Thursday, February 19, 2009

What Israeli identity crisis?

Selwyn Freeman
February 18, 2009

The Times' Feb. 14 editorial, "Israel’s identity crisis," is unfair to Israel. In particular, the editorial's questioning of Israel's ability "to be both a Jewish state and a democratic state" is patently absurd. The suggestion that these objectives are mutually exclusive simply has no basis in reality.. Israel was established with the aim of extending civil rights to all of its people (not just Jews). For the most part, despite ongoing threats from neighboring Arab and Muslim states, Israel has successfully realized this ambition. As The Times correctly states, Israeli Arabs "vote in free elections, criticize the government and run for public office, privileges denied to many of their brethren elsewhere in the region."

This is not to say that Israeli Arabs have been completely happy with their treatment by Israel. In this regard, The Times explores whether Israeli government aid for the Arab population has been as generous as for the Jewish population. However, the editorial fails to consider ways in which Israeli Arabs benefit to the exclusion of Israeli Jews. For example, male Arabs are generally exempted from Israel's three-year military service requirement and ongoing reserve military training that is generally imposed on the male Jewish population (a small proportion of Israeli Arabs do in fact volunteer for military service). Among other obvious benefits, this exemption allows Arab men to begin their careers or university studies three years ahead of their Jewish countrymen.

The suggestion by The Times that Israel's status as a democracy conflicts with the socioeconomic differences between Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews or the call by some politicians for loyalty oaths (which American schoolchildren recite every day) is ridiculous. There are a number of groups in the United States that are generally poorer than, say, white Protestants. Does The Times believe that the United States' democratic credentials should be in dispute? Moreover, there are Western countries that have actually enacted discriminatory policies. For example, the monarch of Britain must be a Protestant and cannot marry a Roman Catholic. Does The Times believe that Britain's status as a democracy should be called into question?

The Times acknowledges that "Arabs in Israel are growing more radical, more identified with the Palestinian national movement, and that many are more sympathetic with Hamas than in the past." But The Times goes on to argue that "weakening the country's democracy is not the solution" without providing any evidence that Israel is in fact doing this. The Hamas charter openly calls for Israel's destruction and allows for coexistence among people of different religions only under the rule of Islam, so Arab Israeli citizens who support Hamas are actually supporting religious intolerance and the destruction of their own state. Can one imagine the response by the United States if American Muslims were to begin waving Al Qaeda banners and openly advocating the destruction of the United States and the murder of non-Muslim Americans? Israel's forbearance in the face of similar provocation is quite amazing.

Perhaps most unjustified is The Times' assertion that "the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza ... would ease the pressure between Jews and Arabs everywhere." At Camp David in 2000, Israel offered the Palestinians a sovereign state in virtually all of the West Bank and Gaza. Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat refused this offer and later launched a new round of terrorism against Israel. Many have argued that this indicated that the Palestinians do not want a state side by side with Israel but, rather, a state in place of Israel. The way in which the Palestinians under Hamas have used the Gaza Strip as a launching pad for violence since Israel's unilateral withdrawal in 2005 seems to confirm this. Given the egregious human rights violations in Gaza and in much of the Arab and Muslim world (to which alleged Israeli mistakes pale in comparison), perhaps a better question for The Times would be if it's possible to be an Arab or Muslim state and a democracy.

Ultimately, the suggestion that Israeli Arabs are somehow oppressed by Israel is belied by the fact that the vast majority continue to choose to make their lives in Israel. This is no great surprise given that, unlike Arab and Muslim nations, Israel is a Western-style democracy that extends civil rights to all of its citizens and has a relatively high standard of living. The fact that Israel has been able to achieve this in spite of its neighbors' hostility is a tremendous accomplishment.

Selwyn Freeman is a barrister and solicitor of the Supreme Court of Victoria and the High Court of Australia.

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