A new low in moral equivalence

A new low in moral equivalence
Notorious Aussie ISIS fighter Mohamed Elomar.

Australia’s distinction as a major source of recruits joining “Islamic State” has been used as a pretext for a variety of commentators to defame Israel, through the morally vacuous argument that the phenomenon is no different to that of Jewish Australians who serve in the Israeli Defence Force (IDF).

A typical example was Phillip Adams writing in his Weekend Australian column that “the government is understandably concerned by the indoctrination of local youth who head off to Iraq or Syria, though we’ve not expressed concern about the generations of young Australian Jews who’ve headed for Israel to join the army.”

In the Canberra Times, ANU Professor Amin Saikal wrote, “some Western countries, including Australia, have had no qualms over some of their Jewish citizens either joining or fighting for the Israeli security forces, and have not viewed their return with trepidation. It is not surprising to hear Muslim voices raised about double standard.”

And in the Courier Mail columnist Paul Syvret wrote that “all religions and societies tend to breed their own brands of extremist ratbaggery”, and then inveigled against “young Jewish Australians who ‘make Aliyah’ with a return to Israel and service in that (foreign) country’s military – an armed force well schooled in bloody regional and religious conflict”.

There are many other examples I could provide.

This tendency to react to any mention of the problem of Australians going to join ISIS by immediately responding “What about Israel?” is now so common that one could be forgiven for thinking that Jewish Australians are enjoying some unique dispensation to serve in a foreign power’s armed forces.

But as Alan Shroot pointed out in a letter published in the Canberra Times last week in response to an earlier letter by Rex Williams (which had pushed the moral equivalence angle) “sixty-four countries have universal conscription – including major Australian partners like Vietnam, Singapore and Thailand. But, apparently, it’s only Israeli citizens who become terrorists if they meet their legal obligations to serve in their national forces.”

Shroot is indeed correct, as this website shows.

Moreover, he could have further mentioned that the 64 nations with universal conscription include both other countries with substantial immigrant populations in Australia – such as Greece and Turkey – and large and powerful countries – including Russia and Brazil.

While no statistics are available on how many Australian dual-citizens serve in the armed services of any of these countries – including Israel – it is definitely the case that at least some do. Yet this is rightly uncontroversial. Needless to say, this focus on service in the IDF alone when discussing Australians fighting for ISIS is a clear cut case of double standards and prejudice.

While some will doubtless argue that they single out the IDF because of its “alleged human rights abuses”, this also doesn’t hold water intellectually.

Indeed, most reasonable people would agree that many of the 64 countries listed as having compulsory armed service have armies and governments whose human rights abuses dwarf anything Israel has been accused of.

Let’s look at Thailand. Just this week Fairfax’s Southeast Asia correspondent Lindsay Murdoch reported that “Thai security forces, which operate with impunity, are accused by human rights groups of abuses including arbitrary arrests and extra-judicial killings that cause more reprisals” in its long running conflict with Islamist rebels in the country’s south.

And in 2014 the Thai army overthrew the elected government and since then there have been numerous reports of human rights abuses.

Then there is Turkey’s army – whose conflict with the PKK in the country’s Kurdish region in the 1980s and 1990s allegedly led to “over 19,000 deaths, including some 2,000 death-squad killings of suspected PKK sympathizers, two million internally displaced, and more than 2,200 villages destroyed” according to Human Rights Watch. More recently, the crushing of nationwide protests by the Turkish security forces in 2013 involved “human rights violations on a massive scale” according to Amnesty International. And then there is Turkey’s continuing occupation of northern Cyprus since 1975.

And that’s without bringing up current Russian aggression in the Ukraine and past aggression and human rights abuses in Georgia and Chechnya.

So why, with dozens of countries to choose from, do so many try to normalise Australians joining Islamic State by singling out Israel or at least stigmatise only Israel by drawing this false parallel with the bloodthirsty terrorists of ISIS?

Many of those suggesting a moral equivalence have long track records of anti-Israel commentary. Any excuse to bash Israel will apparently do. And some apparently employ a sort of twisted logic which says we should address “Muslim grievances” to deal with people going to fight for ISIS, Israel is a key Muslim grievance, therefore whenever anyone brings up Australians fighting for ISIS, let’s mention Israel negatively to show we appreciate and sympathise with these grievances.

In practice, given the obvious double standards involved, what this amounts to is saying, “let’s single out and pick on Jewish Australians” to show our sympathy with Australian Muslims. Because, even apart from the fact that lots of Australians other than Jews are dual-citizens who may be obliged to serve in the armed forces of their second country of citizenship, it should be obvious that comparisons between dual national Australians who have served in the IDF and Islamic State’s Aussie recruits are totally absurd.

Firstly, the overwhelming majority of Jewish Australians do not generally head to Israel with the specific aim of serving in the IDF.

Furthermore, Jewish Australians do not travel to Israel having first made a very public expression of their ideological and personal contempt for this country’s way of life and moral values as so many Australian jihadists seem to.

But most importantly of all, as federal Attorney-General George Brandis noted in his response to an audience member on ABC TV‘s “Q&A” in November 2014, “there is no equivalence between the standing army of a foreign friendly state like Israel and a terrorist insurgency like ISIL and I’m not aware of a single instance that a Jewish man or woman who has been – who has seen service in the IDF has come back to Australia and perpetrated a terrorist crime.”

It seems to be trendy to adopt the view that one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist, and many people seem wary of making value judgements even about deliberately joining a terrorist army responsible for mass murder, beheading people simply because of their religion, enslaving women, and deliberate destruction of cultural artifacts.

But even if you adopt this absurd and morally vacuous position, singling out IDF service alone as the equivalent of joining ISIS makes no sense, given the 63 other countries which could also be cited. It is an expression of pure prejudice and should be called out as such.

Allon Lee