Democratic elections. Diverse religions. A social scene for people of different sexual orientations. These characteristics are absent in many Middle Eastern countries, but Israel has them all. By upholding freedom of religion and expression for its citizens, Israel is a stronghold of values that is unparalleled in the Middle East. That is not to say that the country is without flaws. There are many problems embedded within the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, these need to be addressed in regards to sovereignty — a Palestinian state alongside a Jewish-Israeli one — without distorting the reality in Israel and the wider region.

Within Israeli society, several freedoms are apparent. Israel’s population — which is 19 percent Muslim and 2 percent Christian — is guaranteed religious freedom in the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty. Pastor John Hagee explains that Christians in the Middle East face horrific persecution, “save for Israel,” where they practice freely. Several organizations monitor Christian oppression in the Middle East. Open Doors International reported severe to extreme persecution in Syria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iraq and Iran. The International Institute for Religious Freedom explains that though Christians make up 10 percent of the Syrian population, they face kidnappings and terrorist attacks. Israel, in contrast, is a haven for religious minorities amid widespread extremism.

In addition, many Middle Eastern governments perpetuate religious persecution. A report by the US State Department explained that in Gaza, Hamas has arrested Muslims who do not abide by strict Islamic law. In Israel, however, religion is separate from government. Although there are religious political parties, religious law does not decide national laws, and only 9 percent of Israel’s Jews identify as Ultra-Orthodox. Religious freedom also extends to small communities, such as Baha’i, who are oppressed in neighboring countries.

Israel protects citizens’ rights regardless of religion — a hallmark of democracy. Israeli society also encourages freedom of expression. Its LGBTQ community enjoys openness: the Pew Research Center reported that 40 percent of Israelis said society should accept homosexuals, compared with 5 percent of citizens in neighboring Arab countries, including the Palestinian territories. The annual pride parade in Tel Aviv is one of 12 that happen across the country, and national organizations such as Agudah offer support. Although he is critical of Israeli policy, author Ari Shavit describes the clubs and nightlife of Tel Aviv, asserting, “… anyone who thinks the new Israel is a fundamentalist theocracy doesn’t know what the hell he is talking about.”

As students, we also connect to Israel through technology and innovation. At the University, we benefit from the UM-Israel Partnership for Research, which recently offered a cardiovascular research symposium with collaboration from the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and the Weizmann Institute of Science. Through Ben-Gurion University, UM students pursue renewable-energy projects in solar technology, thermoelectric materials and advanced vehicle fuel.

These partnerships demonstrate academic cooperation and free exchange of ideas. As University President Mary Sue Coleman explained, academic boycotts “violate the principles of academic freedom and freedom of speech.” Any boycott of Israel based on freedom and equality misrepresents the reality of Israeli democracy and applies a double standard to Israel over every other Middle Eastern country. In Syria, the death toll due to civil war has surpassed 100,000. In Turkey, the government displaced 4.5 million Kurdish people in the 1990s, a trend of oppression and murder that continues today. Pakistan is the third most dangerous country for women — more than 1,000 women are murdered every year and more than 90 percent suffer domestic violence. Boycotting Israel for human rights violations is ignorant and disregards Israeli freedoms and regional injustices.

A better approach is addressing sovereignty for two peoples. Conditions in the West Bank and Gaza are nuanced and complex, complicated by friction among leaders, lack of representation, unrest in the wider Arab world and historical issues of ownership. Palestinians face many challenges: restriction of movement, poverty, Israeli military control of borders and allotment of resources such as electricity and water. However, it’s unacceptable to equate Israeli occupation with fundamentalist, theocratic oppression against a marginalized minority. Israel is a liberal democracy, forced to struggle amid a turbulent region and existential threat. Palestinian leadership has also complicated the issue, having rejected a two-state solution in 1947, 2000, 2001 and 2008. After Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, Palestinians elected Hamas, which has been identified by multiple countries as a terrorist group. The conflict is the responsibility of both peoples, but it is often portrayed inaccurately as aggressor versus victim.

Although there is no clear solution, dialogue and conversation are stepping stones to coexistence. Blanket movements to boycott and divest nullify dialogue by misrepresenting the conflict and Israel’s position within it. Israel is a real country, with very real problems. Occupation and extremism must be overcome, but boycotts and exclusion ignore that Israeli freedom and democracy are unrivaled in the Middle East. As an Israel supporter, I am proud of all Israel has accomplished while acknowledging that there is much more to address. Democratic elections. Religious freedom. Gay rights. My hope is that, with a sensitive approach and the right conversation, we can someday add two states for two peoples to that list.

Emily Camras is an LSA and School of Music freshman.

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