Civic Engagement and the Mideast Cauldron


A recent trip to Israel–which concluded just before the outbreak of war between Israel and Lebanon–offered some lessons on civic engagement that Americans would be wise to learn.

The escalating tensions in the region, including full-scale war in Gaza, provided a dramatic back-drop to a long series of briefings by high level officials in the government and the military. Among the many places we toured by bus and helicopter included the borders with Syria and Lebanon. At the latter, we took a close look at the Hezbollah camp from which, just days later, would come the daring raid into Israel to kidnap soldiers that sparked war. Never have I appreciated military guards with very large weapons quite as much as I did during that foray.

The trip was sponsored by the American Israel Education Foundation, and the entourage included prominent U.S. pundits from the Beltway and New York. America nicely survived the absence of conventional wisdom while we were abroad.

I leave to true Middle East experts, who spend a lifetime untangling the complex threads of identity and hatreds in the Holy Land, the analysis of the current crisis. But there were aspects of the trip that apply to domestic U.S. politics that I can share with Crystal Ball readers.

  1. Universal national service: With the increasingly controversial exception of the ultra-Orthodox, all Israeli young people must serve a stint in the army. This period of involuntary servitude is anticipated enthusiastically by some, less so by others, but all know that it is part of the rhythm of life. All economic classes serve together, just as they once did in the U.S. during the era of the draft. All Israeli parents have something in common–worry about their children in combat. Universal conscription unifies the society is many ways, and some form of universal service (military and domestic) ought to be considered in America.
  2. Immigration-absorption centers: Israel has a clear purpose, to serve as the nation-state for Jews, so it naturally welcomes Jews from around the globe to settle there. It also wants to insure that Israel stays a Jewish state in the midst of a burgeoning intra-Israel Arab population. So the issue of immigration is a very different one in Israel than in the United States. Still, a visit to an absorption center for immigrants and refugees leaves a clear impression of a country that does immigration right. New immigrants are taught the native languages and customs, learn job skills, and eventually are placed in welcoming communities.
  3. Centrist party: The old stand-bys of Israeli politics, Labor on the left and Likud on the right, have lost their ability to form governments–at least for now–to a centrist coalition called Kadima (“Forward”). Originally formed by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon before his debilitating stroke in January, Kadima went on to win the most seats in the March elections, and now leads the governing coalition under Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Sharon’s former deputy prime minister. How did Kadima triumph? It’s complicated, but part of the explanation is that Labor went too far to the left and Likud too far to the right–precisely what some say Democrats and Republicans have done in the U.S. Could Unity08, the new centrist coalition, end up playing the role of Kadima in our next presidential election? It’s a long shot, given the institutional hurdles required in such an effort, but Kadima is a clear warning to the polarizing politicians in both major American parties.

To see modern Israel, whether in a time of war or peace, is to witness a society that is fully engaged politically. Everyone talks–argues–politics at the drop of a yarmulke, and there’s no doubt people care deeply about the policies pursued by their government.

It would be a good thing if we could see more such civic engagement in the United States. In some ways, we are as threatened as Israel, and with the U.S. positioned as the world’s only full superpower, there is every reason for Americans to debate and care about politics just as much as Israelis do.