Posted by: sean | May 13, 2009

Lowering the bar for values

lowering the barWalt has a post up discussing Israeli hasbara and how Max Hastings fell out of love with the Jewish state.  Walt discusses a point that often comes up when talking about Israeli ills, namely the argument that many supporters of Israel give to defend the country: it’s better than its neighbors when it comes to democracy and human rights, etc. This really annoys me for several reasons. First, it’s irrelevant. Just because China treats people horribly in prison doesn’t make American abuses at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo or Bagram any less serious. The same holds true when it comes to comparing Israel and, say, Syria or Egypt. Second, does Israel really want us to lower the bar that much? Are Israelis really looking to Damascus or Cairo for cues on human rights and democracy? The fact of the matter is that Israel lauds itself as being a western-style democracy, so shouldn’t the rest of the world hold them to that standard. As Walt says:

[C]omparisons with states whose behavior may be worse miss the point. Israel’s actions are not being judged against the conduct of a Sudan or Burma, but by the standards that people in the West apply to all democracies. It is the standard Americans expect of allies who want to have a “special relationship” with us. It is the standard Israel imposes on itself when it tells everyone it is “the only democracy in the Middle East.” Israel is being expected to behave like Britain or Canada or France or Japan and not like some one-party military dictatorship, and it is certainly expected not to deny full political and civil rights to millions of Palestinians who now live under its constant control.  These other democracies eventually gave up their colonial enterprises; Israel is still trying to consolidate its own.

As Americans have learned in recent years, whenever any country fails to live up to its own professed values, it is going to lose friends and admirers around the world. Barack Obama understood that he couldn’t restore America’s image in the wake of Abu Ghraib and the Bush torture regime by trying to change the subject or by talking about some cool or virtuous things Americans had done. (“OK, we tortured some people and invaded Iraq on false pretenses, but weren’t the Founding Fathers great, aren’t Tiger Woods and Kelly Clarkson amazing, and have you seen that new Star Trek movie?”). The way a country regains the world’s admiration in the aftermath of  misconduct is to stop doing it, admit it was wrong, express regret, and make it clear that it won’t happen again. Restoring Israel’s image in the West isn’t a matter of spin or PR or “rebranding;” it’s a matter of abandoning the policies that have cost it the sympathy it once enjoyed. It’s really just about that simple.

But returning to the Max Hastings piece, he recalls an interesting tidbit that everyone should take into consideration following the recent Israeli elections:

One night at a dinner party in Jerusalem in 1977, I heard a young Israeli talking about the Arabs in terms which chilled my blood. “In the next war,” he said, “we’ve got to get the Palestinians out of the West Bank for good.”

To me, in my naivete, Israel’s struggle had hitherto seemed that of a brilliant little people, who had suffered the most ghastly experience of the 20th century, struggling for survival amid a hostile Middle East still bent upon their destruction. Now, suddenly, I found myself meeting Israelis committed to the creation of a greater Israel embracing the West Bank, who were utterly heedless of the fate of its inhabitants. The Palestinians were perceived as losers, a mere incidental impediment to the fulfilment of Israel’s historic territorial destiny. By a curious quirk, that young Israeli whom I heard enthuse about emptying the West Bank of Arabs was Binyamin Netanyahu, today his country’s prime minister.



  1. I’ve had an idea about this habit of pointing to other countries. I’m not sure it’s quite good, so I want to share it and see what you think. Could this be another effect of the Zionist dichotomy Jew/non-Jew ? It is as if the rest of the world must be ok, before we can turn our attention to the Jewish state. Or maybe it’s the same old human hypocrisy ? I don’t know.

  2. I’m not sure it has anything to do with Judaism. It’s more likely due to run of the mill chauvinism, which we see in most countries. The US says “harsh interrogation techniques” when talking about itself, but “torture” when talking about the Viet Cong. The Syrians talk about the occupation but don’t mention the butchering of tens of thousands in Hama. The Israelis use human rights violations in the Arab world to sugar coat the occupation. There are plenty of beams to go around for the eyes of most nations, which is why I think it’s up to liberals the world over to decry abuses in all countries, not just the ones whose regimes we dislike.

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