Democracy is stagnating or backsliding in many parts of the world. But in a region reeling from failed uprisings, civil war, the rise of transnational jihad and the Islamic State, it is intellectually dishonest to suggest that Israel is the leading cause of disorder in the Middle East.
Yet, in recent months, some politicians in Washington have singled out Israel. There have been claims that it is a racist government, and some have said that Congress cannot afford to ignore Israel’s conduct.
They should check their facts.
What about Syria, under the tyranny and war crimes of Bashar al-Assad, whose use of chemical weapons on civilian populations remains insufficiently punished? Or Iran, the world’s leading state sponsor of terror, whose leaders have killed democracy demonstrators in the streets and hanged people from cranes?
Did these politicians aim their ire at Syria and Iran? No. Instead, they targeted Israel, our democratic ally, with its vibrant democracy and thriving electorate that holds free and fair elections. Yes, Israel, whose parliament includes Arab Muslim Israelis, Israeli Christian Arabs, and Israeli Jews, and whose record on civil and human rights is unmatched in the region.
So, this demands the question: Does this criticism of Israel truly reflect reality, or is it simply a distraction to allow other countries in the region avoid scrutiny of their human rights abuses?
Here are some facts. According to Freedom House, of the 21 countries in the Middle East and North Africa, only two — Israel and Tunisia — are considered “free.” In much of the region, serious human rights abuses can be considered the norm, rather than an exception. In Iran, Syria, and many other countries, homosexuality is criminalized (in some cases, punishable with the death penalty), and women face discrimination in the form of strict guardianship laws, unequal inheritance, limitations on travel and dress, and widespread sexual harassment.
The United Nations has reported that in Iran, “girls as young as 9 and boys as young as 15 can be sentenced to death,” an abhorrent practice also carried out by Hamas in Gaza, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Pakistan, South Sudan, and Yemen. In Qatar, flogging and stoning are legal forms of punishment. Turkey, a NATO ally, has imprisoned more journalists than any other country in the world, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Saudi Arabia ambushed and murdered the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in its consulate in Istanbul. And several Arab states have started to restore ties with Syria and its tyrant Bashar al-Assad, rather than isolating a man who tortures and uses chemical weapons on his own people.
Like that of all nations, Israel’s leadership is not perfect, and I certainly disagree with some of its decisions. But our relationship should transcend individuals and center on the fact that Israel, unlike others in the Middle East, remains the most vibrant and stable democracy in the region, with a remarkable human rights record. In Israel, Arab parties serve in the parliament, women occupy the highest levels of the military, and the country is progressive on issues ranging from LGBT rights to its health care system (which is actually a model for coexistence between Israeli Jews and its Arab minority).
In other Middle Eastern countries, too many people lack fundamental human rights and opportunities. The United States can and should take additional steps to help them, including increasing technical assistance and humanitarian aid, sanctioning terrorist groups, ending our stubborn involvement in the disastrous war in Yemen that has caused the world’s leading humanitarian crisis, and not indulging some of the world’s most illiberal leaders. But excoriating Israel, the leading democracy in the region, instead of focusing on these issues, does very little for the millions living under repressive regimes.
Not long ago, the United States vigorously defended democracies like Israel, while standing firm for what President Bill Clinton once exhorted, “to keep faith with all those around the world who struggle for human rights, the rule of law, [and] a better life.” It should do so again. And, we should remember what another President exhorted, “facts are stubborn things.” It’s time we stood up to false narratives and tropes and remember that the true record on human rights couldn’t be clearer.
Congressman Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ Dist. 5) serves on the House Financial Services Committee’s Subcommittee on National Security.