Israel means several things to me and all are important

What Israel Means To Me

 Anyone who recognizes that his roots are in the West must admit that the moral essence of that culture is in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

2013-02-25 by Carlos Alberto Montaner

My own roots


First is the cultural relationship. Anyone who recognizes that his roots are in the West must admit that the moral essence of that culture is in the Judeo-Christian tradition.
It makes no difference whether the person is a believer, atheist or agnostic (like myself). The notion of free will, the cult of reason, justice and dialogue nurtured in the synagogues, the theory that there are natural rights that cannot be violated by the state, the ideal of freedom as the supreme value of the species, the proposition that compassion and forgiveness are preferable, all these come from the Judeo-Christian heritage, with the additions possibly made along the way by stoicism and other currents of thought in the Greco-Roman world.


Being a Spaniard or a Hispanic-American, one cannot walk around Jerusalem and not perceive that one is in a place to which he has deep but remote historical and personal ties. Every Western person has two homelands: his own and Israel. And that feeling is not sensed when visiting Beijing, Tokyo, Mumbai or any city that was not birthed by the Judeo-Christian matrix.


I still remember with emotion the Christmas I spent in Bethlehem with my family. Although all of us, to a greater or lesser degree, share agnosticism and a certain indifference to the proposition that there is life beyond death, we intensely enjoyed the company of thousands of Christian pilgrims from various parts the world and the carols they sang.


I am appalled to think that the moral heart of the West, because of its Jewish and Christian content (which is just another way of being Jewish), might one day be wiped off the planet as happened to the Sumerians and the Phoenicians. I would see that as a mutilation of my own history, my own identity.


A moral debt


As to modern Israel, which perhaps interests me more than ancient Israel, I am linked to it by some ethical elements. I think the West has an enormous moral debt to the Jewish people. It is true that the Nazis were directly responsible for the Holocaust. Except for a few scoundrels, no one who is halfway educated doubts that 6 million Jews were murdered in Nazi death camps. But it is no less true that, in the West, leaders and people chose to look the other way while Hitler and the rest of that ferocious ideological tribe planned and executed the slaughter.

One had only to read Mein Kampf, published in the 1920s, to predict the catastrophe. After Hitler come to power, anti-Semitic laws were proclaimed in Germany in 1935. In November 1938, Nazi mobs staged what is known as “The Night of Broken Glass,” a monstrous pogrom carried out in several cities in Germany and Austria against the Jews, culminating in the murder of hundreds of defenseless people and the internment of tens of thousands of Jews in concentration camps.


Given these facts, widely reported by the press, what the West did, in general, was to close the door to Jewish immigrants, although in some cases it defrauded or deceived them. It was common for unscrupulous diplomats to sell visas or travel documents to desperate people who were forced to leave their possessions to escape persecution.


In my native Cuba in 1939, shortly before the outbreak of World War II, there was the shameful case of the steamship Saint Louis, which was denied docking after arriving in Havana with about 1,000 Jewish refugees who carried visas illegally sold by corrupt officials for $500 each, a very appreciable amount for the time.


The frightened passengers of the Saint Louis could not disembark on the island because the government of President Laredo Bru refused to accept them, even though they were properly documented. Nor could they set foot in Florida, in the United States, because President Roosevelt concluded that accepting them was politically counterproductive. The ship returned to Europe and 80 percent of those Jews were later murdered in concentration camps.


It is naive to think that the world’s rulers at the time did not know what was happening in Nazi-occupied areas. The truth is that they did not care much because, after all, to discriminate against, persecute, mistreat, expel and even kill Jews was a usual practice in practically every area of the West for many centuries.


I still remember how, in the 1950s, in the exclusive Riviera Club in Coral Gables, a city adjacent to Miami, admittance was barred to Jews and Cubans. Fortunately, over time, with the influx of both to South Florida and the change in customs, that institution today has a majority of members from these ethnic groups, previously discriminated against.


Those who did not live during World War II or did not sympathize with the Nazis, or did not practice any form of anti-Semitism, might claim to feel no responsibility for those events and therefore do not feel obligated to offer any material or moral reparations.
That might be so, but the world would be a more decent place if someone would beg forgiveness from the victims of great injustices. The 20th-Century popes had nothing to do with the persecution of Galileo, but the Catholic Church did well to acknowledge the crimes of the Inquisition and beg to be excused for those barbaric abuses. The 21st-Century Armenians are not those who suffered the crimes of the Turks in the early 20th Century, but they insist that the old and frayed former empire, now ruled by people who were not born when those crimes were committed, apologize for what they did to their ancestors.


