On Israel, Gaza, and double standards

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.


On Israel, Gaza, and double standards — 16 Comments

  1. That Israel is a liberal democracy and therefore should be held to a higher standard is a fallacious argument. Liberal democracy is a mode of political organization that is premised on the election of political leaders, a respect for rights and freedoms, and accountability to its electorate. Nowhere does liberal democracy amount to an abdication of the right to collective self-defence or the toleration of hostile enemy forces masquerading as governments. If anything, and by virtue of its political moral ground and clear duty to its citizens, liberal democracy justifies a heightened defense against enemy forces. The greatest perpetrators of Palestinian suffering are their own political leadership, and the Arab autocratic governments who support them. Perpetuating the conflict with Israel is the perfect red herring to quell the rise of Arab democracy and the very sort of morally dignified political existence Israel affords its citizens.

  2. Nicely put and especially the final note. Indeed, collective gatherings should be inclusive and a reminder that many would wish to join “us” in celebrating liberty. Bravo.

  3. The only difficulty I have with this perspective is that liberal democracies often tend to be the root of the problem. Our constitutions do not create the conditions for just societies, they create the conditions for neoliberal societies.

  4. What seem to be missing here are two things, and notwithstanding my own criticism of the current Israeli government:

    (1) We often tell our political theory students that it is important to connect what they learn in class with their own lives and experiences. Israelis, though they look up in some ways to Western Europe and North America, live in a pretty uneasy neighbourhood, in which being and acting as a liberal democracy is a much tougher thing to exercise. Living in a neighbourhood of stable and mature liberal democracies is a great way to ‘practice’ being one. It is much, much harder doing the same thing while living in a volatile and often unstable political environment, even with the best of intentions (which the current Israeli government does not seem to possess anyways). It means that the kind of democratic culture that is developed and the solutions that are found often seem imperfect and ‘not good enough’ for seemingly cutting-edge polities in Europe and North America.

    (2) More to the point, when Israelis – not their government – articulate a concern over a double standard, they don’t always simply intend to deflect criticism. The problem with telling someone “I’m disappointed in you” is that you tell them they’re wrong without giving them at least a basic idea of what they could do right. So one problem with the double-standard is that Israelis – and again, not just their government(s) – are being held to a vaguely ‘higher’ standard, without ever being actually offered any insight into what it means and applies in a very nonideal world. How high is ‘higher’? What does it mean in actual practice and in an actual context? What comparable cases can offer positive and useful models, unlike ISIS?

    The argument here is not that anyone who holds Israel to a higher standard should provide a detailed blueprint for peace in the Middle East; but, without replacing at least some of the “don’t do that” with “maybe try this” (in terms of practical steps, rather than the vague “well, just make peace already”), it seems likely that Israelis will continue to feel singled out and therefore consequently elect in even greater numbers the same kind of dreadful government that is leading them now. A higher standard is something that many Israelis are happy to being held to. The problem is that, perhaps conveniently, it is never specified how high that standard is, or what it may mean in actual practice.

  5. 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?”


    Um, the relevant argument compares Israel to other liberal democracies, not to ISIS and Assad.

    The point is that countries like the US react in much more extreme ways, when attacked, and yet, do not come in for the withering criticism Israel receives. After the US was attacked *once*, it invaded two countries, killing hundreds of thousands of people.

    *That* is the relevant comparison, and the point is a damned good one.

  6. As always in the misdirected Platonism of political theory, facts and events are ignored (and what discussion of liberalism and ideas would there be without boilerplate condemnations of Hamas). But in politics as in physics events take precedence.

    Israel supported Hamas at the beginning as a way to undermine not only Fatah but resistance as such (including civil disobedience and Gandhian non-violence), therefore working to undermine democracy as such:


    Hamas has moderated; Israel has become more extreme:


    Hamas won an election and was chosen to head the PA. The response was an US, Israeli and Fatah sponsored coup:


    What do you say to a “liberal democracy” that refuses to accept its role as occupier on conquered territory and who therefore sees what amounts to half its population as neither citizens nor strictly speaking as subjects? Half the population of “Greater Israel” rules over the other. What do you say to a “liberal democracy” that opposes democratic movements in neighboring states? Israeli support for Saudi Arabia is out in the open at this point, and Israel backs Sisi in Egypt as it backed Mubarak. Israel and Saudi are united in fearing any Sunni-Shia collaboration (Hamas and Hezbollah), preferring “Fitna”, division and rule.

