This week an amazing thing will happen in the Middle East. Keep that in mind, because your local media may not represent it that way.
Millions of citizens, men and women, regardless of gender, ethnicity, race or religion, will head to the polls. Totally free, democratic elections, will take place in a democratic society, with a free and open media. Free choices will be made, citizens’ voices will be heard and the government will change as a result.
The surprising thing is that this won’t be amazing at all, because these elections will take place here in Israel just as they have since the Jewish state’s re-establishment, almost sixty-five years ago.
Find Israel on the map, zoom out and you’ll see just how special and unique this is. After the convulsions of the ‘Arab Spring’, Israel is as distinct from it neighbors as it ever was: still the only true democracy in the Middle East and a robust one at that.
To Israel’s north, Lebanon’s government is compromised by Hizballah, the terrorist organization that is part of the ruling power, Syria is continuing its tragic killing of tens of thousands of its own people, Iran’s closed society has resulted in rigged elections time after time.
To Israel’s east, a Jordanian kingdom that has only partially free elections and is feeling the heat of the Arab revolutions that have swung Islamist and a Palestinian Authority President whose elected term of office ended over three years ago with no election in sight.
And to Israel’s south a post-revolution Egypt in turmoil where the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood President Morsi has been thrust into office, pleasing seemingly no-one either inside or outside the country. In the south, Israel also faces Hamas, the extremist, violent Palestinian group which crushes dissent in Gaza.
Zoom back in on Israel, the world’s sole Jewish country where every citizen will have a choice on who governs them – and what a choice! 34 parties will vie for the votes cast at some 10,000 polling booths; Israelis will decide the leadership that is best for their country and a representative, proportionate Knesset will be formed.
To Israel’s credit it does not compare itself to these neighboring countries but to liberal democracies that have just over 200 years of democratic experience. Modern Israel’s extraordinary achievement is that from its rebirth in 1948, it has been a beacon of democracy in a sea of dictatorships.
Winston Churchill reflected in 1947 that “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” And former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky reminded us more recently that democracy is not just about voting but about whether it is possible for “someone within that society to walk into the town square and say what they want without fear of being punished for his or her views”.
That’s Israel, where the debate is vibrant and raucous, freedoms are protected, despite constant and dangerous strategic threats on its borders and where democracy is real and palpable.
Israeli politics are complex, confusing, loud and messy. Electoral reform is consistently on the agenda, as it should be. We strive for a just, fair society, we crave peace with our neighbors, we want the best education we can offer our children. Like all countries, we try our best and inevitably fall short sometimes.
But Israel’s external enemies are already preparing their soundbites as to how the yet-to-be-decided election result will be problematic. They are amplifying Israelis own criticisms without realizing that only in this tiny strip of land can you rage against your government, whether in the town square, in publications or on the internet. There will be no photos in newspapers of Israelis joyfully celebrating their right to vote. Here in Israel, we take it for granted.
Dear World – An amazing thing is happening in Israel this week. As with all election results you may like or dislike the results. But Israel is a sterling example of self-governing democracy: you should celebrate it, and at the very least, respect it.