In response to bitter criticism of his decision to accept the Jerusalem Prize
for literature, British author Ian McEwan, who arrived in Israel on Thursday,
noted that Israel is a country that supports a “true democracy of
He added that it was “much more useful to come and engage and
keep speaking” than to freeze out or boycott Israel over its policies regarding
Gaza and the West Bank.
One day later McEwan proceeded to partake of some
of that “democracy of opinion.” Together with writer David Grossman, McEwan took
to the streets of east Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood to participate in
the weekly protest against a court-authorized eviction of three Arab families
from their homes at the end of 2009.
On the same day McEwan was slated to
receive his prize at the 25th Jerusalem International Book Fair, some of
lawmakers were taking steps that could have curtailed local artists’ freedom of
On Sunday, the Ministerial Committee for Legislation rejected
a bill backed by MKs from Kadima, Habayit Hayehudi and Israel Beiteinu, that
would have enabled the state to deny funding to performing artists that did
neither military nor national service.
Artists who serve as role models
“have developed a culture of draft dodging,” MK Moshe Matalon (Israel Beiteinu),
a supporter of the bill, explained. Matalon called to stop the “double standard”
of a state that “preaches mandatory military or national service” while “funding
Thankfully, most lawmakers, including Culture and Sports
Minister Limor Livnat (Likud), opposed the bill, arguing convincingly that it
would result in the restriction of freedoms and collective punishment for an
entire troupe of actors or an entire band of musicians if even one of the
members had not served in the IDF. We would add that coercive legislation is
much more likely to foster dissent than loyalty. Creative ways must be found to
enable artists to develop their unique skills while serving the state either in
the IDF or in national service.
Sunday’s defeated bill is not an isolated
Under the present government, there has been a spate of
decidedly anti-democratic parliamentary initiatives.
The most recent is a
bill that seeks to criminalize and fine those who advocate for the international
boycott of Israel. Besides tainting Israel as a country that imposes
undemocratic restrictions on legitimate political activity, the bill would turn
Israel’s detractors into the victims and paint Israel as the aggressor. The best
way to counter delegitimization is by strengthening, not weakening, Israel’s
uniqueness as the region’s only democracy.
AS THE US has learned in its
fight against Islamic terror after 9/11 and as many European countries have
discovered in their attempt, via multiculturalism, to integrate a large Muslim
immigrant population, it is no easy matter to maintain an open society while
protecting against those who would exploit the liberties such a society offers
in order to undermine its very foundations.
challenges, Israel has so far managed valiantly to maintain a delicate balance
between fostering democracy while reserving the right to protect itself against
its many enemies. Thanks to Israel’s democracy McEwan can come to Jerusalem to
receive the Jerusalem Prize while at the same time demonstrating in Sheikh
Jarrah or speaking out, should he so choose, against Israel’s domestic or
In contrast, Israel's neighbors have a long road to
travel before achieving even a rudimentary democracy, as the unfolding events in
Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan, Bahrain, Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere are showing. Already
in his short visit McEwan ended up on the receiving end of the region’s
undemocratic sentiment. A group of Palestinian writers rebuffed his invitation
to meet with them while he is here. McEwan had hoped to foster peaceful
“The message has come through to me that they can’t meet me.
They won’t meet me. Pressure has been brought to bear – I guess, of a parallel
but probably much more vigorous kind than was brought to bear on me,” McEwan
said, without naming names.
For the time being, the vast majority of
people in this region, including the Palestinians, still live in societies
controlled by fear. Israel must do its utmost to remain a beacon of hope.
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