Time has a habit of trashing your proudest memories. I thought, like a lot of correspondents at the time, that the weeks I spent covering the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, which kicked off five years ago this weekend, that these were the most glorious moments of history I would ever be privileged to witness – the Arab nations rising up around us and throwing off their dictators.
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Five years later, with the exception of Tunisia – which is on its first, tenuous steps to becoming a democracy – the region is even more mired in vile despotism, torn apart by war and misery, worse than ever before. Libya, Syria and Iraq are rapidly fragmenting, autocracy is hardening in Turkey and Egypt, and theocracies of Iran and Saudi Arabia are increasing the pace of wholesale executions and stoking the fires of sectarianism. It all looks so hopeless.
On January 16, 2011, on Avenue Habib Bourghiba in Tunis, during one of the clashes between protesters and police who weren’t sure what they were supposed to do now that President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali had fled to Riyadh, I asked a group of young men what kind of regime they wanted now for their country. The initial answers were rather muddled. One suggested a British-style democracy, another thought Holland could be a model but then one said “we should have a democracy like in Israel,” and they all suddenly thought it was a good idea.
I’ve heard similar thoughts since from protestors and ordinary citizens in Egypt, Jordan and Turkey, as well as from Syrian refugees in Europe. They didn’t know they were speaking to an Israeli and I have no reason to believe they were closet-Zionists. But they did give me some ground for optimism.
Israel could best be described as a limited democracy. It offers the vote and, at least on paper, equal rights to all its citizens. Its media is free (whenever someone describes one of my Israeli colleagues as a “brave journalist” I get angry. Being a journalist in Cairo or Tehran is bloody brave, in Jerusalem it’s just another job). Governments are replaced by election and corrupt presidents and prime ministers are sentenced to prison by courts, not by coups. But a country that holds millions of others under a military occupation, fails to address massive inequalities of minority groups and subjects all its citizens to the rule of a radical and unaccountable ultra-Orthodox religious establishment in matters of marital status, is by no means a full democracy. And yet, when one of our neighbors tells me he yearns for an Israeli-style form of government, I have to admit that in many ways we are fortunate.
Few, if any countries that won independence after World War II have attained even this level of democratic prosperity, and while it’s no reason to be complacent, there is some satisfaction to be derived from this. Unlike many of those new states, Israel didn’t have a mentoring colonial power to guide it through the first steps of democracy-building and constitutional drafting, and since the great majority of Western Jews stayed home, very few of those living here in 1948 or the olim who arrived after, refugees from the Holocaust or banished from Arab lands, had any practical experience of living in a democracy.
My colleague Chemi Shalev wrote an important piece this week on the disconnect between liberal American Jews and the current situation in Israel, but really, there is no reason it should surprise us. For all the highfalutin talk of “shared values,” why should there be any when American Jews have done so little to actually be a part of Israeli society? What there is, is a wonder in itself.
The current poisonous discourse between right and left in Israel over either side’s lack of loyalty to democratic and Jewish values totally misses the point. The right fails to recognize the fragility of our democracy, which rightly protected them when they were in opposition and the left went into thought-police mode after Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination. The left in much of its justified objections to increasingly deranged new proposals coming from the government also forgets that it was always thus. If anything, under the left, Israel was less democratic. Labor governments kept Israeli Arabs under military rule, ruled public broadcasting with an iron fist, gave the rabbis exclusive rights over our most intimate moments in life and laid the foundations for the occupation.
Yes, we have David Ben-Gurion and his fellow Mapainiks to thank for what democracy we have; as well as Menachem Begin and his Herutniks for agreeing to emerge from the underground and play by the rules of the democratic game. But if we can’t understand it by ourselves, we only have to look around to realize just what a rare and delicate thing this democracy is. The right jeopardize it with their laws, the left with their aloofness.
Safeguarding Israeli democracy has to begin with appreciating what an achievement it has been, for all its faults. There is no guarantee that democracy is permanent or that Israel is necessarily “the only democracy in the Middle East.” For a start, there is another democracy now in the neighborhood, and as those young men in Tunis did, we would do well to observe their valiant efforts and learn a bit.
In a radio interview on Monday, Benny Begin admitted that there are problems in the relationship between Jews and Arabs in Israel, but then launched on an impassioned speech of how, considering the situation around us and how things could conceivably be much worse here, there is a lot to be pleased about when we have Arab professionals, judges, parliamentarians and senior executives working among us. He’s right – things could be a lot worse and we don’t have to look very far to see that’s the case.
But it’s pretty grim satisfaction to say that we haven’t reached levels of Sunni-Shi’ite bloodshed when over the past two years Jews have twice burned Palestinians to death, and in recent months every day two or three Palestinian youngsters take a knife out of their kitchen drawer and go looking for a Jew to stab.
The lesson of the last five years of what we optimistically called at first the Arab Spring is that democracy in this region is a very delicate thing, we should be extremely careful and grateful for it. Our neighbors have very good reasons to yearn for it.