Opinion

From Pre-state Israel to Myanmar: What Ethnic Cleansing?

Israel denies the tragedy in Myanmar because it is incapable of acknowledging ethnic cleansing that recalls its own actions from 1948

Rohingya Muslim refugees who entered Bangladesh by makeshift boats walk towards refugee camps after landing in the at Sabrang in the Teknaf district of Bangladesh on November 11, 2017.
DIBYANGSHU SARKAR/AFP

“Israel knows the situation in Myanmar better than international organizations and the media. Both sides are committing war crimes. The current situation began after Muslims attacked positions of the Burmese army,” said Israel’s deputy consul general in New York, Amir Sagie, responding to accusations that Israel sells arms to a regime that is committing horrific war crimes against the Rohingya, a helpless ethnic and religious minority.

Sagie didn’t bother disclosing the sources that are better than those of global organizations, including the United Nations. It’s obvious that the Foreign Ministry talking points he read out conflict with the known facts about the ethnic cleansing in Myanmar. Presumably the aim was to blunt the criticism of Israel, which sells the goods of its arms industry to any murderous regime.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, determined that the Myanmar government’s actions against the Rohingya Muslims constitute ethnic cleansing, designed to cause a mass expulsion while deliberately destroying their villages. He noted that the security forces were joined by armed Buddhist civilians who looted homes, crops, livestock and food stores, further deterring the Rohingyas’ return. Hussein called it an organized killing campaign that began with arrests of young Rohingya men about a month before the expulsion that created a climate of intimidation and violence and left the population defenseless.

The picture is familiar from acts of ethnic cleansing and genocide in the 20th century, a campaign of murder that starts with arrests of young men, who are capable of resisting. It’s what the Turks did to the Armenians in 1915 before beginning to expel and murder them.

It’s what the Einsatzgruppen did to Jews in Lithuania in 1941 and Serbs to Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica in 1995. It precedes attacks in which the local population often participates, happy to loot the property of those expelled or murdered.

The UN has recognized acts like those in Myanmar as ethnic cleansing or genocide, in Yugoslavia for instance. It has partly done so in Myanmar. But Israel knows better: not ethnic cleansing, but mutual violence between two national or religious groups. And Israel, as we know, doesn’t interfere in the internal affairs of other states, as Sagie stressed.

But beyond the desire to pocket blood money, Israel denies the tragedy in Myanmar because it is incapable of acknowledging ethnic cleansing that recalls its own actions. If it were to recognize the Rohingyas’ plight, Israel would be asked to admit responsibility for what it did to the Palestinians in 1948.

In defending Israel’s ties to Myanmar’s criminal regime, Sagie repeated the dubious excuse used by Israel every time the ethnic cleansing of 1948 comes up. We are not to blame. We were attacked and we defended ourselves. The events in Myanmar also began with an attack by Muslim forces on army positions, said the deputy consul.

True, there were incidents between a Rohingya militia and army forces. But the speaker didn’t realize (or didn’t know) that this argument aligns Israel with genocide-denying states like Turkey. After all, Turkey’s main argument is that it did not commit genocide against the Armenians because the Armenians initiated a violent struggle against the state and had to be removed from their homes for security reasons.

Here we have an Israeli narrative that places the history of the Jewish state alongside that of states that deny the serious crimes against national and ethnic groups in the past century: Turkey in 1915, Sudan in Darfur from 2004 and Myanmar in 2017.

Israel’s denial, like that of the Turks or the Burmese, has cognitive, emotional, social and political components. It is an existential condition, shared by the individual and the entire national collective.

Those who deny that their country committed a crime of mass violence find support in the fact that this opinion is shared by large parts of the ir society, which legitimizes this viewpoint. The fact that it’s the official position of the government adds depth to this self-righteous claim, which denies not only responsibility for the crime, but its very existence.

The urge to deny historical responsibility stems from the perpetrator’s feeling that he had every right to do what he did, not only because he is the real victim, but also because he’s right — due to his moral, cultural or racial supremacy. That is the reason for the denial and its tactics. It is based on the impossibility of proving that the perpetrator acted with malicious intent; he defines himself as a victim, to the point where he believes his denial is the historical truth. In today’s terms, the “news” is “fake news,” and the false narrative, which denies the truth and exalts the perpetrator, is the sole truth.

Most Israelis, who are about as interested in what’s happening in Myanmar as they are in the crimes their country is committing in Gaza, don’t have to be convinced that this is not ethnic cleansing to which Israel is indirectly a partner. After all, all the anti-Semites in the world have been screaming for years that Israel carried out ethnic cleansing against the Palestinians in 1948, so why shouldn’t they accuse it of this too?

Daniel Blatman is a professor of history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.