Israel: Double Standards and Higher Standards

The Zionist in me burns with anger when Israel is held to a double standard. And the Zionist in me brims with pride when Israel holds itself to a higher standard. I bet many of you feel the same way.

Exactly what is a double standard? If we’re going to call it out – which we should – at minimum we must define it.

What is the difference between a double standard and a higher standard?

And why should Zionists and Israelis hold Israel to a higher standard at all? These questions are always important, especially as Yom HaAtzmaut fast approaches.

First, a double standard is the application of two different sets of expectations to different groups of people. The late actress Bette Davis nailed it when she said, “When a man gives his opinion, he’s a man. When a woman gives her opinion, she’s a b—-.” That’s a double standard. When the United Nations Human Rights Council has a standing agenda item against Israel alone – ignoring the abuses of known culprits like Iran, Syria, Burma (Rohingya), and Saudi Arabia (Yemen) – that’s a double standard. When the National Women’s Studies Association boycotts Israel alone – which is the only country in the Middle East where women are free and equal – that’s a double standard.

A double standard isn’t any statement that criticizes Israel and upsets me. It’s a statement that reveals two separate sets of rules, one for Israel and the other for the rest of the world. We must call it out as anti-semitic.

But remember that not every criticism of Israel is anti-semitic. Every criticism of Israel pains me inside, because I feel like it’s a part of me too. But that doesn’t make the critic wrong. Constructive criticism of Israel’s flaws – which certainly do exist – is a hallmark of democracy.

Next, let’s name some ways in which Israel holds itself to a higher standard. When Israel provides free medical care to 4000 wounded Syrians – who are taught Israel is the enemy – over the past few years as part of Operation Good Neighbor, this is a higher standard. When the Israeli Air Force in the 2014 Gaza War dropped leaflets over Gaza warning residents to flee ahead of airstrikes targeting Hamas, this is a higher standard. When Israel shares its technology with the world – like the nonprofit Innovation:Africa does by bringing Israeli solar and water technology to remote African villages – this is a higher standard.

A double standard establishes two sets of rules, one of them usually being unfair. On the other hand, achieving a higher standard means starting with one set of rules – the baseline requirements – and going beyond the norm. The second standard in a double standard is usually impossibly high. But the step to reaching a higher standard is usually reasonable. There is a difference in degree.

Additionally, the double standard is usually imposed by an outsider, from without. Whereas the higher standard is often established by the party himself, from within. An important question to ask is, who sets the standard?

For an example, let’s consider the common issue of school grades, which involves students, parents, and teachers. A parent who holds her children accountable to receive straight A’s – even though she herself didn’t meet this lofty goal – is guilty of a double standard. She has a different, unfair expectation of her children from herself. On the other hand, a student who challenges herself to make the honor roll is holding herself to a higher standard. As this goal is more achievable and comes from her own desires, this student makes the grade as reaching for a higher standard.

Third, let’s articulate why Israel should bother with setting above-and-beyond goals for itself. After all, it can easily be confused with double standards.

This question is ultimately part of a conversation that began over a century ago when the early Zionists also debated what Israel should strive to be. In the words of author Gil Troy, should Israel be “a normal state – a state for the Jews – or a model state – a Jewish state”? His new book The Zionist Ideas articulates many of these competing visions of Zionism. While I acknowledge that I’m oversimplifying their stances, Theodor Herzl and Ahad Ha’am most clearly articulate these two specific positions over a century ago. Herzl advocated for political Zionism, emphasizing a homeland for the Jews. He wrote in The Jewish State, “I think the Jewish question is more than a social or religious one…It is a national question which can only be resolved by making it a political world-question…” While Ahad Ha’am emphasized cultural Zionism, urging for a spiritual and cultural revival based in Israel. He wrote in The Jewish State and the Jewish Problem, “Then, from this center [Israel], the spirit of Judaism will radiate to the great circumference, to all the communities of the Diaspora.” They are taking opposing sides in the very same conversation I am engaging. Which makes the question of uniqueness and higher standards even more pressing.

This reminds me of a lovely image in the Talmud (Brachot 6a). The rabbis imagine that G-d too wears Tefillin (as it were). They recall that the Tefillin Jews wear contains the verse of the Shma, wherein we affirm G-d as one, unique. Rav Hiya Bar Avin says that G-d’s Tefillin contains another verse, “Who is like Your people Israel, a unique nation on earth?” (2 Sam. 7:23). The Talmud imagines G-d saying, “You, Israel, have made Me a unique entity in the world. So I will make you a unique entity in the world.”

We are called on by our Torah, our traditions, and our history to be unique. That’s fundamental to being Jewish. The State of Israel – if it to be a Jewish state and not merely a state for Jews – must reflect this uniqueness. It’s the canvas where Jewish values and teachings are created. Reaching for a higher standard – even when we slip, as we have before – sets Israel apart. We must stay the course, even if others misunderstand.

As the musician Paul Simon sang, “One man’s ceiling is another man’s floor.”

About the Author
Rabbi Alex Freedman is the Associate Rabbi at Temple Emanu-El in Closter, NJ.