Double standards: more heat than light unto the nations

I am bored of the double standards argument. At its heart, something deeply disquieting is being left unsaid, and that something does Israel no credit whatsoever.

Here is a diary extract from when I was a madrich on an Israel Tour last year:

We spent the morning on an Eco-Seminar. A tour guide – in true Pharaonic fashion – set us about making mud bricks for their mud huts. [Andy] and [Becky], however, thought it would be more entertaining to fling clods of mud at each other repeatedly, often swearing violently as they did so.


When the guide complained to Andy, “Come on, not the C-word, please,” [madricha] intervened and told them to stand in opposite corners.


Andy came up with the following innovative defence: “Are you a sexist?” What could possess anyone to ask a madricha in a feminist youth movement such a question?


Well, you only complain when I’m throwing mud at Becky! You never did anything when she threw mud at me!


In my view, as soon as he uttered the words “I’m throwing mud at Becky” he lost the moral high ground.

The double standards argument is one that readily occurs to stroppy teenagers, which is perhaps reason enough not to use it.

Whenever a chanich or chanicha wheels it out while I’m telling them off, I say something to the effect of, “No, don’t worry about what they’re doing, I’m concerned about what you’re doing.”

We should say the same thing whenever the double standards argument is raised on Israel’s behalf, because at best it highlights hypocrisy, and what hypocrites say is not necessarily invalid. A convicted murderer can still moralise about how murder is wrong, and while they may be a ridiculous person it doesn’t mean their position is to be written off.

The worst thing about the double standards argument, however, is its subtext, which is essentially: “I/ we/ Israel aspires to nothing more than to be marginally better than Hamas/ Syria/ Russia/ China.”

If Israel’s supporters (and I am proud to be one of them) go around saying, ‘Bash Syria before you bash Israel because they’ve killed more children,’ that implies that Israel will be satisfied, as far as morality is concerned, so long as it kills fewer children in total than Syria. Which clearly isn’t the case, nor should it be.

When someone criticises Israel for having a racially-segregated legal system in the West Bank — civilian law for Jews and martial law for Arabs — they could obviously be painted as having double standards (at least Arabs have access to courts, which they wouldn’t do in many countries in the region, etc. etc.).

But smearing the speaker doesn’t devalue their point, which, as it happens, has underpinnings in classic Jewish texts about the fairness of justice systems. A reference to other “worse” countries for the purposes of a double standards argument implies that Israel is happy being ‘just a bit’ better than these countries.

But of course, it should be aiming to be much, much better. And the first step on the road to improvement is to stop rejecting criticism other than on its actual merits.

During the recent Edward Snowden controversy in which the British and American governments were exposed for spying more-or-less constantly on their own people, the one argument you never heard them use was, “Well, Qatar’s spies do much worse stuff!” Not using that argument was a shrewd move. It would have appalled everybody. Because Britain and America, being proud democracies, should be aspiring to be substantially better than some tinpot little dictatorship, not hiding behind it as an excuse of their own, slightly-less-bad actions.

The Jerusalem Programme, the official platform of the World Zionist Congress, calls for Israel to be “an exemplary society with a unique moral and spiritual character, […] rooted in the vision of the prophets, striving for peace and contributing to the betterment of the world.”

And as if any textual source could be more important than one prepared by the World Zionist Congress, the prophet Isaiah called on the Jewish people to be a “light unto the nations”.

Let Israel strive towards continual self-improvement. Where it has done wrong, admit this; where it hasn’t, defend its actions on their merits. Hiding behind terrorists, dictatorships and human rights abusers (“But China does far worse things!“) creates a comparison in the minds of those listening which, perhaps, a proud democracy ought not to perpetuate.

About the Author
Gabriel Webber is a rabbinic student at Leo Baeck College, London
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