The Implication of “Why Single Out Israel?” Is Do Nothing At All

Fresh on the heels of the ASA boycott, the Delegate Assembly of the Modern Languages Association just adopted the mildest of resolutions criticizing Israel, this time for putting “restrictions on scholars’ ability to travel to Israel and the West Bank to work at Palestinian universities.”

During the debate on the resolution, opponents repeatedly raised the same issue that has been raised against the academic boycott: Why single out Israel?

Which proves the point I made in my critique of Michael Kazin: the “why single out Israel” line can and will be—and now has been—used to criticize any statement, no matter how anodyne, against Israel. As I wrote there:

It occurs to me that there is one other problem with the selectivity argument….It does too much work. It is an argument that applies not only to an academic boycott of Israel but also to any statement or action against the State of Israel.

Think about this way. If a bunch of students on campus decide to organize a rally to protest Israel’s bombing of Gaza—and don’t organize (or haven’t organized) rallies to protest every other instance of bombing—they are being selective. And thus—in the eyes of many of Israel’s defenders or critics of the BDS movement—anti-Semitic. Therefore, their rally is illegitimate and shouldn’t be supported. If Peter Beinart criticizes the bombing of Gaza, the same argument applies. If Congress passes a resolution—work with me—condemning the bombing, the same argument applies. If the UN passes a resolution, the same.

In the end, the real function of the selectivity argument…is to make impossible any criticism of or action against the State of Israel.

The “why single out Israel” line is not an argument against BDS. It’s an argument against saying anything critical of Israel. Or doing anything about it.


  1. s. wallerstein January 12, 2014 at 8:01 am | #

    Why single out Israel?

    My first ethical duty is get my own house in order (I write as a Jew). It’s easy and even pleasurable to point an accusing finger at the sins of others and after that, one feels deliciously morally superior. It’s harder to face the fact that one (or the group one belongs to) has dirty hands.

    It’s obvious that compared to Syria or Somalia or the Congo, Israel is a paragon of human rights and it is the only democracy in the Middle East, but it seems that I should be comparing myself not to the worst sinners, but to an ideal of human rights and when compared to an ideal, Israel falls sady short.

    I do not deny that anti-semites exaggerate and feast upon Israel’s human rights record. I do not desire to form an anti-Israel coalition with anti-semites, but to progress towards a situation of human rights in Israel which is as close to the ideal as possible and which leaves the anti-semites politically isolated as the hate-filled idiots that they are.

    • J. Otto Pohl January 12, 2014 at 8:28 am | #

      I keep seeing this claim that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East and keep wondering if the people making it are in the least bit aware of the fact that other countries in the region do in fact have rule by elections. Turkey which unlike Israel does not disenfranchise nearly 50% of the people under its rule being the most obvious example. Exactly what about Turkey’s current political system do you find makes it not a democracy compared to Israel? Or is it just out of habit that you continue to repeat the false claim that Israel is the “only” democracy in the Middle East?

      • s. wallerstein January 12, 2014 at 8:34 am | #

        Turkey isn’t always included in the Middle East, but let’s include it, if you like.

        Then Israel becomes one of the two democracies in the Middle East.

        In any case, whether there are one or two democracies in the Middle East has nothing to do with my thesis outlined above.

    • Everett Benson January 16, 2014 at 9:30 am | #

      It is well to keep in mind, s.wallerstein, that it is actually unjust to compare Israel’s situation to that of most other democracies not at war with their neighbours, in terms of the way it treats a restive minority within its borders very closely tied by kinship, culture, religion and values to enemies just across the border, and whose loyalties are often questionable. The on-going state of belligerency, regularly crescendoing into actual warfare, and constantly endorsed by Israel’s neighbours in their political declarations, mosque sermons, school textbooks, children’s TV programs and other media, is the crucial context that BDSers never allow into consideration. For them, the cloud-land perfectionist standard is the only one they apply to Israel, while giving the Palestinians, and all other violent and totalitarian/authoritarian states a completely free pass in terms of BDS.

