On my way home for Shabbat, I flip on the radio to catch up on the news, and what do I get? “Democracy Now!” Host Amy Goodman has three guests discussing Operation Cast Lead, the 2009 Israeli incursion into Gaza in response to endless Hamas rocket attacks. If you’re not familiar with Amy Goodman, I can introduce her simply enough by telling you that her idea of a balanced panel was to choose Jeremy Ben-Ami, head of the left-wing advocacy group J Street as the voice on the right. Left of him were Palestinian human rights lawyer Noura Erakat, and Norman Finkelstein, the Israel-bashing academic who said, “We are all Hezbollah” during Israel’s 2006 war against the terrorist group, and was denied tenure at DePaul University in 2007.
But the panel’s imbalance isn’t my point. Rather, I’m amazed that Democracy Now is still obsessing on Operation Cast Lead two and a half years later and invoking the Goldstone Report weeks after Goldstone himself repudiated it. Why aren’t they talking about current events in Syria where the government has murdered nearly 1000 non-violent protestors? In fact, why haven’t the pundits been talking about Syria all along, with its human rights violations and incursions into Lebanon, including a virtual occupation for years, and an ongoing military supply of Hezbollah? Why aren’t they talking about the threat of an Islamist hijacking of the “Arab spring?” How come Israel’s transgressions, real and trumped-up, always dominate the news?
Because “Western critics of Israel . . . often hold the state to an ideal of human rights to which Palestinians are not held—or Americans, for that matter.” Because “an age-old pattern of holding Jews to exceptional standards is evident, for example in Western academic boycotts against Israel, when no such boycotts are mounted against China for its treatment of Tibet, or Russia for its oppression of Georgia—or Syria, for that matter, for its involvement in the murder of the prime minister of Lebanon,” to say nothing of its most recent murders of protesters. Now, this explanation doesn’t come from some crazy Zionist, but from a new book that conveys at best mixed feelings about modern Israel, Jerusalem, Jerusalem, by James Carroll (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2011).
This is the sort of double standard that Natan Sharansky identifies as part of the “3D Test of Anti-Semitism: Demonization, Double Standards, Delegitimization” (http://www.jcpa.org/phas/phas-sharansky-f04.htm, accessed 5/17/2011). Sharansky helps us make the distinction between legitimate criticism of Israeli policy and the sort of criticism that is really thinly disguised antisemitism. This isn’t a theoretical question these days, with anti-Israel rhetoric growing more and more heated and likely to escalate as the Arab world keeps pushing for a unilateral Palestinian declaration of statehood later this year.
The double-standards test helps us differentiate between tough political opinion and hate speech. Let’s take a look at all three parts of Sharansky’s test:
The first “D” is the test of demonization. When the Jewish state is being demonized; when Israel’s actions are blown out of all sensible proportion; when comparisons are made between Israelis and Nazis and between Palestinian refugee camps and Auschwitz – this is anti-Semitism, not legitimate criticism of Israel.
The second “D” is the test of double standards. When criticism of Israel is applied selectively; when Israel is singled out by the United Nations for human rights abuses while the behavior of known and major abusers, such as China, Iran, Cuba, and Syria, is ignored; when Israel’s Magen David Adom, alone among the world’s ambulance services, is denied admission to the International Red Cross – this is anti-Semitism.
The third “D” is the test of delegitimization: when Israel’s fundamental right to exist is denied – alone among all peoples in the world – this too is anti-Semitism.
Demonization? Norman Finkelstein, mentioned above, is a prime practitioner, who “routinely compares Israelis with Nazis and told the Jeruslem Report that he ‘can’t imagine why Israel’s apologists would be offended by the comparison’ (Aug 28, 2000)” (http://www.camera.org/index.asp?x_context=8&x_nameinnews=169&x_article=985, accessed 5/23/11). As for delegitimization, how about this Syrian-Palestinian protester who infiltrated Israel’s border on May 15, during ‘Nakba’ disturbances?
Hissan Hijazi, 28, was interviewed by Channel 10 news, and then gave himself up . . . “This isn’t Israel, it’s Palestine. This country must not be Jewish,” Hijazi told Channel 10, before being arrested for illegal entry into Israel. (http://www.jpost.com/NationalNews/Article.aspx?id=220850, accessed 5/19/2011.)
This guy states delegitimization with unusual frankness and clarity, but it’s a dominant anti-Israel strategy today. Denying Israel’s fundamental right to exist underlies much of the opposition to Israel in the Arab world, and makes meaningful negotiations impossible. President Obama said the same thing—although he came short of identifying it as the main obstacle to Israeli-Palestinian peace—in his major policy speech on May 19. “How can one negotiate with a party that shows itself unwilling to recognize your right to exist? Palestinians have to provide a credible answer to that question” (JTA 5/19/11).
