Israel Center

It is with great interest and curiosity that we in Israel follow the largest celebration of democracy as it is being expressed through the United States’ primary season.

As the only democracy in the Middle East, we cherish democracy’s values, appreciate its essence and understand its challenges and, at time, its faults. Or, as Winston Churchill once said “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others”…

With that regard, today is a sad day in Israel, one that expresses in the most painful way possible our strong commitment to Israeli democracy. We are all equal here; no one is above the law or greater than common citizens.

Today, Israel’s former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (2006 – 2009) will begin serving a 19-month prison sentence. Olmert will have the dubious honor of becoming the first former head of the Israeli government to “do time”. This is a great embarrassment to us all.

Seventy-year-old Olmert was convicted in a bribery scandal. He denied the charges of accepting bribes or illegal payments; nevertheless, the Israeli court found him guilty.

This expression of Israel’s commitment to democracy no matter the cost, takes me back 10 years when I lived with my family in Pittsburgh, serving as the community shlicha (emissary). During a winter break, my family and I traveled south and as part of a visit to Atlanta, we toured CNN’s headquarters. It was right there, blaring from the hundreds of screens in the world’s center for news, were reports from Israel, that then-President Moshe Katsav had been accused of rape.

There we were, surrounded by these hundreds of screens, filled with embarrassment and shame, to see our president’s photo splashed across the screens and such a horrendous accusation – rapist.

I then took the opportunity to discuss the values of democracy with my daughters and repeated these values again, when asked by members of the Jewish community in Pittsburgh about my feelings as an Israeli woman. My message was that besides being embarrassed as an Israeli and offended as a woman, I was proud too. Yes, ultimately I’m an optimist and was then proud that the state of Israel proved to its citizens and to the entire world what real democracy looks like. That no one, not even the president, nor as proven again today, the prime minister, is above the law. Both the Katsav and Olmert’s trials prove the egalitarianism of the law in Israel.

And while our democracy leads those who failed its trust to jail, it at the same time leads those worthy of its trust to new heights and leadership positions based on their talent, morals and skills. This week, Jamal Hakroush, became the first Muslim police officer in the Israeli police force to ascend to the rank of police deputy inspector-general. Deputy Inspector-General Hakroush is part of the 20 percent minority of Arab Israelis in Israel and based on his own testament, “I am proud of Israel Police for choosing me based on my qualifications and nothing else.

However challenging the pursuit of democratic values may be, we must always aim to uphold these ideals. Their fragile borders are not always so clear and the balance between democratic values and humanity, nationalism and patriotism can clash.

Last week, three Arab members of the Knesset-Israel’s parliament, met with families of terrorists. Among them those who have perpetrated deadly attacks where 30 Israelis were killed and more than 300 were injured as part of the current violent terror wave.

These Knesset members represent the Joint Arab Party, a party representing Israel’s Arab population. The same party that most likely Deputy Inspector-General Jamal Hakroush belongs to.

These three Parliament members–the Israeli parliament as a reminder, named these terrorists that threaten our well-being daily, shaheeds (martyrs).

As expected, the vast majority of Israeli parliament members condemned this visit and many called to revoke their right to serve as representatives in the Knesset.

Can democracy defend these visits and acts of solidarity and tolerate them, or should it forbid them? Is democracy the end goal and should we therefore allow it to stretch to its limits? Or is it a tool to enforce what is just, right and equal and therefore, we should deny acts risking these values?

Black and white or as in our case, blue and white, are defined colors. Our reality isn’t that defined and must allow the many shades in between, reflecting on all of us.

Today’s extreme, unusual heat wave reflects these dilemmas. Israel’s reality, as is that of any other country, is full of unexpected waves. Whether it be heat waves, terror waves, those of social injustice or any other disorder, our strength as a just society is knowing how to deal with these waves, overcome them while allowing the many shades of blue and white to co-exist.

Leah Garber, Vice President. Director, JCC Israel Center
leah@jcca.org