Words are cheap, and there aren’t enough of them.
We are compelled
sometimes, by the sheer limitations of vocabulary, to use similar words to
describe vastly different situations.
In the process, language can
confuse more than clarify our grasp of reality. It creates false comparisons and
moral equivalences, even when it is not intended to mislead.
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 US ally and Iranian adversary – which denies women the right to
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
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 that
there is an 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 Middle East. That way, words like “peace” and “democracy” could be given
a numerical weight based on the context in which they were uttered. That way,
when a word like “security” or “justice” was used, it would come with a warning
label that the same phrase could reflect very different conceptions and
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
This fact alone makes the disproportionate attention focused on
Israel from some quarters not just hypocritical but, perhaps more damningly,
In fact, given the increasingly 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
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
It is not surprising that in this
environment, Israel’s critics may be having a harder time being
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 to Israel’s northern border.
for all the importance of the Middle East exchange rate, lies the danger for
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 or across the Jewish world.
In terms of our
hopes for our own sovereign society, we are not in any competition with our
Reveling too much in our relative moral or national
achievements is not worthy of a Jewish tradition that exalts teshuva
(“repentance”) 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, of course, 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 neighbor’s 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 an act not 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.
Becker is a senior fellow of the iEngage Project at the Shalom Hartman
Institute. Learn more about iENGAGE at iengage.org.il.