Australia/Israel Review

Essay: Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite, Israeli-style

Feb 26, 2014 | Joshua Muravchik

Essay: Liberte

Joshua Muravchik


In a 2011 blog post titled “A Few Notes on WHAT IS LEFT (or Toward a Manifesto for Revolutionary Emancipation),” the prominent radical intellectual Richard Falk endeavoured to distill “what remains of the historic left” into a program of contemporary relevance. The starting point he proposed? “Support for the Palestinian Solidarity Movement.”

This is not surprising, as Falk is the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Palestine and a ferocious supporter of the Palestinian cause. But his views are not unusual. Falk was simply expressing what has been implicit among progressive academic associations, unions, churches, and human rights groups that single out Israel for censure or punishment. Championing the Palestinians and opposing Israel has become a touchstone, perhaps the touchstone, of the contemporary Left.

This reflects a larger transformation of Leftist concepts from that of the working class versus the bourgeoisie to that of the Third World versus the First World, an idea that grew out of the struggle against Western colonialism. It places Israeli irredeemably in the wrong and bathes the Palestinian cause in nobility.

But the Israeli hold on the West Bank and those that live there, oppressive as it can be, ill fits the mould of colonialism. It is an occupation that did not emerge out of greed or the desire for political power, but out of a defensive war, and most Israelis would relinquish it if the Palestinians would make it safe to do so.

Moreover, when viewed in the light of the core values of the Left – and, indeed, much of the contemporary Right – Israel actually comes off remarkably well; often much better than its most violent critics. These values are summed up by the great slogan of the French Revolution: “liberté, egalité, fraternité”, “liberty, equality, fraternity”. Israel’s record with respect to these core values ranks among the best in the world.

“Liberty” is usually understood as meaning freedom and democracy, which remain the most basic measures of a nation’s respect for human dignity. We can compare different countries’ records on this issue through the findings of the NGO Freedom House, which each year issues a list of “electoral democracies” and scores all countries numerically, with 1 being the best possible score and 7 the worst. Countries that score from 1 to 2.5 are “free”, those from 3 to 5 are “partly free”, and those from 5.5 to 7 are considered “not free”.

Freedom House considers Israel an “electoral democracy”. Its freedom rating is 1.5. This qualifies as “free,” but is a notch less perfect than most Western countries. However, it is worth considering the context. Even liberal democracies tend to become less free when their safety or survival is threatened. American civil liberties suffered because of the War on Terror, not to mention earlier, more fraught moments in American history; the right of habeas corpus was suspended during the Civil War, and anti-war dissenters were imprisoned during World War I. During World War II, Japanese-Americans were notoriously interned, while in Britain, Prime Minister Winston Churchill jailed the Fascist leader, Sir Oswald Mosley, without any judicial proceedings. Had Freedom House been around back then, the US and UK would likely have scored worse than Israel’s 1.5.

Because of Israel’s size and isolation, as well as the proximity and often intense hostility of its enemies, few countries live within a narrower margin of safety. Under such circumstances, it is doubtful that even the most liberal states would preserve more essential freedoms than Israel has.


Comparing Israel to its neighbours and enemies, the Jewish state comes off even better. Of the 22 members of the Arab League, the only one ranked as a democracy for several years running has been the Comoros – four African islands with a combined population of 750,000. Lebanon is a democracy of sorts, but the presence of intense sectarian divisions, armed political parties, and – until recently – strong Syrian influence make it a problematic case. In 2013, Freedom House added Tunisia and Libya to the list of democracies. But not a single member of the Arab League ranks as “free” – even its four democracies (three of them rather tenuous) all rank as “partly free”. Two other countries do as well, bringing the total of “partly free” countries to six. Seventeen members are considered “not free” at all. Another non-Arab Middle Eastern country, Iran, is listed as neither free nor democratic.

Sceptics of democratic universalism say that it is unrealistic to expect democracy to emerge in states where there is no democratic culture or tradition. If this is true, Israel’s achievement seems even more impressive. The immigrants who built the State of Israel overwhelmingly came from places without a democratic culture or tradition. Half came from the Muslim countries, while the rest were predominantly from Eastern Europe.

In terms of equality, so powerful a spur to the French Revolution and various Leftist movements ever since, Israel is one of the most egalitarian countries on earth. In all manner of social organisations, divisions of class and rank are remarkably weak. As Dan Senor and Saul Singer put it in their book Start-up Nation,

An outsider would see chutzpah everywhere in Israel: in the way university students speak with their professors, employees challenge their bosses, sergeants question their generals, and clerks second-guess government ministers. To Israelis, however, this isn’t chutzpah; it’s the normal mode of being.

This is largely due to Israel’s citizen army, which is the great equaliser in Israeli society.
In terms of income distribution, Israel is not as egalitarian. Economists measure income disparities with a formula called the Gini coefficient. Israel’s ranks just slightly better than average in terms of economic equality. Perhaps the most important reason that Israel is not as egalitarian as it could be, however, is that it contains large groups of low earners.

