February 17-23, 2005
Come to Israel
Learn what the world's most dynamic democracy can teach the oldest.
I don't care if you're Jewish, Catholic, Muslim or Zen Buddhist. And it matters not if your politics are red, blue or green. If you care about America's political future, go to Israel. If you fear what the threat of terrorism is doing to our civic values, go witness a democracy that's really under fire, yet far more vibrant than ours.
With all due respect to our soldiers and families who've lost loved ones, Americans don't live with terror intimately and daily. Every Israeli does. There, the signs of war are everywhere. In front of every store and restaurant, you are searched. On every bus, young soldiers fresh out of high school carry M-16s and scan the crowd. Every child rich, poor, male, female is expected to serve in the armed forces, as nearly every adult in Israel has.
Nations at war will trade civil rights for security, casting democracy aside as invaders breach the gates. Since 9/11, America stopped offering foreigners the protections of our Constitution; our own citizens' bags can now be searched on the sly. Our right to petition our government through the Freedom of Information Act is increasingly treated like a quaint anachronism.
And with the loss of our basic civil rights, basic civic values have also declined. Our rich political culture has been reduced to two sets of slogans. Our political system has become a duopoly of dolts, red and blue clowns spewing snarky one-liners. Political dialogue has become a subset of sitcoms; our elections are survival contests where candidates ingest whatever scum that surfaces. The art of compromise is dead, as governance has become a blood sport where the winner takes all. We are well on the road to fascism.
In stark contrast to America, participatory democracy is thriving in Israel, a country that has been at war for more than 50 years. Israel's democracy is an incredibly voracious political critter. It feeds on a vast garden of ideas, planted by dozens of political parties. In its media, discussion is fierce, thoughtful and varied; in the Knesset, there are odd bedfellows indeed and compromises aplenty. And at the ballot box, where citizens most tangibly express their civic values,three-quarters of its citizens regularly come out to vote versus the usual American turnout of 50 percent.
Come to Israel and see for yourself what American media is not telling you. Last year, when I went to Israel for the first time, readers sent me with a notebook full of people to see and places to visit. It was an eye-opener. Through you, I met American journalists like Judy Balint, whose sharp-witted and poignant Jerusalem Diaries didn't make it to these shores. I visited with David Bedein, whose detailed investigations into the United Nation's diversion of funds to Palestinian terrorists are apparently too shocking for our press. Before I return in April, I hope you'll send more names of journalists who are not being heard and from whom we can all learn.
But if you've never been to Israel, it's time to make your own pilgrimage.
Though tourists have rarely been targeted, don't get me wrong: Israel is probably not much safer since Israel's Ariel Sharon and the Palestinian Authority's Mahmoud Abbas recently shared a front page. The Arab leaders in charge are still greedy thugs who practice genocide by proxy on their own, using Israel's soldiers to pull the trigger. Even after the handshake, after their recent election, Palestinians are still being promised all of Israel's land. And that the people of Israel will simply disappear.
That all the infidels must be killed is essentially the same battle cry that inspired suicide attackers to visit our own shores. Except that Israel has been living in the shadow of hate for more than 50 years.
We can learn from Israel's experience balancing the demands of war with the needs of civilization. We can learn again how to foster dialogue under fire. In founding our own nation, Philadelphia created a Constitution and a Bill of Rights as war raged around us. "We the people" American democracy was invented in Philadelphia: in its parks, in its pubs, in the quiet conversations of its intimate streets. And as one of few modern cities to have a viable middle class, that bedrock of democracy, Philadelphia can be home to a new kind of common space where common sense prevails.
It's an article of faith, and it's true, that among Middle Eastern theocracies and thugocracies, Israel is the sole bulwark of democracy. As Iraq drowns in violence, despite or because of the American occupation, Israel is our only friend. For their sake, for our own, we now need to be a friend to Israel.
And the best way to do that is to go there.
As a pal of mine, paraphrasing Brecht, likes to say, your friends are the ones that show up. So show up. Witness the beauty and the horror of a dynamic political culture inspired by our own highest dreams. Be a friend to a splendid, messy democracy they learned from America and let Israel be a mentor to us in return.