The Saudi-Israeli Double Standard

When the Israelis did exactly this in Gaza last year, there was plenty of indignation to be heard in and around the academy, despite the fact that the Israeli military action took place during the middle of the summer:

The Saudi escalation over the last few days had drawn sharp criticism from human rights groups as well as the United Nations. Saudi officials told residents of Saada on Friday to leave the area and declared the entire province a military zone.

In a statement on Saturday, Johannes van der Klaauw, the United Nations humanitarian coordinator, said the threats against Saada had “put countless civilians at risk.”

“The indiscriminate bombing of populated areas, with or without prior warning, is a contravention of international humanitarian law,” he added.

Mr. Saleh’s residence in Sana sits in a densely populated area, and near large shopping malls. Several airstrikes hit his compound overnight and early Sunday, slightly injuring a grandson and a brother-in-law of Mr. Saleh’s and two other people, according to people close to the former president who asked not to be named to discuss what happened.

For some reason, when the Saudis do the same thing–bomb indiscriminately within a declared military zone–there’s less comment, at least from the academy (though note the comment of the United Nations, which contradicts the usual pro-Israeli propaganda that Israel is the only country singled out for criticism by the UN). The usual explanation for the scrutiny of Israeli military actions is that as Americans (or Europeans) we’re complicitous in what the Israelis do, given the degree of military and economic support we provide them. But exactly the same thing applies to the Saudis. The degree of support may differ, but the difference makes little difference.

It won’t be easy for the US to distance itself from the Saudis, given our addiction to their oil, and our delusion that their absolute-totalitarian monarchy guarantees regional stability. I doubt we’ll hear anything useful from the academic departments in this country and elsewhere that are funded by Saudi sources. But it’s time to contemplate the idea of some equivalent of Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions from Saudi Arabia, which deserves it more than Israel does. The idea seems to have been contemplated here and there, but not in any sustained way.

So far, the best idea I’ve heard comes from my father:

I won’t do hajj in Saudi Arabia until they turn Mecca and Medina over to a responsible private entity that knows how to engage in crowd control, like the Disney Corporation. I don’t intend to give the Saudi kings my money for any reason, much less in the name of God.

Postscript, May 16, 2015: Some interesting and relevant material I’ve encountered, since writing this post.

(1) “Israel Says Hezbollah Positions Put Lebanese at Risk” (New York Times, May 13):

Effectively, the Israelis are warning that in the event of another conflict with Hezbollah, many Lebanese civilians will probably be killed, and that it should not be considered Israel’s fault.

“The civilians are living in a military compound,” a senior Israeli military official said at military headquarters in Tel Aviv, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was discussing delicate intelligence matters.

The situation mirrors the one that the Saudis are confronting in Yemen (discussed in the original post).

(2) “Israeli Demolition Plan for Bedouin Village Sparks Outcry” (New York Times, May 14):

After years of legal battles, Israel’s Supreme Court last week cleared the way for the government to uproot the nearly 60-year-old Bedouin Arab village of Umm al-Hiran, a dusty hill of ramshackle dwellings without proper electricity or water hookups, and in its place build “Hiran,” a new community seemingly catering to Jews that is expected to feature a hotel and country club.

NB: Umm al Hiran is in Israel proper, not in the Occupied Territories.

At first glance, the Israeli action here seems similar to urban renewal elsewhere (see Matt Faherty’s description of urban renewal in Dharavi, Mumbai, or Martin Anderson’s account of the American version). But scholars like Oren Yiftachel and Maha Samman have argued that the Israeli version involves a systematic form of planning-based “ethnocracy.” Arguably, it resembles our own placement of Native Americans on reservations.

Actions like this, I take it, explain the hostility to Lockean-type conceptions of property on the part of Palestinian political theorists and activists I’ve met: if from an Israeli perspective the Bedouins are “wasting” their holdings, they lose their entitlement to them (cf. Locke’s Second Treatise, para. 31.7-15). Put another way, Bedouin property seems to be regarded as “blighted” in a way that justifies urban renewal with an offer of compensation (cf. Berman vs. Parker [1954]). (Richard Epstein’s discussion of urban renewal is worth consulting in this context: Takings, pp. 178-80).

