Greg Scoblete and Andrew address why Palestinians receive so much more attention when there are people in other parts of the world who suffer far more. As far as American attention is concerned, I think they are right that U.S. financial and diplomatic support and especially military aid account for why there is as much attention paid to Israeli policy toward Palestinians in the United States as there is. What is interesting is that the American public is relatively less aware of and less concerned about Palestinian grievances despite being far more directly implicated in the policies that create those grievances. One might think that Americans would be unusually attentive to the results of policies they are subsidizing, but as we all know the reverse is true. As far as worldwide attention is concerned, there are many other reasons for greater attention, most of which also have nothing to do with anti-Semitism.
What Mead does not seem to understand is that the greater attention paid to Palestinian woes is a product of the ridiculously disproportionate attention paid to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. The conflict is not actually all that important, but the constant attention it receives has made it strategically important for reasons that have nothing to do with the establishment of a Palestinian state or the delineation of borders. One of the reasons for the fixation on this conflict is that at least some Westerners take tremendous interest in supporting Israel. As they have focused more of their attention on the conflict, others have done the same.
The desire to identify with Israel as a fellow Western democracy is matched by a desire to show solidarity with fellow Arabs and Muslims. There are no other ongoing decades-long conflicts between a Western state and a Muslim population under its occupying authority. Russia controls Chechnya and has brutally suppressed Chechen separatists while doing far more collateral damage, but with a very few exceptions Westerners do not identify Russia as being like “us” and Russian control over Chechnya is a long-established, universally accepted political reality that has nothing to do with the rest of Europe or the U.S. Add to this mix the Westerners who view the conflict as either a relic of colonialism or a remnant of Cold War proxy fights. This group is going to be more likely to sympathize with the Palestinians as another movement for national self-determination rather than seeing the conflict as a miniature version of civilizational or geopolitical struggles. At the very least, they are not going to engage in tortured rationalizations of unjust Israeli policies, and they are unlikely to pin all of the blame for the conflict on just the Palestinian side.
In addition, there is greater interest in the conflict because of the sacred geography of the disputed territories. The same cultural heritage and religious sentiments that foster sympathy for Israel in the West also make the world’s Christians and Muslims pay far more attention to a conflict taking place in the Holy Land. Depending on the theology and politics of the church in question, this attention will translate into zealous Christian Zionist support for Israel, social justice-driven concern for dispossessed, stateless people, the witness of peace churches against political violence or confessional solidarity with the small number of Palestinian Christians who remain.
There are other cases where U.S. allies are engaged in illegal occupations of land, such as Turkey in Cyprus, but in such “frozen” conflicts there are not new outbreaks of violence to generate headlines and remind outsiders that the conflict remains unresolved. There is not as much attention paid to the dispossession of Greek Cypriots because of Turkey’s strategic importance, the political circumstances in Greece that contributed to the Turkish invasion in 1974, and because there is not that much sympathy in Europe for old-fashioned nationalist causes like the one that tried to unite Cyprus and Greece. There is also less attention paid to this situation because there are no Greeks living under Turkish control, and so there is no question of resolving the political status of a subject people.
Once a conflict becomes a constant fixture in daily news reporting and becomes a permanent item on the agendas of many major governments, there will start to be established and approved narratives of the conflict that will vary depending on the politics of the observers and the governments involved. Over time, these narratives are going to generate critiques and alternative explanations that will pay more attention to the neglected sides of the story. One might also ask why South African apartheid captured so much Western attention in the 1980s and why certain sides in the Balkan Wars in the ’90s won sympathy around the world rather than others. After all, in terms of sheer human suffering these were not outstanding cases then or now. They captured the attention of outsiders, especially that of Westerners, because of where they were taking place and the people who were involved.
As we all know, the Balkan Wars attracted far more attention and direct intervention than equally or more destructive contemporary conflicts in Afghanistan or central Africa because they were taking place in Europe, and because Western governments decided first to recognize and then to align themselves with the breakaway republics of the former Yugoslavia. At the heart of this was the sentiment that wars and ethnic cleansing should not be happening in modern Europe. Added to this was sympathy for the apparent underdog in the struggle, the Bosnian Muslims, and the (mistaken) assumption that aiding Bosnian Muslims would improve the image of the United States among Muslims around the world. As for South Africa, it held itself out as a modern, industrialized Western democracy, but it retained an extensive system of racial segregation that was no longer accepted in the rest of the West. It was also an important Cold War ally. Had South Africa not been a major Western ally, or if it had not been ruled by descendants of Europeans, the attention and interest in ending the apartheid system there would have been considerably less. The same is true of Israel and Palestine today.