Democratic principles survive under siege in Israeli society
Story by Dr. Alan Holiman
Dr. Alan Holiman, associate professor of political science at William Jewell College, was designated as a 2006 Academic Fellow by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C. As part of the fellowship, Holiman joined approximately 30 other professors selected from colleges and universities in the United States to participate in a two-week summer faculty seminar entitled “Defending Democracy, Defeating Terrorism.” He shares his impressions of the experience below.
The Bible records that Jonathan and Saul died fighting the Philistines at Gilboa, in Galilee, now in northern Israel. Today Gilboa is home to Israel’s primary maximum security prison for convicted terrorists. It holds 850 of the approximately 5,500 terrorists in custody nationwide.
After a brief meeting with the prison’s warden, a colonel in the Israeli Prison Service and a member of the Druse sect, I and my colleagues entered one of eight cell blocks housing 120 inmates. Many of these men had been found guilty of murder, bombings, shootings, political assassinations, sabotage of infrastructure and other serious crimes. Since Israel offers no parole for terror convicts, these men would be here for a very long time. Most of them avoided us and stared from a distance with clear hostility in their eyes. But not all of them.
About twenty of the inmates surrounded us. Conversations began gradually and carefully. One person in particular I will long remember was a soft-spoken bearded man, a graduate of Cairo University who holds a master’s degree in engineering.
Why are you in here? What is the length of your sentence?
“I have done nothing but fight for my people, but my sentence is 300 years,” he replied calmly. After this our conversation consisted largely of him explaining why it is necessary to fight against Israel using all available means until “justice” is done to the Palestinian people. He was rather evasive as to what form that justice should take. What was clear was that he viewed himself as incarcerated unjustly. He was impervious to any questions challenging his view that all available means are acceptable in his struggle for what he defined as justice.
At the close of our meeting, I shook hands with the man and thanked him for a somewhat surreal conversation. As we left the cell block, we asked a guard about the man’s background. “He is here for 300 years,” replied the guard “because he is a former commander in Yasser Arafat’s Tanzim militia in the West Bank. He is directly responsible for terrorist attacks that killed dozens of Israeli civilians, and he is implicated in the deaths of dozens more.” I would have other riveting experiences like this over the next two weeks.
How did I find myself in Israel? In early summer, as an Academic Fellow of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, I joined a group of professors from institutions across the U.S. chosen to participate in a two-week program in Israel to study the danger that terrorism poses to democratic societies and how to respond to it. The program consisted of one week of intensive seminars by scholars and public policy professionals at Tel Aviv University devoted to subjects such as financing terrorism, the religious sources of Islamic terrorism, the uses and misuses of foreign intelligence in combating terrorism, interrogation techniques for terror suspects, legal issues in combating terrorism, nuclear-biological-chemical terror threats, major state sponsors of terrorism, and detailed briefings devoted to terrorist groups such as Hamas, Hezbollah, al-Qaeda and Islamic Jihad.
The second week of the program consisted of field visits related to some of the topics that we had studied in classroom seminars. Among the many places that I visited were a naval base at Ashdod to learn how the Israeli Navy conducts port security operations and protects against sea-borne infiltration and attacks; the Border Policy Academy to meet with the elite units that investigate suicide bombings and track down the cells that recruit the bombers and construct the bombs; and a Special Forces hostage rescue unit. In addition, we were privileged to attend a series of meetings with foreign policy and security specialists at the Office of the Prime Minister in Jerusalem. The program included a visit to a Jewish settlement in the West Bank to meet a man who had lost his wife and child in a terrorist attack who himself had been gravely wounded.
I was especially grateful for this opportunity, and for the chance later to visit Umm al Fahm, the largest Arab town in Israel, to meet with a city administrator—an Arab—to discuss what life is like for the approximately one million Arab citizens of Israel. In short, this fellowship was one of the most interesting and intense experiences of my career.
What did I take from it all? I am still answering this question but some things stand out already. The seminars underscored vividly and in exhaustive detail the depth and complexity of the danger that Islamist terror groups pose to international order and security around the world. While many of these groups have specific local agendas, they are becoming increasingly linked by a vision of recreating Islam’s “Golden Age” when a Caliph ruled the Muslim world. While this vision might appear medieval or absurd to a Western observer, the leaders of this movement are quite rational—within their own terms of reference—and their objective is serious. They will be deterred neither by a single defeat nor by a series of defeats. Any state, party, group or individual standing in their way is an evil to be eliminated by any means necessary, including murder, suicide attacks or worse. There are no innocent bystanders.
This is certainly a motivating factor for al-Qaeda, and it is not alone in this. With an abundance of people—especially young people—in many Muslim communities susceptible to radicalization and recruitment into this movement, the threat to the West and to secular states in the Muslim world is real. The end of it is nowhere in sight.
For decades Israel has been the target of Palestinian terrorist attacks and now it too has become one of the prime targets of the global Islamist movement. Israel is also an example of how a modern, democratic state gets on with life while guarding itself from danger.
As a specialist in comparative politics, the opportunity for me to spend time in Israel was also very instructive. Israel is a thoroughly modern country with a high-tech economy and a relatively high standard of living. The nation’s infrastructure is first class. Since its founding in 1948, successive waves of Jewish immigrants from around the world have made Israel a dynamic society of rich cultural diversity. A short walk down the street of any city demonstrates this.
Yet these people perceive themselves as one. All citizens of Israel, including women, are required to serve in the military, which not only promotes social cohesion but also provides a crash course on what it means to be an Israeli. Israelis, therefore, are quite conscious of political and security issues. And the reminders of the dangers they face are numerous: monuments erected at the sites of suicide bombings and other attacks, baggage and body checks of every person entering a shopping mall, security checkpoints at the entrances to Tel Aviv University, scrutiny of people entering hotels. Israeli airport and airline security procedures are especially extensive and legendary.
Through personal observations, reading the press each day, and talking with Israelis in parks and cafes, I saw a free people trying to get on with normal life—a people who debate and live life intensely. I also saw a society committed to democratic principles and ways of doing things despite serious external threats.
For all of Israel’s faults, struggles and challenges, democracy and the rule of law are alive and well.