(3) “Campus Debates on Israel Drive a Wedge Between Jews and Minorities” (New York Times, May 10): a much discussed piece on tensions arising from the successes of BDS on American college campuses. Here are the letters responding to it. Here’s the Public Editor’s discussion. A broader view of the divestment issue. Divestment is voted down at Princeton.

(4) The controversy over Ayelet Shaked, Israel’s Justice Minister-designate, and apparently, a fan of Ayn Rand: Criticism from Ha’aretz. A profile from The New York Times. Electronic Intifada, with a translation of her incendiary Facebook post (later taken down). I don’t know Hebrew, and can’t vouch for the accuracy of the translation; its accuracy has been disputed (by Shaked). [Just to clarify: she didn’t write the post; she re-posted it, with evident approval of its claims.]

(5) Back to the Saudis: The Saudis are unhappy that we aren’t willing to go to war with Iran to defend their kingdom. Meanwhile, the Pakistanis, while assuring the Saudis of their support in principle, have voted not to send troops to defend them against the Houthis. Meanwhile, the Saudis inform us that they expect better of Pakistan. Frankly, I hadn’t expected so much. The (imperfect) text of the Pakistani resolution. For once, I’m proud of Pakistan.

Postscript, May 30, 2015: It turns out that there is a boycott against the United Arab Emirates–or more precisely, against the Guggenheim in the UAE–led by an organization called the Gulf Labor Artist Coalition. This boycott doesn’t seem much different in goal or rationale from the academic-cultural boycotts of Israel that are so bitterly condemned as evidence of anti-Semitism. It certainly contradicts the claim that Israel is unique in being “singled out” for boycott.

I just happened to read about this boycott in an Op-Ed in yesterday’s New York Times, and haven’t had the chance to study it. I’m curious as to whether the author of the the Op-Ed can be construed as supporting or calling for a boycott himself. He doesn’t quite come out explicitly in favor of the Gulf Labor Artist boycott, but he certainly supports its aims. He also seems informally to be censuring NYU, the Guggenheim, and the Louvre; does that amount to a call for a boycott until they change their policies? I’m not sure.

The question is relevant in virtue of the stance taken by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), which holds–puzzlingly, in my view–that there is a fundamental difference in kind between the sort of censure that the AAUP makes of institutions that fail to satisfy its strictures on academic freedom, and boycotts of the sort recommended by BDS and (I take it) the Gulf Labor Artist Coalition.

Martha Nussbaum has (to my mind unconvincingly) tried to flesh out the argument in a 2007 article in Dissent, “Against Academic Boycotts.” “Censure,” she claims (by contrast with boycotts), “does nothing to diminish the academic freedom or access of individuals: professors teaching at censured universities are actually helped in their attempt to secure their rights, and in the case of government-directed censure, academics and citizens generally are not affected at all.”

Contrary to Nussbaum, I don’t see how either censure or boycotts violate anyone’s freedom. In claiming that boycotts violate freedom, she seems to be presupposing a rather idiosyncratic conception of freedom; I’d be curious to know which one she has in mind, who has defended it, and where. Both censure and boycotts can diminish access, depending on the (highly contingent) consequences that arise from them.

Again, contrary to Nussbaum, if censure damages an institution’s reputation (which seems to be its purpose), the damage might affect enrollments, which might in turn affect whether or not the institution stays open. Having your institution closed certainly affects an individual’s “access” to the job that they had there.

Once again, contrary to Nussbaum, professors teaching at censured universities are not helped in securing their rights if they think that the censure was unjustified and if the censure damages the reputation of the institution. In that case, rights aside, they’ve been dealt with unjustly and/or harmed.

Finally, in the case of government-directed censure, the censure takes place in the name of every citizen. Some citizens may reject the basis of censure, and are certainly affected by a government that wrongheadedly directs censure in their name. So the case of government-directed censure turns on the justifiedness of the censure. When Narendra Modi was barred from entering the U.S., it seems obvious that the people who invited him here to speak were affected by the ban: they couldn’t hear him speak (at least in person). Likewise in the case of Tariq Ramadan: Notre Dame invited him to teach, but its expectations were adversely affected by his not being allowed into the country. I regarded (and regard) the Modi ban as justified and the Ramadan ban as unjustified, but in both cases, it seems obvious that citizens were affected by them.

