On the ‘double standard’ for Israel

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As we know, it’s very common for “pro-Israel” activists (I hate the term “pro-Israel”, but can’t think of a better term, so I put it in scare quotes) to accuse critics of Israel, especially advocates of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, or BDS, of anti-Semitic bias. One of the basic go-to pieces of evidence for anti-Semitic bias is supposed to be the “double standard” by which Israel’s critics morally evaluate Israel’s behavior in comparison with how the behavior of other states, or political actors generally, are evaluated.

As Charles Schumer said in his speech to AIPAC on March 5: “Let us delegitimize the delegitimizers by letting the world know when there is a double-standard, whether they know it or not, they are actively participating in an anti-Semitic movement.”

Like many of the accusations of anti-Semitism thrown around by the “pro-Israel” crowd, they work by making a certain superficial sense, but once pressed at all they completely fall apart. So I want to take a moment to put some pressure on the “double standard” charge. I’ll argue both that there is no double standard but, interestingly, even if there were, it wouldn’t support the accusation of anti-Semitism anyway.

First, what is supposed to be the double standard here? Here are two of the common ways of putting the “double standard” charge:

1. There are many countries (put in your favorite – China, Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, etc.) with terrible human rights records, so why a boycott against Israel and not these other countries?

2. Why don’t you criticize X (pick country from list above)? Why do you focus on Israel?

Let’s take these questions in order. The first question actually betrays a misunderstanding of the political point of a boycott, or a campaign like BDS. The question seems based on the assumption that boycotting is essentially a matter of keeping one’s hands clean, an ethical statement one expresses with one’s economic choices regarding who is worthy and who is unworthy.

But that is not the way to look at boycotts. As far as I can tell, there is nothing I buy that is not stained with the mark of oppression from somewhere (well, maybe produce grown locally is an exception). If I wanted to keep my hands clean I’d have to live very differently than I do now, and not in a way that is sustainable for me, or most people.

But I observe and support the BDS campaign not because I want my hands clean, but because an oppressed people has chosen this method to fight for their rights and they are asking me – and everyone else – to respect their fight and not undermine it by buying Israeli goods. I think of it as similar to a union that decides to picket a business in order to put pressure on them to sign a contract. I believe in union solidarity, and so do not cross picket lines. Sure, there are businesses that have bad labor practices that aren’t being picketed and that I buy from. Does that mean therefore I should cross the picket line of the business targeted by the union out of consistency? That would be absurd. So too, I don’t boycott businesses from just any country that engages in human rights violations – what could I buy if I did? – but only those for which there is a political point. And being asked not to buy from those businesses by the people directly oppressed by the national government under whose sovereignty these businesses operate certainly has a political point.

Notice, if someone were to organize a BDS campaign against China over their human rights abuses – and especially if it’s organized by the victims of these abuses – I probably would observe that call as well. Also, notice that during the BDS campaign against apartheid South Africa, very few, if any, pressed the question why, given the human rights abuses in other African countries, it was white-dominated South Africa that was the target of BDS. Most people thought it sufficient that the black people of South Africa, through their representative organizations, called on the world to boycott South Africa. So, just as there was no double standard there, there is no double standard at work in the BDS campaign against Israel.

The second question intended to support a “double standard” claim is not aimed specifically at BDS but generally questions why one would be spending one’s energy on fighting alleged Israeli human rights abuses while there are all these other abuses taking place in the world. Again, once you think about the question, you realize how bizarre it is. Do we expect that everyone who is at all politically active must make a list of all the causes there are in the world, rank them in terms of importance to the fate of the world, and then only work on the issue at the very top of the list?

Of course not! There are all kinds of important causes in this world, and we expect that all sorts of reasons having to do with one’s personal history, personal interests, personal ties to others, and the like will go into determining where one puts one’s energy. Also, notice that for no other cause is this question posed: why are you working on that instead of this?

But suppose, contrary to the evidence, that many who actively support BDS are in fact guilty of applying a double standard. Perhaps they tend to ignore the human rights abuses of other Middle Eastern nations, or African nations, and focus on Israel’s crimes instead. Of course even if that’s true, it doesn’t mean that Israel’s crimes don’t exist and aren’t deserving of action. But one might say that it still provides evidence for the claim that the BDS campaign, and Palestine Solidarity work more generally, are fueled by anti-Semitism. So, how is that argument supposed to go?

You might think, from the Schumer quote above and similar statements often trotted out by Zionists, that holding Israel to standards one isn’t applying to other nations just is a form of anti-Semitism, not merely evidence of it. For example, the following appears as a characterization of one form of anti-Semitism on the State Department webpage on defining “anti-Semitism”:

Applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.
Multilateral organizations focusing on Israel only for peace or human rights investigations.”