If we have a historical memory and we accept – to our honor and benefit – that we belong to a civilization that has given us Socrates, Maimonides and Leonardo, it is also honorable for us to acknowledge the gang of thugs and despicable people like Hitler or Stalin who have accompanied us along the way, infecting that civilization with their crimes.


The extinct Jewry

In any case, the recognition of the West’s neglect, apathy and indifferent complicity in the face of the Holocaust should also be the starting point for a reflection on the intellectual and economic damage we all suffered from the loss of Europe’s Jewry, especially the Jewish scientists, thinkers and artists who gathered in Germany, Austria, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, not overlooking the terrible damage inflicted on the Polish and Ukrainian Jews, who, though a numerical majority, were culturally much less developed.


If we accurately know anything about the development of societies, we know that it is closely linked to the existence of clusters that drive progress or the arts through collective creative spasms such as those that shook Florence under the Medicis, Madrid during the Golden Age, the Scottish Enlightenment of the 18th Century, or so-called Silicon Valley in California in recent decades – just to mention some examples – even if only because the concentration of talent empowers, fosters and stimulates individual genius.


Well, then, the concentration of Jewish talent in Central Europe from the mid-19th Century until the outbreak of World War II, is a phenomenon almost unique in contemporary scientific and technical history. People like Einstein or Freud, to name just two among hundreds of names that may appear on the list, made fundamental contributions for the benefit of all mankind, but that vast crucible of thought from which we all benefited was swept and wiped off the map by the Nazi fury, causing us all great harm.


It is not true that only Jews and other minorities such as Gypsies and homosexuals suffered in the extermination camps. With the demise of Europe’s Jewish intelligentsia we all suffered immensely. The liquidation of that vast and fertile cluster caused irreparable harm to mankind. All Europe has been able to heal the wounds, all the cities have been rebuilt, even those that were razed by bombing, but only one loss has been permanent: the hugely creative European Jewry.


A new cluster

Over time, what Nazi madness and insanity destroyed in Europe gradually revived in the Middle East through the efforts of the Jews, many of them Holocaust survivors, who took to Israel the methods, knowledge and best European academic traditions, laying the foundations in the new country of a society that revered research and science.


Israel today is an amazing focus of technical and scientific initiatives, an extraordinary laboratory of ideas that later materialize in artifacts, substances or services that improve and prolong the quality of life of human beings. The wantonly smashed miracle of European Jewry has flourished increasingly in Israel since 1948, despite the enormous problems that the young Israeli state has faced: devastating wars, the arrival of millions of immigrants, the chronic shortage of water, even the resurrection of an almost dead language, Hebrew, which in the early 20th Century few people spoke because it was rarely used outside the liturgy.


That’s another reason why I, a resident of the West, greatly desire that the citizens of Israel continue to think and work. Each scientific discovery they make, every technical innovation they materialize, every enterprise they convert into economic success in their country is an element that benefits me as a user or consumer in another corner of the planet.


It is as if the world held a huge think-tank made up of millions of people, for which it doesn’t have to pay until it gives positive results in the form of goods or services. Those Israeli universities, institutes and research centers, those companies that are incubated in Israel and then leap to the Stock Exchange are part of a huge capital from which we all benefit, the way a computer memory benefits from the support of a external hard drive, to put it in rabidly contemporary terms. I doubt that a scientific and technical cluster as productive and as densely established as Israel’s exists anywhere else in the world, in terms of population mass.


Apart from the horror I feel knowing that there are governments determined to repeat the Nazi genocide and “throw the Jews into the sea,” as every so often Mr. Ahmadinejad, the Iranian dictator, threatens, I feel that a crime of this magnitude, as happened in the last century, if carried out today would hurt me terribly at an individual level, although I am not Jewish or live in Israel. It is impossible to quantify the damage done to humanity by the Holocaust, but I fear that if something like that happened again, this time in Israel, the harm we’d all suffer would be even greater.


Israel as a benchmark

In addition, Israel is an extraordinary benchmark to test our ideas on economic development, democratic coexistence and political change.


After the Israeli experience, we can no longer blame a lack of natural resources for Latin America’s relative poverty. Few other countries have been as badly disadvantaged by nature in their quest for prosperity as Israel was. However, Israel’s per capita income is 30,000 dollars per year, twice that of Chile, which leads Latin America in that category.