In any case, I hope to blog on this and related issues sometime this summer.

12 thoughts on “The Saudi-Israeli Double Standard

  1. Point taken, but perhaps one reason why there isn’t so much outcry against Saudi Arabia among academics in the U.S. is that there is not a tremendous contingent of American citizens spending a lot of money to promote a vision of their government as a respectable democracy that is merely defending itself against a horde of barbaric terrorists who want to destroy them out of nothing more than sheer hatred for their very existence. I, for one, don’t find myself thinking about human rights violations in Saudi Arabia so often as I do about the same things in Israel in large part because my Facebook feed, for example, is never flooded with people trying to rationalize the Saudi government’s behavior. The propriety of U.S. support for Saudi Arabia also seems less controversial; which is to say, hardly anybody promotes the view that the Saudis are a valuable ally who uphold American values in the region; even defenders of U.S. support for them largely concede that it is driven by strategic and economic interests, whereas support for Israel is more controversial in part because a large number of people defend it on moral grounds. These aren’t intended to tell against your claims here; as I said, point taken. But the difference seems more readily intelligible to me as a product of the discursive context than as an expression of hypocrisy or a genuine double standard.


    • Point taken on my end as well, but I still think that hypocrisy/double standards explain a great deal of the reluctance to criticize Saudi Arabia in the academy, especially by the people most vocal about attacking Israel. And I say that as someone partial to the “D” element of BDS against Israel.

      Let’s imagine, ex hypothesi (and falsely), that Israel and Saudi Arabia were equally morally problematic countries. Then, ceteris paribus, on your view what differentiates the two cases is this:

      1. Large numbers of Americans defend Israel in moralistic terms.
      2. Those who defend Israel do so very visibly, loudly, and vocally.

      But the difference between the Israeli and Saudi case then just amounts to this:

      3. Small numbers of extremely influential Americans defend Saudi Arabia in amorally Machiavellian terms, treating moral considerations as though they were irrelevant, and treating the strategic issues as themselves unworthy of debate.
      4. Those who defend Saudi Arabia do it very quietly, on the down low, to avoid scrutiny of any kind.

      I’ll can come back and offer support for (3) and (4) later if you want, but for now, for simplicity’s sake, just accept them ex hypothesi. If (3) and (4) were true (as I think they are), wouldn’t we expect American academics to see through the charade and attack Saudi Arabia anyway? Wouldn’t we expect them to moralize what the Saudis and their American lobbying allies had turned into an amoral exercise in Machiavellian manipulation? After all, if AIPAC suddenly decided to roll back its visibly high octane moralism, and began to peddle its influence in the Saudi manner, it’s not as though critics of Israel would suddenly quiet down. They would go on the hyper-alert, raging against Israel’s back-room lobbying, in just the way is done with, say, the NRA or corporate interests when they employ those methods. The pro-Israel crowd would then play the “Jewish conspiracy” card, and Israel’s critics would cry foul (as happens anyway).

      Now consider that we’re talking about American academics here. These are people capable of moralizing any hitherto non-moral form of discourse, e.g., people who can manage to get their knickers in a twist about whether it’s unfair for some parents to read to their children when other parents don’t, or whether corporations are wiping out the bees, or exactly what counts as a racial micro-aggression, or whether we should all be vegetarians or vegans, or how exactly we should verbally check our privilege when it’s time to check it, etc. How is it that those have become moral issues but Saudi Arabia’s strategic arguments for getting US support have not?

      Or if those examples are too distant, just go back to the Cold War. In the 1980s, right wing Cold Warriors characteristically argued that moral judgment was irrelevant to the assessment of our right-wing anti-communist allies (e.g., Pinochet, Zia ul Haq, PW Botha, etc.) The overriding imperative was strategic: we had to contain Soviet power, and our right wing allies may have been sons-of-bitches, but they were our anti-communist sons-of-bitches, which made it OK to support them. I specifically remember the argument against divestment from apartheid South Africa: South Africa’s chromium deposits were essential to our anti-Soviet efforts; we couldn’t afford to alienate the apartheid regime and risk jeopardizing our access to South African chromium, itself essential to the nation’s defense. So it was either chromium or morality (the right told us), and cold hard chromium beat soft squishy anti-apartheid sentiment any day.

