For many years, defenders of Israeli policies towards the Palestinians--and even some critics of those policies--have complained that Israel is judged by double standards, on the grounds that many worse offenders against human rights receive far less criticism or opprobrium.
The latest round of these complaints was prompted a few weeks ago by the withdrawal of famed physicist Stephen Hawking from a "President's Conference" to be held in Israel. Although critics of Hawking's symbolic protest against the Israeli policies towards the Palestinians have described the conference as an "academic one," in fact it was hosted by Israeli president Shimon Peres and was designed as a celebration of his 90th birthday.
Peres typically receives rapturous receptions in the West, especially before Jewish organizations in the U.S who, under the spell of Peres's typically lugubrious rhetoric and empty calls for "peace," mistakenly consider him to be a "dove" in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In fact, since 1967 Peres has been a central figure in the Israeli occupation and repression of the Palestinians, the ever-expanding Israeli settlements and land-grabs in the West Bank, and Israeli aggression in Lebanon. As Gideon Levy of Haaretz recently wrote: "Hawking is permitted to decide that he wants no part of yet another Israeli propaganda fest, aimed at obscuring the goings-on in its backyard and presided over by that wizard of deceit, our president."
Following Hawking's withdrawal, two op-ed columns in Haaretz by prominent Israeli academics again raised the cry of "double standards against Hawking and, more generally, serious critics of the Israeli occupation. In his column, "Hypocrisy and Double Standard," Carlos Strenger, the head of the Graduate Program in Psychology at Tel Aviv University, attacked Hawking for his alleged support of a "morally reprehensible and intellectually indefensible British academic boycott of Israel." Yes, Strenger agrees, "Israel is guilty of human rights violations in the West Bank," but those violations are "negligible compared to those perpetrated by any number of states ranging from Iran through Russia to China."
Indeed, Strenger asks: What about the U.S? What about Guantanamo? What about the drone program of "targeted assassinations? As long as Hawking and other British academics don't boycott the U.S., Strenger argued, their double standards are "profoundly hypocritical."
In a similar attack, the prominent Israeli political scientist Shlomo Avineri writes that Hawking is hypocritical for not only failing to boycott the U.S. because of the Iraq war and the Guantanamo prison, but even for accepting a Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama in 2009. However, the double standard/hypocrisy charge is not even sufficient for Avineri, for he concludes that Hawking is also guilty of a "whiff of racism." What he means to suggest, of course--though he wishes to stop short of making the charge explicit and risk being exposed as a fool--is that Hawking is an anti-Semite.
For a number of reasons, the "double standards" charge is without merit. To begin with, throughout most of its history Israel has actually been the beneficiary of double standards, at least in the West, as most Westerners were ignorant of, or ignored Israel's long history of dispossession, occupation, and repression of the Palestinians--whether because of Holocaust guilt, genuine admiration of Israel (at least of its image) and even of the Jewish people, domestic political factors, or foreign policy considerations--Israel, of course, was regarded as a strong Western ally both in the cold war and "the war against Islamic terrorism."
It has only been in recent years that significant criticism of Israel has emerged in the West. In short, for most of its history--indeed, continuing today, if not quite as much--Israel has been the undeserving beneficiary rather than the victim of Western double standards.
Second, the fact that other countries are worse violators of human rights does not in the slightest demonstrate that those who focus on Israel are hypocritically judging by double standards. What about Russia, China, Iran--or even the U.S., ask Strenger and Avneri, along with others--why not protest its violations of human rights?
One might have thought that human rights violations in Russia, China, and Iran had gone unnoticed, which of course is a preposterous notion--the repressive actions of those states are widely reported and vigorously condemned in the West. Similarly, the human rights issues involving the U.S., especially Guantanamo and the drone killings, are the focus of daily reports throughout the West, including in the United States itself.
Furthermore, Western protests of against non-Western autocracies are doomed to futility, as we have little or no influence over such countries--on the contrary, protests may even backfire, causing such governments to crack down even harder on dissent. But protests or even boycotts against Israel, where Western public opinion does count-- at least to some extent--and where the government wants to be regarded as a full-fledged member of the West--at least in principle-- have a greater possibility of succeeding. Of course, it must be admitted that such hopes are becoming increasingly forlorn.
Moreover, in the West little is expected from the Russian, Chinese, Iranian, and other non-Western autocracies, whereas the Israeli claim to serve as a "light unto the nations" has been taken very seriously by admirers, or previous admirers, of Israel. Indeed, that so much has been expected of Israel is a high compliment--in some ways even to the Jewish people as a whole. That Israel has failed so dismally to live up to its own principles is a legitimate ground for disillusion, protest, and anger.
Still another important distinction is that the citizens of autocracies cannot be held responsible for the depredations of their governments, whereas in Israel, where democracy is a reality (at least for Jewish Israelis), government behavior in fact accurately reflects--only too well reflects--the dominant views of most of its people.
Finally, human rights violations by states such as Russia, China, and Iran are largely domestic in nature rather than international: it is the rights of their own people, rather than those of outsiders, that suffer. That is hardly a minor matter, of course, but international law and morality regard international aggression even more seriously. In fact, Israel has repeatedly engaged in international aggression against the Palestinian people--and, over the years, against Egypt and Lebanon as well (see here)--making them the victims of unjustified military attacks that have wreaked enormous damage even on the civilian infrastructures of those peoples.
That even prominent Israeli academicians, like Strenger and Avineri, can fail to notice or willfully ignore these distinctions--all of which destroy the argument that Israel is a victim of Western hypocrisy and double standards--is a sad testament on just how impoverished typical Israeli political discourse has become.