Jews are news. It is an axiom of journalism. An indispensable axiom, too, because it is impossible to explain why the deeds and misdeeds of dot-on-the-map Israel get an absurdly disproportionate amount of news coverage around the world. If you are trying to guess how much coverage any Middle East event received, and you are permitted but one question, the best question you can ask about the event is: Where there any Jews in the vicinity? The paradigmatic case is the page in the International Herald Tribune that devoted seven of its eight columns to the Palestinian uprising. Among the headlines: "Israel Soldier Shot to Death; Palestinian Toll Rises to 96." The eighth column carried a report that 5,000 Kurds died in an Iraqi gas attack.
Whatever the reason, it is a fact that the world is far more interested in what happens to Jews than to Kurds. It is perfectly legitimate, therefore, for journalists to give the former more play. But that makes it all the more incumbent to be fair in deciding how to play.
How should Israel be judged? Specifically: Should Israel be judged by the moral standards of its neighborhood or by the standards of the West?
The answer, unequivocally, is: the standards of the West. But the issue is far more complicated than it appears.
The first complication is that although the neighborhood standard ought not to be Israel's, it cannot be ignored when judging Israel. Why? It is plain that compared with the way its neighbors treat protest, prisoners and opposition in general, Israel is a beacon of human rights. The salient words are Hama, the town where Syria dealt with an Islamic uprising by killing perhaps 20,000 people in two weeks and then paving the dead over; and Black September (1970), during which enlightened Jordan dealt with its Palestinian intifadeh by killing at least 2,500 Palestinians in ten days, a toll that the Israeli intifadeh would need ten years to match.
Any moral judgement must take into account the alternative, Israel cannot stand alone, and if it is abandoned by its friends for not meeting Western standards of morality, it will die. What will replace it? The neighbors: Syria, Jordan, the P.L.O., Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Ahmed Jabril, (if he is still around) or some combination of these - an outcome that will induce acute nostalgia for Israel's human-rights record. Any moral judgement that refuses to consider the alternative is merely irresponsible. That is why Israel's moral neighborhood is important. It is not just the neighborhood, it is the alternative and, if Israel perishes, the future. It is morally absurd, therefore, to reject Israel for failing to meet Western standards of human rights when the consequence of that rejection is to consign the region to neighbors with considerably less regard for human rights.
Nevertheless, Israel cannot be judged by the moral standards of the neighborhood. It is part of the West. It bases much of its appeal to Western support on shared values, among which is a respect for human rights. The standard for Israel must be Western standards.
But what exactly does "Western standards" mean? Here we come to complication No. 2. There is not a single Western standard, there are two: what we demand of Western countries at peace and what we demand of Western countries at war. It strains not just fairness but also logic to ask Israel, which has known war for its 40 years' existence, to act like a Western country at peace.
The only fair standards is this one: How have the Western democracies reacted in similar conditions of war, crisis and insurrection? The morally relevant comparison is not with an American police force reacting to violent riots, say, in downtown Detroit. (Though even by this standard - the standard of America's response to the urban riots of the '60s - Israel's handling of the intifadeh has been measured.) The relevant comparison is with Western democracies at war: to, say, the U.S. during the Civil War, the British in Mandatory Palestine, the French in Algeria.
Last fall New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis excoriated Israel for putting down a tax revolt in the town of Beit Sahour. He wrote: "Suppose the people of a small town decided to protest Federal Government policy by withholding taxes. The Government responded by sending in the Army...Unthinkable? Of course it is in this country. But it is happening in another...Israel."
Middle East scholar Clinton Bailey tried to point out just how false this analogy is. Protesting Federal Government policy? The West Bank is not Selma, Ala. Palestinians are not demanding service at the lunch counter. They demand a flag and an army. This is insurrection for independence. They are part of a movement whose covenant explicity declares its mission to be abolition of the state of Israel.
Bailey tried manfully for the better analogy. It required him to posit 1) a pre-glasnot Soviet Union, 2) a communist Mexico demanding the return of "occupied Mexican" territory lost in the Mexican War (Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada and California) and 3) insurrection by former Mexicans living in these territories demanding succession from the U.S. Then image, Bailey continued, that the insurrectionists, supported and financed by Mexico and other communist states in Latin America, obstruct communications; attack civilians and police with stones and fire bombs; kill former Mexicans holding U.S. Government jobs ("collaborators"); and then begin a tax revolt. Now you have the correct analogy. Would the U.S., like Israel, then send in the Army? Of course.
But even this analogy falls flat because it is simply impossible to image an American in a position of conflict and vulnerability analogous to Israel's. Milan Kundera once defined a small nation as "one whose very existence may be put in question at any moment; a small nation can disappear and knows it." Czechoslovakia is a small nation. Judea was. Israel is. The U.S. is not.
It is quite impossible to draw an analogy between a small nation and a secure superpower. America's condition is so radically different, so far from the brink. Yet when Western countries have been in conditions approximating Israel's, when they have faced comparable rebellions, they have acted not very differently.
