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Jonathan Miller

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The Liberal Case for Israel

Posted: 11/28/11 10:55 AM ET

The Palestinian flag at a gay rights rally?

It's the iconic ironic image of the New New Left.

The sentiment's familiar: a maltreated minority identifying with the victim célèbre of radical academia.

But the juxtaposition of these two particular causes would be absurdly hilarious if it weren't profoundly tragic: The Hamas regime represented by that flag demeans, oppresses, jails, harrasses, assaults, and tortures gays and lesbians.

Imagine what would happen if you flew a gay rights flag in Gaza City.

(On second thought, don't even imagine it.)

Of course, the flag waving is less likely an endorsement of Hamas than a symbol of the Far Left's persistent preoccupation with Israel's reluctant occupation of lands it captured in its defensive struggle for existential survival during 1967's Six Day War.

I'm not going to use this column to relitigate that debate.

Rather, as a card-carrying member of America's center-left -- those of us who call ourselves liberals, progressives and/or mainstream Democrats -- I write to share with my ideological fellow travelers a much-under-publicized reality: That Israel is not simply the region's only democracy and the U.S.'s strongest ally; but that the Jewish State also models liberal and progressive values as well as -- or even better -- than any other nation today.

I don't pretend that Israel is perfect.  Like the U.S., a vocal minority of Biblical literalists hold disproportionate sway over public policy.  Like the U.S., far-Right politicos stoke public anger by demonizing minority groups.  And like the U.S., terrorist attacks on the homeland sometimes provoke official overreaction.  (Of course, in Israel, every day is 9/12).

But flaws and all, the state of Israel is a modern exemplar of the liberal credo proclaimed by the dying Happy Warrior, Hubert Humphrey, in 1977:

The moral test of government is how it treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the aged; and those who are in the shadows of life -- the sick, the needy and the handicapped.

My recent trip to Israel illustrated eloquently how that country aces Humphrey's moral test.  Let me share a few examples:

America's historical Achilles' Heel shares the subtext of Israel's finest moment.  Tellingly, Israel is the only nation in world history to deliver huge numbers of black men, women, and children out of slavery in Africa, into freedom abroad.  At an Immigration Absorption Center in the Jerusalem suburbs, I met with dozens of recent immigrants from Ethiopia, a small sampling of the more than 120,000 Ethiopian Jews who have emigrated to Israel in recent decades, most dramatically in two covert military operations, Operation Moses (1984) and Operation Solomon (1991). With their lives endangered due to famine and political unrest, thousands were airlifted to Israel to enable them to begin their lives anew. And in the intervening decades, Israel has spent many millions of dollars to educate, feed, clothe, shelter and equip these immigrants for modern life.

Economic Justice

[My conservative readers: Please close your eyes for the next sentence.] The State of Israel was established in 1948 as a socialist nation, built on the wealth-sharing principles of its treasured agrarian collectives, known commonly as kibbutzim. More recently, Israel has vaulted into capitalism; and through its extraordinary entrepreneurial culture, the small nation has emerged as a global leader in technology development and clean energy innovation. (The must-read bestseller Startup Nation explains why Israel has the highest density of startups in the world, and why more Israeli companies are listed on NASDAQ than all European companies combined.) When the recent explosion of venture capital success exacerbated national income inequality, millions took to the street -- more than 400,000 in Tel Aviv alone -- and the demonstrations were notable for the complete absence of violence or even arrests.  And unlike American politico reaction to Occupy Wall Street (which has ranged from hostile to patronizing), the center-right Israeli government immediately responded with substantial economic reforms that boosted welfare expenditures, cut defense spending, and yes...wait for it...increased taxes on capital gains, corporations, and the rich: those earning annually more than one million shekels (about $250,000).

Children's Health and Empowerment 

From a very young age, Israeli children must develop survival skills that would seem incomprehensible to their spoiled American cousins. (My touring group visited one kindergarten, within range of Hamas rockets in Gaza, that uses a board game to teach 5-year-olds how to find bomb shelters.) That's perhaps why Israeli policy places special priority on the health and well-being of its youngest citizens. Children -- like all Israelis -- enjoy universal access to government-run health care, a socialized-medicine system that makes Obamacare seem Dickensian. And government efforts extend well beyond, addressing the broad educational, nutritional, and emotional needs of all of its children.  One proud beacon emanates from its youth villages -- originally established to protect and sustain war orphans -- which now target the country's at-risk youth.  I met with staff and teenagers at the Yemin Orde Youth Village, and was wholly impressed by the educational philosophy that promotes self-esteem, celebrates diversity in cultures, and empowers its residents with leadership and occupational skills.  The model -- now being replicated worldwide -- is truly a "light unto the nations."

