas]. They were amazed at the abundance of food, especially fruits and vegetables, they were able to find in Gaza. And I heard that not from the Israeli Civil Administration spokesmen but from Egyptians and Palestinians.
But nobody would know this from media or NGO reports. Can anyone remember reading a news story about food shortages in Egypt or Tunisia in recent years? Yet hundreds of articles have been published about alleged humanitarian distress in Gaza, including many that claimed Israel’s blockade was causing starvation.
Indeed, the UN has run an annual humanitarian-aid appeal for the West Bank and Gaza since 2003; this year, it’s seeking $567 million, making it the organization’s fifth-largest “emergency campaign.” Can anyone remember the last UN appeal for aid to Egypt or Tunisia?
The same goes for NGOs. On Amnesty International’s website, the “features” page has nothing about either Egypt or Tunisia. Yet Israel merits two condemnatory features (the only country so honored), including the top-billed story — which, naturally, alleges food shortages in Gaza due to Israel’s blockade.
Then there’s the UN Human Rights Council — which, as Rubinstein noted, actually praised the human-rights situation in both Egypt and Tunisia, even as it issued 27 separate resolutions slamming Israel.
Thus most Westerners were utterly clueless about the economic distress and oppression that fueled the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings. Indeed, based on the available information, the reasonable assumption would have been that Gaza, not Egypt or Tunisia, was the place most likely to explode.
Human Rights Watch founder Robert Bernstein decried his own organization in 2009 for betraying its “original mission to pry open closed societies” — to shed light precisely on those dark corners where information isn’t easily available — in favor of a focus on open societies, especially Israel. That, as I’ve argued repeatedly, leaves the world’s most oppressed people voiceless.
But it turns out the obsessive media/NGO focus on Israel also has another price: depriving the West of the information it needs to make sound judgments and set wise policy.