One of the classic arguments against critics of Israel' human rights record is that other countries do worse, so why pick on Israel? There are many responses to that argument, and I have given some of them in this blog.
But one response is to bite the bullet and say, "Of all the major players on the scene since WWII, Israel has become the greatest human rights violator."
On the face of it, that response seems absurd. Genocide in Darfur? Massacre in Rwanda? Even if one allows that Israel's treatment of the Palestinians is bad, does it come anywhere near in scale to what others are doing?
So how can one even begin to argue that Israel is the worst human rights violator in the world, at least today?
It seems to me that one would need to make several assumptions.
First, that there are worse things than death, and the deprivation of liberty is one. The Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza are not free people. They are not citizens of their own state; they are not masters of their destiny. They have little freedom of movement and no possibility of movement between the two largest concentrations of Palestinian. They are entirely dependent on the charity of others, including the benevolence of those who control their life. If they behave, they will be rewarded. If they are naughty, they will be punished. Their inalienable human rights are sharply diminished. Of course, not all of the problems are due to Israel, but most are.
Second, one needs the assumption that human autonomy is a supreme value, and that a happy, well-fed slave is morally inferior to an unhappy free man. If you are a utilitarian, it is hard to trump genocide as a maximier of pain. And, of course, genocide often implies the dehumanization of the victim. But my point is that even if the Palestiians are better off economically than others, this does not mean that the crime against the Palestinian people is a less one. That depends on one's moral outlooks and values.
Third, and most important, is the assumption that when making moral assessments, the duration of injustice shoud be taken into account. Length matters. Those who are not absolutists will tolerate a temporary infrigement of liberty, or at least see it as justifiable. But what happens if that infringement, though relatively minor in its own right, continues over generations? What happens if the Japanese American citizens, who were placed in camps during World War II (a crime in its own right) had to stay there for over forty years?
It is a no-brainer that murder is to be considered more immoral than slapping someone in the face. But what is worse – death or being continually slapped in the face without respite for over forty years? Or repeatedly raped? Or systematically humiliated?
Israel's control over the Palestinians' life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is by no means genocide, either physical or spiritual. But at what point does it become a rival to extreme immorality? In the Nazi war against the Jews, millions of Jews lost their lives in ways that attempted to dehumanize them. It was an extreme of suffering over a relatively short period of time. But within 10 years of the outbreak of World War II, the Jewish people had a state of their own for the first time in centuries. For many Jews this was a source not only of pride but of dignity, self-worth, of being masters of one's destiny. All those who love the State of Israel, who are proud of its achievements, indeed, of its very existence, were raised from the pits to the summit in a dizzying short period.
But what of those who have been stuck in much shallower pits for a much longer period of time, and with no end in sight? And what if our staying at the summit necessitates their remaining in the pits indefinitely – unless they prefer to commit national suicide or accept a demeaning and humiliating surrender in the guise of "peace".
I don't think we are at the point yet but we are converging on it. If moral intuitions are notoriously tricky, moral theories are even more so. What we all should guard against is the use of moral theories to rationalize our biases and preferences. Is the IDF more moral than Hamas because it claims that it doesn't target civilians? Or is Hamas more moral than the IDF because its militants kill much fewer civilians? Can we decide this question by having deontologists slug it out with consequentialists?
It is far better to insist on fundamental human rights (or capacities or capabilities) for all, and to distribute goods (and justice is one such good) in a fair and equitable manner to both peoples. Whatever your own solution to the Israel Palestinian mess may be, you should evaluate it according to those two parameters.