Again using Israel as an example, it is not permissible to attribute poverty to the scale of the economy. Israel is a small market of 8 million people, surrounded by hostile countries with which it scarcely trades. It is not a member of large trading blocs like the European Union, Mercosur or the Free Trade Agreement that binds Canada, Mexico and the United States. However, it seeks and maintains trade agreements with the European Union, the United States and any other country with which it can carry out mutually beneficial economic transactions.


To make matters worse, Israel must invest in its defense 7.3 percent of its gross domestic product, which makes it the sixth country in the world to spend proportionately more on defense, using resources diverted from other areas that could generate wealth. But the three great wars that Israel has waged with its Arab neighbors, plus the military interventions in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, make those expenses inevitable. As a point of comparison, the United States, despite fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, spends on defense only 4 percent of its GDP.


On the other hand, when we are told that development is very difficult or impossible in societies that experience great stress and conflict, we inevitably recall the case of Israel.


That small country is a free and pluralistic democracy, subject to periodic elections, with independent powers that are protective of their authority, endowed with a judicial system capable of imprisoning the president, ministers or anyone who violates the law because everyone has to be subordinated to the rule of law and to the general rules that the communities have freely adopted.


It is true that the Arab-Israeli minority has some difficulties that the Jewish majority does not have, but it is also true that those Arab-Israelis are members of Parliament, attend the same institutions where Jews study, have their own publications and worship freely. Women of their ethnicity are the freest in the whole Arab world.
While in neighboring Egypt, 90 percent of women suffer genital mutilation and must silently accept polygamy, the marital humiliations and beatings prescribed by the Koran to uphold the authority of the pater familias, in Israel gender equality before the law prevails.


What I’m getting at is the following: Israel disproves the theory that vigorous development is only possible with strong governments and with an iron fist. Not true. A liberal democracy such as Israel, governed by weak coalitions that attain narrow parliamentary majorities, can reach high levels of achievement if the ruling class subjects itself to the rule of law.


Nor is it true that great social changes require frequent revolutions. Since its founding in 1948, the state of Israel has made the most profound political changes without destroying its institutional framework, relying only on persuasion and majority rule.
Let me explain. Most of the founders of the state of Israel, although they were deeply democratic, dreamed of a collectivist production model based on the voluntary association that exists in the kibbutz, where the unions had a decisive influence. If democratic socialism ever existed in the contemporary world, it was the one preached and practiced by the Israelis who founded first the Jewish Homeland dreamed by Theodor Herzl, and then the state of Israel created by Ben Gurion’s generation.
But time, experience, waves of immigrants and circumstances were changing the Israelis and, little by little, or sometimes with some speed, paradigms and the ideas held by most of society changed, to reach what is now the modern state of Israel: a country where private enterprise and the market prevail, where the kibbutzim and cooperatives occupy only a small space in the productive apparatus because the fascination with the ideas of collectivism democratic has ended.


That really is a true revolution, a profound change, but a revolution without military coups, barricades, deaths, or the arbitrary imposition of a group in power or enlightened leaders. A revolution made within institutions and under the law. Is there a greater lesson for Latin Americans? Any change, however deep, can be made within the rule of law, if good and the proper values prevail.


The strategic partner

Finally, what else is Israel to me and to anyone else concerned about the survival of freedom in the world? As has been said many times, Israel is the only democracy that exists in that part of the world. It is the only truly reliable ally of the West in a region that’s economically vital to the functioning of the developed nations, if only because the Middle East produces half the oil we consume.

Moreover, it is possible that the economic success and the quality of life achieved by Israel as a result, among other things, of its way to organize coexistence, will finally become a state model exportable to other countries in the region, something that would reduce the danger of widespread war.

There are signs that some leaders of the Palestinian Authority living in the ancient Cisjordan realize that they should follow the highly successful model of the Israeli state, democratic and within the rules of the market, something that separates them from the typical autocracies of the Arab world .

Finally, Israel has numerous programs of technical assistance designed for the Third World, especially in the fields of agriculture and medicine. One of the most efficient care centers among those that rushed to Haiti following the recent earthquake was a field hospital sent by Israel with its corresponding staff of physicians, health technicians and medicine. Israel not only wants to help, it knows how to do it. That is another reason why it deserves to be admired and why its existence is a boon to us all.

Long live the state of Israel!


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