    On the the situation in Gaza at the moment, again with reference to facts more than ideas:


    Politics and pedantry don’t mix. The theory of politics is not the understanding of it.

  7. Anne Ramsay: the BDS movement is very clear on the “do this” part. Israel can act to end its occupation of the West Bank and its military confinement of Gaza, e.g. open Gaza’s sea border.

  8. the arguments which you present make perfect sense- within the sterile and world of academe, divorced from the realities of the street. Forget arguments which deal with the wisdom and morality of this current war, whether or not it is “just”, or whether it exceeds the laws of proportional of response. Forget as well the more general arguments about whether Israel is deserving of special treatment from its critics due to its status as a liberal democracy, which seems to be your central thesis.

    When I refer to the “realities of the street” the points which those individuals such as yourself- well-intentioned and principled, and who are applying a rational analysis to the Israel question,become lost in the ether of a particularly insidious movement. I am speaking of the impact which decades of vilification and demonization of one state, Israel, have had. I refer to the fact that the voice of protest against Israel is not defined by a debate about the nature of liberal democracy, but rather by calls of “death to the jews”, and far worse. I am speaking of the crowds who demonstrate their great “concern” for liberal democratic western values by marching with Hezbollah and Hamas banners (no irony there), and swastika emblazoned Israeli flags. I am speaking of the need throughout Europe to have armed guards and security fences measures outside of any recognizable jewish facility, be it a synagogue, school, or community centre. I am speaking of murderous attacks on jews qua jews, as being perceived by the opponents of Israel’s policies as being legitimate political expression. On the larger front, I am speaking of the great success of the “zionism is racism” trope, which goes virtually unquestioned in so much of the academic left, without regard to the fact that any form of ethnic or religious nationalism is equally subject to the same critique. I am speaking of the plethora of university student movements, which declare IAW and BDS actions, while raising not a peep about far more urgent human rights situations throughout the planet. This last point is not a “stop picking on Israel argument”, but rather a quantifiable truth- democracy or not, where does one see anything which approaches the scale of human rights concern on campus, except in the case of Israel.

    On the international institutional front, I am speaking of a demonstrable double standard, whereby Israel is indeed singled out for special treatment in UN and its affiliate organizations, ironically by nations which have absolutely abominable human rights records.

    The reality of the street is this: there is a zeitgeist of anti-Israelism which, within the rational confines of civilized debate can certainly be recognized as legitimate and fair criticism, and about which reasonable people can disagree. But what is happening in the real world is a sickening trend whereby Israel’s policies are conflated with the jewish identity, so that the distinction which you attempt to draw becomes meaningless in practice.

  9. Yes, I apply a double standard. I expect more of my friends than I expect of others. That’s why they’re my friends. Israel may want me to judge it by the same low standards as I use in judging Iran or North Korea. But the things is – I just don’t care so much about Iran or North Korea. Does Isreal want me (and millions of others) to stop caring so much about it? That’s where the logic of the whataboutists will take us.

    So does my setting of a higher standard for Israel mean I want to deny it its right to self defence? Of course not. I don’t deny someone their right when I attack their way of exercising that right. I don’t deny someone’s right to freedom of expression when I point out that their joke is tasteless and would have been better left untold. Likewise I don’t deny Israel its right to defend itself when I point out that it is defending itself nastily, and thereby lowering itself to (or at least towards) the level of its enemies.

  10. european: the BDS can’t even articulate a general idea of what its actual practices are (boycott all Israelis? Non-Jews too? Institutions only?). If Israel would withdraw from the WB first thing in the morning tomorrow, it might make a perfect moral math, but it’s hard to see how it may make *real* Middle East a more peaceful place. What do you think is going to happen after 5 minutes? an hour? Three days? Three months?

  11. Dear aravistarkheena,

    You write that “the relevant argument compares Israel to other liberal democracies, not to ISIS and Assad”. Let us take that as given. It is a good point. You write that “countries like the US react in much more extreme ways, when attacked, and yet, do not come in for the withering criticism Israel receives”. I take it you were absent during much of 2003, when the United States endured “withering” criticism worldwide (even within, or perhaps especially within, those countries that formed the “Coalition of the willing”–Britain, Canada, Australia, Poland)?

