Recently, I heard a critic of Israel acknowledge that Israel’s neighbors engaged in the same activity as Israel, but the critic quickly pointed out that Israel is held to a higher standard. I used to hear this type of argument made more often—both by Israel’s defenders and critics—but it seems to have become less common. One might wonder why it has declined and whether such a higher standard can be justified.
While holding Israel to a higher standard can be useful in particular instances to critics of Israel who are making an argument, its overall effect is to enhance Israel’s reputation. If one says that Israel should be held to a higher standard, the reason is that Israel is a morally superior nation, and that is something that the present-day critics of Israel cannot abide. For many of them, Israel is one of the most, if not the most wrongful countries in the world. The higher standard conflicts with that belief.
Is it legitimate to hold Israel to a higher standard? I used to think not, but I have changed my mind. If done in the right way, it is legitimate.
In fact, one might even say it is required. Israel is a Western-style country in a particularly bad neighborhood. It is simply misleading—insulting, if you will—to compare Israel to its neighbors. When there is a significant moral divergence between parties, a comparison is problematic. It would be insulting to compare someone who occasionally tells ordinary lies in his personal life to Bernie Madoff. So Israel might reject being compared to undemocratic countries that do not respect the basic rights of their citizens.
But if one is going to hold Israel to a higher standard, it should be done in full recognition of the difference between the countries. A critic should not be able to merely say “But Israel is often held to a higher standard.” No, it should be made clear what is involved. The critic should have say something along the following lines: “Of course, there is a strong argument for holding Israel to a higher standard. The country is a Western-style democracy, that protects religious freedom and other civil liberties, in a part of the world where none of its neighbors do any of this. We don’t expect countries of this type to act in the way Israel has.”
But if the critic says this, it puts another burden on him. The action Israel is taking must actually be something that Western-style democracies do not do. Unfortunately, sometimes Israel is criticized for actions that Western-style democracies take.
Perhaps, then, it is not so surprising that one does not often hear the higher standard invoked these days.