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Jewish Journal

The liberal case for Israel

by David Suissa

February 15, 2012 | 1:14 pm

David Suissa, President

David Suissa, President

For several years now, critics of Israel have been claiming that liberalism and democracy are in “crisis” in Israel. It’s what historian Gil Troy calls the “reddening of Israel, dismissing the Jewish state as a right-wing, religious, Republican project, increasingly foreign to cultured, blue-state Democrats.” Because American Jews are predominantly liberal and vote Democratic, these accusations, if left unchallenged, risk alienating many Jews from the Jewish state.

After all, if I’m a liberal concerned with things like human rights and social justice, how can I feel close to a country that I’ve been told neglects these concerns?

Our starting point, in the words of Catherine Ashton, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, should be that democracy “can be awkward: thrilling, inspiring and liberating, but also messy, turbulent and unpredictable.”

Israel’s democratic journey has certainly been thrilling and turbulent, made even more complicated by two factors: One, Israel must constantly navigate the tension between its democratic ideal and its Jewish character, and two, it is surrounded by Jew-hating enemies sworn to its destruction.

Notwithstanding these complications, how can we gauge the health of Israel’s democracy? In my view, the test of a democracy is not whether it meets a perfect ideal, but whether it allows for the vigorous exercise of liberal freedoms. In other words, to what extent does Israel’s democracy give people the freedom to challenge the system and exercise their rights?

On that front, I met someone during my last visit to Israel — Gerald Steinberg of NGO Monitor — who gave me dramatic examples of these liberal freedoms. Here are a few:

Israel’s liberal democracy allows professors like Neve Gordon of Ben-Gurion University to call for a boycott of his own country.

It allows Israeli NGOs like Adalah to engage in campaigns that aim to delegitimize the Jewish state.

It allows organizations like the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICHAD) to participate in anti-Israel activities like the “Free Gaza” flotilla and receive funding from foreign governments hostile to Israel.

It allows human rights groups like Machsom Watch to monitor and heckle Israeli soldiers at checkpoints.

It allows groups like Boycott From Within to call for academic, cultural and business boycotts against Israel and hold demonstrations that demonize Israel and accuse it of being an apartheid state.

It allows groups like Coalition of Women for Peace to visit the family of the murderers of the Fogel family and to publicly condemn the Israeli investigation.

It allows Israeli NGOs like B’Tselem to provide dubious and damaging information to the United Nations-sponsored Goldstone Report, much of which was subsequently retracted by Goldstone himself.

It allows groups like Breaking the Silence to go on road shows publicizing allegations of “war crimes” against the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

It allows anti-Israel Palestinian LGBT groups like Aswat and Al-Qaws to operate out of Israel and engage in activities that demonize Israel.

It allows anti-Semitic Israeli-Arab NGOs like Ittijah to publicize during the Gaza War that “the IDF is turning Gaza into a kind of extermination camp, in the full sense of the word and with the full historical relativity.”

It allows full access to the Israeli Supreme Court to human rights groups that get funding from countries hostile to Israel.

It allows Arab members of the Knesset to engage with Israel’s enemies and visit with terror groups like Hamas.

The list goes on, but you get the idea: Israel is home to a staggering amount of liberal activity, some of it even harmful to the state. And in addition to the hundreds of human rights groups, there is also an abundance of critical journalism, art, literature and film that is spawned by Israel’s open society.

Does this mean there are no flaws in Israel’s democracy? Of course not. Like every democracy, Israel has its share of racists and extremists. But what it does mean is that if you want to criticize Israel’s democracy, you’d better make sure to include the whole picture: Israel is a tiny nation under siege trying to balance its democratic and Jewish character while still allowing enormous freedom for people to challenge the system.

Fairness and balance are liberal virtues. Creating hysteria by unleashing over-the-top criticism and using words like “crisis” demonstrates neither fairness nor balance. It’s an alarmist approach that might be good for fundraising and selling books, but it distorts the truth and undermines Israel. Liberal critics who claim to love Israel should practice what they preach — they should promote healthy debate, not verbal fistfights. 

I won’t be looking for a fight when I speak at the J Street convention in Washington, D.C., next month. I will promote words like “context” rather than “crisis.” I will argue that single-minded criticism of Israel’s democracy is not likely to attract liberal Jews to the Zionist cause, but that a full picture of a courageous and messy democracy stands a better chance.

I will tell my liberal audience that the real crisis is not with Israel’s democracy, but with one-sided critics who contribute to the popular slander that liberal Zionism is on its deathbed.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

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