Civil Liberties

While much virtual ink has been spilled bemoaning Israel's West Bank Security Fence, the results undeniably prove its worth: Between 2000 and 2005, terrorist attacks killed over 1000 Israeli civilians, wounded more than 5000, and forced the entire nation to live in constant peril. Today, with the high-tech electronic barriers fully in place, suicide bombings seem like a distant nightmare. But the much-maligned fence tells only a small, distorted piece of the full Israeli picture on civil liberties, a reality that belies slanderous characterizations of "apartheid," "fascism," and, God forbid, "Nazism." Upon the backdrop of a society that continually lives under the shadow of terrorist threats, the Israeli court system regularly has held the government and military to the highest standards of the rule of law. As American civil libertarian Alan Dershowitz compellingly summarizes in The Case for Israel, the Israeli Supreme Court has been remarkably effective in protecting the rights of Palestinians and prisoners of war, often at the risk of soldiers and even ordinary citizens. The Court has banned applying physical pressure (nonlethal torture) to secure information from captured terrorists, and only once in Israel's 63-year history has the death penalty been employed: Adolf Eichmann, the architect of the Nazi Holocaust, was the exception that proved the rule. Finally, even in this overstrung environment, the free exercise of speech critical of the government -- punished brutally in neighboring states such as Egypt, Lybia, Syria, and Iran -- isn't simply protected; it's expected: Israel's founding father, David Ben-Gurion, once remarked that "for every two Jews, there are three opinions." And get this: Israel is the only Western democracy with a fundamentalist Islamic party holding seats in its parliament.

Gay Rights

As I argued in my inaugural column for The Huffington Post, there's no civil rights challenge more significant today than battling global discrimination against the LGBT community. Israel has a proud, open, and vibrant LGBT culture; and its record of protecting gays and lesbians is considerably more progressive than the U.S. and most other Western nations. Indeed, in 1993 -- the same year that the U.S. Congress adopted the unfortunate "Don't Ask; Don't Tell" policy -- Israel abolished all regulations discriminating against gays in the military.  Since that decade as well, same-sex partner benefits have been recognized in both the private and public sector, discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation has been banned in the workplace, and gay and lesbian couples have been guaranteed the right to adopt, with both parents sharing full legal custody.  And while gay marriage, unfortunately, is not yet legal, same-sex marriages performed in other countries receive full recognition.

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In the Orwellian dystopia that is our political discourse today, the free, diverse, and democratic oasis of Israel -- engulfed in a desert of some the world's most intolerant and illiberal regimes -- has been singled out by the radical left for its most vituperous criticism and its most impassioned economic boycotts. Some have even gone so far as to attack Israel for boasting about its undeniable progressive record on issues like gay rights, claiming it is merely a diversion to "pinkwash" the occupation of the West Bank.

Hogwash. (Oops, is that kosher?)

It's called tourism promotion; and considering the subject matter, it's a remarkable and heartening development: I can only dream of a time when my home state of Kentucky would launch ad campaigns to encourage gays and lesbians to visit our beautiful state parks.

I simply ask my fellow progressives, whether you are a Jew, Jew-ish, or Gentile, to take a careful, balanced and holistic look at a nation whose public policy already reflects so many of our most important priorities -- promoting equality, deflating discrimination, empowering the disenfranchised, and protecting the most vulnerable. (Oh yeah: Abortion is safe and legal, too!)

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On the last night of my Israel trip, I glanced out my restaurant's window and snapped the picture above.  A gay pride flag flew undisturbed in a busy section of commerce in downtown Jerusalem.

Among Israel's neighbors, such an act could incite violence. In many areas of our own country, it might provoke outrage.

But in Israel, it's just an ordinary street scene:  a mundane -- yet sublime -- statement of freedom within a broadly diverse, tolerant, and open culture.

With all of its flaws, the Zionist experiment has emerged -- quietly and vibrantly -- as a clear demonstration of the power of progressive values.

Feel free to criticize to Israel when it is wrong. But let's not fail to celebrate it when it is right. Because whenever liberal values flourish, they deserve our applause.

 

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