The Oldest Democracy in the Middle East

February 16, 2011 by

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It looks like Israel’s slogan, “the only democracy in the Middle East,” will need to soon be replaced. Successful in the corridors of Washington and in much of American public opinion, this claim – with all its truth about life within the Green Line – didn’t work in some corners of the world when it was viewed in the context of Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians.

Israel’s democracy is messy. Personally, I have strong feelings about Israel not really being a secular democracy and I am pained by the infringements on civil rights that stem from Israeli law not allowing for state marriages that are not performed by its official very right-wing Orthodox rabbinate.

But whose democracy is not messy? In last week’s New York Times opinion page, columnist Bob Herbert painted a picture of American democracy that called upon our leaders to wake up to our own disenfranchisement of the majority of Americans in the political process lest popular uprising begins to take root here (“When Democracy Weakens,” Feb 11).

But if Israel is no longer “the only democracy in the Middle East,” then, perhaps, it should now call itself “the oldest democracy in the Middle East,” and it should take some credit for democratic wave spreading across the region.

In the summer of 2003, I participated in a Jewish human rights organization’s tour of the West Bank. I had never been to Arab areas in the West Bank and this tour would grant me access. Moreover, the tour included meetings with Jewish residents of settlements, and so I would be able to get greater insight into the whole complicated picture of the “territories.”

During that trip we met Palestinians who live in caves in the Hebron hills. There is a quite an interesting story about how these Palestinians ended up in these caves. Suffice it to say, the caves offer amazing protection: they are indistinguishable from the hillside. The caves are quite spacious, areas are sectioned off, and the dwellers have managed to bring in electricity. It’s not ideal.

When we met with the man who lived in one of these caves, this was his message: I hear all the time on Israeli radio about Israel being a democratic country – I want that too, I want to live in a democratic country, and I want to feel Israel’s commitment to democracy in my life here in this territory.

As the “oldest democracy in the Middle East,” Israel is showing the Arab world the economic benefits of democracy: global successes for its industries, and a relatively high standard of living for its middle class. As a positive role model, as the champion of democratic values, Israel has made its mark.

No one yet knows the outcomes of the events of Egypt. But I wish Israel’s official reactions to Egypt contained more about its belief in the good of democracy for the whole world and wanting to be a partner in advancing that cause within and beyond its borders.

For the last 10 years, Israeli Arabs have been calling their government on its failures to apply democracy equally across society. The Palestinian Authority, too, is behaving more democratically. In my opinion, Israel’s inward focus on “Jewish-democratic,” has drawn attention away from its involvement in promoting democracy as a vehicle for more global citizens to aspire to the basic right of human dignity. A respected and thriving Israel depends on not becoming a victim of its own success.

As Natan Sharansky suggested: “Maybe this is the moment to try to put our trust in freedom.”


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