On freedom and democracy
Two weeks ago, the British magazine The Economist published a feature about democracy in the Middle East and Africa, including various predictions for the future. But the most critical finding, and the most relevant for the current round of European efforts to "move the peace process ahead", has been largely either ignored or sidelined.
The international weekly news and business magazine included its 'Index of Political Freedom' in their November 18 issue, ranking 20 countries on 15 indicators of political and civil liberties. It found a relatively wide range of democracy across the region. From Libya and Syria (at 2.05 and 2.8 respectively, on a scale of 1-10) through Sudan, Yemen and Egypt (at 4.3 each) to the Palestinian Autonomy at 5.05, Morocco at 5.2 and Lebanon at 6.55, it is clear that the Muslim countries of the Middle East vary in their openness, tolerance of dissent and political accountability. It is also clear they are far from being democratic, free societies - even the most advanced among them.
But there is one country with a rank significantly higher than that of all the others: the democratic Jewish state of Israel - rated 8.2, on a par with the most freedom-loving western countries. In fact, looking a bit deeper into the issue presents a revealing picture of the core values shared by Israel and Europe (and America) and many of the 'emerging democracies' of eastern Europe and elsewhere.
Whether on scales of women's rights, the protection of religious minorities, freedom of speech, gay rights, freedom of the press or other indices, Israel meets or exceeds the score of most countries of the Free World on virtually every standard measure of freedom and democracy. (Click here for more details on these and other figures from Freedom House.)
This fact - known but perhaps not understood by many - is one of the fundamental bases on which Israel's relations with the United States, Europe and many other countries rests. And these values are shared not merely in their implementation, but on a philosophical level as well. In essence, they are shared because they derive from a common source.
Trace back the intellectual roots of modern democratic theory, from Jefferson, Kant & Rousseau through Grotius and St. Augustine and back to Plato, and we find both specific references and general allusion to many precepts introduced to the modern world from the Hebrew Bible and Jewish tradition. Add to this the contribution not only of the Talmud but of Jewish thinkers over the ages (from the Rambam - Maimonides - and Ibn Ezra through Spinoza and Mendelsohn).
Note the involvement of Jewish leaders in every freedom movement from America's Civil War through the US civil rights movement, the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and the human rights movement in the USSR, to today's Jewish activists advocating for either Palestinian or Iraqi freedom or against the slaughter in Darfur. A picture emerges of a Jewish tradition where the freedoms dearest to the Western world are articulated long before they were even adopted by that western society.
Many philosophers acknowledge their debt to the ancient Hebrews - Locke and Hobbes in particular - and a former Israeli Supreme Court judge, Chaim Cohen, wrote a tract on this topic over 15 years ago. Peeling away layers of Talmudic discussions of majority rule, treatment of indentured servants and women's rights, it all comes down to the creation of humanity "in the image of God" - obliging us to treat all humans with dignity as they represent the Godliness inherent in His creation. The Mishna in Sanhedrin quotes this passage in Bereishit (Genesis) to support an argument that all people are created equal, leading to the duty of equal treatment for all.
Though created with an eye to being a socialist paradise, Israel is in no uncertain terms a shining example of the freedoms and tolerance, and people-powered democracy, which other nations aspire to. (A recent poll indicated that some 70% of Palestinians want to emulate Israeli democracy more than any other.) In fact, there are some Israelis who feel that Israel's political culture is too free, too tolerant, too critical of itself. These principles of freedom inform not only Israeli society internally, but also how the country treats others under its authority - most notably the Palestinians, as it attempts to balance its efforts to combat terror with its commitment to minimize civilian casualties and hardship.
No example demonstrates this as well as the sacrifice of 23 Israeli soldiers in the battle of Jenin in 2002. The routing of the terrorists holed up in the 4-square-block area of the Jenin refugee camp could have been accomplished by helicopter or artillery - as per NATO's tactics in Bosnia or America's in Afghanistan.
In deciding to carry out this operation with house-to-house searches, to minimize casualties among the innocent women and children held captive by the terrorists, the Israeli government exhibited the values held most dear to our Jewish polity: chief among them the preservation of life, even at terrible cost. These young Israeli soldiers' lives were sacrificed not to defend Israeli citizens, but to protect the innocents on the 'other side'.
That concern for human life is one of the many values shared by Israel and other free societies. Today's leaders of the Free World - in Europe and in America, irrespective of their political affiliation - refer to these principles frequently.
Just last week, British PM Tony Blair called for a 'Common Vision' statement to be adopted at the Barcelona Euro-Mediterranean Partnership meeting, linking relations between Europe and its southern (Middle Eastern) neighbors directly to democratic, economic and political reforms. The suggestion was, in fact, rejected by those very countries whose repression of their own peoples is just what stands in the way of true partnership - whether between them and Europe or between them and the only democratic country in their midst - Israel.
The fact that Israel is the only free nation in the Middle East must inform European policy-makers' approach to the country and the region. It should be emphasized more - especially by and to those who would come with suggestions for resolving the century-old Arab-Israeli conflict. For these shared values will be the foundation of any real conflict resolution in our region. As Natan Sharansky quotes Andrei Sakharov frequently: democracies don't make war with other democracies.
While the foreign ministers of the EU met last week in Barcelona and the European Parliament's Israel committee meets here with Israelis and Palestinians to discuss conflict resolution, it may behoove them to take into consideration the strong foundation of shared values - based on ancient tenets of our religious traditions - which should form the basis for our relationship, rather than the fleeting 'interests' related to oil or trade and the illusory 'stability' which is so often the mistaken core of Europe's approach to this region.