When we have the good fortune to live in a democracy, we think we owe its institutions, and our fellow-citizens, certain distinctive kinds of respect; and we also think we can hold those institutions and citizens responsible in various kinds of ways for what our democratic polity decides to do. But what about other democracies - do we owe special respect towards their institutions and citizens? And can we make special demands on another country just because it's a democracy? Many people think that the answer to both these questions is yes, and so do I; but what's particularly interesting are the specialized versions of that positive answer which come to the fore when we enter the fevered atmosphere of the debates about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Here are two of the views about democracy that are currently doing the rounds in those debates.
Firstly, some people think that because a country is a democracy, it is vulnerable to certain kinds of pressure which wouldn't work on a non-democratic polity. So it may be legitimate to threaten and punish it in various ways, e.g. by boycotting its institutions, since these threats are likely to work. Democratic governments want to get re-elected, and hence are likely to take into account the views of their electorate, including the people who are getting boycotted. This susceptibility to pressure from below means that a boycott is more likely to be effective when applied to democratic regimes than to dictatorial ones. Furthermore, democratic governments have been voted in by a majority of their citizens, and hence those citizens share responsibility for their government's policies - they're complicit in them in a way that the subjects of a dictatorship, who have no choice, are not. So it's morally fair, as well as effective, to punish those citizens if their government adopts bad policies.
Contrast this view about what we owe to other democracies, and how we may hold their citizens responsible, with a rather different one. On this second view, the fact that a government has been democratically elected gives it a special claim on our support. We have a duty to recognize it, and we shouldn't try to prevent it from carrying out its policies, since these have been democratically endorsed by the relevant electorate. Indeed, if we fail to support such a government, or if we take steps to thwart its policies, we thereby reveal some deficit in our own commitment to democracy.
Guess how these quite different views about the implications of being democratic get distributed across the Israeli-Palestinian divide. Yes, that's right - the first view has been applied only to Israel, and has been used to justify singling it out for boycott; and the second one has been deployed to criticize Western and Israeli refusal to provide aid to Hamas, which, although it's a terrorist and anti-Semitic organization, was democratically elected by the Palestinian population. But really, this distribution could be reversed, couldn't it? There's nothing in the views themselves which tells us which ones should be applied to which polities. So we could, if we wanted, use the first view to justify a boycott of Palestinian institutions because of Hamas's murderous policies, and we could use the second view to demand support and assistance for the Israeli government, indeed for any Israeli government, since they're all democratically elected. Come to think of it, we could use the second view to demand support for the policies of any American government too, though somehow I think that isn't really in the spirit of those who are currently pressing these arguments on us. (Eve Garrard)