43 Years of Freedom


That is what happens on turkey farms, after all. You've got a lot of turkeys, you feed them a lot and they shit a lot. Happens every time. The turkey farm where I worked, at a kibbutz just north of Tel Aviv in Israel, was no exception. There were a lot of turkeys. There was a lot of shit. There was the shovel. And there was me.

It made Ec 10 seem almost exciting by comparison.

So it went for me last summer in the Jewish state. And so it goes every day for the Israelis. Gotta do it on a turkey farm.

Who ever said, after all, that building a state in the middle of the desert would be all fun and games? Since 1948, the Israelis have been shoveling the proverbial turkey shit of nation-building, trying to create a state that would be a "light unto the nations." The job hasn't always been fun. It hasn't been done perfectly. But considering the circumstances, the State of Israel has much to be proud of when it celebrates its 43rd birthday on Thursday.


And we Americans, as citizens of the Free World, should celebrate along with it.

WE AMERICANS KNOW how difficult it is to shovel turkey shit. We know just how tough it is to make a society live up to the lofty ideals with which it was established. So do the Israelis. For the past 43 years, they've been shoveling the same stuff as us. The difference is that they've been trying to uphold Western values in a region where nobody else does.

Let's get the basic facts straight. Israel is a democracy in which every citizen, Jew and Arab, has the right to vote in national and municipal elections. Israeli law guarantees the freedoms that are fundamental to Western-style democracies: religion, speech, press, assembly and petition. And Israel is committed to being a safe haven for persecuted Jews from around the world. In the last year alone, Israel has absorbed over 200,000 Russian Jews and tens of thousands of Ethiopian Jews.

Israel is also a military occupier. Since 1967, when the Jewish state won a defensive war, its army has administered the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, where nearly 1.8 million Palestinian Arabs live. Because Israel has not annexed the territories (neither Israelis nor the Palestinians want that) Israeli law does not apply there. That means no democracy. That means no guarantees of fundamental Western freedoms. That means occasional human rights abuses, especially during the intifada, when rock-throwing Palestinians have often clashed with Israeli troops.

Israel is also at war, though not by its own choice. Since its independence, all of its Arab neighbors--with the exception of Egypt, which signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979--have been in declared states of war with Israel. Their goal is nothing less than the destruction of the Jewish state. To this end, the Arab states have amassed huge arsenals of high-tech weapons. They boycott not only Israeli goods but the products of any company that does business with Israel.

Through 43 years, though, Israel has been ready to make peace with any of its neighbors. The Israelis ultimately responded to former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat's trip to Jerusalem by swapping the oil-rich Sinai for peace. And in recent weeks, Israel has undertaken such confidence-building measures as releasing about 1000 Palestinian prisoners and announcing its willingness to meet the Arab states at the bargaining table at a regional peace conference.

THERE ARE NOT two different Israels, though, one committed to democracy and the second to flexing its military muscle. There is just one Israel, a small democratic state attempting to juggle its ideals of freedom with the realities of its security situation.

It is really no wonder that we know all the bad things about Israel. No wonder we read constant criticism of the Jewish state for its continued occupation of the territories. No wonder we see news footage of Israeli soldiers beating helpless Palestinians, hear upsetting stories of political and economic inequalities within Israeli society and listen to speeches charging Israel with stalling the peace process.

It's healthy that we, like the Israelis, should hear about the bad--so long as it is put in the context of Israel's position in the Middle East. That's what should happen in democracies, after all. In free societies, things happen and people know about them. America--like Israel--is no exception. We remember Kent State, Vietnam and Watergate. Britain lives with the IRA.

Israel could really learn a lot from its Arab neighbors, who make no pretense of respect for Western values. Saddam Hussein, for example, knows how to deal with an unfriendly population within his country's borders. He gassed the rebellious Kurds in 1988 and is now continuing the genocide. Jordan's King Hussein took care of a Palestinian revolt in his country in 1970 by slaughtering thousands of Palestinians in a few weeks. Syria's Hafez al-Assad literally levelled the Muslim Brotherhood-controlled city of Hama, killing over 20,000 of his own citizens when fundamentalists challenged his dictatorship in 1982.

Israel, of course, has not followed the lead of her neighbors. But the bottom line is that Israel has handled the intifada--like all of the other issues it has faced--just as any other democratic nation would. Imperfectly. Looking bad sometimes is the price of freedom in Israel as well as in America.

"THERE WAS SOMETHING deeply moving and deeply stirring to every American in the creation of the new State of Israel," President Harry S Truman recalled a decade after his administration recognized the the new country in 1948. "Here was a country founded on the love of human freedom, just as our own country was based on the ideal of freedom. Here was a country designed to be a haven for the oppressed and persecuted of the earth, just as our own country had been."

No doubt the emergence of a country dedicated to democracy and freedom was "deeply moving and deeply stirring" to America. Those are our values, ones for which we Americans live, fight and die. That's what we did in the Persian Gulf, even though the United States has not yet achieved its own high standards of liberty and justice for all.

And in the Persian Gulf, we all knew who stood with whom. Who was with the United States? All of the world's democracies, including Israel, which absorbed Scud after Scud without retaliating in order to further America's war effort.

So let's not make excuses for Israel, whitewash its less-than-excellent handling of the intifada or apologize for its human rights abuses. The point is not to deny reality. The point, rather, is to understand Israel's situation in light of the neighborhood in which it lives and the constraints it faces, as a democracy, in dealing with them.

Overall, Israel has done a pretty good job. That's why we Americans, as citizens of the world's exclusive democratic club, should go grab our shovels and celebrate the 43rd birthday of a fellow member.

Kenneth A. Katz '93, a Crimson editor, is chair of the Harvard Israel Public Affairs Committee.

Since 1948, Israel has built a society based on Western values...

... and America should salute a job well done.