One of the objections that has most often been leveled at critics of the Israeli government’s conduct of its war in Gaza, and of its policies towards the Palestinians more generally, has been that their criticisms are based on insidiously double standards. The Israeli government, according to this objection, is held to standards that no other country is held to. It is according to this view surrounded by enemies, and yet it is expected to act like a choirboy. “Look at Assad, look at ISIS”, the argument goes, “if you are so deeply concerned about injustice and about the killing of innocents, how come you are not raising your voices against them?”.
I confess that of all the arguments that have been made in recent weeks in the debate over the war in Gaza, this is the one that puzzles and worries me the most. It puzzles me for a number of reasons. A few can be briefly expressed. First, as a defense of Israeli policies, it is pretty lame. It amounts to something of a concession. “Yes, Israel behaves badly, but look at the other guys!”. If you want to defend the Israeli government’s conduct of the war, and its treatment of Palestinians, then go ahead and defend it. Don’t change the subject by pointing to the even more appalling behavior of others.
Second, the criticism seems to me to be factually incorrect. My Facebook newsfeed is positively groaning with reports about the horrors being visited upon helpless populations by tyrants all over the world. It is a sickening rogue’s gallery, one from which it would be all too easy to avert one’s gaze. But I have not seen that happening among those who pay attention to what is going on in the world around them.
But there are other, less obvious but potentially much more insidious and significant problems with the criticism. First is its implication, often just beneath the surface, that critics of Israeli policies are crypto-anti-Semites or (in the case of Jewish critics such as the present author) self-hating Jews. Antisemitism is put forward as the most plausible explanatory hypothesis of the purported difference in attention paid by observers of the international scene to the actions of the Israeli government and to other international actors.
Are there anti-Semites in the world today? Sure there are. (There are also many, many Islamophobes). Want to pick them out among the voices presently inveighing against the Israeli government’s treatment of the Palestinians, both in the context of the present war and more generally? Well, if you hear someone making claims about all Jews on the basis of Israeli policies, then you probably have an anti-Semite on your hands. I have seen and heard such arguments in the context of the present war, and they are to be deplored wherever they occur. (In the same way, we should deplore and condemn Islamophobic arguments that, like those of Sam Harris, glide with breathtaking ease between justified criticisms of groups like Hamas, to criticisms of Palestians as a whole, to condemnations of an entire world religion).
But I have heard a great many more critics at pains to distinguish the two. As a Jew, I feel threatened when I hear someone like Gilles Proulx resuscitate myths about the control of Jews in the Diaspora over the foreign policies of the countries that they live in. I do not feel threatened in the slightest way when critics question whether the IDF has observed the principles of jus in bello, or when they point out that there is a problem in the framing of the conflict that conveniently omits the fact that Israel is according to international law an occupying power.
The claim of anti-Semitism is a silencing device. It ups the ante on those who would criticize the policies of a sovereign state, as it is surely the right of all citizens of a liberal democracy to do, by threatening them with that most hateful designation. It is another device through which defenders of the policies of the Israeli government deflect attention from what is going on in Gaza.
But it is ultimately most dangerous for Jews. It risks trivializing the accusation of anti-Semitism, in ways that ultimately serve the cause of anti-Semites. If we as Jews refuse to level the epithet in all but cases of real anti-Semitism, then we give anti-Semites no place to hide. But if we use it for rhetorical and strategic purposes to inhibit the formulation of legitimate criticisms of the Israeli government, we unwittingly provide them with a fig-leaf.
Is there a better explanation of the fact that more is expected of Israel than of Assad and of ISIS? Of course there is. Israel is a liberal democracy. As a liberal democracy, it is justly held to the standards that all liberal democracies should hold themselves and other such regimes to. We expect states that affirm liberal-democratic principles to attempt to live up to those principles, both in the way in which it treats their own citizens, and in particular, their minorities, the way in which they conduct their foreign policy, the way in which they conduct themselves in war. The denial of the self-determination rights of other peoples is incompatible with these principles, as is the use excessive means in the waging of war, especially when the use of such means predictably leads to the death of non-combatants.
The fact that Israel is a liberal-democracy has another implication for the present debate. It means that there is a point to engaging in criticism of the Israeli government’s policies that does not exist in the case of ISIS, or of Assad. In engaging in criticism of the policies of the Israeli government (not of the Israeli people but of its government) we can hope to have an impact (even if it is minimal) on the course of debate within the country, and therefore, perhaps on its government. Liberal-democratic governments are accountable, and therefore potentially responsive to criticism, in ways that despotisms are not. We have reason to criticize liberal-democratic governments when they fail to live up to the exigent standards that that form of government implies. But we also have reason to do so because the publics of liberal-democracies can engage one another in respectful but robust debate in ways that are more unfortunately next to pointless in the case of societies that are in the grips of tyranny.
Let me up the ante and make the point even more strongly. Liberal democracies have an obligation to remind one another of their lapses with respect to their guiding principles. Liberal democracy is, after all, a difficult discipline for people to impose upon themselves. It is particularly difficult for majorities within these societies, who may sometimes feel tempted to use the powers of the state to impose their collective wills upon others without paying too much attention to liberal-democratic niceties. There is evidence that some societies are finding liberal-democratic self-restraint increasingly cumbersome. Present-day Russia and Hungary are obvious examples of this trend, but in their willingness to pass legislation denying the religious freedoms of their religious minorities, so have ‘mature’ liberal-democracies such as France and Belgium (to name but these two). Liberal-democracy is a fragile accomplishment, and there is no guarantee that once achieved, it will be self-sustaining. Citizens of liberal-democracies who treasure this accomplishment owe it to each other to lend their support to struggles against the desire that may sometimes make itself felt to cast liberal democratic principles aside.
Thus, when the Harper government writes the Israeli government a blank cheque to conduct itself as it sees fit in dealing with Palestinians, it is not acting like a friend. It is acting like an enabler. As friends of Israel, we as Canadians can surely do better.
Another “double-standard” argument has been leveled by some in response to the kind of argument that I have just put forward. The claim is made, (in stark opposition to the anti-Semitism argument briefly canvassed above) that it is tacitly anti-Arab. Why should we subject the people of the Arab lands to standards any less exigent than those that we subject Israel to? Is this not an insidiously paternalistic and insulting double-standard?
That depends on how it is formulated. If it somehow comes with the implication that for some reason, the people of the Arab countries are incapable of liberal-democracy, then yes, it is. But I see no reason to draw this implication. The achievement of liberal-democracy is a function of a great many factors, factors that are in part endogenous, but that must surely also include the influence of outside actors. Have the actions and policies of the powers that have over the centuries contributed to tracing the political course of the region done so in a manner that favored the emergence of popular democracies? I don’t think anyone could plausibly argue that they have. So the recognition that the countries that surround Israel are not governed by liberal-democratic regimes — and that they are therefore not responsive in the way that liberal democracies are to criticism — need in no way imply any pretence of cultural superiority.
A final, personal note. I think that there are reasons for Jews to hold Israel to a higher standard. As a state that on a regular basis appeals to the solidarity of all Jews, Israel is bound by the ethical principles that are at the heart of the Jewish philosophical and ethical tradition. For example, the story we tell at the Passover seder of the liberation of the Jews from slavery is, to use a fancy philosophical term, generalizable. It’s not just about us. It is about all people who have been subjected to tyranny, and who have seen their rights to self-determination denied by others. I would love not to feel as personally engaged by the actions of the Israeli government. But the fact that the state claims my solidarity in virtue of the traditions that bind us –Jews of the Diaspora and Israeli citizens — together means that I cannot.