In a Twitter world of one-second images and three-second sound bites, it’s not surprising that Israel would be seen by most of the world as an enemy of Arabs.
Especially since the start of the Gaza war, the images against Israel have been lethal. Never mind Hamas’s “dead baby strategy” or the fact that Israel wasn’t the aggressor— the overriding image of the war has been of hundreds of Arabs dying at the hands of the Israeli army.
Coupled with the ferocious and reckless violence now being unleashed by Islamic groups across the Middle East, it’s fair to ask: If you’re Arab, Christian or Muslim, is there anywhere in that Middle East jungle you can feel truly safe right now?
Well, yes, you can feel safe in Israel.
You want to take your Muslim family and frolic by the beach at night? Come to Tel Aviv, no one will bother you. I was there. There were plenty of Arab/Muslim kids playing next to my daughter one night—and I was proud of that.
In fact, I saw Arabs and Muslims everywhere I went during my ten days in Israel, and at no time did I ever feel it was weird or unusual.
When they were not hiding in bomb shelters because of Hamas bombs, these Arabs and Muslims were strolling through Israeli streets, malls, stores and cafes, just as Mexicans and Koreans might stroll through the streets and malls of Los Angeles.
Today, there are over 100 different nationalities in Israel. The white European look may have been the dominant face of Israel at the creation of the state, but no longer. Now you have a multiethnic kaleidoscope of colors and faces and cultures that would make any liberal proud.
That’s not to say there are no ethnic tensions, or discrimination. Every country has its extremists. Just as you can find anti-immigrant racism in America and a few kooks in Congress, you’ll find anti-Arab racism in Israel and a few kooks in the Knesset.
You’ll also find, as former Defense Minister and Likudnik Moshe Arens warned, a disturbing, entrenched equality gap between Arab and Jewish citizens.
So yes, there are plenty of problems.
You judge a society, however, not by whether it has vexing problems, but by whether it allows a corrective mechanism to help alleviate these problems.
And this is where, in my view, Israel shines: Despite being a country under siege, the country overflows with thousands of non-profit groups and Tikkun Olam (repairing the world) activists who are dedicated to improving the country.
One of those groups is the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI) in Jerusalem, which I visited last week.
After a two-hour chat with Prof. Yedidia Stern, Vice President of Research at IDI, where he heads the Religion and State project and the Human Rights and Judaism project, I came away with this thought: While there are plenty of difficulties with Israel’s democracy, it’s gratifying to see the scholars and activists who are working to improve this democracy.
On the day we met, Stern had just published an important piece on how to improve Arab-Israeli relations in Israel.
Notwithstanding the myriad problems and dark alarmism we always hear about Israel, the fact remains that in the Middle East, there’s no better place for Arabs and Muslims than in Israel.
In a 2008 poll from Keevoon Research, Strategy & Communications quoted by Daniel Pipes, 62 percent of Israeli Arabs said they’d rather remain Israeli citizens than join a future Palestinian state. Who can blame them?
A few days ago, in the liberal Web site Slate, an anonymous Israeli Arab writer, while criticizing Israel, had this to say about life in the Jewish state:
“Life is super safe compared to the region. Basic freedoms are mostly upheld by the law and physical attacks due to racism seldom occur. For the more fortunate among us, higher education and hard work are fantastic tools to get ahead into a better life.”
I’ve met many Arabs in Israel who’ve used this “fantastic tool” of hard work to get a better life. One of those, a Bedouin, now runs a major department at the medical school in Ben Gurion University. There are thousands of other examples, just as there are countless examples of Israeli groups fighting for the rights of minorities.
Of course, this kind of context and balance is not very sexy. It’s always sexier to declare that Israel’s democracy is unraveling; it’s sexier to focus on Israel’s dirty laundry rather than on the many Israelis actually doing the laundry.
Any good fundraiser will tell you that it’s more dramatic and effective to be an alarmist, as J Street’s Jeremy Ben Ami was this week in a mass email: “The growth and extent of hatred of the other, intolerance and outright racism in our own Jewish community – both in Israel and in the United States – is frightening."
Yes, it’s certainly frightening to exclude context and balance when unleashing criticism at our community and at Israel—the country where life is “super safe” compared to the region, and where “basic freedoms are mostly upheld by the law and physical attacks due to racism seldom occur.”
For the millions of Arabs, Muslims and Christians now being brutalized and terrorized across the Middle East, I can tell you this: They probably wouldn’t mind moving to Israel, the one country that the world abuses more than any other.