Israel and Saudi Arabia: America’s Favorite Middle East Countries


I published a piece last year with a deliberately provocative title, “Why I No Longer Support Israel,” which elicited hundreds of negative, online comments. I wrote that article partly because of America’s unwavering support for Israel. Republicans and Democrats rarely agree on anything, but they all claim to love America and Israel. We hear no such love pronouncements or unconditional support for actions of England, Canada, or our other allies. I understand the need for a democratic ally in the Middle East, and Israel’s principles are closer to our principles than are those of its neighbors, but Israel’s human rights violations should also be criticized.

What most upset me was Israel’s failure to live up to its own 1948 Declaration of Independence that “ensures complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants, irrespective of religion, race, or sex.” In particular, the Israeli cabinet had approved an anti-democratic bill that defined Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people; reserved national rights only for Jews; and officially relegated the 20 percent of non-Jews living in Israel to second-class status.

It’s not especially difficult for a country to be either democratic or theocratic, but Israel has struggled with trying to be both a Jewish and democratic country. The problem is complicated by the variety of Jewish citizens, ranging from the ultra-orthodox who believe God gave Israel exclusively to the Jews, to the humanistic and secular Jews who support social and political equality for all Israeli citizens. Unfortunately, Israel’s current government seems unwilling to rise above sectarian concern or live up to the values in its 1948 Declaration.

Israel became America’s favorite Middle East country in part because of common interests and shared democratic ideals, but I’m disturbed that Saudi Arabia is our second-favorite. My introduction to deplorable Saudi Arabia behavior occurred in 1988. A mathematician from India with whom I had published several research papers asked me for a letter of recommendation to teach at a university in Saudi Arabia, which he said paid extremely well. Their math department recommended him highly for the position, but the administration rejected him. A friend of his in their math department subsequently told him that the higher-ups had vetoed his candidacy because of my letter, but not due to anything I said. It was because of my surname, which revealed that I was a Jew. My math colleague had no idea I was Jewish, and neither of us could have imagined its relevance to my evaluation of his complex variables research.

The year 1948, when Israel put the human rights platform in its Declaration of Independence, was also significant for something Saudi Arabia refused to do. That year, 48 countries supported the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations General Assembly. Signers included Middle East Muslim countries Afghanistan, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan, and Syria, along with Turkey (secular, but overwhelmingly Muslim). However, Saudi Arabia didn’t sign because it claimed that the provisions violated Sharia law. Other Muslim countries criticized Saudi Arabia’s strict views of Sharia law.

A partial list of Saudi interpretations of sharia include: not allowing Muslims to change religion; no right to change the government peacefully; not allowing access to legal council during interrogation and trial; denial of fair and public trials; restrictions on civil liberties such as freedoms of speech, assembly, association and movement; legal domestic violence against women and no equal rights for women; legality of torture and physical abuse. These problems and more are carefully documented in a 2010 Human Rights Report from the U.S. Department of State.

We rarely hear about human rights violations by our Saudi ally, one notable exception being the 2002 fire in in a girls’ school in Mecca that claimed the lives of 15 girls. The “Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice” (CPVPV) prevented these 13-year olds from escaping to safety because they were not wearing hijabs. Nadin Al-Badir, a brave Saudi journalist, exposed this tragedy. Saudi authorities then apologized for the overzealous reaction, and said they had plans to limit the power of their religious police. But only one person was threatened with arrest for the incident. A Saudi judge called for the arrest of Nadin Al-Badir—for publicly criticizing the CPVPV.

It would be bad enough if Wahhabism, the strict brand of Islam practiced by Saudis, stayed within its borders. It shouldn’t be surprising that 15 of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 were Saudi citizens. Not one was from Iraq, which our administration held responsible. Saudi Arabia funds Wahhabi mosques and ideology globally. A study conducted by the NGO Freedom House found thatWahhabi publications in U.S. mosques called for Muslims to oppose “infidels” in every way and hate them for their religion. It claimed that democracy is responsible for all horrible wars. In response, the Saudi government said it was trying to overhaul its education system, but that the task is a “massive undertaking.”

We rightly view ISIS as our greatest threat at the moment, but we should recognize similarities between ISIS and Saudi Arabia, including Wahhabi theology. Both behead people, enslave women, kill people for apostasy and blasphemy, and consider their version of Sharia law as binding. However, America focuses almost exclusively on benefits from Saudis. We get their oil, they are of some help in promoting regional stability, and they provide air space for us.

James Carville, a strategist for Bill Clinton during his successful 1992 presidential campaign, coined the phrase “It’s the economy, stupid.” Clinton emphasized the economy, but he recognized that it wasn’t all economy or all anything. With that in mind, I long to hear some truth-telling politicians employ a much-needed foreign policy phrase, “It’s the human rights, stupid.”

Herb Silverman

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