Words are cheap, and few in number. And so we are compelled sometimes, by the limitations of vocabulary, to use similar words to describe vastly different situations. In the process, language can confuse more than clarify our reality. It creates false comparisons and moral equivalences, even when the intention is not to mislead.
In the Middle East, we employ the word “moderate” to describe courageous advocates of peace and coexistence but some, at least, use the very same word for Saudi Arabia — a U.S. ally and Iranian adversary — that denies women the right to drive. In the Knesset, right-wingers and left-wingers accuse each other of being “extremists,” but we attach the same label to the murderous regime in Tehran. As Syria disintegrates, we witness “lawlessness” and “cruelty” beyond description, but we toss out these same terms to describe more unfortunate aspects of our own democratic society.
In the same way there is a currency exchange rate that translates the value of currency in one country to its value in another, I sometimes wish there was an exchange rate for words in the Mideast. That way, words like “peace,” and “democracy” could be given a numerical weight based on the context in which they were uttered. When a word like “security” or “justice” is used, it would come with a warning label that the same phrase could reflect very different conceptions and realities.
The truth, of course, is that most of us have a built-in Middle East exchange rate. It acts as a filter when words with the same ostensible meaning are employed. Most of us know that when serious (as opposed to mendacious) critics accuse both Israel and its neighbors of human rights abuses, they cover, with the same vague phrase, situations that fundamentally differ, by multiple orders of magnitude. No fair observer of the Middle East can place Israel on the same moral plane as many of the regimes around it. This fact alone makes the disproportionate attention focused on Israel not just hypocritical but, perhaps more damningly, fundamentally ineffectual.
Given the stark difference between the state of affairs in Israel and the rest of the region, the Middle East exchange rate has many Israelis feeling more contented about our relative situation. Compared to the horrific bloodshed in Syria, the tremors and hostility in Egypt, the hatred spewed by our enemies, the lack of basic freedoms and democratic institutions around us, Israelis have much reason to be proud of the society we have created in such a volatile and democracy-starved neighborhood.
It is not surprising that in this environment, Israel’s critics may be having a harder time being heard. The rejoinder is too easy. Whatever Israel’s failings, it is difficult to make the case that one’s moral passions and outrage should be especially devoted today to shining a light on Israeli conduct, when the massacre of thousands continues in Israel’s northern border.
And here, for all the importance of the Middle East exchange rate, lies the danger for Israeli society. It is common for Israeli spokespeople — and for too many Jews — to be drawn into the tactic of deflecting criticism by pointing out the far graver shortcomings of our neighbors or the moral selectiveness of many of Israel’s harshest critics. These are a common and appealing (though not always effective) part of any warrior’s arsenal in the battlefield of public opinion. But they cannot be a substitute for mature and intelligent self-criticism and reflection within Israel itself or across the Jewish world.
In terms of our hopes for our own sovereign society, we are not in any competition with our neighbors. Reveling too much in our relative moral or national achievements is not worthy of a Jewish tradition that exalts teshuvah and demands an endless striving for excellence. If we are not careful, it can produce self-righteousness and complacency.
The reality of our regional predicament is relevant in assessing how we best advance our values in the face of such danger and hostility. And it can be relevant in engaging in a genuine moral dialogue with Israel’s detractors with some basic reciprocity. But our neighbors’ conduct should not be the metric by which we measure ourselves. A healthy process of self-reflection is needed not because we take seriously the claim that Israel’s record can be fairly compared to its neighbors. It is not an act of self-hating, but of self-loving. It is about — it should only be about — the kind of society, the kind of Jewish state, we want to have.
In this process of growth, we do not need to apply an “exchange rate” because we need not weigh ourselves against the records of our enemies or, for that matter, of our friends. We need only be weighed against the best and noblest of our own aspirations. l
Tal Becker is a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute and an international associate at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.