      In the context of its threatened reality, in fact, Israel treats its Arab minority far better than any Western democracy on war footings and genuinely threatened by aggressors has done in the past two centuries. Applying a perfectionistic standard that adamantly ignores that reality is itself prejudicial. So it sounds just great to say that each group has a responsibility first to rectify itself and conform to “an ideal of human rights” that no nation actually attains. But it is deeply unfair in the real world. Especially since it wilfully ignores that Israel actually does sustain human rights for all its citizens in a way that compares favorably with most Western democracies at the present time that despite Muslim threats remain internally secure and on a peace-time footing, and that far exceeds those in an existentially threatened situation similar to its own.

      By all means criticise Israel if you like, if your goal is sincerely to improve a place you love. But BDSers do not merely criticise Israel, they hate and demonize it as such, and place the country outside the global community, denying its legitimacy as they do not any other country’s. That is why if someone shows a BDSer that this or that accusation is baseless or not as true as is claimed, this is basically irrelevant to the propagandists. They are not interested in constructive criticism, but in destructive criticism, so they just shift to another mythological claim, or, equally often, answer simply with personal attacks that seek to delegitimate and demonize all those individuals as well who disagree with them.

      In line with the above demonization and delegitimization, resting on double standards (Natan Sharansky’s famous “3D” definition of antisemitism), some posting here want to deny that Israel is even a democracy, in fact the only liberal democracy and fully free society in the Middle East, and that it in accordance with this really does extend in law and in practice civil equality to all its citizens, protecting their freedoms of religion, assembly, political representation, residence, employment, etc., etc. It is as far from an apartheid regime as it is possible to be, especially given the context of belligerent neighbours and existential threats to its own existence. (Ironically, the Palestinian leader of the global BDS movement, Omar Barghouti, despite not being an Israeli citizen and just a Palestinian resident of East Jerusalem, was freely allowed to study for and complete a master’s degree at Tel Aviv University even while leading the BDS movement against that same university and all of Israel. This is as neat a disproof of the academic BDS stand as one could wish for. BDSers should boycott Barghouti and the BDS movement he leads, if they want to be consistent.)

      Israel’s strong liberal democracy is affirmed by all authoritative experts. It has long had the only rating as a “Fully Free” democracy in the entire Middle East from Freedom House, a detailed assessment and rating repeated by the State Department and CIA annual global reviews of human rights, The Economist, and confirmed also by descriptions of Israel in the Encyclopaedia Britannica and other authoritative encyclopaedias.

  2. Squarely Rooted January 12, 2014 at 10:35 am | #

    It occurs to me that there are really two questions here.

    One is a practical question, ie, an active inquiry about limit resources. This is, of course, inherently auto-reductia-ad-absurdum that Tom Scocca and Dylan Matthews quite admirably jointly skewer with this exchange:

    “Why do you think this is harmful in criticism? You point out that Lee Siegel, for instance, has rejected negative reviews, and Isaac Fitzgerald at Buzzfeed Books infamously said he wasn’t interested in posting negative reviews. It seems like the costs of being overly sympathetic to a war that kills thousands of people are fairly high, but the stakes of people reading a crappy novel that they should not read seem somewhat lower.

    Well, that’s true but that’s true of everything. We should really just be talking about Syria for this whole conversation.

    Right, we ought to be talking about malaria.

    Exactly, we should be just talking about public health right now because what does this other stuff amount to?”

    So telling an activist that there are other, worthier causes doesn’t really make sense.

    But there is a different, academic question, which is “why has the Israeli-Palestinian problem generated so much activism and passion?” This question does not presume to persuade anyone to alter their behavior as much as it looks at the social construction of the Israel-Palestinian problem outside the Levant and the way people and institutions have formed around and reacted to it over decades and wonders, why should this be?

    And the answer to that question is complex and challenging to all sides. And certainly it can be asked about all activist responses to social, political, and economic problems. But it should be asked! That’s what inquiry is!

