By Randal M. Whitlatch
With controversy over egalitarian prayer, settlements, Palestinian and Ethiopian rights, and many other issues roiling Israeli society, one might be tempted to conclude that Israel cannot be, at once, the nation-state of the Jewish people, a democracy and a country with a commitment to the human rights of all who live in it, and that therefore it is on its way toward an inevitable rift with Diaspora Jewry and the international community. After recently visiting Israel on a Jewish Council for Public Affairs Mission as a Frank Family Fellow for emerging leaders, and hearing from more than 40 government and NGO leaders dedicated to, among other things, women’s rights, religious pluralism, Ethiopian and minority rights and Israeli-Arab coexistence, I am convinced that such a conclusion would be wrong.
My meetings — which took place over the span of a week in early December — made it abundantly clear to me that Israel, much like the United States, aspires to be a pluralistic, Western-style, liberal democracy dedicated to the rule of law. Much like the United States, Israel has the potential to offer all of the people within her borders freedoms and equal rights that most other states, particularly in the Middle East, would never provide. This is part of the fundamental character of the homeland of the Jewish people. We, as Diaspora Jews, and really as Americans, should embrace it, support it and present this message to others, Jews and non-Jews, who may have doubts about Israel’s true character.
Take, for example, the Bialik-Rogozin School, which I had the pleasure of touring with its principal, Eli Nechama. Bialik-Rogozin is a unique model school where refugees and children of migrant workers, some of them with little or no schooling, are integrated into Israeli society with special educational programs. The school is funded by the Israeli government and educates more than 1,150 students from first to 12th grades. The students comprise poor third-generation Israeli-born families, work immigrants, new immigrants from the former Soviet Union, refugees from Darfur and minority Arabs, to name a few.
The school’s main objective is to provide these underprivileged and diverse students with opportunities to develop their potential. Education is available regardless of religion, nationality or race. This is the sort of endeavor that true pluralistic, liberal democracies pursue.
Achievements like Bialik-Rogozin do not come easily. Just ask the United States, which — even now — struggles every day to promote women’s rights, religious rights and minority rights, all while attempting to ensure security in a post-9/11 world.
The United States has been at the liberal democracy game since the 1700s, and it still struggles every day to reach the aspirational goals set forth in the Declaration of Independence and codified in the Constitution. Israel was born by its own Declaration of Independence only in 1948 — making it just under 70 years old. In 1859, at age 70, the United States was sharply divided; women were denied the right to vote, slavery reigned in the American South and the nation stood on the precipice of a deadly civil war. In short, the growing pains and challenges that the United States faced then were significant.
Israel also has struggles at 70 with, among other things, women’s rights, religious pluralism, Ethiopian and minority rights and Israeli-Arab coexistence. The 40-plus meetings that I participated in during my mission, however, provide convincing proof that Israel’s present struggles are much less severe than the United States’ struggles at the same age, and provide strong proof that leaders are working tirelessly to ensure that Israel fulfills its potential as a pluralistic, Western-style liberal democracy that is, at the same time, the nation-state of the Jewish people.
Yet, for some reason, Israel’s growth and struggles as a burgeoning democracy stoke outrage from many segments of society, even calls by the BDS movement for Israel’s outright destruction. Some well-meaning people, including some Diaspora Jews, have been seduced by BDS as a means to effect social change in Israel. Others have become so frustrated that they simply have given up on Israel and the Zionist movement, calling it racist, colonialist and at odds with Palestinian rights, women’s rights and religious pluralism. This is simply wrong.
We cannot afford to turn our backs on Israel. It does not deserve our scorn. As Jews and Americans, it deserves our support and advocacy. That Israel is struggling as it grows does not mean we should give up, boycott or simply abandon the eternal homeland of the Jewish people. On the contrary, we must remain optimistic, offering assistance and support along the way. We should engage, not boycott or give up.
We should also reach out to those we know throughout the Jewish and general community to tell them the true story of Israel, which has great potential to remain a light unto nations, in the name of the Jewish people, forever.
Randal M. Whitlatch is a Pittsburgh-based attorney.