Ira Straus

Double-standards and internalized anti-Semitism

A severe double-standard against Jews, or against Israel, is a strong indicator of anti-Semitism.

When it is a Jew who holds the double-standard, it is an indicator of internalized anti-Semitism, or self-hate.

This is the basic reality. At the same time, there is a complicating consideration: a mild double standard against self is an appropriate part of the human conscience. This is so that our natural self-righteousness does not get the better of us. It is written into religious creed: Pull out the log in your own eye, before trying to pluck the speck out of your brother’s eye.

At the same time, an excessive double standard against self is destructive of conscience. It is a form of self-hate: internalization of the put-downs that one has absorbed from others.

This too is written into religious creed. If I am not for myself, who will be for me?


Self-hate: a signal for others to pile on

Hillel warns us that self-hate will lose us our natural supporters. And that is only the beginning.

If I am against myself, everyone will pick up on the signal. They will see that I feel that I deserve to be dumped on, or treated with a double-standard. They will figure that they should dump on me, too. After all, that’s the standard I set.


Self-hate among anti-Zionists

Jewish anti-Zionism has not always been anti-Semitic, and even today, not all of it is. Nevertheless, over time it has mostly become anti-Semitic.

Sensible anti-Zionists rebranded themselves in the 1940s as non-Zionists: people who rejected the Zionist call on them to move to Israel, but who realized that, in face of the Holocaust, the creation of the Jewish state of Israel was a necessity. It was a tragic necessity in their view, but no less necessary for that reason.

Those who remained fully anti-Zionist were compelled to make an extreme polemic for what had become an untenable position. This led them more and more into anti-Semitic motifs.

Today we see an extreme double-standard against self in Jewish anti-Zionist writing.

It is internalized anti-Semitism, when anti-Zionists say that Israel must be held to a higher standard; or should not exist unless it brings a new, qualitatively superior order to the world. Or unless it solves hitherto intractable problems, such as the hatred its neighbor-enemies bear toward it, by dint of its being the Light.

Some of the original Zionists, particularly the socialist ones, really believed in such utopian dreams. Perversely, they are regularly cited by the anti-Zionists of today, even non-Leftist ones who don’t believe in the socialist dream at all – and used as if it were an appropriate standard for Israel.

Anti-Zionists will also cite the demands of the most extreme religious Zionists: that Israel must live up fully to the perfections of the moral commandments and rules attributed to God in religious thinking, or else be condemned.

It is an almost infinitely high standard. It guarantees self-condemnation. It invites bitter condemnation from the rest of the world.

It’s an example of how self-hate sets a malicious standard for others to pile onto. As they are in fact piling on today.

It also explains why we are seeing large numbers of anti-Zionist Jews joining demonstrations that are plainly anti-Semitic, not just anti-Israel. They deny the obvious facts of the demonstrations being anti-Semitic, on the same bad logic that they deny the anti-Semitic element in their own thinking. The media often solicit their statements on this point, exploiting their standing as Jews to mainstream the anti-Semitism all around them; it fits the main media narrative, and they gladly present it as if it were the more sophisticated view of the matter.


Self-hate even from Netanyahu?

Some of this internalized self-hate can be seen even in the present government of Israel. This may be surprising. Nevertheless, it becomes evident when one views the matter from outside of the typical frameworks and arguments used for formulating Israel’s case.

Netanyahu frequently speaks of the fact that Israel holds its army to far higher moral standards than any other country in the world. Yet this very fact has delayed Israel’s victory by months for the sake of proving this higher standard and going the extra mile. To limit the immediate civilian casualties, the sum total of casualties is actually increased.

This boast stacks the standard almost as heavily against Israel as do the anti-Zionists. It is a mirror image of their argument: that Israel must be a country that proves itself better than everyone else, or else it has no right to exist.

A standard of moral superiority is not a standard of morality. When Israel stacks the standard this heavily against itself, it is stacking the decks also against winning, and against speed in winning. Yet it has long been known that, in a war where you have clear military superiority, winning quickly and decisively is the more moral and humane approach, compared to dragging out the war.


Signaling to the world to pile on

Israel also stacks the decks psychologically against itself in the world at large, when it adopts such a heavy double-standard against itself. It gives a moral license to others to do the same, and worse.

The anti-self bias serves, on a subliminal level, as a spur to global anti-Semitism. It acts as a signal that Israel accepts an extreme unfairness to it as its proper lot.

The global anti-Semitism has grown since October 7 by leaps and bounds, even in the U.S. government. It has done this by the simple device of holding that Israel is guilty unless it always meets its own most utopian standard of its moral superiority. It embraces Israel’s boastful double standard against itself on civilian protection, for use against Israel, demanding full compliance with it and then some. When President Biden uses this logic, he gives license to all the anti-Semites in the world to do it.

