top of page

Why Liberals Should Love Israel

This is a re-post of an article in "On Faith."

Israel is less popular on the left of the political spectrum than on the right. A new Pew survey finds that Democrats are far less likely to support Israel than are Republicans and that liberal Democrats are less so than their moderate or conservative confreres. Internationally, socialist parties are less sympathetic to the Jewish state than conservative ones; the further to the left, the fiercer the antipathy. In the church world, several mainline denominations have been critical of Israel, and the more liberal Friends and Mennonites have been especially so, while Evangelicals, who lean more to the right, have been Israel’s strongest supporters.


Things once were very different. Israel’s birth was cheered especially by the political left. How this transformation occurred is a story for another day. For the present, I want to ask simply whether it makes any sense. The short answer is: none whatsoever. Measured against the humane values that lie at the heart of leftist/liberal/progressive philosophy, Israel ranks as one of the world’s more admirable countries, while its adversaries are much the opposite.

No definition of those values over the last 225 years has improved on the French Revolution’s slogan: liberté, egalité, fraternité (freedom, equality, brotherhood). Let us take them in order.

Liberté. On the annual assessments of countries by Freedom House, Israel scores a 1.5 on a scale in which 1 is the best possible score and 7 is the worst. In comparison, the Arab states average 5.5. True, Israel’s 1.5 is not quite as good as a 1.0, the score of the United States and most Western European countries. But war always tends to diminish freedom. In the Civil War, Lincoln suspended habeas corpus; in World War One, Wilson locked away antiwar advocates; in World War Two, FDR interned Japanese Americans. Freedom House didn’t exist back then, but if it had, America’s score would have come out much worse than 1.0. Israel, alas, is always at war.

Egalité. Israel’s Gini coefficient, a measure of income distribution, is average for all countries. But what lies beneath this number? One cause of low-earning anywhere is immigrant status. A social security administration study found new U.S. arrivals earning 40% of the pay of native-born workers. According to United Nations numbers, immigrants make up 13 percent of the U.S. population, nine percent in Europe, and one to two percent in the developing world. Israel? Forty percent!

There is also an interesting religious factor. In Israel, there is a large gap in per capita income between, on one side, secular Jews and Christian Arabs, and, on the other, ultra-Orthodox Jews and Muslim Arabs. Both of the latter groups have large numbers of children and stay-at-home moms. One earner providing for a family of seven or eight makes for a much lower standard of living than two earners for a family of four, and this skews income-distribution. Is this unfair, or is it a matter of people living out different values?

Equality also has a social dimension. Indeed, in demanding egalité, the French revolutionaries were not thinking of income distribution, but status, the division of society into hierarchical classes. In that sense, Israel may be the least stratified country on earth. As Dan Senor and Saul Singer put it in their book Startup 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.”

What about ethnic groups? The biggest divide, of course, is between Jews and Arabs, and differences can be found along the whole spectrum of socioeconomic indicators. But these differences are surprisingly modest. For example, in educational attainment Jews in Israel average about 15 percent more years of schooling than do Arabs. For comparison, Jews in the United States average about 40 percent more years than Gentiles. The life expectancy of Jews in Israel is about 83 years, for Arabs about 79. Again, a comparison adds perspective: life expectancy in Arab countries is 69; life expectancy for Americans is 78.

And gender? Israeli women serve in the army, and they fill leading positions in politics: in the last election, three out of the top eight parties were led by women. Women’s earnings, as a lifetime annual average, are 64 percent that of men. (For the U.S., it is 62 percent; for the OECD, 57 percent; for the Arab world, 22 percent.) Discrimination is one reason women earn less than men everywhere, but another major factor is that women’s careers are constrained by childbearing and childrearing. In Israel, women average three children apiece; in the very few countries where women’s earnings come closer to men’s than in Israel, women average between one and two children.

As for sexual orientation, Israel is at one end of the spectrum of countries — the most egalitarian — in laws that affect gays, including the right to adopt children and to serve in the armed forces. The Arab states are at the opposite end, penalizing homosexual acts, per se, never mind granting other rights. Punishments range from prison to whipping to death.

Fraternité. Israel has melded together Jews of diverse backgrounds from every corner of the earth into a thriving nation. In addition to the sharply disparateAshkenazim of Europe and the Mizrahim or Sephardim from the Arab world, Israel has absorbed 125,000 Beta Israel from Ethiopia, 100,000 Bukharin Jews from central Asia, and tens of thousands of the B’nei Menashe from India. Each of these three groups claims to be descended from one of the ten “lost tribes” of Israel. Perhaps the other seven will show up, too.

And non-Jews? True, there are socioeconomic gaps between Jews and Arabs in Israel, and also social distance. Nonetheless, despite the fact that Israel wants to be recognized as “the Jewish state” or the “state of the Jewish people,” it tries in ways large and small to affirm that the Arab minority occupies a rightful place within the nation. Arabic is an official language of the country. Road signs, food labels, and government announcements must be in Arabic as well as Hebrew. The study of Arabic is mandatory as a second language in public schools in Jewish areas, just as Hebrew is in Arab districts.

When the pollsters asked Israelis in a 2006 survey whether they agreed that “Israel is a better country than most other countries,” 66 percent of Israeli Jews agreed or strongly agreed, while the share of Israeli Arabs who agreed or strongly agreed was a whopping 77 percent! When asked to respond to the proposition, “I would rather be a citizen of my country than of any other,” 82 percent of Israeli Arabs said they agree or agree strongly.

As for those who are not Jews or Arabs, members of the Druse sect are sufficiently at home in Israel that as a group they have subjected themselves to military conscription, and they serve to the highest ranks in the Israeli army; several are also Israeli diplomats. The Bahai faith has its world headquarters and periodic international gatherings in Israel because it is persecuted throughout the rest of the region, especially in Iran, where Bahaism was born.

In sum, by all these measures, Israel ranks as one of the world’s most liberal states. Of course, this does not speak to Israel’s foreign policy. No doubt a prime reason for liberal dislike of Israel is that the country has engaged so often in violent conflict. But the root of this endless string of wars is the refusal of the Arabs to accept a Jewish state in their midst. Some Arabs, and some Palestinians, have come around to it, but others have not, and these others today have a mighty patron in Iran. They express their rejection by acts of grotesque brutality.

This is not to say that Israel’s military actions and diplomatic stands or its treatment of the territories occupied in 1967 are above criticism, but fair criticism must be couched in recognition that Israel is saddled with a conflict that has been imposed on it and that it has sought to end.

Israel is an extremely liberal country surrounded by extremely illiberal ones who are mostly hostile to it. This is not an easy situation in which to live. That, under such circumstances, Israel has gone as far as it has in the fulfillment of humane ideals is nothing short of remarkable, and it deserves the warm appreciation of all who value those ideals.

bottom of page