One such group is the large percentage of immigrants in Israeli society. People arriving in a country where they have not been educated, do not speak the language, and are unfamiliar with social customs are at a great disadvantage, to put it mildly, in the job market. According to the UN, immigrants make up 1.2% of the population of Latin America, 1.4% of Asia, and 8.8% of Europe. In the US, which prides itself on being a “nation of immigrants,” 13% are foreign born. But fully 40% of Israelis are immigrants. In this context, it is surprising that Israel’s Gini coefficient shows as little inequality as it does.

Two other population groups further skew Israel’s income distribution: Israeli-Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews. The philosophy of the ultra-Orthodox places enormous value on childbearing and religious study; as a result, employment rates suffer, and so does income and wealth.

Israel’s Arab citizens, who make up roughly 20% of the population, also constitute a pocket of poverty in Israel. But not all Arabs. Research by Israeli social scientist Dan Schueftan shows a stark contrast along religious lines: Christian Arabs are much better off than their Muslim counterparts. Their scores on measures of education, income, and the like, resemble those of Israel’s secular Jews, while those of Muslim Arabs approximate those of ultra-Orthodox Jews. The critical variable, then, seems to be cultural and social values in regard to family size and the role of women. In other words, poverty and income inequality in Israel can be explained to a great extent by lifestyle choices rather than lack of opportunity.

What about equality between ethnic groups? Although there are strong differences among Jews, the most difficult aspect of this issue is again the status of the Israeli-Arabs. Although there are substantial socioeconomic differences between Jews and Arabs, in part due to the contrasting values described above, Israel has done better in evening out these discrepancies than most other countries with sharply diverse nationalities.

First, let us consider health. Life expectancy for Israeli Jews is 82.3 years. For Israeli-Arabs it is lower – 78.8 – but this is still higher than the average American and, according to UN statistics, ten years longer than Arabs living in Arab states.

Education is another area in which Jewish Israelis show statistical advantages over their Arab countrymen. But again the differences are not large. Classroom size is perhaps the greatest and least excusable disparity. The average elementary school class has 24.6 students in Jewish areas, 29 in Arab areas. For high schools, the numbers are 27.6 versus 30.5. There are also disparities in educational achievement. The median number of years of schooling completed is 12.7 for Jews versus 11.1 for Arabs.

Yet this differential pales in comparison to that between Jews and non-Jews in the United States. According to the 2008 Pew US Religious Landscape Survey, American Jews have roughly 40% more education than non-Jews. In Israel, however, Jews have only 14% more education than Arabs, who themselves average more education than the populace of any Arab country.

A half century ago, moreover, Arabs throughout the Middle East had little education. Gains have been recorded everywhere, but those in Israel are especially impressive. According to a report by Yosef Jabareen for the Israel Democracy Institute, “between 1961 and 2007, the average number of years of schooling [for Israeli Arabs] rose from 1.2 to 11.3, which signifies a more than nine fold increase.”

It seems, then, that the most remarkable fact about the educational gap between Israeli Jews and Arabs is the astonishing rate at which it has diminished and how narrow it has become as a result.


Now let us turn to economic issues. According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), an Israeli-Arab worker earns, on average, 70% of a Jewish worker on an hourly basis. In his book The Israel Test, however, George Gilder observes that “similar gaps [exist] in every free country on earth with significant numbers of Jews. Jews, for example, out-earn other Caucasians in the United States by an even larger margin than they out-earn Arabs in Israel.”

It is true that Israeli-Arabs’ per capita income falls considerably below that of Israeli Jews, roughly 40% lower. But this is, again, likely because they average more children and fewer earners per family, with only 22% of women in the work force, as compared to 68% of Jewish women.

Finally, let us consider the status of gays and women in Israeli society. There are few countries where women enjoy as much equality as in Israel, with the glaring exception of divorce law – where family law is impacted by religious authorities. From the military to political life, from the corporate suites to the Cabinet Room and the Prime Ministers office, women dominate modern Israel society in ways that are in deep contrast with anything else in the Middle East, and much of the rest of the world.

This begins with military service, which is all the more important because of the central role the army plays in Israel’s social and economic life, as well as the prestige it enjoys. A second major area is economic. The UN’s Gender-Related Equality Index for 2009 provides data on women and men’s estimated earned income in various countries and regions. The figures for Israel show that women earn 64% of what men earn. For the US, the proportion is 62%. For the OECD, which is mostly composed of Western European countries, including some of Israel’s harshest critics, it is 57%. In the Arab states it is a stunningly low 22%.

Israel is also one of the few dozen countries with the most accommodating legal framework for gays in regard to such issues as homosexual acts, recognition of gay partnerships and marriages, the right to adopt children and serve in the armed forces, and the like. Again, gay marriages are not performed because family law falls under religious jurisdiction, but same-sex marriages performed abroad are legally recognised. By contrast, none of Israel’s neighbours bars discrimination based on sexual orientation or grants other rights sought by gay advocates. All but a few have outlawed homosexual acts, which are punishable by imprisonment, whipping, and in some countries execution. It is telling that several hundred gay Palestinians, fearing violence from their compatriots, have found refuge in Israel.


