When Israel declared its independence 66 years ago, pursuant to a UN resolution, David Ben Gurion promised the new state “will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture."
The next day five Arab countries attacked it with the goal of killing all the Jews or driving them into the sea. To the world’s amazement, the fledgling state won and has continued to build a modern, free society.
Today, some American libertarians and friends of freedom, who rightly criticize certain Israeli policies, seem blind to the full context of that country’s struggle and the fundamental principles of its founding.
Israel for individuals
Modern Israel started in the 1880s with Jews immigrating to Ottoman-ruled Palestine. Jews from Western Europe, many secular, came because, in spite of the Enlightenment revolution, they were still subject to ethnic hate. Jews from Eastern Europe and Russia came because they were subject to ghettoization and murderous pogroms.
They purchased land, worked hard, and made the desert bloom, sharing many modern agricultural techniques with local Arab peasants, most living in conditions unchanged for a millennium. They were building a modernist, democratic and open society in the Middle East.
When the war of independence came, the government announced that Arab villages that did not take up arms against the new state would be left alone, but the inhabitants of those that did side with the invaders would be sent into exile. The invading armies urged Arabs to flee so they wouldn’t be in the way of the planned destruction of the Jews.
Today, Arabs and Muslims are among the citizens of Israel and are regularly elected to the Knesset.
Orthodoxy and statism vs. securalism and freedom
As a state founded by Jews, Israel has faced its own problems squaring its modernist principles with its religious ones. Its greatest internal threat comes not from its Muslim or Arab citizens but, rather, from the ultra-orthodox Haredi. They live off government handouts and push their Taliban-like rules on more traditional and secular Jews.
The most contentious issue that concerns friends of freedom in America and other countries is the Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Arab inhabitants find their ability to travel freely curtailed because of the way the boundaries of settlements are drawn. Arab farmers find it difficult to access resources. Other rights are curtailed as well.
And there is the deeper problem. Haredim and other elements in Israel contend that what they call “Judea and Samaria” should simply be part of modern Israel because it was part of the ancient kingdom of Israel. In this respect, Israel now looks less like a state upholding the ideals articulated by Ben Gurion and more like an imperial power intent on ruling, never mind about the rights of the Arabs who share that territory.
But after years of occupation Israel did pull all of its settlements out of Gaza. This did not result in the inhabitants diving into the enterprises of peace, such as educating their children and building their economy. Rather, they elected Hamas leaders, authoritarian thugs bent on the destruction of Israel, who regularly fire rockets into Israel and who kill any Palestinian advocating peace and coexistence with Israel.
So libertarians and friends of freedom must appreciate that while Israel engages in some policies that might be politically foolish and not in keeping with Enlightenment principles, there is no comparison between it and its current neighbors. We see Egypt and other Arab and Muslims countries still struggling to come to grips with a culture of modernity and principles of an open, tolerant society.
Today we see anti-Semitism on the rise throughout the world. In Europe we see it in part because of the influence of Muslim immigrants who are not instilled with or initiated into the Enlightenment values that created modern Europe. We see it on American campuses with “boycott Israel” movements. And as Russia moves into Ukraine, we see reports that Jews are being ordered to “register” and that Jews in Odessa are considering an emergency evacuation.
Israel appealed to the highest standards at its founding 66 years ago. It should be held to those principles. But friends of freedom must avoid a double standard and realize that the real challenge is for Israel’s neighbors to truly become part of the modern world. Israel, for all its faults, remains a free country.
Hudgins is director of advocacy and a senior scholar at The Atlas Society.
For further information
*Edward Hudgins, “ Egypt Revolts Against Islamists and Obama. ” July 3, 2013.
*Edward Hudgins, “ Israel Vs. Palestinian Moral Smuggling. ” June 10, 2010.
Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute and former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society.