February 13, 2004

Why progressives can support Israel

I think progressives have a soft spot in their hearts for the "little guy." In fact, I'd say it's almost inherent to the ideology: progressives believe that government can be a tool to help advance human civilization by uplifting and empowering the disenfranchised and allowing them to bring their talents to the aid of humanity. And when it comes to foreign policy, it is usually the progressives in Congress who press for directed solutions to humanitarian problems like the AIDS crisis in Africa, the military junta in Myanmar (the country formerly known as Burma), and the illegal Sudanese slave trade.

But often, arguments for liberal problem solving are extended to many places where they just don't make sense. For example, antagonism towards Israel. Many progressive opponents of Israel point to it's intrusion into the lives of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. They point to the "Wall" (which is really a fence, but that wouldn't sound as nasty). They say that it's the ultra-conservatives who are tying us down to Israel and that there are lots of advantages to throwing our support behind the Palestinians.

I'll admit it—there are a lot of right-wing reasons to support Israel. Lots of them have to do with supporting the United States' influence across the globe, projecting power into the Gulf, and preserving the supply of oil. Some conspiracy theorists go so far as to allege that U.S. support for Israel is linked to the fundamentalist Christian "agenda" and the Second Coming of Christ.

But let's put these odd justifications aside and talk about why supporting Israel is a thoroughly progressive cause.

Israel is the only country in the Middle East with a solid foundation of liberal institutions. Israel has a free press. Unlike all of its authoritarian neighbors, there is spirited political debate in Israel that comes from a long tradition of free and open discourse on serious issues. Even the most sensitive debates, like the building (and tearing down) of the settlements in the West Bank, get serious airing during times of crisis, and issues of security (the fence), have vigorous debates and oppositions. Israel also has relatively free markets. It is one of the most advanced economies in the world, with an advanced technology sector.

Unlike its neighbors, Israel is also a democracy. In fact, it is more of a democracy than the United States. Israeli governing parties must assemble coalitions on every issue because the electoral system allows for all political parties to have representation if they achieve even minimum support at the polls.

Finally, Israel has an impeccable record on women's rights. In fact, Israel grants women equal rights under the law.

And now we come back to the issue that has been on all of our minds this week: what about the little guy? The Palestinians? The answer is a tough one. There is no doubt that there have been human tragedies on both sides of the conflict, with Palestinian suicide bombers targeting Israeli children during recess, and Israel helicopters in search of Hamas leaders accidentally targeting the wrong house. But when push comes to shove, it is important to remember that the Israeli people share core beliefs about human rights and human decency with the United States. It is easy to sympathize with the Palestinians, and I believe that a two-state solution is the best solution. But in conflicts, countries must take sides. From a progressive point of view, it makes the most sense to support the side that upholds our basic progressive beliefs.