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 opinion.”

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 expression.

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 draft dodgers.”

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 phenomenon.

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.

Despite innumerable 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 foreign policies.

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 dialogue.


“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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