Israel – the canary in the mine the world ignores at its peril

Why should the century-long dispute between Jews and Arabs concern anyone other than the protagonists? There are many reasons but two deserve special attention. One is regional, the other global.

First, Israelis are not the only people in the Middle East facing threats from the various political and religious extremists that are arrayed against them. Kurds and Yazidis are two that have figured in the headlines recently but there are many others from gays in Iran and Gaza to Palestinians in Syria and Jordan. One in particular is a relatively large yet curiously neglected religious minority with which Western nations claim to have a strong cultural affinity. At the beginning of the 20th Century, Christians constituted 20% of the Middle East population. In 2015, they are approximately 4%. The 12 million Christians living today in the Middle East are predicted to decline further to 6 million by 2020 and are on course to disappear entirely from the region. In part, this is due to their relatively low birth rate compared to Muslims, but there is another cause – persecution. In Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt, Gaza and elsewhere, Christians are living in fear and are too often subjected to discrimination, harassment, expulsion, and mass murder.

Most of the world has barely noticed that, in sharp contrast to the rest of the region, Israel’s Christian community is safe and flourishing. Since 1948, the Christian population of Israel, comprising 2% of the total, has increased more than fourfold from 34,000 in 1948 to 160,000 today. Israel is the only Middle Eastern country where the Christian population has grown in the last half century. Christianity is one of the five official religions of the state. Israeli Christians perform as well as or better than Israeli Muslims and Jews in the education system. This did not happen by chance. Few of Israel’s critics seem aware of the inclusive nature of her constitution, based explicitly on a democratic egalitarianism that translates into the legal protection afforded to minorities, overseen and enforced by an independent and vigilant judiciary. Yet it is Israel that finds herself repeatedly and unfairly condemned for abusing minorities in the UN human rights council and elsewhere.

Second, Israel is, and has always been, on the front-line in a global confrontation between the forces of moderation and extremism. She is the canary in the mine that the world has chosen to ignore, utterly failing to see the common ideological thread running between the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, jihadist Palestinian terrorists and ISIS. While these disparate groups may not always see eye-to-eye, and regularly fall out with each other in their perennial quest for hegemony, don’t let us be fooled. All glorify death, martyrdom and cruelty in pursuit of their grotesque distortion of Islam, and all view themselves as waging a Manichean struggle against the Infidel, the Other.

Moreover, the incontinent fury of these radicals has nothing to do with either Western or Israeli foreign policy (as some naive or malicious commentators are fond of asserting) though they are adept at exploiting both for their own ends. The evidence is clear. Islamists despise the West and seek to replace it, violently if necessary, with a global caliphate. Similarly, Hamas, Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad (along with many secular Palestinian organisations that shelter under the “moderate” banner of Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority) loathe and attack Israel merely for the crime of existing. They make no secret of the fact that the two state solution is, at best, an interim measure, a stepping stone towards the total liberation of Palestine “from the river to the sea.” Too many democratic governments, especially in Europe, have failed to acknowledge this reality let alone respond to it. Their selective moral blindness is potentially lethal not just for Israel but for all free societies.

All who believe in universal human rights, including democracy and the right to self-determination, must be concerned about the growing threats to Israel, the nation state of the Jewish people. She remains capable of defending herself physically but cannot and should not be left her own devices in countering the threat to her legitimacy. We all have a role to play in this existential struggle. Just as hatred of Jews never ends with Jews, hatred of Israel will not end with Israel. As Lord Sacks has said: “Those who can’t see the obvious good in Israel harm themselves, not just Israel.

Philosopher Sam Harris is in no doubt that supporting Israel is a moral imperative – it is simply the right thing to do. “The truth is that there is an obvious, undeniable, and hugely consequential moral difference between Israel and her enemies. The Israelis are surrounded by people who have explicitly genocidal intentions towards them. ….So, it seems to me, that you have to side with Israel here.” Harris is pointing out that the cause of Israel is not a narrow, tribal, Jewish one; it has a resonance for all human beings on the planet.

Those who would destroy Israel would destroy us all. The roots of the massacres in Paris and Tunis are traceable to the poisonous legacy of the Muslim Brotherhood that has inspired anti-Western, anti-democratic, anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli radicals since the 1920s. Today’s Hamas and Hezbollah fighters, along with their brothers-in-arms in Iran and ISIS, are the heirs to the fanatical Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem from 1921 to 1937 who spent much of the second world war as a guest of the Third Reich.

These dangerous people can and must be stopped rather than appeased. As Churchill might have said in the face of another form of ideological zealotry, it will be a long struggle with no guarantee of victory but we have no alternative. The daunting scale of the challenge is no excuse for inaction. The exhortation of Albert Einstein has never been so appropriate: “We have to do the best we can. This is our sacred human responsibility.” 

About the Author
Born Glasgow, UK. Worked as epidemiologist, Ben Gurion University, in 1980s. Served in IDF as medical officer 1983-1985. Returned to academe in UK but continued to visit Israel regularly. Currently advising faculty at the new medical school in the Galilee (Bar Ilan University). Affiliation: Emeritus Professor of Paediatric Epidemiology, University of Glasgow, UK.