Israel turns 67 today. The “old” Israel of the Kibbutz, the farming commune, and the Histadrut, the almighty labor union, the Israel of plucky pioneers and Holocaust survivor-socialists, used to be the Left’s darling, toasted at the Socialist International. If Israel was once unduly romanticized, with no flaws acknowledged, Israel today is unduly demonized, with few virtues recognized by too many critics. Can progressives transcend the politics of the moment today and toast Israel’s historic, liberal, achievements?
Lately, liberals have mourned that “Bibi Netanyahu’s Israel” is no longer their “grandfather’s Israel.” Overlooking such ridiculous reductionism defining 8.35 million free Jewish and Arab citizens by one leader who only earned 1 in 4 votes, let’s admit: nostalgia is a mind-numbing drug. Israel of the 1950s was a tougher, unhappier place, filled with refugees traumatized by the European Holocaust and the Arab expulsion of 800,000 Jews. Until 1966, Israelis Arabs lived under military rule without the democratic rights they exercise today; demonstrated in March when 63.5 percent of eligible Israeli Arabs voted. Unlike today, there was no Palestinian Authority, and, Israel’s consensus did not acknowledge the Palestinians as a people with legitimate rights.
Nevertheless, Israel then was the model developing democracy, epitomizing the best of the post-World War II Asian and African nations. In an age of national liberation, with each new country on its own peculiar nation-building path, the Jewish people’s resurgence through the State of Israel stood out. The story predated the Holocaust, reaching back millennia to the Bible, then jumpstarted in the 1800s when Zionism, meaning Jewish nationalism, was one of many national movements forming, churning, yearning for statehood.
Israel’s Proclamation of Independence rooted this old-new democracy in the Bible. Fusing European- and Muslim-style “ethnic nationalism” with American-style “civic nationalism,” the document affirmed “the self-evident right of the Jewish people to be a nation, as all other nations, in its own sovereign State.” Perhaps Israel’s model could show post-Arab Spring Arab countries how to preserve tradition while nurturing democracy.
The document guaranteed “the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of race, creed or sex.” Israel’s founders recognized the complexity of being an Arab citizen in a Jewish State, with Arab armies and Palestinian irregulars already attacking. But because the Jews are a nation, not just a religion, a Jewish state is not a theocracy and, like other multicultural nation states, can express a majoritarian sensibility culturally while guaranteeing minority rights politically. Note also the rights for women, still missing from America’s Constitution.
Despite wars and terrorism, despite most immigrants coming from undemocratic Middle Eastern and Eastern European countries, Israeli democracy has flourished, miraculously. In the 1950s, Israel accepted 800,000 “Sephardic” refugees expelled by Morocco and Iraq, Algiers and Egypt, as citizens. Despite some, initial, “Ashkenazi” contempt for the immigrants, today, when Americans visit Israeli schools, they see natural, authentic multiculturalism in action.
In the 1960s, Israel’s ruling Labor Party tried delivering social welfare, prosperity, and freedom to its citizens while spreading its democractic socialism to the world. Israel established rich economic, educational, technical, and diplomatic ties with 32 African countries. Tanzania’s president Julius Nyerere called Israel’s female Prime Minister in the early 1970s, Golda Meir, “the Mother of Africa,” but by 1973, the Soviets and Arab had bullied and bribed most African countries to break those ties.
Four years later, in 1977, Israel passed a critical democratic test with a peaceful transition from the ruling Labor Party to the opposition Likud. Under the rightist Likud, Israel signed its first peace treaty with an Arab state, Egypt. Never before had a country that won neighboring land in a defensive war voluntarily returned it for peace. Eventually, Israel made peace with Jordan and made two bold attempts with the Palestinians, including more unprecedented territorial withdrawals, launching the 1993 Oslo Peace Process and the 2005 Gaza Disengagement.
In 1984, “Operation Moses” brought 8,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel. Ultimately, nearly 100,000 Africans arrived, including one mass 34-hour airlift of 14,400 Ethiopian Jews in 34 hours. As Ethiopian Jews integrate, this country frequently branded “racist” is the only Westernized country ever to welcome that kind of voluntary Black African migration.
Today, problems persist, but Israel remains the Middle East’s only multicultural, pluralistic, democracy. The Independence Day ceremonies feature 14 torch-lighters this year, seven men and seven women. Few outsiders watch, making it a useful way of eavesdropping on the country’s conversation with itself about itself. Honorees include: WAZE’s inventor; a supermarket king famous for his low prices in a post-socialist, high-tech economy struggling with high living costs; the founder of Israel Flying Aid, which delivers humanitarian packages to countries in crisis; a female Israeli Arab news anchor; an autistic soldier whose “special needs” give him special skills in seeing details others overlook; one female air force pilot; and one female Talmud teacher crusading for equality among the Orthodox. These beacon-lighters—selected by Netanyahu’s conservative government—serve as a human patchwork quilt illustrating a country far more complex, humane, modern, democratic, and liberal than headlines suggest.
On America’s 67th birthday in 1843, it was 17-years short of the cataclysmic Civil War that would end its great original sin, slavery, and 120 years away from granting blacks the equal rights they deserve. Many progressives are furious that Palestinians have not received the national and equal rights they deserve. But the one-sided, demonizing anti-Israel narrative peddled in too many places purporting to be liberal, too often absolves Palestinians of any responsibility and misses Israel’s many attempts to pursue peace.
Progressives should fight this conflict’s distorting all-or-nothingism. By acknowledging complexity and understanding that demonizing either side inflames the situation, Progressives could bridge-build rather than polarize. In international relations as in human relations, boycotts and insults undermine compromise. We need mutual respect, leading to mutual recognition of each side’s hopes and fears.
No country is perfect, no state ideal. But Israel is blessed by a functioning democracy, humanity’s greatest, most subversive, self-corrective mechanism, and, like America, is what the historian Michael Kammen called “a volatile mixture of hopeful good and curable bad.” The gap between the considerable good Israel does and its increasingly bad reputation should make thoughtful people reconsider.