The Double Standards Fallacy

This coming Friday, August 6, we’ll be joined on our weekly Zoom call by The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer, author of the bestselling new book, Cruelty is the Point. Adam is one of America’s most important commentators about Trumpism and its historical antecedents. He also writes brilliantly about Jewish politics and Black-Jewish relations. I’d particularly recommend this incisive essay about Louis Farrakhan. We’ll be back at Noon ET, our regular time. Please join us.

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In recent weeks, I’ve heard commentators ask why Ben and Jerry’s isn’t divesting from Saudi Arabia. It’s an old argument: That people who protest Israel are guilty of “double standards.” The argument is often phrased as a question: “Why is [insert lefty institution here] picking on Israel when [insert tyrannical government here] is worse?” But the question is actually rhetorical because, most of the time, the person asking it thinks they already know the answer: [Insert lefty institution] is picking on Israel and not [insert tyrannical government] because they’re antisemitic!

Let’s think this through. Why might it be OK to divest from Israeli settlements in the West Bank and not Saudi Arabia? 

For starters, it’s because we generally judge protests based on their inherent rather than their comparative value. Let’s say your neighbor decides to boycott Japan because it is killing whales. You’ll likely ask yourself: Do I agree that killing whales is bad? If so, do I think a boycott will increase the chance that the killing stops? You’ll ask yourself, in other words, whether boycotting Japan is better than not boycotting Japan. 

But let’s say it occurs to you that there are other governments in the world that are doing things far worse than killing whales—China, for instance, which is committing genocide in Xinjiang. So you ask your neighbor: Why are you boycotting Japan but not China? And your neighbor replies: I just really care about whales. You might conclude that your neighbor could make a greater moral impact by boycotting China along with Japan, or even China instead of Japan. But if you believe that Japan is doing something wrong and that a boycott could help stop it, you will still likely conclude that your neighbor is doing something good. 

Outside of the Israel debate, that’s how most people make moral judgements. If someone devotes their time to bringing art into junior high schools because they happen to care about art and junior high schools, we don’t condemn them for not focusing on climate change, which is a bigger problem. At least they’re doing something to make the world better. Or take a less hypothetical example: The global movement to boycott, divest from, and sanction South Africa. Was South Africa the worst human rights abuser in the world during apartheid? Certainly not in the late 1970s, when the Khmer Rouge was committing genocide in Cambodia. But, in retrospect, few people would condemn anti-apartheid campaigners for their double standards because they didn’t also boycott Cambodia. In judging their behavior, we ask whether it was moral in and of itself. 

OK, but what if your neighbor has a habit of making anti-Japanese comments. They don’t just criticize Japan for killing whales, they make fun of the way Japanese people eat, look, and speak. They curse Japanese people on the street. You have reason to believe that what’s motivating them isn’t primarily sympathy for whales but hatred of the Japanese. In that case, you might conclude that their boycott is wrong: that they’re doing more harm by fomenting anti-Japanese racism than they are doing good by saving whales.

But that judgement requires independent evidence that they are motivated by anti-Japanese bigotry. In the case of Ben and Jerry’s (full disclosure: I’ve spoken privately to company executives and encouraged their efforts), no one has produced any independent evidence that the company is hostile to Jews. There’s no history of Ben and Jerry’s refusing to hire Jews or making antisemitic comments. The company itself was founded by Jews. The only evidence critics have of Ben and Jerry’s supposed antisemitism is its refusal to sell ice cream in West Bank settlements. But there’s a logical, moral, non-antisemitic reason for not selling ice cream in the West Bank: It’s a place where Israeli Jews enjoy full political rights and their Palestinian neighbors have none. It’s a place where discrimination is the law.

Fine, you might say, maybe Ben and Jerry’s doesn’t have a history of antisemitism. But given how pervasive a force antisemitism has been across the ages, isn’t it a little suspicious that Israel, the world’s only Jewish state, receives such disproportionate punishment.

I hear this a lot, but the premise is wrong. Israel doesn’t receive disproportionate punishment. Quite the contrary.

Consider some of Israel’s human-rights abusing neighbors in the Middle East: Syria, Iraq, Iran, Yemen, Libya, Lebanon, and Sudan. All of them, in recent years, have been either sanctioned or bombed by the United States. (Overall, the US sanctions close to 30 governments, including most of the governments people cite when making the “double standards” argument.) Even when it comes to Arab human rights abusers that the US likes—Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, for instance—the US imposes some human rights restrictions on the military aid they receive or the arms they buy. Israel is the exception. It receives more US military aid than any other country except Afghanistan, and yet there are, in practice, no human rights restrictions on that aid at all. When it comes to US policy, Israel isn’t only unique in the Middle East. It’s unique in the entire world. Thirty-five US states have passed statements or laws punishing companies that boycott or divest from Israel, a form of protection that exists for no other foreign government on earth.