      Leftist academics saw through these rationalizations. They pointed out, correctly, that the strategic claims were often inflated, and that even if they were accurately stated, no policy decision was immune from moral judgment. The strategic gains had to figure in a moral calculus where “non-strategic” (or supposedly non-strategic) considerations weighed in the balance. The first Bush’s argument in favor of war against Iraq (in 1990) was an argument of the amoral realpolitik type: it was about “oil” and “jobs” and so on. That didn’t stop the (mostly left) academy from protesting. (It didn’t stop me from protesting.)

      Now fast forward to the present, from the 2000s on. Somehow, Saudi Arabia seems immune to the usual polemical-activist considerations. We can moralize micro-aggressions, but we can’t moralize theocratic totalitarianism. We can see through the South African arguments for chromium deposits, but not through Saudi arguments for oil deposits–in a climate of opinion that runs against the use of fossil fuels! Worse yet, when the Saudis offer Harvard and Georgetown millions of dollars to fund academic research on Islam–an Islamic theocracy funding academic research on Islam–little is said in the way of protest. When it comes to Saudi money, academics happily take the checks, cash them, spend the money, and expect more to come. And it does. Louder complaints are made about the Koch Brothers or BB&T than about the House of Saud.

      But now back to the Israeli-Saudi comparison. In fact, contrary to my opening assumption, I don’t think Israel and the Saudis are morally equivalent. Whatever is wrong with Israel (a great deal), Israel proper is a democracy with a vocal (really, heroic) left that has worked hard to defend an anti-racist agenda, civil and procedural rights, and room for autonomous moral judgment and dissent. Setting aside the Occupied Territories and East Jerusalem, Israeli Arabs are citizens, and can make use of their citizenship to advance their agenda.

      There’s nothing comparable in Saudi Arabia: no concept of citizenship, much less minority citizenship; no room for dissent about anything of substance; no genuine rule of law or protection of rights. Though Palestinians rightly complain about the way the Israelis administer Jerusalem, having been to both Jerusalem and Mecca, I can say without hesitation that there really is no comparison between Israeli administration of Jerusalem and Saudi administration of Mecca. As a non-Jew, I was able to enter the courtyard of the Western Wall in Jerusalem without any problem (though not permitted to go up to the Wall itself). Meanwhile a non-Muslim would be shot for trying to enter the city limits of Mecca. Hamas regularly holds rallies inside the Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. A comparable rally (of Zionists?) would be unimaginable anywhere in Saudi Arabia. I could go on, but my point is, considering how much worse Saudi Arabia is than Israel, it’s amazing how little is said in criticism of the Saudis.

      Incidentally, Saudi Arabia isn’t the only instance of the double standard. Much more is said about the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories than the Indian occupation of Kashmir or the Chinese occupation of Tibet. Both India and China have active lobbies in the US (and increasingly positive PR), similar to and different from the Israeli and Saudi ones in various ways. I think it’s unfortunate that so much attention is focused on Israel and so little on these other cases.


  2. I don’t think there’s any way around your conclusion, but I’m still resistant to the thought that a deep double standard is really at work here rather than other sorts of considerations. For one thing, as you emphasize, Israel is a democracy with basically decent laws. To my mind, at least, it seems more worth actively criticizing precisely for that reason, because there is a possibility that the criticism will actually affect how things go; it wouldn’t make sense to pass a worse judgment on it than on Saudi Arabia, but it would make sense to devote more time and energy to criticism, because criticism from Western academics is very unlikely to change anything in Saudi Arabia, but might actually make a difference in Israel. Now, obviously that sort of consideration wouldn’t justify having nothing to say about U.S. support for Saudi Arabia, but are academics really so silent about that? My assumption was that most academics on the left (the academic version of the left) regarded it as a prime symptom of much that is wrong with our hyper-technologized consumer capitalist society; we support them only because we want their oil for cheap and because they are useful as allies against other states and groups that are hostile to us for reasons mostly having to do with our economically driven interference with them. I certainly haven’t seen any evidence that academics on the left try to avoid the topic, let alone defend the Saudi government or U.S. policy towards it. It may well be that they don’t give it enough attention and that there’s no justification for that, but I wouldn’t expect that many are motivated to be quiet because their institutions receive money from the Saudis. But maybe I’m just naive on that score.


