Several concepts that appear in discussions of the Middle East have more than academic importance. This is not the stuff of a seminar, but is central to how people think and act with respect to Israel, and what they intend for Iraq and Afghanistan, and all those other places affected by Islam and Arab cultures.
One of the ideas is "Jewish democracy."
It is common for Israel's enemies and antagonists to assert that "Jewish democracy" is a contradiction in terms. Israel cannot be a democracy, is how the mantra plays out, so long as Jews assure themselves of all the key slots in the society.
Israel manifests two elements of Jewish tradition that are among the essential elements of democracy: a concern for justice, and an openness to criticism. Biblical Israel and Judah were not democracies, and Jewish communities over the ages until modern Israel were not democratic. Nonetheless, justice and criticism are embedded in the Hebrew Bible, the Talmud, and much else that rabbis and others have been compiling for at least 2,500 years. In the Bible, they are most prominent in the books of Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Job, and Ecclesiastes.
Modern Israel has all the features of a democracy. Citizens (Jews and non-Jews) can vote in open and competitive national elections, and non-citizen residents can vote for local councils and mayors. Voting turnout is generally at European levels, higher than in the United States. There is a functioning parliament and an independent judiciary. There are numerous forums for lively public discussion, as well as competitive and critical media. The State Comptroller (GAO equivalent) is empowered to criticize government activities not only according to the conventional criteria of legality, economy, and efficiency, but also according to the criteria of moral integrity.
If Arabs in Israel feel themselves disadvantaged, they have only themselves to thank. Instead of working through the major parties and trading their votes for benefits given to their communities, they vote mostly for anti-government parties. They vote themselves out of the forums that pass out the goodies, and spend their time demanding that Israel become a state like all those less than ideal places in the region. The Arabs of Jerusalem go one step further. They do not vote at all, and thereby deprive themselves of perhaps one-third of the city council plus crucial leverage over the mayor. Then they wonder why their neighborhoods get less than Jewish neighborhoods.
The idea of Arab democracy is central to the efforts of the White House to manage the Israel-Arab conflict, as well as Iraq and Afghanistan. A democratic Palestine living in peace alongside Israel is a great ideal. Democracy beginning in Iraq and Afghanistan, and spreading elsewhere in the Middle East is no less appealing.
But this is the Middle East, not Middle America. Reform is not a matter of backing the right leader, organizing elections, and expecting progress. Arab cultures and Islam have admirable qualities. But they also have other traits, which produce the suppression of individual liberty, and warfare among extended families, clans, tribes, and Muslim sects, as well as between Muslims and the rest of us. This is the stuff that Judaism abandoned in ancient times, and that Christianity left behind as it worked itself out of the Middle Ages, through chronic wars, the Holocaust, and into the European Union.
The wide range of attitudes and behaviors of Israeli Jews, and arguments about religion, politics, and the Palestinians can be unpleasant in the extreme, but they do manifest the working out of tensions in ways that are democratic.
George W. Bush found himself the president of the a country with a great deal of power and the responsibilities that came with it, plus the attack of 9-11 and all that it represented. International relations is not always a place for subtle nudges. There are few if any indications of success for American actions in Iraq or Afghanistan. However, a critic must answer the question, "How would you have done it?" as well as the question, "What to do now?" I have not noticed any great responses to those questions from those who want the president's job.
And what about Palestine? Unfortunately, it is too much like the other societies in the region. Inner tensions have just now boiled over into a civil war. It is a long way from what it takes to live at peace alongside anyone. We can hope for some magic coming out of the White House or elsewhere that will realize the aspiration of the Road Map ("A Performance-Based Roadmap to a Permanent Two-State Solution to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.") Israel is dependent on the United States and Europe, and must never say, "Never." As this academic examines the words and the deeds, however, it seems that the White House is in Fantasy Land. Its road map goes nowhere.