And because the US remains the most powerful country in the world—with the most powerful collection of allies—this Israeli exemption extends to the United Nations and other global bodies. Yes, Israel receives disproportionate criticism in the UN General Assembly and certain UN committees. But they are utterly toothless. At the Security Council, where power at the UN resides (and a body that in recent decades has endorsed numerous US-led embargoes and wars aimed at Israel’s neighbors), Israel is never punished. It’s rarely even criticized rhetorically because the US, often in partnership with its allies, won’t allow it. 

The US shields Israel from virtually all accountability even though Israel’s human rights abuses—while certainly not the worst in the world—are quite grave. Israel has, after all, been declared an apartheid state by its own leading human rights organization and the leading human rights organization in the world. So the next time someone asks you why the world treats Israel so unfairly, ask them to name a government that is committing such serious human rights abuses (as determined by the world’s most reputable human rights organizations) that enjoys such unconditional support from the powerful governments and institutions on earth.

OK, OK, you might be saying at this point. Maybe it’s legitimate to protest one injustice and not another, so long as you’re not motivated by bigotry. And maybe, in the big picture, Israel isn’t actually singled out. But Israel was still singled out by Ben and Jerry’s! My neighbor boycotts Japan because she loves whales. What Ben and Jerry’s excuse? Why aren’t they boycotting Saudi Arabia!?

The answer is pretty simple: Saudis haven’t asked for a boycott; Palestinians have. In 2005, a wide cross-section of Palestinian civil society called on the rest of the world to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel. A 2019 poll of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip found that 83 percent support that effort. Ben and Jerry’s isn’t boycotting all of Israel, as the BDS movement demands. But it’s responding—partially—to a movement driven, above all, by Palestinians. (A movement whose leaders, though anti-Zionists, as virtually all Palestinians are, have emphatically rejected antisemitism.) 

Morally, the fact that Palestinians have asked for a boycott is crucial. Boycotts are a blunt tool. They cause economic pain not only to people perpetrating oppression but, often, to people suffering from it as well. By divesting from the West Bank, Ben and Jerry’s could cost some Palestinians their jobs. For that reason, it’s morally questionable to boycott a territory or a country unless you have strong evidence that the people suffering oppression there are willing—indeed, demanding—to accept short-term economic pain because they believe it will help them achieve human rights. (When you’re boycotting on behalf of whales or other animals, which can’t demand a boycott, it’s more complicated.)  

But boycott calls—at least by coalitions representing the near-consensus opinion of an entire oppressed group—are relatively rare. In recent years, there’s been a movement to boycott Morocco for its occupation of Western Sahara. Some activists from Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong have recently proposed boycotts of China—and the US has responded with sanctions. These efforts are laudable, but they’re fledgling. It’s hard to find a boycott movement that has been around as long or enjoys as much internal support as the Palestinian effort. 

Why aren’t there equivalent efforts in Saudi Arabia? I don’t entirely know. Perhaps it’s easier to gain society-wide consensus for a boycott call when you’re being oppressed by a foreign power or a different racial or religious group. Imagine two scenarios: One in which Donald Trump imposes a dictatorship from within the US, and the other in which Canada invades (go with me here) and places Americans under martial law. From a human rights perspective, the former might be equally bad. But I suspect Americans would find it easier to launch a broad-based boycott call in the latter case because it would be easier to unite against an external foe. 

These are interesting theoretical questions, at least to me. Ultimately, however, the question of whether it’s legitimate for Ben and Jerry’s to divest from settlements in the West Bank comes down to two simple questions: First, is a grave injustice occurring there? The answer is yes: Holding West Bank Palestinians without citizenship, free movement, due process, or the right to vote for the government that controls their lives constitutes a terrible crime. For more than half-a-century, Israel has denied millions of people the most basic of human rights. Second, do most Palestinians believe that boycotting West Bank settlements can help alleviate their suffering? The answer, overwhelmingly, is yes.

That’s what really matters. All the rest, as they say, is commentary. 

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Other stuff:

In Jewish Currents (subscribe!), Yousef Munayyer makes a compelling case that Israel’s surveillance over Palestinians served as the laboratory for the surveillance technologies that the NSO Group has now exported to the world.

talked to Yousef, and Dahlia Scheindlin, about the NSO surveillance scandal for the Foundation for Middle East Peace’s “Occupied Thoughts” podcast.

Last week the Biden administration appointed Professor Deborah Lipstadt to be its antisemitism envoy. Lipstadt and I chatted, and disagreed, in this podcast a couple of years ago.

Speaking of antisemitism, I’m discussing it with American Friends of Combatants for Peace on August 12.

I’m on a bit of a Tom Segev kick so here are some highlights from lectures he’s given over the years:

Around 39 minutes into this talk, he explains succinctly why, contrary to what most American Jews have been taught, neither the Palestinians nor the Zionists truly accepted the UN partition plan in 1947.

Here, around 15 minutes and 30 seconds in, Segev tells the extraordinary story of Rivka Waxman, which captures the almost surreal quality of life during Israel’s first years of existence.

Finally, starting around one hour and 22 minutes into this lecture, Segev describes how Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, was so haunted by Israel’s expulsion of the Palestinian refugees that he literally spoke, Macbeth-style, to their ghosts. 

See you Friday,

Peter