    But using the academic question to shut down activist action is a non-sequitur.

    • Michael Kazin January 13, 2014 at 10:14 am | #

      Corey– I swore, to myself, that I wouldn’t write any more about the ASA boycott. But this post of yours makes no sense. I and many other critics of Israel favor a boycott of all Israeli settlements and businesses that operate on land captured in the 1967 war. This is hardly “nothing.” Meanwhile, the ASA has lost all credibility as a scholarly organization by boycotting Israeli universities, which are bastions of free speech and full of people who oppose the horrible policies of their government.

      • Corey Robin January 13, 2014 at 10:22 am | #

        Michael: I was explicitly focused on the logic of your argument. As I said, the logic leads to a critique of any action that singles out Israel. So you say you favor a boycott of the settlements; your opponents will say — as they have indeed said — why are you singling out Israel? China’s policies in Tibet are as bad if not worse than Israel’s settlements policies. And having yourself raised the “why single out Israel” argument, you will have no principled basis for taking exception to it in this case. You can’t cherry pick your arguments, using them when they serve your position and discarding them when they don’t.

        As for the ASA losing all credibility…academia (and the world beyond that) is a big tent. I understand that certain scholars feel like the ASA has lost credibility, but there are other academics who believe it has gained credibility.

        As for Israeli universities being bastions of free speech and filled with opponents of the Israeli government, I’ve already dealt with that argument here.

      • hophmi January 13, 2014 at 1:02 pm | #

        ” It is an argument that applies not only to an academic boycott of Israel but also to any statement or action against the State of Israel.”

        I agree with Mr. Kazin; this makes little sense. When we say Israel is being singled out, we are not talking about any particular criticism, but about the intensity of the campaign against it. Many countries are regularly criticized. However, they are not the subject of intense boycott, divestment and sanctions campaigns by the left.

        “China’s policies in Tibet are as bad if not worse than Israel’s settlements policies. ”

        Yes, they are, and they are criticized by international human rights organizations. We never said that Israel was above criticism. We said that the full-fledged BDS and demonization campaign is quite unique.

        “You can’t cherry pick your arguments, using them when they serve your position and discarding them when they don’t.”

        That’s exactly how I feel about people who argue that Israel should be the target of a BDS campaign because it doesn’t respect international law, but that, despite the fact that many countries respect international law much less, they should not be similarly targeted.

        And this “we gotta start somewhere” stuff. That’s another thing. I can’t imagine Carlos Marez accepting that argument if a law enforcement agency made it about narcotics trafficking or ICE made it about immigration.

        “Hey, drug trafficking is against the law, and these minorities are breaking the law.”

        “White people break the law too, but you hardly ever arrest them.”

        “Hey, you gotta start somewhere.”

        “Hey, we have lots and lots of illegal immigrants in this country.”

        “But you’re targeting Hispanics and Pakistanis.”

        “Hey, we gotta start somewhere.”

        You can’t cherry pick your arguments.

        “As for Israeli universities being bastions of free speech and filled with opponents of the Israeli government, I’ve already dealt with that argument here”

        OK Corey. I think that’s a great example of cherry picking. As I said there, the notion that because not enough professors signed an email petition, Israel should the subject of an academic boycott is, is bizarre, and without question, anti-free speech and anti-academic freedom.

        I illustrated there that the position was at best hypocritical, since the inequalities we see in American education vis-a-vis African-Americans, who in at least one recent freshman class in Brooklyn College, represented less than one-third the number of African-Americans in the general population of Brooklyn and face, by every measure, massive inequality in the public school system, are in many cases worse than those of Palestinians in Israel, a population that, unlike African-Americans, have not tried particularly hard to assimilate in Israeli society, and a population where cultural norms often militate against sending women into higher education. And just last year, the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act. And we still have more black men in jail than in college in this country.

