Israel's Day of Light
By Richard Cohen
Saturday, July 3, 2004; Page A27
Imagine that in Egypt, soldiers used the parliament building for a photo exhibit showing Egyptian soldiers abusing civilians. And that as usual in these matters, a great debate erupted in the newspapers and elsewhere, but the government did not move to censor the exhibit.
Imagine that in Syria, military reservists announced they would serve no more. They took this action, they said, because they felt their government was not only wrong, but immoral. And the government of strongman Bashir Assad, while it quickly dismissed the reservists, took no other action.
Imagine that in Jordan, huge crowds gathered in Amman to protest government policy. Speaker after speaker criticized King Abdullah, some of them in the most insulting manner. And yet the government did not move to break up the rally or arrest any of the speakers.
Imagine that in Saudi Arabia . . . enough!
These events actually took place in Israel. The photo exhibit was mounted in the Knesset. Some Israeli military reservists have said they will serve no more. Huge crowds have gathered in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square to pressure the government to quickly end its support of settlements.
Now comes yet another stunner: The Israeli Supreme Court has ordered the army to alter a section of the security fence that separates Jewish and Palestinian areas of the West Bank to make it less oppressive to the Palestinians. In the length of the fence involved, in the number of villages and people affected, the decision is hardly momentous. But as a statement of principle, it is head and shoulders above anything any other Middle East government would permit -- never mind implement. The Israeli government says it will obey the ruling.
As anyone who has read my column for the past 30 years can tell you, I am more than an occasional critic of Israel. But I hold it not to my standards -- okay, not only to my standards -- but to its own, which are almost unique in the world. Just consider what the Israeli Supreme Court said. It agreed that the security fence is necessary. It did not find it to be a mere land grab, as some critics of the fence have charged, nor did it find it a loopy idea, as others have. It found the fence a practical way of dealing with the reality of Palestinian terrorism.
"We are aware that this decision does not make it easier to deal with that reality," the three judges wrote. "This is the destiny of a democracy: She does not see all means as acceptable, and the ways of her enemies are not always open before her. A democracy must sometimes fight with one arm tied behind her back." The court then tied the arm.
I am writing this as we prepare to celebrate the Fourth of July holiday, the text of the Declaration of Independence before me. It is a remarkable document, still radical -- what with its brazen assertion of God-given rights, "among" them being "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." I love that "among." It's not even the whole list.
The remarkable spirit of that remarkable document -- codified in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights -- animates the recent decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court and its Israeli counterpart as well. The U.S. Supreme Court reminded the Bush administration that the war on terrorism is not also a war on civil liberties -- no matter that it makes it tougher to get the bad guys.
The Israeli Supreme Court did something similar, although with more explicit language. "There is no security without law," it wrote.
Bear this decision in mind, please, when next someone refers to the Israelis as "Nazis" or otherwise talks about the nation as if it were a thuggish dictatorship. Israel, in fact, is a complex and conflicted place, searching always for the correct balance between what is right and what is safe, sometimes -- maybe even often -- losing its way. But at its heart it still has a heart.
I welcome the court's decision on the security fence. I welcome it not because I oppose the fence -- I happen to think it's a good idea -- but because in places it does impose hardships on Palestinians. It cuts across farms, vineyards and olive groves, initially inflicting hardship, ultimately brewing the kind of madness that to some justifies terrorism. But the court never made that argument. It simply said that the "rule of law and individual liberties" required that the fence be moved -- and a hard-line Israeli government will reluctantly comply.
The early Zionists wanted Israel to be a light unto other nations. The other day, it was.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company