The chief executive of Orange, the global telecom company based in France, says he is going to Israel, surely to apologize for recently saying that, if he could, he would end his company’s relationship with its Israeli partner “tomorrow morning.” The hitch is that he can’t, since there is a contract, and now Stéphane Richard says he doesn’t want to do it anyway. He’s been severely reprimanded by Israel as well as his own government for, shall we say, talking like a jerk. I put it mildly.
Monsieur Richard is clearly vexed with Israel — and who can blame him? If he is outraged about the settlements policy, so am I. If he doesn’t like the treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank, I agree. If he thinks the religious parties have far too much influence and that the government is too right-wing and opportunistically anti-Arab, I am with him on all that also.
Still, Richard has a venue problem. He upbraided Israel while in Egypt, where Orange also operates. This is the very same country recently criticized by the Obama administration for its rampant violation of human rights, including the occasional murder of dissidents and the wholesale jailing of many others. In Egypt, it is downright dangerous to disagree with Abdel Fatah al-Sissi. His official title is president. He’s actually the military strongman.
Richard said nothing about any of that. He said nothing about the severe mistreatment of women, which a just-revealed State Department report says is a problem in Egypt. “There remain high levels of violence against women, sexual harassment and female genital mutilation,” according to the report. Israel has its flaws, but nothing compared to this.
The report is a litany of Egyptian imperfections: “At least 22 people were killed outside a soccer stadium . . . when police fired into overflowing crowds.” The report also cited the “clearing operations of the Raba’a al-Adawiya and al-Nahda squares in . . . 2013, which left at least 1,000 dead.” Since then, no one has been brought to account.
Israel somehow produces intemperate snits in otherwise gentle people. Some of this, I’m sure, comes from feeling disenchantment and a sense of betrayal; Israel has such lofty national goals, such splendid aspirations, that it is forever disappointing some observers. Some comes from its actual policies, which can be repugnant, and a right-wing cabinet that includes the likes of Ayelet Shaked, the justice minister, who adamantly opposes the creation of a Palestinian state. She is shockingly dismissive of Palestinian aspirations. She would be at home in our own Republican Party.
But some of the vexation with Israel comes from an appalling ignorance of the region’s realities and Israel’s own bloody history. It is forever threatened with war, forever under siege and forever regretting accommodations that cost it land. Gaza went from an occupied territory to a launching pad for countless rockets; and the Golan Heights, had it been returned to Syria as so many demanded, might now be intimidatingly close to Islamic State territory. The region does not necessarily honor good intentions.
If Richard was a lonely voice, he could shout his head off and no one would care. But for the moment, he is the personification of the movement to boycott and isolate Israel, which is becoming increasingly popular on college campuses here in the United States and is already well-established in Europe. (Last week, Britain’s National Union of Students voted to join the boycott movement.) The Palestinians even tried to boot Israel from soccer’s FIFA. The attempt failed. Yet no one attempts to isolate Egypt or, for that matter, Saudi Arabia, home to the barbaric lashing and the legal beheading, not to mention the requirement that women remain backseat drivers.
The chief executive of a multinational company that does business in the region ought to know better. The fact that Richard can overlook the appalling depredation of the Sissi regime while exhibiting such a short fuse about Israel — still a democracy, sir, and still ruled by law — suggests a tic very close to an impatience with Jews and a concurrent mushiness about the region’s Arabs.
Out of respect for the awesome power of the word and in honor of its victims, I shy from calling this anti-Semitism. But it is anti-something, that’s for sure — common sense or fairness or a basic knowledge of history. Whatever it is, I suggest others ponder the cause of their frustration, why they don’t apply it universally and why still others suspect something dark in their soul.
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