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Arab Spring, Israeli reality

By Edward Zelinsky


The world watches events in Libya, Egypt, Syria and other parts of the Arab world with a mixture of hope and trepidation. Slogans promising the quick and easy reform of an Arab Spring have given way to the harsh reality that violent autocracies are not easily overthrown. A fundamental, but politically incorrect, truth of this combustible situation is that only one Middle Eastern nation has created a functioning democratic society: Israel. Arab reformers, if they wish to create free, modern states, must terminate the Arab boycott of Israel and must instead emulate Israel.

Creating viable, prosperous democracies is not easy; it took Israel generations to get where it is today. The best hope for the emergence of modern, democratic societies in the Arab world is for Arab nations to openly and deliberately expand their contacts with Israel to follow Israel’s path of long-term development.

The political institutions and cultural attributes which make Israel the only modern, democratic society in the Middle East are there for all to see: the rule of law including independent courts; genuine elections resulting in a vigorous parliament with strong representation of electoral minorities; respect for science, property rights and entrepreneurialism; open trade and enthusiastic participation in international markets; a free, indeed feisty, press willing to discuss the government’s and society’s problems and shortcomings; a politically-engaged citizenry; protection of civil liberties including political and economic opportunities for women.

Of course, Israel embodies none of these institutions and attitudes perfectly. No society does. However, surrounded by enemies and boycotted by many of its neighbors, Israel has, over the last sixty years, done a remarkable job of creating a prosperous, democratic nation-state.

If they do manage to replace the autocracies they challenge, Arab reformers face two dangers on the path to a better future. The first danger is that such reformers, once in power, will prove no different from the repressive rulers they have replaced. The second danger is that such reformers will find overly daunting the multigenerational effort to create modern democratic societies.

The long-term benefits of such efforts were illustrated for my wife and me on a recent trip to Israel. In the old City of Jerusalem, we talked with an Armenian craftsman in his store. His family history resonated with my wife whose mother was in Auschwitz and whose grandparents died there.

This store owner’s grandfather had been killed in the Turkish genocide of Armenians. With great difficulty, the store owner’s father literally walked to Jerusalem where he met other refugees from Armenia and founded the business now run by his son. Towards the end of the discussion, this craftsman, sitting in the ancient walls of the City of David, noted that we can order his family’s artisan products in the US through his website.

When we talked about the future of his business, he observed with evident pride that his family would not be continuing this store: His oldest daughter is graduating with a degree in science and math from an Israeli university. She will work for one of the many international high-tech firms which have established facilities in Israel. Her two younger sisters are similarly excelling in their studies and aspiring to also complete advanced degrees at Israeli universities. No one in Israel thinks that it is particularly remarkable that these young women, members of a non-Jewish minority, are thriving in Israel’s educational system and high-tech sector.

Here, in the proverbial nutshell, is the future Arab reformers must seek for their children and grandchildren. Once in power, they will construct that future by emulating Israel, rather than boycotting it.

Edward A. Zelinsky is the Morris and Annie Trachman Professor of Law at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law of Yeshiva University. He is the author of The Origins of the Ownership Society: How The Defined Contribution Paradigm Changed America. His monthly column appears here.

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