Israel – the Land of the Free

On a recent return flight from the USA, a friendly Haredi man sat next to me. It turns out that he and his father are respected rabbis with a well-known yeshiva in Jerusalem. When he mentioned his name and the name of the yeshiva, after realizing that I was supposed to recognize both of them, I felt embarrassed by my ignorance. Here were two Jerusalem residents, sitting next to each other, returning to the same nation and the same city, but anyone watching from the side would have thought that we lived on different planets.

We dressed quite differently, cut our hair differently and shaved differently. Although both of us spoke on our cell phones before takeoff, I spoke Hebrew and he spoke some hybrid English-Yiddish dialect from Brooklyn. I ate the food, which was generously provided to us by El-Al, and he didn’t touch it. He brought his own container of hot cooked food in a large paper bag. During takeoff, I read a daily newspaper and he read Psalms. I am sure that in the last elections we voted for different parties, with different agendas. The level of diversity in Israel is astounding.

With all of our internal challenges, somehow we have succeeded over the past 66 years to build a stable society, a society in which there is almost unlimited freedom of expression for both individuals and unique communities, alike. Exactly for that reason, I am proud to be an Israeli.

With all of our internal challenges, somehow we have succeeded over the past 66 years to build a stable society, a society in which there is almost unlimited freedom of expression for both individuals and unique communities, alike. Exactly for that reason, I am proud to be an Israeli.

Palestinian suppression

This same basic right of freedom of expression does not exist in any other nation in the Middle East, and certainly not in the Palestinian Authority. The last conference that I initiated and oversaw in Sweden regarding human rights in the Middle East featured Christy Anastas, a young Christian Palestinian from Bethlehem, who described to the crowd the terrible persecution of Christians in the West Bank by the Muslim leadership. With a tremendous amount of courage, she even went as far as to say that the security fence, which causes suffering to the residents of Bethlehem, exists because of Arafat’s intifada, rather than institutionalized Israeli racism.

Within exactly three days after we uploaded Christy’s lecture to YouTube, both Christy and her family in Bethlehem received severe death threats, both by private individuals and people presenting themselves as security officers of the Abbas government. Christy, who has received political asylum in Great Britain because of clear and present danger to her life, subsequently uploaded an additional video-clip in which she pleads with Saeb Erekat to protect her security and that of her family in Bethlehem.

There is not one iota of freedom of expression in the Palestinian Authority. When Arafat came to power after the Oslo Accords, he quickly expropriated by force the TV channels, the radio and the written newspapers. Palestinian journalists, who were unwilling to print Fatah propaganda, were arrested, tortured and some were executed, after their offices were burned to the ground. Mahmoud Abbas has not changed the policy of suppression, and the Hamas in Gaza have further exacerbated this situation. For these reasons, we hear about more and more Palestinians who admit that they would prefer to remain under Israeli sovereignty, rather than to become citizens of an Islamic dictatorship.

A distinct religious culture, in a “state for all of its citizens”

I sensed that both my Haredi neighbor on my flight and I would agree that living as citizens in Israel is not bad at all. When I asked him what he thought about inducting Haredi soldiers into the IDF, he claimed that our military victories were not achieved only by the bravery of our soldiers, but also and perhaps primarily because of the prayers and observance of the commandments by the Haredi community. “You do your part, and we do ours,” he claimed. In other words, we both love our country and each of us wants to take some credit with building it, protecting it and ensuring its existence.

I agreed with him that we did not win our wars because of a well-regimented army. Those of us who have served in the IDF, including active duty and 20 years of reserve duty, in my case, know how disorganized the IDF can be. On the other hand, I could not agree with him that all of the credit goes to the prayers and faithful observance of the Haredim. I think that anyone who studies in a yeshiva can attest to the fact that not all of the students there are distinguished tzadikim. My flight neighbor even admitted that he does not know anyone who keeps all 613 commandments.

The obvious conclusion is that both of us need a bit more humility and modesty. Somehow, against all odds, and although we apparently do not deserve it, the Jewish people have succeeded in creating an amazing state – a state in which every person can express his belonging or lack of belonging to any community, religion or political movement in complete freedom and without fear of governmental persecution, not only in a private conversation on a plane, but also in public, on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and even on television and in newspapers.

I hope that one day the nations around us will obtain a democratic leadership like ours. It is possible to maintain a government with a distinct religious culture, while also creating a “state for all of its citizens.”

It’s a fact. We did it.