A remarkable new survey was released just before President Obama’s visit to Israel. According to the poll,Americans heavily favor the Israelis over the Palestinians, 64 percent vs. 12 percent. This is the highest percentage of support for Israel since the Gulf War in 1991. Israel retains support across age demographics and political affilation, though Republicans had a slighter higher positive view than Democrats.
What accounts for this enormous popularity? Cynics and anti-Semites will say the power of the Israel lobby. They will contend that politicans and the media are bought by what Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel once called the “Jewish lobby.”
The real answer lies in the philosophy and ideals of the Jewish State. Israel is an outpost for democracy in a dangerous world. It is a place whose citizens fight for the freedom we cherish as Americans. As changes continue to transform the MIddle East, leaders in Egypt, Libya, Syria and perhaps, someday, Iran, need to visit Israel. The lessons would be about much more than voting and elected government. That’s the easy part of democracy. The hard part is two-fold.
How Israel Embodies the Hard Parts of Democracy: Part I
First, assuring the protection of minorities. The philosopher and political scientist Lord Acton said, “The most certain test by which we judge whether a country is really free is the amount of security enjoyed by minorities.” Israel has its own problems in meeting this text. Orthodox Jewry retain almost complete control over official religious life in Israel, making Reform and Conservative Jews a disenfranchised minority. Less money is spent on school and facilities in Arab neighborhoods, increasing their vulnerability as minorities.
Yet, metrics in each of these areas are improving. And in principle, if not yet in fact, Israel guarantees freedom of religion and equal rights for minorities. As its Declaration of Independence proclaims, “Israel will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.”
“Rabbi,” you might be saying, “this sounds nice and all, but its not happening.” Yet, we need to remember that Israel is only 64 years old. It took the United States almost 100 years and a bloody Civil War to begin to realize the ideals of our Declaration of Independence, and much work remains to be done.
How Israel Embodies the Hard Part of Democracy Part II
The second part of building democracy in the Middle East is harder still. Embracing meaningful cultural and intellectual dialogue with the West. We live in an interdependent world, and it is growing more so all the time. The emerging countries of the Arab world can learn so much from Israel. As Daniel Gordis put it, countries in the Arab world “will have to acknowledge that the very country that they had once hoped to destroy is the country whose qualities that they should be emulating.” These qualities include, for example, Israel’s openness to the global marketplace of ideas. Israelis travel, learn and have complete access to books and Internet websites from around the world. They express different points of view with relish. In fact, the arguments within our American Jewish community pale in comparison to the disagreements played out every day in Israeli newspapers.
Yes, there are pockets of insularity in the ultra-Orthodox world. But Israel continues — every day — to evolve into an open, diverse and egalitarian culture. One of the members of my synagogue has been involved in supporting anetwork of schools that educate secular and religious students together. Other congregants members are involved with organizations that fund initiatives helping to bring together Arab and Israeli youth.
Democracy has not and will not be easy — not for Israel, for the United States, not for the Arab world. But it never has been. David Ben Gurion once said that in Israel, in order to be a realist, you must believe in miracles. The founders of our country were realists who believed in the miraculous power of democracy. Israel struggles every day to carry on that dream.