In terms of “fraternity,” Israel also presents a more admirable model than its critics seem willing to admit. In particular, it has knit together a society composed of a dizzying diversity of Jews, including some of Judaism’s most far-flung and endangered remnants. This is more uncommon than one might think. In countries like Vietnam, Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention numerous countries in Africa, experiments in “nation-building” have often failed. Israel, by contrast, is a dramatic success story. 

It hasn’t been easy, and it still isn’t. The most prominent division in Israeli society is that between Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews. In addition to differences in language and tradition, the two communities lived in sharply contrasting cultures for centuries. The process of forming a modern nation out them was not smooth, but it has been remarkably successful.

Israeli-Arabs are far from being fully integrated with Israeli Jews; but in assessing Israel’s shortcomings in this respect, as with the socioeconomic disparities between the two communities, we must ask: Compared to what? Americans will be misled if they approach this issue by way of analogy to our own country, where there are no nationalities, only “ethnic groups.” Most states, by contrast, have a single national identity. But some have the far more complicated issue of multiple national identities existing in the same country.

Those that have tried to maintain these multiple national identities have not found it easy. Swedes and Norwegians once constituted a single country, but chose to divorce peacefully. Some national divorces have been far bloodier, such as that between the Croats, Serbs, and Bosnians, the Kurds in Turkey, Chechens in Russia, Uighurs in China, Tutsis and Hutus, Ibos and Yorubas, and so on.

The place of Arabs within Israeli society is, of course, greatly complicated by Israel’s conflict with its Arab neighbours. Nonetheless, in addition to efforts at closing socioeconomic gaps, and despite Israel’s place in the world as the nation state of Jewish people, Israel affirms, in ways large and small, the place of the Arab minority within the nation. Arabic is an official language. Road signs, food labels, and government announcements appear in Arabic as well as Hebrew. Arabic is even an official language of the Knesset, 10% of whose members are Arab. There are Arabic newspapers, an all-Arabic television station and radio channel, and the main networks, while mostly in Hebrew, have hours set aside for broadcasting in Arabic and many Hebrew programs have Arabic subtitles. Just as there is an institute devoted to sustaining the Hebrew language, there is also one for Arabic.

It is certainly true that many Israeli-Arabs are deeply ambivalent about their country. In a 2006 survey for Israel’s Institute for Policy and Strategy, Uzi Arad and Gal Alon found that 44% of Arabs said they were very or somewhat proud to be Israeli.

Yet when asked whether they agreed that “Israel is a better country than most other countries,” the percentage of Israeli-Arabs who agreed or strongly agreed was an overwhelming 77% – exceeding that of Israeli Jews. Moreover, this is a higher positive response than in most Western countries. For example, only 62% of Norwegians, who live in one of the wealthiest per-capita nations is the West, answer this question in the affirmative. When asked to respond to the proposition, “I would rather be a citizen of my country than of any other,” 82% of Israeli-Arabs agreed or strongly agreed.

Israel certainly has its failings in regard to the treatment of its Arab citizens. But it nonetheless contrasts dramatically with the treatment of Jews in Arab countries. After the founding of Israel, some three-quarters of a million Jews were driven out, with only a few thousand remaining in Morocco and Tunisia. This is only one example of the contrast between Israel and its neighbours’ treatment of religious minorities.

The treatment of Christians in the Arab world is another dramatic case in point. Bombings and other murders and persecutions have driven at least 100,000 Iraqi Christians into exile. The Christian communities of Lebanon, Jordan, and the Palestinian territories are also shrinking due to flight and conversion to Islam. Coptic Christians are fleeing Egypt, where they have long endured a system of legal discrimination.

In Israel, Christians enjoy freedom of worship and control of their own holy places. Despite low birthrates and Muslim proselytisation, their numbers are slowly growing.


The inherent harshness of occupation is certainly fair game for criticism, as are Israeli settlements and other policies that complicate the peace process with the Palestinians. But critics of Israel rarely stop at this. Instead, they try to portray Israel itself and its entire society as something inherently evil. As we have seen, this is not simply wrong, it is also hypocrisy. Many of Israel’s strongest critics, especially in the Arab world, have proved markedly inferior to Israel on many of the issues they cite in order to attack the Jewish state.

In particular, the Leftist critique of Israeli society is deeply unjust. In any country, there are things that can and should be criticised. Israel is no different. But a Left of intellectual integrity would acknowledge the good as well as the bad. It would give Israel credit for its achievements, some practical and some moral, in fulfilling the Left’s core ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity. Few other countries have matched Israel’s record in the face of such overwhelming odds.


Dr. Joshua Muravchik serves as a Fellow in Human Freedom at the George W. Bush Institute and as an adjunct professor at the Institute of World Politics. This article is adapted from the author’s recently released book, Liberal Oasis: The Truth About Israel (Encounter, 2014). Reprinted by permission from The Tower magazine ( All rights reserved.




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