Essay: Judging Israel

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Jews are news. It is an axiom of journalism. An indispensable axiom, too, because it is otherwise impossible to explain why the deeds and misdeeds of dot-on-the-map Israel get an absurdly disproportionate amount of news coverage around the world. If you are trying to guess how much coverage any Middle East event received, and you are permitted but one question, the best question you can ask about the event is: Were there any Jews in the vicinity? The paradigmatic case is the page in the International Herald Tribune that devoted seven of its eight columns to the Palestinian uprising. Among the headlines: "Israeli Soldier Shot to Death; Palestinian Toll Rises to 96." The eighth column carried a report that 5,000 Kurds died in an Iraqi gas attack.

Whatever the reason, it is a fact that the world is far more interested in what happens to Jews than to Kurds. It is perfectly legitimate, therefore, for journalists to give the former more play. But that makes it all the more incumbent to be fair in deciding how to play it.

How should Israel be judged? Specifically: Should Israel be judged by the moral standards of its neighborhood or by the standards of the West?

The answer, unequivocally, is: the standards of the West. But the issue is far more complicated than it appears.

The first complication is that although the neighborhood standard ought not to be Israel's, it cannot be ignored when judging Israel. Why? It is plain that compared with the way its neighbors treat protest, prisoners and opposition in general, Israel is a beacon of human rights. The salient words are Hama, the town where Syria dealt with an Islamic uprising by killing perhaps 20,000 people in two weeks and then paving the dead over; and Black September (1970), during which enlightened Jordan dealt with its Palestinian intifadeh by killing at least 2,500 Palestinians in ten days, a toll that the Israeli intifadeh would need ten years to match.

Any moral judgment must take into account the alternative. Israel cannot stand alone, and if it is abandoned by its friends for not meeting Western standards of morality, it will die. What will replace it? The neighbors: Syria, Jordan, the P.L.O., Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Ahmed Jabril, Abu Nidal (if he is still around) or some combination of these -- an outcome that will induce acute nostalgia for Israel's human-rights record.

Any moral judgment that refuses to consider the alternative is merely irresponsible. That is why Israel's moral neighborhood is important. It is not just the neighborhood, it is the alternative and, if Israel perishes, the future. It is morally absurd, therefore, to reject Israel for failing to meet Western standards of human rights when the consequence of that rejection is to consign the region to neighbors with considerably less regard for human rights.

Nevertheless, Israel cannot be judged by the moral standards of the neighborhood. It is part of the West. It bases much of its appeal to Western support on shared values, among which is a respect for human rights. The standard for Israel must be Western standards.

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