[xtypo_dropcap]T[/xtypo_dropcap]he world as we know it would not be the same without Israel, often called the only democracy in the Middle East. Say what you want about other countries— that they also contribute in form and substance to the dramatic acts on the world stage—but Israel, in all its confusion and rough-hewn edges, is unique unto itself.
Perhaps it’s owed to the fact that the modern state of Israel was born as a dream at the end of the nightmare of World War II. At the root and deep in the core of that dream was a fundamental need of the human soul: the freedom to believe without worry of religious persecution. I know of nothing more worthy of being protected and defended.
Yet I often hear Israelis talk about the future of their country in a very pessimistic tone.
“Ask anyone on the street if they think Israel will exist in 20 years, and they probably won’t be so confident that it will,” more than one Israeli has told me. But whatever its faults, I can’t imagine the world would easily let such a country slip away.
Case in point: this past weekend, I attended a gala event for the Israeli Democracy Institute in one of the grandest hotels in Jerusalem. The room was full of statesmen, diplomats, scholars, historians, journalists, businessmen, politicians, and many others. A panel discussion, moderated by former U.S. Secretary of State George Schultz, included an intriguing debate about the core principles of democracy in today’s world.
One of the panelists, a professor of government at Oxford University named Vernon Bogdanor, described democracy in terms of morality.
"The way a country treats its own people is often a very good indicator of how they will behave in international society," said professor Bogdanor, adding that he believes democracy is a system based on a set of rules.
"We have to decide what our values are and when we can intervene when other countries break those rules."
All of the panelists made eloquent and interesting observations, but Schultz said something particularly provocative.
“Democracy is about how things ought to be,” he said, reminding the audience that there were slaves in America when the Declaration of Independence was written.
In the documents written to herald the creation of the United States, the founding fathers were careful to include protections for freedom of belief as a core value. They imagined they had the right to believe, even if it was only an idea.
Perhaps this value is even more vividly lived out with Israel, because these are people who know what it means to suffer the pain of religious persecution, and even be murdered for their faith.
That is why, for me, it seems to be a beacon for the whole world, and why it cannot fail—no matter what pessimists and realists might say.
At the heart of Israeli democracy, the notion of protecting the citizens’ freedom to believe what they want to was reborn. So this country’s gift to the world is the example it sets for unreservedly protecting religious freedom.
Perhaps in its future life, Israel will be known as a country that stands up for those who suffer like they once did, and are persecuted and murdered for their religious beliefs.
Only time will tell whether or not Israel is capable of being a mighty force for good in the world. But a democracy willing to stand between a bullet and a believer would truly be a great and powerful country.