    • I don’t think we need to choose between saying that a double standard is at work and adducing “other sorts of considerations.” They can all be in play, and all help explain different aspects of what needs explanation (namely, relative silence about Saudi Arabia versus relative vociferousness about Israel). I wouldn’t say that double standards are the only explanatory factor, merely that they are a significant one. How significant is a further question, and hard to pin down.

      Despite Israel’s being a democracy (within its pre 1967 borders), I don’t think our ability to change either Israeli or Saudi policy is the relevant issue. The relevant issue is changing American policy (and attitudes) vis-a-vis both countries, i.e., scaling back or conditionalizing our support for them, whether or not doing so instrumentally brings about some dramatic policy change in Israel or Saudi Arabia themselves. In fact, neither country’s policies are all that amenable to change by American academics. They’re scarcely amenable to change by the US government, even when it claims to be exerting as much diplomatic “force” on them as it can (or “can”). Israel may be a democracy, but the US government has, despite decades of effort, had almost no influence over Israeli settlement policy. The more we express our “reservations” about settlements, house demolitions, etc., the faster they grow, and have grown. Nor have we (on any interpretation of “we”) induced the Saudis to initiate internal reform.

      Both the Israelis and the Saudis pay lip service to our human rights concerns (as expressed through the US government), then do whatever they like, cashing our checks, giving us their usual sermons, and pretending that we don’t exist. We’re the ones who are constantly in the position of deferring to their sensitivities. It’s not clear whether divestment is literally efficacious, instrumentally considered, in forcing policy change abroad. The jury is out even in the South African case about that. The real point of what I’m suggesting in both the Israeli and the Saudi case is to send a univocal moral message. In Randian terms, a movement for divestment withholds moral sanction from the injustices committed by these regimes. Whether we induce change or not, it gives an indication of where we (or a lot of us) stand. And it makes clear that we’re willing to take a stand.

      So on my interpretation, BDS-Israel is not really about ending the occupation, except as a very remote hope or gamble. It’s about washing our hands of a contribution to the occupation, which is something we actually control. But that motivation applies in an obvious way to the Saudis as well, especially considering the fact that American universities have started accepting Saudi money. Universities that accept Saudi money are conferring moral legitimacy on that regime. At a bare minimum, I would have expected a huge outcry about that, at least on par with the outcry about Koch money or funding for the study of Ayn Rand, etc. The academic left has outsourced the task of protesting the influx of Saudi money to the pro-Israeli/anti-Islamist right. But they see the principle at stake very clearly when it comes to the Koch brothers or BB&T (or Templeton) “buying” Ayn Rand, libertarianism, or religion “a place in the university.” That combination of commitments can be explained lots of ways, but I would insist that it bespeaks some bad faith.

      You ask whether most academics are really so silent about US support for Saudi Arabia. I think they are, and the best evidence of that is the contrast between discourse on Israel and discourse on Saudi Arabia. There’s a lot of the former and little of the latter.

      You say you haven’t seen evidence that academics on the left “try to avoid” criticizing the Saudis. But by definition, evidence that someone is trying to avoid something takes the place of the absence of evidence that they are engaging in the relevant activity. And there is no evidence of sustained criticism of Saudi Arabia in the academy, much less of a movement based on such criticism. Meanwhile, there is ample evidence of an organized movement against Israel, slowly gaining steam, and demanding recognition. As someone who is, in a weak way, part of the latter movement (at least a fellow traveler), I’m the last person to be critical of its existence per se, but when it faces the criticism “Why single out Israel?” I think candor requires members of the movement to say, “Yeah, that’s a mistake. The Saudis deserve at least as much opprobrium as the Israelis, and we should start giving it to them in the way we do with the Israelis.” No one can demand that such a movement come into existence overnight, but a commitment to something like a principle of universalizability demands that we do something to start one up–or at least make preliminary inquiries into its viability.


