Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Israel's 'Tragic Paradox'

Somehow I missed commenting on the murders and mass assault in a gay youth center in Tel Aviv earlier this month.

Israelis have not let the incident slip by. A Jewish Telegraphic Agency report noted on Sunday:

Tens of thousands of Israelis demonstrated in solidarity with Israel's gay community at a rally in Tel Aviv.

Saturday night's rally also was a show of support for the victims of last week's shooting at a Tel Aviv community center for gay and lesbian youth in which two were killed and a dozen wounded.

Israeli President Shimon Peres addressed the crowd, which organizers put at 70,000 and police at 20,000.

"The bullets that hit the gay community at the beginning of the week struck us all as people, as Jews, as Israelis," Peres said.

"All people were created in God's image," he added, "and all citizens have equal rights. All men are born equal, and every citizen has the right to be who he is -- to be free and proud.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a personal visit to the gay community center at 28 Nachmani Street in Tel Aviv. According to Ha'aretz:
Netanyahu told leaders of Israel's gay and lesbian community that he would do more to root out manifestations of hate within Israeli society. The premier also promised community leaders that his government would work to address their needs.

"I realize that the gay community has special needs," Netanyahu said. "I want to assure you that we are open and receptive and that I as well as the ministers in my government will advance these important issues, some of which became known to me today."

Netanyahu added that he believed "that the labeling and negation of human beings is wrong in and of itself. We were all made in God's image, we all have basic rights, the first of which is to be respected by our fellow man and to respect others. Unfounded hatred is wrong. Anyone who had experienced that kind of hatred, as an individual or as part of a group, knows how painful and wrong it is. Its something we need to try as hard as we can to root it out of our society."
In an article in The Advocate published yesterday, commentator Jamie Kirchick notes a curious fact that emerges from the attack on a community center that catered to the social needs of gay and lesbian teenagers:
At a Washington vigil held last Monday evening to mourn the victims of the Tel Aviv gay youth center shooting, an official from the Israeli embassy made a keen observation. It was a “tragic paradox,” he said, for “this crime could only take place in Israel out of all the countries in the Middle East because there’s nowhere else in the Middle East where there could be a meeting house for gay young people, which is open and which everybody knows its address.”
Kirchick goes on to point out that
...if there is anything positive to be gleaned from this horrific incident, it has been the reaction of the Jewish state’s citizens. The country’s newspapers have published countless articles about the status of gay people in Israeli society and the persistent problem of homophobia. Even the country’s ultrareligious figures -- perhaps cognizant of how their own teachings may have created an environment in which such an attack could take place -- have condemned the murders.
Then he contrasts the situation in Israel with that in neighboring countries:
Throughout the Middle East, it is usually the governments themselves that are committing the violence against their own gay citizens.

In 2001, Egypt arrested 51 men aboard a gay cruise ship and subjected them to a show trial in which their faces were displayed on national television. Iran executes gays, whose existence its president denies. In Saudi Arabia the punishment for homosexuality is decapitation.
Kirchick reminds his readers for the reason that Israel and the United States have a close relationship: we share "a set of common liberal values, values which Israel’s neighbors simply do not share."

We sometimes forget that liberal values -- including, but not limited to, religious and philosophical tolerance, respect for freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, and adherence to the rule of (non-arbitrary) law -- are what animate societies like the United States and Israel, and what protect us against the predations of the power-hungry and intolerant. They also separate us from what might be called, perhaps infelicitously, barbarian societies.

Liberal values also include the openness and freedom that sometimes make us more vulnerable to mad acts of terrorism and criminality. These infrequent events are the price we pay for individual liberty.

Years before the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights incorporated the freedoms we challenge into our basic law, Benjamin Franklin wrote (in 1775):
They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.
Consider that the paradox of liberty. It's not just Israel's tragic paradox; it's ours, too.

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