In praise of Israel

Critics should admit their double standard.

Critics should admit their double standard.

It is often said, when Israel is criticised, that it is judged by a different standard from its neighbours. That we hear relatively little in general about the lack of free speech in, say, Egypt or Syria, nor about the thousands of political prisoners in the region (except when it comes to Iran), but that Israel's every move is scrutinised, its motives doubted, and every firing of a shot by one of its armed forces deemed an aggressive act.

This is undoubtedly true – although the "Zionist entity", as presenters used to call it on Saudi television when my family lived in the Gulf in the Eighties, often appears to want as bad a press as it could possibly have. Why else, if you have to build a "security wall" at all, would you build most of it on Palestinian land – an outrageous grab for extra territory that divides and disrupts communities, and which naturally reduces Israel's standing in the eyes of the world?

But are we more vocal about misdeeds such as the above than we were about the quotidian repression and torture practised by Saddam Hussein, for instance, or the status of the Shia minority in Saudi Arabia? Yes, we were and we are. For, however much we may squirm away from saying so bluntly, we in Britain have long regarded Israel as much more like "us" than "them". A country composed to a great extent of people of recent European origin. Consistently, unshakeably, western-orientated (so much so, that it even joined Britain and France in the ill-fated Suez venture). And, above all, a democracy in a sea of dictatorships and absolute monarchies.

If one thinks back to the Sixties and Seventies, there was even more reason for us to feel kinship with Israel. While Europe, whether Social or Christian Democrat, embraced corporatism, dirigisme and various shades of étatisme, Israel elected Labor government after Labor government. This was the Israel that figures such as Daniel Barenboim still recall – one that was secular, socialist, cultured, humane and, I remember from my childhood in the Seventies, greatly admired.

But it is that feeling of similarity, in my view, not an unstoppable tide of resurgent anti-Semitism, that is the main reason why Israel has been portrayed so negatively for so long. The excesses of "others" we judge differently, often more leniently. Those of a friend and relative we view harshly indeed. With Israel, it is as though a continental democracy were to have been complicit in the massacres at Sabra and Shatila in 1982, to have crushed to death in 2003 the American peace activist Rachel Corrie, who was trying to stop a Palestinian home being demolished, to have put into a fatal coma the British photographer Tom Hurndall, shot in the head the same year while he helped Palestinian children cross the street in Rafah, and a voluminous catalogue of other incidents and fatalities in between and since.

All of which makes recent news from Israel at once grave and quite outstandingly impressive. The conviction last week of the country's eighth president, Moshe Katsav, of rape, is described in today's Jerusalem Post as "staining the reputation of Israel and its citizens". But once one passes the initial reaction – of horror that so high and venerated an official could commit such a crime – I would say quite the opposite. As David Harris writes on the Huffington Post: "How many other countries in the Middle East – or beyond – would have tried and convicted an ex-president? This was the case, just last week, with Moshe Katsav, sending the message that no one is above the law – in a process, it should be noted, presided over by an Israeli Arab justice."

It is an astonishing case: terrible for those involved, yes, but one that conveys belief in a quite exceptional level of accountability. Could you imagine such a charge ever being allowed near the courts in America or France? Wouldn't there be some behind-the-scenes fix to spare the establishment's blushes?

Let us not enter an argument about orientalism or relativism here. We do hold Israel to a different standard, and we ought to admit it. So when Israel meets and exceeds that standard, we owe our applause. However dreadful the circumstances of this case, it is an example to the world when a country can state so clearly that no one, not even the highest, is protected from being brought low by justice. Would that there be many more, and many happier, occasions when Israel can fill us once again with such admiration.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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The Tories have missed a chance to show that they care about student debt

After condemning Jeremy Corbyn for his "betrayal", the government has still raised the top student interest rate to 6.1 per cent. 

For weeks, the Conservatives have assailed Jeremy Corbyn for his alleged betrayal over student debt. The Labour leader told NME during the campaign that he would "deal with" the issue. But he later clarified that this did not amount to a "commitment" to wipe out student debt (which would cost around £100bn) and that he had been "unaware of the size of it at the time". For this, the Tories have accused him of Clegg-style hypocrisy. 

There is little sign, however, that the attack has proved effective. Labour’s manifesto said nothing on the subject of student debt and Corbyn's language in the NME interview was ambiguous. "I’m looking at ways that we could reduce that [student debt], ameliorate that, lengthen the period of paying it off," he said. There is no comparison with the Liberal Democrats, who explicitly vowed not to raise tuition fees before trebling them to £9,000 as part of the coalition. Young voters still credit Corbyn for his vow to abolish tuition fees (were he to break this promise in power, it would be a different matter). 

A further problem for the Tories is that they have spotlighted a problem - student debt - without offering any solution. At present, graduates pay a marginal tax rate of 41 per cent on earnings over £21,000 (20 per cent income tax, 12 per cent national insurance and 9 per cent student loan repayment). This, combined with the average debt (£50,800), leaves them struggling to save for a home deposit, or even to pay the rent. The Conservatives, unsurprisingly, are unable to sell capitalism to voters with no capital. 

Yet rather than remedying this problem, the government has compounded it. The Department of Education has ruled out reducing the top interest rate on student loans from 6.1 per cent, meaning the average student will accrue £5,800 in interest charges even before they graduate.

By maintaining the status quo, the Tories have missed a chance to demonstrate that they have learned from their electoral humbling. Had they reduced student debt, or cut tuition fees, they could have declared that while Corbyn talks, they act. Instead, they have merely confirmed that for graduates who want change, Corbyn remains their best hope. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.