        That’s not even engaging in an international comparison of how minority or otherwise disadvantaged ethnic populations fare in other societies, like, for instance, the Dalits of India, which we’ve been hearing about over the past few weeks by way of the diplomatic scandal. Oh, ha, ha, wait, we’ve actually barely heard a word about the Dalits in weeks, since the media has chosen to focus almost exclusively on the diplomatic scandal, and forgot about the fact that India systematically treats Dalits as an underclass, which should have been the story since day one.

        Just look at this latest BDS campaign, which Mondoweiss highlighted today, to boycott Hebrew University’s Oral History Conference. The keynote speaker is a Palestinian-Israeli professor who will be speaking on “Oral history as a source for history of the Nakbah: The survival of Palestinians in Israel as a case study.”

        Of course, that part was not in USCACBI’s call to boycott.

      • Everett Benson January 16, 2014 at 10:47 am | #

        You give too much to your interlocutors, Michael. No boycott of Israel is justified, of any sort. I have given reasons for that in other posts. However, here I want to deal with Corey Robin’s attempt to justify BDS on the grounds that without it nothing can actually be done to improve Israel’s situation and that of her enemies. I cannot “Reply” to her post below, since no link is provided to do that, so I respond here.

        Corey’s plaint is without foundation. There is a very great deal that activists can do to improve Israel’s situation and that of the Arabs in Israel, and the Palestinians in the P.A. territories. First of all, they can acknowledge that Israel faces existential threats to its very existence, and that pursuing a BDS agenda aims at Israel’s annihilation, which is not a constructive path of action to put it mildly. BDS is not a positive contribution to the Arab-Israeli conflict but a wholly negative one. It enhances and attempts to justify the war aims of Israel’s enemies, so the hoped-for results of the BDS campaign include, inevitably, lots of Jewish corpses and the hideous triumph of murderers. It is therefore a very odd position for any decent person to take, let alone a Jewish person who professes a love for the Jewish people. With its goal to isolate Israel and turn it into a pariah state, it only encourages war by its enemies and desperate and violent responses from Israel that cannot benefit Palestinians. One thing is sure, Israel will not go down without a fight; there is nothing like the demoralisation of the society that BDSers wish for.

        Secondly, activists can definitely advance the cause of peace by protesting publicly the hate-incitement and praise of violence that is rampant in Palestinian culture. That is the root cause of the constant belligerency of the Palestinians down through the decades, even when, as in Gaza, Israel totally withdraws from their territory. So the settlements are not the cause of the warfare and enmity. As an example of the sort of hate-incitement activists can organize rallies and conferences to address, there should be protest of the official position of the Palestinian Authority leadership that there are no Jewish holy sites anywhere in the Holy Land. According to Yasser Arafat and the official P.A. leaders today, Jewish claims for example that the Western Wall and the Temple Mount are Jewish holy sites, Rachel’s Tomb, and the Cave of Machpelah, etc., as well, are all false, merely Jewish “hoaxes” and “Zionist inventions.” This not only delegitimates any Jewish links to the land and therefore the Jewish state itself, but also the Bible itself and the religion of Judaism — and Christianity, since the Bible they share makes crystal-clear that all of these sites are indeed holy due to their Jewish connection. When such mammoth hate-incitement is rejected by the world, the Palestinians will finally understand that they must come to terms with the reality of a Jewish state, and so there will for the first time really be a hope for peace for both peoples.

        The improvement of Palestinian conditions would be best advanced by protesting actively against the treatment of women there, as in “honor-killings,” the imprisonment, torture and even murder of reporters and political critics, the syphoning off of “refugee aid” into Swiss bank-accounts by Fatah and other leaders, the removal of rights of employment, freedom of residence, and even citizenship within the P.A. itself from the “Palestinian refugees” cooped up in “refugee camps” who are dependent solely on international aid to survive. Those actions would directly improve the living conditions, rights and lives of Palestinians. There is therefore plenty that Corey could do to make a real difference for the better.

