One of the most familiar tropes of the hasbara wing of Israel advocacy is the notion that Israel is being “singled-out” in the world for reasons which are implied, if not outright stated, to be anti-Semitic in nature. There is obviously some truth in this. But all too often, this observation is twisted into a dismissal of any critical focus on Israeli policy. It is important to distinguish what is and isn’t true about the standards, double or otherwise, Israeli conduct is held to.
There is no doubt that Israel receives a disproportionate amount of global attention relative to the scale of its human rights abuses. Yet, contrary to the hasbara line, anti-Semitism does not account for bulk of this discrepancy. There is the narrative, popular in leftist circles, of Israel as an essentially colonial project. There is also the fact that Israel, unlike North Korea or Sudan, has extensive economic, military and diplomatic ties with the West.
Perhaps most importantly, criticism of Israeli policy is based in the idea of holding Israel to the very standards its supporters espouse. We are constantly told that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East and that this should be applauded. However, democracies, and more specifically liberal democracies professing a devotion to human rights, are and ought to be held to a higher bar. Blindly following Israeli policy wherever it may lead and expecting absolutely no external consequences to flow from this is the definition of the very sort of double standard the people practising it so often decry. We expect human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia, but we are told not to expect them in Israel.
Thus the double standards of Israel’s critics reflects the double standards of her supporters. What this ultimately reveals is an essential difference between liberal and rightist forms of Zionism: conditionality. Liberal Zionists do believe in the essential case for a Jewish homeland, but their support for Israeli policy fluctuates on Israel’s alignment with other liberal values.
The idea that Israel is ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’ that ‘shares our values’ is important across the different Zionist camps. Liberal Zionism, however, does not accept these values as intrinsic to Israel but as a product of her conduct. This is why liberals oppose settlement expansion, gagging left-wing NGOs, racially discriminatory laws and language: because they are not policies living up to the agreed-upon standards for both liberal democracies in general and Israel in particular.
In other words, liberal Zionists agree entirely that Israel’s democratic character is a distinguishing feature we ought to support. The difference between left and right wing Zionism is that liberals do not sharply dismiss any criticisms and use the claim of Israeli democracy as a rhetorical shield. Rather, liberals see democracy, tolerance and respect for human rights as fragile concepts that must be fought for, whether in the United States, the European Union or, indeed, in the Holy Land.
From that liberal perspective, recent actions of the Israel government have been far from laudable. From easing rules on live ammunition fire during protests, to targeting peace-oriented NGOs, to allowing the jailing of 12 year-old Palestinians, these are not laws befitting a healthy democracy. One may rightly say that Israel would be “singled-out” amongst wrongdoing nations for paying some sort of penalty for these policies. But, consider not that many of these policies exist in unsavory regimes the world over, but if they were implemented today in Canada, in the United Kingdom, in France or Germany, criticism would be scathing.
When thought of in that light, the distinction becomes clearer between the liberal and the illiberal becomes ever clearer. Israel is not Sudan, not North Korea, not Gabon nor Saudi Arabia, and it should never be expected to live down to those standards. Rightful frustration with a general over-focus on Israel’s crimes, both at the UN and on campus, should never blind us to the essential values we want upheld. The Zionist camp should be proud, rather than angry, at the lofty standards we set for the Jewish state.