Freedom under fire: Israel and the lessons of 9/11

Thursday, September 11, 2008

For a glimpse of life under constant threat of terrorist attack, travel to Sderot — the now-famous Israeli town that has endured thousands of rocket attacks from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip a few miles away.

During my brief visit there last month, Sderot was enjoying a rare period of relative calm thanks to a truce declared in late June. Nevertheless, the inhabitants stay on edge, wondering where the next indiscriminate projectile will land and whom it will kill or maim. Despite the ceasefire, a rocket exploded in the town a few days before my arrival.

What is remarkable, however, is the aura of normalcy in Sderot — a hard-fought mayoral contest, schools in session, shops open for business. Still, evidence of vigilance abounds. Bomb shelters dot the landscape at every bus stop and in every park. Kindergarten children don’t go outside for recess because the 15-second warning of incoming rockets wouldn’t give teachers enough time to get them back inside the fortified buildings.

When I asked Achlama Peretz, a college administrator and candidate for major, how the citizens of Sderot coped with the daily stress, she replied: “We have no choice but to keep living our lives as best we can. We must do so because Sderot has become a symbol of resilience and freedom for all Israelis.”

For Americans debating how to balance freedom and security in a post-9/11 world, Sderot — indeed all of Israel — offers a case study in how to combat terrorism while simultaneously maintaining a commitment to freedom of expression in Israeli society.

Full disclosure: I was in Israel as a guest of Project Interchange, an institute of the American Jewish Committee. Traveling with me were representatives from seven other Washington-based organizations ranging from the National Association of Evangelicals to the American Civil Liberties Union.

This was no propaganda tour. Our hosts made sure that we met with Jews and Arabs representing a broad spectrum of opinion about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — and the many other challenges facing the State of Israel.

In fact, despite knowing the old joke about “two Jews and three opinions,” I was taken aback by the wide diversity of views among Jewish Israelis about the Palestinian question, the actions of the Israeli government, the settlements, religion-state relations, and many other hot-button issues. Add to the mix the Palestinian and Israeli Arab voices we heard, and the result was exposure to a robust, intense discussion about the future of the Israeli experiment in democracy.

I can honestly say that I have never spoken to citizens of any nation (including my own) as self-critical as the Israelis we met. As one Israeli human rights leader told us, there is more criticism of Israel in Israel than in America.

Dissent and debate in Israel appear to be part of what it means to be patriotic — and Israelis are intensely patriotic — not an affront to flag and country. Free speech is not something to be feared or managed, but rather the lifeblood of Israeli democracy.

What most impressed me, however, weren’t the words we heard but the actions we saw: Many thousands of Israeli Jews in hundreds of human rights groups working to improve civil rights for Israeli Arabs, Ethiopian immigrants, Bedouin women, and Palestinians in the occupied territories.

This is the Israel we don’t know. With all of the images of war and conflict, and the legitimate debate about Israeli policies, the news media tell us far too little about Israelis standing up for the rights of others and working to build a democratic society in a hostile, dangerous neighborhood.

If Israelis can uphold free speech, value dissent and work for human rights in a nation where every day is a potential 9/11, then so can we.

Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001. Web: E-mail:

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