  3. Dan Floros January 14, 2014 at 4:24 pm | #

    A short history of the “Why Single Out…” argument:

    “Why single out the Nazis at Nuremberg? Hell, Stalin was bad, too.” -1946

    “Why single out Vlad the Impaler? Hell, Genghis Khan was bad, too.” -1465

    “Why single out Og for throwing rock? Gorrack, Bor, and Folkor throw rock, too.” -10,563 B.C.E.

    While every student taking philosophy 101 grapples with a version of this basic argument in their section on ethics, the answer is simpler than it appears. In my view, there are really two questions: 1., does criticizing one bad actor but not other, similarly bad actors invalidate the criticism, and 2., does criticism lose moral suasion commensurate with the hypocrisy or bad motive of the critic. I would suggest that the answers are no, and yes, respectively. Thus, while any given argument against Israel’s behavior may or may not be factually, logically, and morally sound, when such arguments spew forth from, say, the Saudi monarchy, it is only natural to roll one’s eyes and mutter, “oh, that’s rich coming from them.”

    Epistemologically speaking, this is bad reasoning. No matter how evil the critic, the fact value of his claims should stand or fall on their own. However, our evolved psychology of fairness, trust, and social cooperation dictate otherwise. The compilers of John’s Gospel understood this well, in Jesus’ admonishment to stone-throwing sinners.

    • Everett Benson January 16, 2014 at 10:15 am | #

      I am afraid that Dan Floros’s Philosophy 101 arguments do not win him a passing grade. They beg the very question he supposes they answer. His premise of equivalences in evil is not demonstrated, only asserted. So the conclusion does not follow. As a matter of fact Israel is not equivalent to the Nazis or the Soviets, nor to Vlad the Impaler or Genghis Khan, etc. The fundamental and inhumane demonization of the BDSers is the false premise underlying the whole house of cards built by their advocates. Israel is, as pointed out above, and as confirmed by authoritative studies and surveys, the only liberal democracy in the Middle East. Its effort to preserve liberal rights and freedoms for all its citizens is sincere and sometimes heroic considering the actual context of constant wars and terrorism from extremely cruel and authoritarian neighbours right across its borders on every side, closely linked by kinship, culture and religion with a restive minority within its borders that Israel treats extremely well under the circumstances. Neither does it endorse genocide of any population as do its Palestinian and other neighbours, along with the Nazis, Soviets, or Genghis Khan. The claim that it does is fantasyland stuff. So his argument is based on major falsehoods in terms of “fact value,” ignores context, and shows a fundamental category mistake in logic, putting Israel in with examples that are actually only similar or comparable to its enemies.

      A good example of the fantasyland mentality of BDSers is that they like to claim that Israel badly mistreats its Arab citizens, but polls indicate that a heavy majority of Israeli Arabs actually like living in Israel and do not want to be under the rule of a “Palestine” state. It would be much worse for them there, in their own opinion. This emerged into the public eye recently when there was a strong Israeli Arab protest at the proposal by Foreign Minister Liberman that the borders of the state be redrawn to enclose Jewish-settled areas of the West Bank and to put into the future “Palestine” state certain entirely Arab-settled areas of present Israel. All of a sudden there was reference to a 2007 poll which showed that more than 70% of Israeli Arabs are opposed to being included in “Palestine.” Year after year other polls, such as the Israel Democracy Index, show that between roughly 40 to 53% of Israeli Arabs are “proud” of being Israeli, and majorities, ranging in 2012 from 78% for Israel’s judiciary to 62% for her police and 51% for the parliamentary system, affirm the reliability and goodness of Israel’s judiciary, police, and parliamentary system.

      Strikingly, a Pechter survey done in 2011 for the U.S. Council of Foreign Relations poll of East Jerusalem Palestinians showed that
      a plurality of them wanted Israeli citizenship rather than citizenship in “Palestine,” and 40% indicated that they would be willing to move to another neighbourhood in Jerusalem to be included in Israel. 54% said that if their neighbourhood was assigned to Israel, they would not move from it. Claims of BDSers of “apartheid Israel” cannot be reconciled with these poll results.

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