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My email box is full of hate messages again. It usually happens to anyone who writes an article that opposes the Israeli occupation of the Territories and the consequent oppression of the Palestinians. If the piece written actually considers a member of Hamas or one of the other resistance groups as something other than lower than a dog, than the emails are particularly hateful. So, of course, after my piece on the assassination of Sheikh Yassin was published, I received many emails calling me every name in the book and questioning my intelligence (since I must be stupid if I consider Israel’s attacks to be anything other than just).
Those were easy to dismiss. It is the other, more reasoned letters that are harder to deal with. These messages seem to be from intelligent and thoughtful people who honestly wonder how I can consider Israel to be in the wrong. How, they wonder, can I see Yassin as anything other than a man who deserves to be dead? How can I equate his calls for resistance in the form of attacks on Israelis with Ariel Sharon’s calls for the defense of Israel in the form of attacks on Palestinians? After all, Hamas is not interested in peace, they tell me, only the destruction of Israel. If I attempt to point out that Israel’s very existence is the result of the destruction of Palestine, these individuals either trivialize the Palestinian culture and sense of nation or sidestep the issue by narrowing the argument to one about the morality of suicide bombing. (I share their disgust for this type of action, but they usually choose not to hear my disgust).
Some of my friends just tell me to ignore these folks, stating that they are no different than the letter writers who attack my humanity, intelligence and mother. I disagree. Most of these folks seem to be humane thinkers, yet blind when it comes to Israel. This only confirms my contempt for public religion and nationalism, especially when the two are combined, but that confirmation does not an argument make. How can these people be so blind, I wonder, when history tells us that Israel is not some oasis of liberal democracy and justice? Indeed, it is a nation founded on ethnic cleansing by other humans who were ethnically cleansed and murdered en masse by one of the West’s most heinous regimes. Since it’s founding, Israel has not moved towards an ideal state of liberty and justice but has consistently backed away from such a role, choosing instead to deny rights to its Arab residents and align itself with some of the world’s worst regimes.
For example, Israel sold weapons and provided other forms of arms assistance to the apartheid government of South Africa for many years even though there was an arms embargo against that regime. During this same period, Israel also armed various CIA-sponsored mercenary forces in Mozambique and Angola. Another African government that existed with the help of Israeli arms and advisors was the racist government of Rhodesia. For those who don’t know, Rhodesia was a white-ruled British colony in Africa that became Zimbabwe after anti-colonial forces succeeded in ridding the country of Ian Smith and his regime. Other countries that received Israeli arms included such human rights violators as Somoza’s Nicaragua, El Salvador under the death squad government of the ARENA party, Pinochet’s Chile, Marcos’ Philippines, Duvalier’s Haiti, Colombia, and Suharto’s Indonesia (to name just a few).
Not only does Israel sell its own weaponry, it also is used by US weapons manufacturers as a transfer point for their merchandise. Occasionally, Washington will block the transfer of certain planes and weaponry to some of Israel’s clients, but this then leaves the way open for Israel to sell some of its locally produced weaponry. Like other nations that are deeply involved in the manufacture and sales of weapons of mass destruction, Israel’s foreign policy came to reflect the nature of its customers. In short, there was no regime whose money was not good enough to buy the weapons Israel had for sale. This policy has not only diminished Israel’s claim to be a government that cares about human rights, it has revealed itself in Israel’s daily dealings with the Palestinians in the Territories and those Israelis who openly oppose that policy. Of course, some of the regimes mentioned above have met their just fate, but that doesn’t mean that Israel no longer sells arms to regimes considered to be despotically brutal.
But Israel is a democracy that protects human rights, right? Everyone who lives there has the right to vote, to own property, to move wherever they want and associate freely with whomever they want, correct? Let’s go to the website of the Israel Democracy Institute’s website to see what this organization tells us. First, let me quote from their mission statement:
The Israel Democracy Institute (IDI) is an independent non-partisan research institute. It was founded in 1991 as a center for policy studies, straddling the spheres of politics and academia, the world of decision-makers and the world of thinkers in Israel. The Institute serves as an address for politicians and government officials who are searching for independent, professional partners, to examine various ideas and propose practical ways to implement them. The Institute is careful to maintain its independent, non-partisan status, and for this reason enjoys the trust and esteem of all sides of the political spectrum in Israel.
Now that we know their purpose, what does their most recent report on the state of democracy in Israel reveal? Briefly, these are the conclusions of the report’s authors.
The Institutional Aspect
Israel does fairly well in this aspect. The two areas in which Israel is strongest, compared to other democracies, are in representation and checks and balances (number 6 out of 36 countries in the sample). Israel does less well with regard to political participation, as opposed to what has commonly been thought: there has been a downward trend since 1996, and the country now ranks 22nd.
* The Rights Aspect
Israel’s ranking in this aspect is worrisome. For nearly every indicator, Israel places in the lower half of the list. Protection of human rights in Israel is poor; there is serious political and economic discrimination against the Arab minority; there is much less freedom of religion than in other democracies; and the socioeconomic inequality indicator is among the highest in the sample.
* The Stability and Social Cohesion Aspect
Here Israel ranks at the bottom of the list in all indicators. The turnover in governments is more frequent than in other democracies, and only India ranks lower in social tensions and rifts between the various segments of society.
It is of course quite possible for Israel to remedy this situation if it so desires. Just like the current situation in the United States that tends toward authoritarianism can be changed if enough residents demand it, so can the drift towards authoritarianism in Israel be reversed. Unfortunately, these findings apply primarily to the Jewish citizens of Israel and say nothing about the situation of the Palestinians in the Territories. Given this, and the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians, the likelihood of Israel becoming more democratic and protective of its minority citizens’ rights grows more remote with each IDF attack on Gaza or the West Bank and each Palestinian attack on Israeli civilians. The waging of what is essentially a war precludes the furtherance of both democracy and human rights. Especially, if one accepts some of the other conclusions reached by the IDI. Namely, that over the past few years "there has been a significant decline in the Jewish population’s support of democratic norms on all levels: general support of the democratic system, support of specific democratic values, and support for equal rights for the Arab minority." If the will for democracy does not exist, than there can be no democracy, since it is a form of government that requires the will of the people to exist and thrive.
What does this all have to do with those letter writers who can’t understand how I can equate the perpetrators and planners of the oppression and daily attacks on the Palestinians with the perpetrators and planners of the suicide attacks? Simply this, Israel holds no special virtue that exempts it from practicing human rights. Indeed, given its claim to some higher moral authority than its opponents (a claim that stems from the persecution of the Jewish people throughout much of their history), it seems to me that the state of Israel should make absolutely certain that its practices adhere to commonly held beliefs regarding those rights. Those who support Israel in its occupation of Palestinian lands, its detention without charges of thousands of Palestinians, its discriminatory practices against its non-Jewish citizens, and its killing of civilians without apology really should have no problem with those Palestinians who operate as if their ends justify any means. After all, isn’t this what they are saying when it comes to Israel and its goals?
(The title is a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt)
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is being republished by Verso.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org