It is a cruel way for Biden to exploit his reputation for being pro-Israel.


Alienating society’s Superego into the hands of its enemy

What explains the self-hate? The problem was explained most profoundly by the late Professor Lewis Samuel Feuer.

Drawing on Freud, Feuer observed that an alienation of the superego had popped up in extreme form in our society, as a national and pan-Western phenomenon. A partial alienation of the individual superego into the hands of society as a whole is normal; society needs to restrain its individual members. Society normally has managed the collective superego in a restrained manner, centered by its own internal balances. However, in the 1960s if not earlier, the superego was alienated by Western society into the hands of one polar end of society: the Left. The media repeatedly praised the Left and “the youth” — meaning the New Left Movement and its successors — as “the conscience of our society”. It has done so ever since. The Left was substituted for society as a whole as the manager of society’s conscience.

This has meant taking a huge risk with society. The stated goal of the Left is the deconstruction of Western society and undermining of its global predominance. Thanks to the position of authority it has been given, the deconstruction has proceeded at a rapid pace.

Further: the superego was held by not by the center but by the extreme wing, and an ever more extreme wing at that. It moves in only one direction: ever farther Left, since that is where the higher conscience is said to lie. It constantly pushes society farther from its center.

As Nadine Strossen has observed, everyone today fears the Left end; even committed Leftists have to shrink in fear before criticism from the farther Left. The result is that self-censorship has reached unprecedented proportions in the West, akin to what was seen in totalitarian societies.

That is what comes of the alienation of the superego into the hands of a polar end of the spectrum. The polar end has no checks and balances. Its nature is to unbalance everything and overturn every restraint.

A healthy society manages its superego in a stable manner; it is restrained from excesses by its own overall balance. In turning our superego over to our fringe instead, we are turning ourselves over for self-destabilization.

When society alienates its superego into the hands of those whose main mode of speech is to launch verbal assaults against the society, this gives a signal to everyone: that it is safe to attack the society. People can expect this to bring them praise, not condemnation. It does matter if the attack is unfair, or even made with reckless disregard for truth; the attackers get held up for admiration as “the conscience of our society”.

People naturally proceed to pile on against the society.

This is context of the anti-self double-standard. It redoubles the destructive consequences of it.


Anti-self yet self-righteous

An extreme double-standard against self can also feed, paradoxically, into extreme self-righteousness. When Israel says that it has the most moral army in the world, and adds that the civilian deaths are “on Hamas”, it runs this risk.

To be sure, Hamas bears primary responsibility for the civilian deaths. It is deliberately culpable for them. This does not change the fact that Israel also bears a responsibility, rightly enshrined in international law, to do its part to avoid unnecessary deaths.

The serious danger here is not from the military killings of civilians that the world has been attacking Israel for, and using to stall its advance. The danger is rather that Israel, in its righteous refutation of these attacks and its pointing to the relevant fact – the extraordinarily low ratio of civilian to military casualties – could neglect to deal sufficiently with the real dangers for mass civilian casualties: hunger, thirst, unsafe water, disease, and the potential for epidemic. These are the things that can mushroom overnight, growing from an incremental problem to a mass catastrophe. They are made worse by the extreme heat — and by the delaying on establishing an Israeli-controlled administrative authority.

That delay comes from the fear of the condemnations that would come from all sides when Israel establishes a civil authority in Gaza. Israel needs to put aside the fear, which is a kind of subordination to the world’s double-standards, and proceed with establishing the authority. Then it will be able to apply a more normal form of moral reasoning to evaluating civilian conditions in Gaza. That is what taking responsibility means.

A confident society pays attention to the opinions of mankind, but it does not defer to false and extreme standards from the outside. Rather, it takes responsibility, acting on the basis of its own normal standards and its best effort at evaluating the realities of the situation.

The ethic of responsibility is one that Israel has desperately, heroically, tried to maintain in this war. It needs to maintain it even better.


Needed: a restoration of normal, balanced standards

It is imperative that Israel return to a normal balance in its standards. It  needs to get back to a healthy primary standard of support for self, coupled with a mild critical double-standard of conscience against self, in order to keep the normal self-support from growing into excessive self-righteousness.

It is imperative that the world end its radical double-standard against Israel.

It is imperative that everyone recognize the mass anti-Semitism that the world is fostering with its radical double-standard.


About the Author
Chair, Center for War/Peace Studies; Senior Adviser, Atlantic Council of the U.S.; formerly a Fulbright professor of international relations; studied at Princeton, UVA, Oxford. Institutions named above for identification purposes only; views expressed herein are solely the responsibility of the author.