We do not even have to go back to Lincoln's Civil War suspension of habeas corpus, let alone Sherman's march through Georgia. Consider that during the last Palestinian intifadeh, the Arab Revolt of 1936-39, the British were in charge of Palestine. They put down the revolt "without mercy, without qualms," writes Middle East scholar Fouad Ajami. Entire villages were razed. More then 3,000 Palestinians were killed. In 1939 alone, the British hanged 109. (Israel has no death panalty).
French conduct during the Algerian war was noted for its indiscriminate violence and systematic use of torture. In comparison, Israeli behavior has been positively restrained. And yet Israel faces a far greater threat. All the Algerians wanted, after all, was independence. They were not threatening the extinction of France. If Israel had the same assurance as France that its existence was in no way threatened by its enemies, the whole Arab-Israeli conflict could have been solved decades ago.
Or consider more contemporary democracies. A year ago, when rioting broke out in Venezuela over government-imposed price increases, more than 300 were killed in less than one week. In 1984 the army of democratic India attacked rebellious Sikhs in the Golden Temple, killing 300 in one day. And yet these democracies were not remotely threatened with disorder; India, at worst, with secession. The Sikhs have never pledged to throw India into the sea.
"Israel," opined the Economist, "cannot in fairness test itself against a standard set by China and Algeria while still claiming to be part of the West." This argument, heard all the time, is a phony. Israel asks to be judged by the standard not of China and Algeria but of Britain and France, of Venezuela and India. By that standard, the standard of democracies facing similar disorders, Israel's behavior has been measured and restrained.
Yet Israel has been treated as if this were not true. The thrust of the reporting and, in particular, the commentary is that Israel has failed dismally to meet Western standards, that it has been particularly barbaric in its treatment of the Palestinian uprising. No other country is repeatedly subjected to Nazi analogies. In no other country is the death or deportation of a single rioter the subject (as it was for the first year of the intifadeh, before it became a media bore) of front-page news, of emergency Security Council meetings, of full-page ads in the New York Times, of pained editorials about Israel's lost soul, etc.,etc.
Why is that so? Why is it that of Israel a standard of behavior is demanded that is not just higher than its neighbors', not just equal to that of the West, but in fact far higher than that of any Western country in similar circumstances? Why the double standard?
For most, the double standard is unconscious. Critics simply assume it appropriate to compare Israel with a secure and peaceful America. They ignore the fact that there are two kinds of Western standards, and that fairness dictates subjecting Israel to the standard of a Western country at war.
But other critics openly demand higher behavior from the Jewish state than from other states. Why? Jews, it is said, have a long history of oppression. They thus have a special vocation to avoid oppressing others. This dictates a higher standard in dealing with others.
Note that this reasoning is applied to only Jews. When other people suffer - Vietnamese, Algerians, Palestinians, the French Maquis - they are usally allowed a grace period during which they are judged by a somewhat lower standard. The victims are, right or wrongly (in my view, wrongly), morally indulged. A kind of moral affirmative action applies. We are asked to understand the former victims' barbarities because of how they themselves suffered. There has, for example, been little attention to and less commentary on the 150 Palestinians lynched by other Palestinians during the intifadeh. How many know that this year as many Palestinians have died at the hands of Palestinians as at the hands of Israelis?
With Jews, that kind of reasoning is reversed: Jewish suffering does not entitle them to more leeway in trying to prevent a repetition of their tragedy, but to less. Their suffering requires them, uniquely among the world's sufferers, to bend over backwards in dealing with their enemies.
Sometimes it seems as if Jews are entitled to protection and equal moral consideration only insofar as they remain victims. Oriana Fallaci once said plainly to Ariel Sharon, "You are no more the nation of the great dream, the country for which we cried." Indeed not. In establishing a Jewish state, the Jewish people made a collective decision no longer to be cried for. They chose to become actors in history and not its objects. Historical actors commit misdeeds, and should be judged like all nation- states when they commit them. It is perverse to argue that because this particular nation-state is made up of people who have suffered the greatest crime in modern history, they, more than any other people on earth, have a special obligation to be delicate with those who would bring down on them yet another national catastrophe.
That is a double standard. What does a double standard mean? To call it a high standard is simply a euphemism. That makes it sound like a compliment. In fact, it is a weapon. If I hold you to a higher standard of morality than others, I am saying that I am prepared to denounce you for things I would never denounce anyone else for.
If I were to make this kind of judgement about people of color - say, if I demanded that blacks meet a higher standard in their dealing with others - that would be called racism.
Let's invent an example. Imagine a journalistic series on cleanliness in neighborhoods. A city newspaper studies a white neighborhood and a black neighborhood and finds while both are messy, the black neighborhood is cleaner. But week in, week out, the paper runs front-page stories comparing the garbage and graffiti in the black neighborhood to the pristine loveliness of Switzerland. Anthoney Lewis chips in an op-ed piece deploring, more in sadness than in anger, the irony that blacks, who for so long had degradation imposed on them, should now impose degradation on themselves.
Somthing is wrong here. To denounce blacks for misdemeanors that we overlook in whites - that is a double standard. It is not a compliment. It is racism.
The conscious deployment of a double standard directed at the Jewish state and at no other state in the world, the willingness systematically to condemn the Jewish state for things others are not condemned for - this is not a higher standard. It is a discriminatory standard. And discrimination against Jews has a name too. The word for it is anti-Semitism.
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