Here are a few final observations from our CJP mission to Israel this week, framed by a picture above of the old city of Jerusalem with the modern city behind it.
If you are looking for a simple summary or explanation for what goes on in Israel, you will be disappointed. Israel is a land of complexities.
This little country has a political system that is incomprehensible to Americans. Here, we vote for candidates, whether for the legislative or executive positions. There, they vote for a political party. No names of people appear on the ballot. Since no party wins a majority in the parliament, every government is a coalition. The prime minister’s job must be to hold the coalition together, or the government ends and a new election is held. In the USA, if a President loses the majority in Congress, he remains as President for the rest of the term and continues to decide on foreign policy and on the execution of the laws.
Israel remains surrounded by countries and political movements that refuse to acknowledge its right to exist and that are dedicated to destroying it. Because of the country’s small size and the location of its neighbors, there is essentially no geographic buffer zone to protect it. It responds to this situation by investing in a strong security force but also by initiating counter-terrorist operations. When it does so, it is criticized by many in the world community. That same world community remains essentially silent when other countries attack their neighbors or minorities within their borders.
Israel is criticized for holding on to territory seized after wars of aggression against it. Those territories help provide security. There is an expectation among many that it should be required to return that territory, although it is hard to think of other countries that have been held to this standard following wars of aggression against them -- much less those countries that have acquired territory as a result of their own aggression.
There are more journalists in Jerusalem than in any other city in the world, save three. Every aspect of Israeli society is laid bare for the world to see. In contrast, its neighbors strongly control the access of their countries to the media.
As David Brooks noted in the New York Times this week, Israel has an exceptional concentration of scientists, engineers, and other people who have created a vibrant economy. They thrive because of an entrepreneurial environment and freedom of expression. And yet, there are areas of poverty and hunger in parts of the country, social inequalities, and other such problems that face every democracy in the world.
The Holocaust during the Nazi regime is often given as the reason for establishing a Jewish homeland in the Middle East; but the Zionist movement existed well before that, and there were Jews who had returned to the area decades earlier. This is the ancestral home for this faith. The region, though, is also the homeland for others. This leads to the final contradiction:
The creation of a Palestinian state is an existential requirement for the future of Israel as a Jewish state. But, the creation of a Palestinian state which has a credo of denying Israel’s right to be a Jewish state is an existential threat to the future of Israel. Resolution of that contradiction is the job facing this country and the world community.