“Out of sight, out of mind” — or so the saying goes. However, having just returned from Sri Lanka on my first bona fide trip as an “Israeli traveler,” I am beginning to doubt the wisdom of this phrase. The more I discovered about the “pearl of the Indian Ocean,” the more I uncovered uncanny parallels between the respective recent histories of Sri Lanka and Israel. The similarities in their progression from colonial backwater to statehood are striking. And yet, today, they are radically different countries, revealing much that we Israelis should be proud of.
While leading lights of the early Zionist movement harked back to the ancient Hasmonean kingdoms for inspiration, Sri Lankans, too, can point to a proud ancient monarchy, with Sinhalese kingdoms dating as far back as the 6th century BCE. Just as the dream of Jewish independence lay dormant for centuries, falling prey to foreign ambitions, Sri Lankan self-rule was slowly eroded away by the Portugese, the Dutch, and finally the British. Eventually, with the help of political pressure augmented by armed action, both Israel and Sri Lanka emerged from under the shadow of the British Empire. Providing something of a mirror image of each other, both declared independence in 1948.
In building their respective nation-states, the parallels endured. The nascent Israeli legal system retained much of British civil and common law. Similarly, Britain has left a clear footprint on Sri Lanka’s criminal justice system. Like Israel, Sri Lankan society meshed together a complex and often tense ethnic mix. Both countries have suffered more than their fair share of territorial disputes and related violence. The bloody Sri Lankan civil war ended in 2009 after claiming up to 100,000 lives. To the horror of the Sri Lankan government, last month, the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) urged the prosecution of officials and commanders accused of abuses during the conflict. Coincidentally, the vote came during the same week that Israel, equally incredulous at the UNHRC, albeit for different reasons, severed ties with the body.
Yet, despite these peculiar comparisons, the two countries are today marked by considerable differences. As such, Sri Lanka offers a glimpse of what Israel could have turned out to be, a kind of alter ego if you will. Economically, Israel has taken full advantage of its human capital, developing and selling countless world class technologies as the famed “start-up nation.” A far cry from cutting-edge innovation, Sri Lanka’s top industries are still rooted in the country’s natural resources. Tea (an industry that owes its success to British imperial initiative) and rubber remain the two most lucrative exports. Israeli GDP stands at over four times its Sri Lankan equivalent. The gap is just as wide when it comes to infrastructure. Israelis may lament the slow development of big projects such as the Jerusalem light rail, but these schemes are in themselves simply a world away from Sri Lanka. Anything other than a single-lane road is a rarity on the island, while the Sri Lankan rail system appears to be almost unchanged since the days of the British, who built it. Power cuts are still not uncommon in some parts of the country.
Perhaps the most significant distinction, though, is the stark contrast in personal and political freedoms. Virulent criticism of the government on the grounds of both policy and personality is practically a national pastime in Israel. It is undoubtedly a positive sign of a healthy and robust democracy. Meanwhile, in Sri Lanka, images of President Mahinda Rajapaksa ominously adorn every other street corner. A series of disappearances, arrests and general intimidation of journalists unsympathetic toward his government have helped ensure that public opposition and media criticism of Rajapaksa is almost unheard of. Watchdog organization Reporters Without Borders ranks Sri Lanka 162 out of 179 countries on its press freedom index. Rajapaksa has consolidated his grip on power by appointing family members to key positions. One brother is the current minister of defense, another is the minister of economic development, while the third and eldest is the speaker of the Sri Lankan parliament. All cards have been carefully and calculatingly dealt it Rajapaksa’s favour.
While none of this of course negates the natural beauty of Sri Lanka or the friendliness of its people, it is a sobering contrast to what we casually take for granted in Israel. Many Israelis, myself included, are often quick to bemoan the state of affairs in our country. While we should always strive to build a better society, it is important not to lose sight of, or appreciation for, what has been achieved. The truth is that, despite its many imperfections, Israel is a prosperous, thoroughly modern and free society. Perhaps it shouldn’t require a journey of thousands of miles to act as a reminder and to realize that 1948 could have been the dawn of a very different country.