(Of course with the restriction in the first clause to “democratic nation”, it’s not at all clear how the case even gets off the ground. What other “democratic nation” is now occupying another people’s land and denying them their rights? But let’s set this aside.)

However, anti-Semitism, properly understood, is a form of group hatred toward Jews. Merely applying a double standard to Israel doesn’t itself constitute hatred or animus toward Jews, but rather can serve only as evidence of this attitude. But its force as evidence is compromised by two considerations.

In general, A is evidence for B to the extent that B is the best explanation for A. Fingerprints on the gun is evidence that it was held by Jones to the extent that Jones’s holding the gun is the best explanation for the presence of the prints on the gun. That’s how evidence works. So applying a double standard to Israel is evidence of anti-Semitism to the extent that one’s hating Jews is the best explanation for applying the double standard. But is it?

For one thing, if there’s any bias at work here it’s not really about Jews but about Western, or European people. It wouldn’t surprise me if many people who work on or just support the BDS campaign have an attitude that the crimes of European/Western nations are more nefarious than those of non-European nations. Of course, one could decide to focus on these crimes not because they are more nefarious but just because one is oneself a member of a European nation and so plausibly feels more responsible to fight these crimes. After all, given the level of US aid to Israel, Americans do have a special obligation here.

But it might also be that one just finds these crimes worse than others, and maybe not always for defensible reasons. Why would people feel that way? Well, is that really surprising? Since Columbus the non-European world has been victimized by the colonialist-imperialist domination of Europeans. The Zionist enterprise, with its European routes, going back at least to the Balfour Declaration, is very plausibly considered to be just another stage in this pursuit of world domination and victimization on the part of Europeans. Even if you think this is unfair to Zionism (and I don’t, for one), still, it’s not like you can’t see how someone would come to this conclusion. Hence, no need to explain their special emphasis on Israel over, say, Saudi Arabia or China, by appeal to Jew-hatred. It’s sufficient that Israeli behavior is seen as part of the general pattern, indeed in aid of, the overall European domination of the non-European world.

Secondly, and this is related to the first consideration, there is an insidious assumption underlying the idea that the double standard is best explained by Jew-hatred: It is the assumption that the State of Israel represents the Jewish people. Without that assumption the explanation doesn’t really get off the ground. While Zionists, by definition, hold this belief, it isn’t shared by critics of Israel. Israel is seen as a state that does indeed privilege Jews illegitimately, but it is not seen as the representative of the Jewish people. In fact, it’s typical of anti-Zionist critics of Israel to claim that the Zionist movement, and then the State of Israel, “hijacked” Judaism by illegitimately presenting itself as the expression of the Jewish people’s aspirations. As the history of Jewish opposition to Zionism shows, from its earliest days on, this is far from the truth.

But my point is that even if you side with Zionism on this question, what matters for explaining the attitudes of Israel’s critics is not whether they are right in denying the intimate connection between Zionism and Judaism, but what they believe about it. So long as they do not see Israel as representing Jewry – which they don’t, in general – their motivation for supporting the Palestinian-led BDS campaign can’t be explained by Jew-hatred. If Jew-hatred is not in fact the best explanation of the supposed “double standard” (which, remember, there is precious little evidence for in the first place), then it can’t rightly be seen as either a form of, or evidence for, anti-Semitism.

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The “double standard” argument is nothing more than an expression of Zionist whataboutery and hypocrisy. … Here are two of the common ways of putting the “double standard” charge: 1. There are many countries (put in your favorite – China, Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, etc.) with terrible human rights records, so why a boycott against Israel and not these other countries? … OK, so how many Zionists are in favour of dropping a boycott against… Read more »

2. Why don’t you criticize X (pick country from list above)? Why do you focus on Israel?

Thirty years ago many of us focused on South Africa and got the same complaint. For example see “South Africa Shouldn’t be Singled Out” from 1989.

Israel is never compared to Sweden, because it’s a kip. And in the Bible it’s supposed to be Shangri La. So there has been a falling short. I used to work with an Israeli who liked things to be ordered. He lived near a park and he walked his dog around the park and every time he walked on dogshit. Because Israelis do not care about their neighbours. Everyone is in competition 24/7. It is… Read more »

I agree that one does not always deal with the same situation in different contexts or places in the same way. Perhaps the same disease responds in one person to one treatment, in another to another. Mind you, I know of no other situation where a) many legitimate residents have been excluded b) sovereign power is exercised over disfranchised people c); danger radiates out from the region of conflict because it supplies our most important… Read more »

Would Bush Jr have bombed Iraq if AIPAC and the “Pro-Israel” news media and think thanks had protested such action? I don’t remember any of those creatures pointing out to the US public how feeble the evidence was for WMDs, do you? Are they now pointing out to the US public the good side of the Iran Deal? Discussing who would replace Assad if he was dethroned? Not liking Trump’s unpolished style, or Bolton’s brash… Read more »