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And it harbors a broader, powerful religious right that would like to curtail certain civil liberties, and that indeed currently poses new challenges to Israeli democracy. It has undergone any number of difficult economic times, has had to spend a crippling 8% of gross domestic product on defense over the past 15 years (before that it was much higher, 12%–16% from 1989 to 1992) and has had to endure not only the military and diplomatic wars, but also sustained periods of terrorism and consequent death tolls, the likes of which no Western country has experienced in the past half century.
Yet despite all these features, which would tend to weaken or imperil democratic institutions, it is hard to think of any country that has maintained at home such a robust and vibrant democracy. It would be a mistake to lose sight of this, even after what could be seen as a spate of recent anti-liberal bills proposed in the Knesset.
Israel has absorbed the immigrants much better than the United States or any European country has. It has respected the rights of its minorities in a flawed but still reasonably tolerable manner. It has found a way to allow for deep religiosity of people of different faiths while not allowing religion to take over politics and the state.
Indeed, with the possible exception of the United States and Britain, there probably has been no more successful democracy in our time, because the strength of any democracy, whatever its other failings, is its capacity to maintain its stability and to function during times of stress, conflict and crisis. Which country, especially given the degree of difficulty, has done better by this measure?
The Arab elites and peoples now seeking to refashion their countries are enormously familiar with Israel and its flaws and strengths. If they would put aside their wild anti-Semitic agitation and their demonization of Israel for a moment, they would see that the Jewish state provides them a model to emulate, one that offers tangible help for them to construct workable democracies that — and this is critical, and where Turkey falls short — respect civil, political and social rights in their own countries. Freedom House evaluates Israel as fully “free,” giving it the highest score on political rights and its second-highest score on civil liberties.
In fact, the people who know Israel best, the Palestinians, have learned the most from Israel’s school of Middle Eastern democracy. As a result, they are almost certainly the most democratically oriented Arabic people in the Middle East and have developed the most robust democratic political culture among the Arab peoples. Indeed, in a recent poll, more Palestinians of East Jerusalem, despite all the intense pressures to want to secede from Israel and be part of a Palestinian country when formed, say that they prefer remaining in Israel to becoming citizens of Palestine.
Strange as it may sound, Israel is a model — for all its flaws and the discrimination that it practices against its Palestinian citizens, who are, by any reasonable meaning of the phrase, second-class citizens — for constructing a working democracy that guarantees the fundamental rights of its people, including women and sexual minorities. Indeed, Israel should be the model.
It incorporates a discontented minority population. It allows for, but does not get overwhelmed by, a deeply religious anti-modern minority (of Jews). It has a powerful military that is subject to civilian control. It guarantees rights. There is the rule of law and powerful, independent judicial review of governmental and legislative action. It allows for pluralism and freewheeling politics.
And it focuses on the business of any state and society (aside from security): educating its people and developing its economy.
Which of the non-authoritarian Arab elites, which of the nonpolitical Islamic Arab populaces, which of the progressive Arab media members can look upon Israel honestly — whatever their criticism, even hatred of its military triumphs and its policies towards Gaza and the West Bank — without admiration for its domestic and democratic achievements? Which of them can honestly say that they could not learn much from Israel and Israelis, Jews and Arabs alike? Which of them can honestly say that they would not love to have such a robust democracy and society as the one the Israelis have built and sustained, despite all the intolerable pressures and huge challenges?
Daniel Jonah Goldhagen is the author of “Worse Than War: Genocide, Eliminationism, and the Ongoing Assault on Humanity” (PublicAffiars, 2009). He is writing a book on contemporary anti-Semitism.