November 18, 2018

A ‘Better’ Word for Israel

There’s something inexplicable about Israel. On the surface, we know it’s one of the most maligned countries on earth. If I told you that the U.N. General Assembly adopted 97 resolutions that singled out a specific country for condemnation from 2012 to 2015, and that 83 of those were against Israel, you might yawn, right? So what else is new?

But as the Journal’s Aaron Bandler mentions in a column this week, CNN’s Jake Tapper wasn’t too jaded to tell his viewers:

“Considering the genocide of the Rohingya people in Myanmar, the lack of basic human rights in North Korea, the children starving in the streets of Venezuela, the citizens of Syria targeted for murder by their own leader using the most grotesque and painful weapons, you have to ask, is Israel deserving of 86 percent of the world’s condemnation?”

Of course not, but we already knew that. In any case, the extreme bashing of Israel is not the point of this column — which I happen to be writing from Israel this week. My point is to understand what makes Israel tick, in particular: How does a country function when it’s so hated?

The first thing that comes to mind is “busyness.” Everyone in Israel seems superbusy, whether they’re working, playing,  praying or arguing. It’s like when people go through a difficult time — a divorce, a job loss, etc. — and friends tell them, “It’s important to always stay busy,” because the more one wallows in angst, the worse things get.

I’ve been walking around the streets of Tel Aviv for the past couple of days — the kind of thing I’ve done hundreds of times over the years, in areas throughout the country — and I’ve been struck again by this Israeli busyness. They might have read this morning that some famous singer has canceled a performance under pressure from BDS, but they’re too busy to let it affect their reality. There’s a family to feed, a party to plan, a cause to advance, a film to complete, an argument to win, a country to protect.

I’m sure it annoys many Israelis to live in the most condemned country on earth, but since this is not a problem they can solve, they just move on to other concerns, like their daily lives.

I’m sure it annoys many Israelis to live in the most condemned nation on earth, but since this is not a problem they can solve, they just move on to other concerns, like their daily lives.

But there’s something else. Israelis are busy because they have the freedom to live as they wish. This freedom is a rare commodity in their neighborhood. On the  Freedom House website, a chart from 2013 shows 18 countries in the Middle East and North Africa. Twelve are listed as “not free,” five are listed as “partially free,” and one is listed as “free.” Can you guess which country is free?

Here’s how Freedom House summarized the state of the region:

“The Middle East and North Africa holds some of the worst records of freedom of expression in the world. Many countries in the region lack legal protection for human rights and the rule of law is undermined by a lack of independent judiciaries.

“The 2011 Arab Spring popular protests brought hope for improvements but devastating wars, foreign intervention and instability have since made it an extremely dangerous environment for journalists, civil society and human rights defenders, forcing millions to leave in search of safety.”

Note the absurdity: The one country out of 18 deemed “free” gets 86 percent of the U.N.’s condemnations. Israelis must feel this absurdity. They know they live in a messy, flawed country that is far from perfect, but they also feel the blatant injustice of being singled-out for condemnation more than any other country.

What’s more, they know they live in a free country where they can express themselves anyway they like. Arab Israelis, for example, are free to publicly mourn Israel’s most joyous day of the year, its Day of Independence, as their official Nakba, or catastrophe.

Notwithstanding that freedom, my guess is that most of those Arab-Israelis would not want to leave this “catastrophe” for one of those “partially free” or “not free” Arab countries. In fact, in a poll conducted last year by the Israel Democracy Institute, 66 percent of Arab Israelis said they see Israel’s situation as “good” or “very good,” while 57 percent said their personal situation was “good” or “very good.”

Which brings me to the “B” word: Better.

A society that allows you the freedom to express yourself is better than one that doesn’t. On that level, yes, Israel is better.

“Better” is one of those politically incorrect words you never want to say in polite company. Different, yes, but not better. If you claim, for example, that Country A is better than Country B, someone might get offended and say, “Who gives you the right to judge?”

Well, in the case of Israel, the world does. If groups like the U.N. have enough chutzpah to treat one country, Israel, worse than all others, then Israel can certainly push back with this simple truth: A society that allows you the freedom to express yourself is better than one that doesn’t. On that level, yes, Israel is better.

It’s a tragic irony that this “better” country of the Middle East is also the most reviled. But Israelis are not agonizing over this state of affairs. They’re too busy expressing themselves.