Contrary to what you might have expected when you clicked on this headline, I am not going to write about the content of the Vice President’s speech. Instead, I want to focus on a moment of protest that took place before he had hardly opened his mouth at all.
If you look at the widely circulated clip, you’ll see not ten seconds into Vice President Pence’s speech Israeli-Arab members of the Knesset holding up pictures of the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Protesting the President’s decision to declare Jerusalem the capital of Israel, the members shouted “Jerusalem is the capital of Palestine.” After the events unfolded, members of the list then went and spoke to multiple worldwide media outlets, attempting to rally support for their cause.
My gut reaction to this moment was at first a mix of anger and frustration. However, as I watched the video, another part of me couldn’t help but also recall the great British historian Lord Acton, who wisely observed that “the most certain test by which we judge whether a country is really free is the amount of security enjoyed by minorities.”
In the State of Israel, protest is a way of life. Frankly, I would be hard pressed to think of a week during my year living in Jerusalem in 2008 when someone wasn’t protesting: from high housing costs to the peace process. Following the unfolding of these events in Israel, I couldn’t help but think: In neighboring Tehran, Damascus, or Ankara, would the kind of security that Lord Acton spoke about for protesters exist? In Iran, protesters against the government are bludgeoned to death, magically disappear, or are imprisoned. State-run media in countries like Syria might have tried to quash this story; in “democratic” Turkey, journalists are routinely thrown in prison. But none of this transpires in Israel, where this freedom to protest without fear of retribution extends from the streets of the country to the very halls of the Knesset.
In his speech, Vice President Pence remarked that Israel’s “cause is our cause, your values are our values, and your fight is our fight.” It was a nice sentiment, I thought; but if you ask me, this fact had already become rather obvious ten seconds into his remarks. The intent of the Arab-Israeli Knesset members had been to bring negative attention to Israel. But instead, it reminded me that the Israel I love is a free and uniquely democratic country, where actions speak far louder than words.