      • Well, I wholly agree that it is puzzling why Saudi Arabia doesn’t get singled out. But I can’t agree when you say that “by definition, evidence that someone is trying to avoid something takes the place of the absence of evidence that they are engaging in the relevant activity.” At least, if what you mean to say is that evidence that people are not engaging in an activity just is evidence that they’re avoiding it, I think that’s clearly a mistake. You’ll find plenty of evidence that I have not been skiing, reading Russian fiction, volunteering at animal shelters, or criticizing Saudi Arabia; but just as that obviously doesn’t amount to evidence that I’ve been avoiding animal shelters, Russian fiction, or skiing, it doesn’t amount to evidence that I’ve been avoiding criticizing Saudi Arabia either. My attention has just been elsewhere (although, as it happens, given my lack of grace and coordination I would avoid skiing if offered the chance). My personal experience suggests that left-leaning academics don’t make any attempt to hide their negative judgments of Saudi Arabia or U.S. support for them; in fact, it’s something of a topos in criticisms of American “imperialism”: Saudi Arabia is the standard example of our dependence on oil and our willingness to partner with people who openly engage in activities that we otherwise publicly condemn. Human Rights Watch makes no secret about the abysmal state of the country ( and explicitly calls on Obama to push for improvement ( Now, there may be lots of people avoiding the subject, but we can’t reach that conclusion simply by noticing that people aren’t paying much attention to it; not only does that conclusion just not follow, but what evidence we do have suggests that the oppressive and unjust character of Saudi Arabia’s regime is widely acknowledged. I take it that a double standard would involve defending Saudi Arabia when they do the same thing as Israel, not just devoting more attention to Israel (even if there aren’t good reasons to do so). But I don’t see the people who criticize Israel defending Saudi Arabia at all. Maybe I’m looking in the wrong places, but what I see is selective attention, not a double standard.

        It may be immaterial, though, insofar as your point here is that we ought to pay more attention to Saudi Arabia and not focus so exclusively on Israel. I’m down with that.


        • My point wasn’t that any and all non-evidence of an activity is evidence of activity-avoidance per se, but that non-evidence of an activity is evidence of avoidance of that activity in people who claim to promote activity of that kind. Spelled out: If you’re a political activist, and you insist that your activism is motivated not by selective hostility for Israel, but a desire to eradicate those forms of oppression in which citizens of your country are arguably complicit (and you’re the one doing the arguing that they are complicit), then you present a major puzzle when, given the opportunity to take some kind of action against Saudi Arabia (or even call for it in a sustained way), you don’t do so for decades.

          Bear in mind that one of the major BDS arguments is that it’s not enough to acknowledge the injustice of the Israeli occupation; one is obliged to act on that acknowledgment by joining BDS and taking action against the occupation. The failure to do anything–the failure even to give public support to others’ doing anything–casts doubt on one’s sincerity.

          Within limits, I happen to accept that argument. I think it applies both to (many) liberal nominally anti-occupation Zionists and to (many) radical nominally anti-Saudi BDS activists.

          Liberal anti-occupation Zionists: I can’t count the number of defenders of Israel who, when asked about the occupation, will cluck their tongues and shake their heads ruefully, then say, “Yes, the occupation is a terrible, terrible injustice.” That is as much a topos in liberal Zionist circles as criticism of Saudi Arabia is on the left generally. But if you then ask, “So how about taking action against the occupation via BDS?” the response is that BDS is an anti-Semitic movement. “How about encouraging Yesh Gvul, which encourages conscripts in the IDF to refuse service in the occupied territories?” No, can’t do that, either. OK. Well, how about considering some alternative mode of anti-occupation activism? The occupation has been in existence since 1967. Putting aside the Israeli left (which can boast plenty of anti-occupation activism), what have mainstream liberal American Zionists done in a sustained way to campaign against it? The answer is, close to nothing.