  12. Jacques:

    I appreciate your comment.

    Certainly a portion of the anti-war Left heavily criticized the US for its war in Iraq. But I would argue that it was nothing like the criticism being levied at Israel, and certainly didn’t go as far as boycotts, divestment, and other such stuff.

    We all know why. The US is an 800lb gorilla, militarily, fabulously wealthy, and powerful in every other respect. And this is exactly my point — when it comes to geopolitics, morality and principles operate well behind — for lack of a better expression — realpolitik.

    That’s all Israel is engaged in, and I think that the special criticism she is being called in for is unfair for that reason.

  13. Well done, Daniel. I have a Jewish Israeli friend who teaches in Jerusalem. He is on the left. He might question your calling Israel a liberal democracy rather than an ethno-theocratic quasi-fascist state. But anyway, your reasoning is good. I read a book recently, by Adam Hanieh. It’s about the Middle East generally, written from a marxian perspective. It’s called Lineages of Revolt. In the chapter on Israel and the Palestinians, Hanieh argues that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is of central strategic significance for challenging US domination and the dictatorships supported by the US (and Canada, and the EU). I won’t go into the argument here, but the relevance is this: if that’s true, this provides an additional reason to focus on Israeli policy – ie, because it’s central to the way the region is controlled by the US, and this region is central to the way the world goes generally. I would add that I agree that singling Israel out is misleading in this way: if it’s done in a way that ignores the Western countries’ support for Israel (especially the US and Canada) then it’s unfair – we should be criticizing our governments and making clear just how they are enablers, as you put it.

  14. i’d defend sam harris from the charges of islamophobia, but he’d do a much better job of it himself; likely by saying: if being terrified of islam means i’m an islamophobe, then sign me up, baby…and i couldn’t agree more..

  15. RA: Despite the fact that you present a minimalist conception of liberal democracy with which I happen to disagree, even your account contains criteria according to which present Israeli policies could be found wanting. Arab Israelis have in recent years, and especially since the war began, been subjected to violence and harassment that has been very tepidly investigated by Israeli authorities. These are citizens, and even on your view, their rights should be upheld. Second, inasmuch as Israel still controls Gaza, and much of the West Bank through its benign neglect of the expanding settlements, it is very hard to claim that the Palestinians are external forces against which Israelis defend themselves. As an occupying power, they have obligations at international law that they are not satisfying. As far as your claim that none of the suffering of Palestinians is due to Israeli policies, the less said about that, the better.
    Anne: What should the Israeli government do? Announce an immediate halt to all settlements on the West Bank. Accept some of the reasonable conditions put forward by the Palestinian leadership in negotiations for a cease-fire, including the extension of Palestinian fishing zones. Lay out a timetable for opening of the crossings and permission to rebuild the airport, subject to demilitarization of Gaza. Review the ways in which checkpoints are administered, so as to minimize the degree to which they involve denial of human rights of Palestinians. How’s that?
    Aravistarkheena: Like Jacques, I don’t understand how you could claim that the US was not targeted by world opinion subsequent to the Iraq war. The question of whether this targeting was effective, given the power of the US, is a separate one from whether they were condemned by world opinion. They were.
    Jacob: First, I would despite the very worrying rise of antisemitism still rather be a Jew than a Muslim in just about any country in the West today. Second, I would be curious as to what the implication is of the claim that Israel has been vilified in the past. That we should give them a blank check today as their politics drift further and further toward the religious-nationalist right, in a way that threatens the rights both of minorities within Israel, and those of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank? Should we just shut up? If not, what?
    Seth: my claim is that Israel claims to be a liberal-democracy, and so should act like one. I too view its unwillingness to acknowledge that it is an occupying power very frustrating indeed.

  16. Blair Mac: These fears are based on prejudice. A study just published in the Canadian Review of Sociology confirms that Muslims are as tolerant as the rest of us, and that in some cases, they are more so than the local majority: https://www.csa-scs.ca/files/webapps/csapress/canadian-review/2014/08/15/potential-for-liberal-democracy-in-muslim-majority-countries/

    It’s 1.7 billion people, Blair. I don’t judge all Christians on the basis of what the evangelical yahoos of the Tea Party do and say.