It is vitally important that even during the height of these recurring wars between the Israelis, the Palestinians, and Hezbollah that the world is not distracted from the very real possibility of producing an entirely different region in the Middle East that is shaped by democracy. As the ceasefire begins and before the next inevitable round of fighting ignites, the only reasonable path forward for Israel, Palestine and the Middle East must be a renewed urgency in providing a solution to the political violence in the region. The Arab Spring, being the first credible path to Arab democracy, represents the opening of a peaceful road to peace for Israel and relief for the repressed Arab world. But it is vitally important that democratic Israel’s number one foreign policy goal, beyond Israel’s self-defense, becomes a full-throated, united, and uniquely Israeli investment in the new Arab Spring democracy movements on its borders including leveraging Israel’s influence on the U.S. policy in the region.
The Jewish people have not only been a key actor in the development of modern technology and culture but have also had a unique role in modern philosophy and politics. The history of the state of Israel and of the Jewish people themselves is a story that should tell us that democratic institutions are the only path to reducing the violence that governments are capable of.
Jews have inhabited every corner of Europe and every country that has risen and fallen since the Roman Empire. It has always been in the interest of the Jews to support the rights of the minority against the often violent majority. Jewish thinkers were at the heart of the development of modern democracy including revolutionaries like Baruch Spinoza, a Jew living in the Netherlands, who challenged the traditions of the Jews of his community and in doing so helped ignite a revolution in the questioning of authority that would lead his readers to birth new ideas for the evolution of religion, society, and government.
After the World Broke
During the ghastly period of the world wars, the only safe place for Jews proved to be countries that had established democratic elections. England, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and the more democratic corners of Europe saw the least amount of violence against Jews during a period where violence was the norm across much of Europe and the rest of the world. On top of this, the history of the United States, though fraught with the great violence of slavery and Native American genocide, is the true story of the opportunity that exists in the real world for Jews to live without eternal fear. Young America was fiercely brutal in its execution of slavery and Native American genocide but for Jews, at least compared with the dictatorships of Europe, the U.S. was a blessing.
American democracy was the most democratic government system acceptable to the European settlers of America. It was the most democratic large gathering of Europeans or humans on the planet in 1776 when the age of European colonialism was just ramping up. Inside this country born of the European world, the Jews thrived and have never to this day experienced the frequent pogroms and torch wielding genocidal flare ups that plagued all of Jewish history.
Take a look at this letter from George Washington after winning the American Revolution to one particular community of Jews living in Rhode Island for a sense of how American leaders incorporated the Jews into their vision of a democracy. Washington wrote in part, “may the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants–while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid”.
Perhaps most importantly, the Jewish people witnessed firsthand how the U.S. survived the horrible fate of Germany’s modernization. Germany was, like the U.S., the cutting edge of human technology and science of the 19th century. But Germany’s explosion and collapse was political in nature. The U.S. survived the rise of industry, corporations, unions, economic crisis, and foreign wars because its government was able to gradually reform itself. None of these unavoidable problems could be managed in a country like pre-World War I Imperial Germany that attempted to maintain stability by shutting out voices of societal and governmental reform (see modern China).
Democracy brings stability in the modern world and this is something that also did not escape the founders of modern Israel. Could the nation that suffered so much from European violence forget the lessons of colonialism and the world wars? Israel is at its best when it is examined as a democracy. All of its elections since 1948 have been free and fair, no small feat, although the definition of who is allowed to vote is just as convoluted as that of the U.S. at times.
Democracy has been, and continues to be, the closest window of opportunity for peace that exists for Jews in a world made up of 99.8 percent non-Jews. However, the central question facing modern Jews is no longer peace for Jews in Europe or the U.S., but in Israel where the future will surely be won or lost in the metropolises of Cairo, Damascus, and Istanbul. The level of extremism in these neighbor countries’ futures is now in play across the Arab world as citizens have gathered in the hundreds of thousands calling on world television for “democracy, democracy, democracy!” It is vital to realize that this represents the greatest opportunity to secure stability for the Jews of Israel in history and should not be missed.
The Israel Palestine conflict
This same story of modernization and democratization that has rearranged society in Europe continues to spread deeper into the world than before and the Arab Spring is its reincarnation on Israel’s borders. Egypt is now forever changed and Mubarak’s reign is over. Syria is embroiled in a brutal civil war while the Palestinians and Lebanese remain in internal political turmoil. Even ‘stable’ Jordan is seeing increasing democracy protests. Israel’s border countries are in flux and democracy—as we have always wanted it to be—is at center stage. Further democratic elections in the Arab world will bring the same relative moderation in politics and foreign policy that was witnessed in democratic Europe. Instead of internal politics by violence, there can be the politics of compromise.
The democratic giant of the Muslim Middle East is undoubtedly Turkey (please see my last article on Turkey). Turkey is not an ally of Israel but as the most democratic country in the Middle East and the most tied to the West, it is also the least likely to invade Israel or to give support to groups that are openly violent. Egypt has been said to have become less reliable since aging Mubarak left the scene but this was always destined to be the case when the sick old man’s heart gave out. But even only months into its birth as a democracy, Egypt is clearly with no intention to abandon its peace with Israel or take up arms with Israel’s enemies. In fact, Egyptian President Mohammed Mursi, the first elected leader of Egypt, has been at the center of ceasefire talks working with the Turks and the U.S.
Beyond the Israel Palestine conflict
What Israel should expect from democratic neighbors, as a reasonable goal, is less violence. The Jewish people have witnessed firsthand the full breadth of violence that the human race is capable of. Yet they have also been first witness to the great heights that it can accomplish. The Thai restaurants in Tel Aviv and the multicultural friendships of this particular Jewish New Yorker are proof that the Jews remain a culture unafraid of the color and diversity of the outside world.
Acting always as minorities, they managed to play a key role in the creation of the modern and democratic world. While many Arabs are not open to Israeli help in developing democracies, there is a chance for Israel, the Jewish people, and our many good friends to build a new set of foreign policy objectives for Israel’s neighborhood based on leveraging the distinctly Jewish philosophy of democracy, the support of the democratic world, and the hundreds of millions of Muslims calling for democracy on the streets of Cairo and Damascus. These powerful forces of the democratic world are in motion regardless of Israel’s actions. But this doesn’t mean they can succeed without Israel’s help.