On May 14, 1948, David Ben-Gurion, who would become Israel’s first prime minister, stepped up to a podium at the Dizengoff House — at the time, Tel Aviv’s art museum — and announced, “By virtue of our natural and historic right and on the strength of the resolution of the United Nations General Assembly, [we] hereby declare the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz-Israel, to be known as the State of Israel.” The next day, Arab armies invaded the Jewish state with the stated goal of eradicating it.
Israel survived, but 65 years later, it is still under siege. While Israel — and the White House — marked Israeli independence on April 16 (the anniversary according to the Israeli calendar), Palestinians mark it today, with so-called Nakba (Catastrophe) commemorations.
Secretary of State John Kerry may wish to jumpstart the Arab-Israeli peace process, but he is myopic if he fails to recognize that the conflict is no longer a mere land dispute: Instead, Israel is on the front lines of a battle between liberalism and democracy on one hand, and authoritarianism, intolerance, and extremism on the other.
- Israel is a vibrant democracy; its neighbors rely on strict ethnic and sectarian quotas if not outright autocracy.
- Throughout the Middle East, Christians are under assault. They are fleeing Iran, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, and the Palestinian territories. Only in Israel do Christians feel safe and secure, knowing that they are protected by the rule of law.
- In Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the Gaza Strip, homosexuality is a capital offense; in Israel, gays march openly.
- Throughout the West, women struggle for full equality — entering the military and other fields once the sole domain of men. Within the Islamic world, women are instead fighting for rights which a generation of religious conservatives have had stripped away from them.
- Israel has become an international center for science and technology, providing life-saving treatments for cancer and — in the case of the woefully prejudicial British physicist Stephen Hawkings — the technology to communicate. Education has become the stuff of hatred and religious indoctrination in neighboring states.
- That Israel enjoys a vibrant press is reflected by the fact that the best criticism Freedom House could levy against it was that there has actually been too much competition.
- Israeli lawyers and civil society activists strive to right wrongs and improve Israeli society. Arab citizens must rebel if they want change and even then the forces of tyranny deny it to them.
There is a tendency in the West to embrace moral and cultural equivalence. When faced with governments, cultures, and religious movements that target individual rights and liberty, too many thinkers, academicians, and diplomats believe that it is somehow sophisticated to excuse repression in the name of cultural understanding. Make no mistake: It is not understanding; it is simply racism.
How ironic that Israel — founded from the ashes of the worst hatreds of the 19th century and tyrannies of the 20th century — is now the canary in the coal mine for the 21st century. As Israel faces a wave of intellectuals in both East and West trying to delegitimize if not eradicate it, it remains the stoic front line for liberals and all who care about basic rights and freedoms in the face of hatred and tyranny.