But it’s the double-standard test that I want to address here. I’ll cite James Carroll again—by no stretch of the imagination a Biblical Zionist—for one telling example of how the double standard works. “Palestinians are reduced to the mere victimhood that is regarded as proper to ‘Orientals,’ as if their agency counts for nothing—both in allowing violent nihilists to speak for them and in creating conditions that prevent reconciliation among themselves, much less with Israelis.” And then he adds the sentence I quoted above: “Meanwhile, Western critics of Israel. . . often hold the state to an ideal of human rights to which Palestinians are not held—or Americans, for that matter.” In the Middle East debate the double standard is a tool of antisemitism, and it’s also a residue of colonialism that overlooks oppression of women and suppression of dissent in the Arab world (at least until it became impossible to do so this spring). Those giving the Arabs a pass are often the most avid supporters of women’s rights and vigorous dissent in their own lands, but seem to think that the primitive Arabs aren’t ready for such things yet. So the double standard is bad for Israel and ultimately bad for the rest of the world too, especially the world in Israel’s vicinity. Any honest observer must admit that it’s being applied to Israel continually, but there’s more to the discussion.
From one perspective it actually is legitimate to judge Israel by a unique standard. After all, don’t we repeatedly claim that Israel as a people is uniquely chosen by God? Israel is distinct from the nations, as even Balaam the Gentile seer recognized: “Here is a people living alone, and not reckoning itself among the nations! Who can count the dust of Jacob, or number the dust-cloud of Israel? Let me die the death of the upright, and let my end be like his!” (Num. 23:9–10 NRSV).
You could say that this chosenness doesn’t apply to the modern state of Israel, I suppose, unless you believe that the modern state of Israel is a fulfillment (or a fulfillment-in-process) of biblical prophecy, the beneficiary of ancient promises made by the one true God himself. If we claim a linkage between biblical prophecy and the modern state of Israel, then we have to accept a linkage to Israel’s special standing—and to a sort of double standard that results. Realpolitik, the way nation-states maneuver in this world, might be the norm among the Gentile powers, but can it be so for Israel? We rightly contrast the kingdoms of this world, with their oppression, greed, and lust for power, with the Kingdom of God. On which side of that divide should Israel fall, especially if we seeIsrael itself as a harbinger of God’s Kingdom?
We who support Israel on biblical grounds, then, whom I’ll call Biblical Zionists, have our own sort of reverse double standard. We cite biblical references to Israel’s uniqueness, and then complain when the world seems to expect more of Israel than of other nations. But is such an expectation without basis?
What am I implying here? Not that Israel must be perfect or else it’s illegitimate. That’s the language of anti-Zionism, and it will always find evidence that Israelis far from perfect, even though Israel demonstrates qualities of compassion and justice that are exceptional in today’s world. But even if Israel were to behave far better than it does, imperfection will be evident to those looking for it. Nor am I implying that the state of Israel must forego self-defense or shrewd diplomacy. Rather, one legitimate implication is that we’re right to expect that Israel will be a true democracy, practicing justice in its affairs, and seeking genuine peace with its neighbors. Failures in justice and peace cannot be excused with “that’s just the way it is in the world of statecraft,” but should be matters of deep concern and involvement. Lovers of Israel, within and without the country itself, should invoke biblical standards of justice in evaluating, and sometimes criticizing, Israeli policies.
Another implication is that Biblical Zionists are mistaken in relying on Israel’s military power to solve the Israel-Palestinian problem. Some Biblical Zionists advocate a replay of Joshua’s conquest of Canaan, driving out or killing all the non-Israelites west of the Jordan. But they ignore warnings in the Torah and beyond that as long as Israel transgresses God’s ways, it will never have peace. Israel may have to take military action at times, and to employ politics and diplomacy on the world stage, but we should never imagine that these will lead to ultimate resolution. Rather, Moses tells the Israelites that they will find peace in the end only “when you obey the LORD your God by observing his commandments and decrees that are written in this book of the Torah, because you turn to the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deut. 30:10, NRSV). Return to the Land, return to God, and return to Torah are all intertwined, and ultimately dependent on the return of Messiah. In the meantime, the land of Israel is a restoration-in-process.
The main implication, then, if we advocate Israel’s unique chosenness, is that the state of Israel today is preparatory; that Israel, people and state, will only live up to its chosenness when Messiah returns to enable it to do so. In the meantime, although we stand with Israel, people and state, we don’t idealize the status quo or ignore the need for interim pragmatic solutions to Israel’s pressing problems.
But all this doesn’t let Israel’s antisemitic critics off the hook. The double standard remains a prime part of their strategy, and Sharansky’s test stands. Yes, there is a sort of double standard that’s appropriate for Israel, as I’ve argued. To apply it legitimately, however, you have to do two things: a) admit that you’re doing it, and b) provide a rationale for doing so.
So, let’s conclude by imagining how this use of the double standard might look. Fancy that the next time you tune into Anderson Cooper or Fox News, they pan in on a Hamas fanatic, and he says something like this: “Israel attacked Gaza the way any self-respecting power would attack its proven enemy . . . but that’s not right, because the Jews are supposed to be a holy nation and a royal priesthood! They should bear up under our ceaseless rocket provocations as the model of a peace-loving people, for they are God’s chosen, and should be an example to us all!” That’s the true double standard in action.
This article first appeared in the Chutzpah, News, and Views blog of Messianic Judaism Media http://www.messianicjudaism.me.