          That example isn’t like David Riesbeck’s avoiding/not reading Russian fiction. These are people who claim to be committed to a certain moral value, but whose selective attention takes a systematic form with respect to one specific exemplification of that value over decades (justice with respect to the Israeli occupation), and who carefully exert themselves so as not to be seen as being in solidarity with people who want to exemplify the value in the case at hand. They have no alternative program to offer. All they can say is, “It’s terrible, but don’t expect more than that lip service from us.”

          BDS activists: The BDS activists are in a similar situation from the reverse perspective. Yes, there is a division of labor in political activism, and there are limits to everyone’s capacities for attention and effort in a cause. But BDS itself insists on the principle that if you don’t take action in defense of your stated convictions, that is prima facie evidence of insincerity. They also insist that BDS is one of an integrated set of causes in solidarity with one another. BDS is (or has been) intimately associated with Occupy Wall Street, with the anti-war cause, with the open borders cause (and generally for immigrant rights), with solidarity for Ferguson and against the “New Jim Crow.” How is that they muster so much energy for all of that, but no energy for Saudi Arabia? Some of it may be mere selective attention, but some of it is systematically selective attention, which I see as equivalent to avoidance and double standard.

          As a qualified defender of BDS, my bottom line is this: One of the major criticisms of BDS is that it’s hypocritically selective in its choice of targets. It targets Israel with zeal, but not, say, Saudi Arabia or Pakistan. My view is that instead of fighting or evading this criticism, it should be acknowledged as containing a grain of truth. It should then be neutralized by doing for Saudi Arabia/Pakistan (etc.) what has already been done for, say, Ferguson, Baltimore, and the like. It should be acknowledged as something “linked” to BDS in the same solidaristic way that, say, the critique of racist law enforcement practices is now linked to it. All it would take would be for BDS to say, “Saudi Arabia deserves the same treatment, possibly worse, than Israel,” followed by sincere follow-up.


  3. Pingback: Update: Saudi-Israeli Double Standard | Policy of Truth

  4. “and our delusion that their absolute-totalitarian monarchy guarantees regional stability”

    Can you elaborate on that point? Do you think most high level American foreign policy thinkers consider authoritarianism to be more stable than democracy in the Middle East? In many or most contexts? Albert Speer makes a similar point in a different context in “Inside the Third Reich.”


    • I don’t know about “most,” but it’s a prominent, common view in the American foreign policy establishment. I think the actual reasoning is that in the Middle East, democracy (or any democratic form of populism) frequently leads to Islamism, and Islamism is a form of totalitarianism. The resulting view is that authoritarianism is preferable not to democracy per se, but to the inevitable cycle that leads from democracy to Islamist totalitarianism. And there certainly are examples of that cycle, e.g., Algeria, Egypt, Gaza, and Iran; in a less clear way, Syria, Yemen, and Pakistan. The line of reasoning goes back to Jeane Kirkpatrick’s famous 1979 essay, “Dictatorships and Double Standards.” Actually, Kirkpatrick’s reasoning itself goes back to Mill’s in On Representative Government.

      Context is important, and often ignored. The clear cases of the democracy to Islamism cycle are all different from one another, and different from other sorts of cases. There’s a strong temptation to think (and say), “Democracy led to Islamic totalitarianism in Iran, Algeria, and Gaza, so that’s where it will lead in Pakistan.” But that’s not where it led in Pakistan. Post-Musharraf democracy certainly strengthened the hands of certain Islamist elements in Pakistan. But it also strengthened the hands of the secularists. The cumulative result is unclear.

      Something similar seems to be true of Turkey. The loosening of Ataturk’s brand of authoritarianism seems to have brought an Islamist party to power. But objectionable as Islamism is, it hasn’t turned Turkey into a totalitarian state.

      In a way, however, I regard the preceding debate as irrelevant to Saudi Arabia, because as far as I’m concerned, Saudi Arabia is a totalitarian state, not a merely authoritarian one. Compare Saudi Arabia with, say, Jordan and the contrast becomes clear. I mean, Jordan is pretty bad, but Saudi Arabia is surreal.


  5. Pingback: Update: The Saudi-Israeli Double Standard | Policy of Truth

  6. Pingback: Thinking about BDS (1): Infantilization, ‘Safe Spaces’, and Threats to Discourse | Policy of Truth

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