The reason liberals are divided over Israel is that Israel is a democracy – but it is not liberal. Democracy and liberalism have distinct histories, and people in the West today are fortunate to have the rare opportunity to enjoy both. Israel, relative to its region, is to be commended for at least being democratic. But it does not get a free pass for establishing a colonial system of apartheid, denying equal protection of the law to 2.2 million Arabs living in the West Bank; or turning Gaza into a ghetto for what it deems to be its region’s undesirables.
47 years ago, Israel defeated Syria, Egypt and Jordan in the 1967 6-Day War. By the end of hostilities, Israel had taken territory from all 3 countries, including the West Bank from Jordan and Gaza from Egypt. Since then, the residents of the West Bank have been subject to Israeli rule, but have never been granted citizenship, allowed to vote, nor have any voice in Israel’s government, which continues to exert enormous control over many aspects of their lives. Arabs and Israelis are not treated equally under the law. Arabs – some of whom are now third and fourth generation subjects of Israeli rule – are excluded from driving on certain roads, have limited rights of movement, and restricted access to water resources in an especially arid region.
Israel seems intent on treating the West Bank as if it were its very own Louisiana Purchase. Like the US, it shows no regard for the region’s indigenous population, from whom it has stolen land in a grand colonization effort. Since the Oslo Accords 20 years ago, Israel’s colonial population in the West Bank has tripled. The problem is not that Israel has stolen land from another country. (Jordan relinquished its claim on the West Bank years ago.) The problem is that about one-third of the land taken by Israeli colonizers is privately owned by Arabs – Israeli “settlements” constitute a theft committed by the state of Israel, to the detriment of one ethnic group, for the benefit of another.
As America did with its Native American population, Israel continues to shutter up West Bank Arabs into a shrinking territory, which every day more closely resembles a system of reservations – while controlling their movements between designated spaces, and denying them access to water. After attempts to colonize Gaza failed (Gaza is too dense, and Hamas is too incorrigible), it was turned into a ghetto, with Israel straining to control everything and everyone that goes into and comes out, severely harming the economic life and health of its inhabitants. In the cycle of violence of Gaza rocket attacks on Israel, and Israeli retaliation, people in Gaza suffer ten times as many casualties, a large fraction of whom are innocent women and children. Such an analysis must also consider the severe impact of Israel’s blockade on Gazan life expectancy and infant mortality.
Pragmatically, Israel remains a close and vital US ally. But no matter the expedience of maintaining a pro-western government in the heart of the middle-east, the US’s long term interest is in the proliferation of liberty, human rights, and the rule of law – not merely democracy. Israel is an unfortunate example of one problem democracies too often succumb to: tyranny of the majority. Liberals are therefore right to continue their criticism of the state of Israel – until Israel follows rule of law, and treats all people subject to its authority equally.
The Field Guide thanks the US State Dept for furnishing invaluable information and insight toward the composition of this article.