The Only Democracy In The Middle East? – An Evening with Aaron Ciechanover

Living in a time where the mainstream way to celebrate the Independence of the State of Israel on Yom Ha’atzmaut is to eat falafel and dance in concentric circles – the chance to hear from an Israeli Nobel Chemistry Prize Winner in a packed in JW3 auditorium in London on Sunday evening with New Israel Fund was refreshing to say the least.

Aaron Ciechanover was born in Haifa a month before the establishment of the State of Israel and he led the audience through a charming story of his life growing up in his new country and his romance with science.

After graduating from the Hadassah Medical School in Jerusalem and then going onto to receive his doctorate from the Technion in Haifa, Mr. Ciechanover received the Nobel Chemistry Prize for characterising the method that cells use to degrade and recycle proteins using Ubiquitin.

Not a clue? Me neither.

Winged by the ever-impressive Ambassador Taub, Ciechanover spoke of his frequent excursions as a child into the Carmel Mountain behind his house to catch lizards and insects, reminiscing fondly of how he used to house these captured animals in his father’s Talmud.

Whilst Ciechanover’s wit and intellect were captivating the audience, we all came to hear what was advertised on the event hosted by New Israel Fund and JW3 ‘Israel’s future in the eyes of a Nobel Prize Winner’. After Ambassador Taub invited the audience to answer questions; Ciechanover’s passion for Democracy, Education and Independence was abundantly clear.

The Nobel Prize Winner was asked by Ambassador Taub about what condition he felt the State of Israel was in 67 years after its birth; if Ciechanover could travel back in time to when he was a young boy expediting through the Haifa hills, what would that young man say was good about Israel and what would he say about something Israel could improve on. His answer was breathtaking.

Ciechanover spent 15 minutes delicately working his way through the main values at the core of the Israel’s creation, what was threatening those values today and what were the NIF doing to protect those values: Democracy. He began by comparing Israel to its neighbours in the Middle East, proudly declaring that “Israel is a democracy…Democracy is not something you find in the grocery store, not something you can buy. Democracy is something that is engrained within people”.

However the golden appraisal of Israel didn’t last long – Ciechanover swiftly moved on and began exposing the issues within the Israeli Democratic Framework “Democracy in Israel is still frail; democracy is still not accepted as a deep value”. He made reference to the recent Israeli Elections and how Israel’s current system doesn’t guarantee a functioning and sustainable coalition government – a point shared by a majority of the audience.

If Ciechanover’s point about Democracy wasn’t clear enough, he concluded his statements with a sentence structure reminiscent of Tony Blair circa New Labour “Israel is a great success. I’m proud to be Israeli, I was born in Israel, I live in Israel, I never had any thought of leaving Israel and I will die and be buried in Israel. It’s a great country. But in order to secure its long term existence and its long term flourishing, we need to be completely free. Protecting democracy is one of our, if not our main aim in the future. There is no doubt in my mind about it”

The interpretation of the question posed by Ambassador Taub 15 minutes earlier had been truly mesmerising. Values which we [Western Diaspora Jewry] bleat on about frequently in defence of Israel – it being the only democracy in the Middle East – was, in an Israeli Academic’s opinion, a frailty within Israel and in turn it biggest internal threat.

The evening highlighted a spectacular way in which to celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut by engaging in conversation with leading Israeli academics and not just by raising flags.

The entire event was a fitting tribute to a man who has played a central role in the history of Israel – leaving all two hundred audience members with plenty of thought heading into Israel’s sixty-eighth year.

About the Author
Jamie Herman is a 23 year old Law Graduate bobbing in and out of Manchester and London whilst working for Habonim Dror UK. He has a strong interest in Zionism, Informal Education, Football and Food. Read his blog for a fresh, humorous and nuanced perspective on all things Jewish and Israel.