A study in contrast

President Obama’s remarks last week following the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH-17 over Ukraine by suspected pro-Russian rebels were unusually eloquent, even for this president.

Noting that there were some 100 AIDS/HIV researchers and advocates traveling to an international conference in Australia on board the exploded plane, Obama deplored the loss of men and women who had dedicated their own lives to saving the lives of others and were killed in a senseless act of violence.

“In this world today we shouldn’t forget that in the midst of conflict and killing, there are people like these, people who are focused on what can be built rather than what can be destroyed, people who are focused on how they can help people that they’ve never met, people [who] define themselves not by what makes them different from other people but by the humanity that we hold in common.”

The last time I heard this particular formulation, this stark contrast, was in April 2003, when I heard Yaron Brook, executive director of the Ayn Rand institute, speak at the University of Pennsylvania. I recall asking this Israeli-American intellectual how Rand, a passionate devotee of, and writer about, free-market capitalism (The New York Times has called her 1957 novel, Atlas Shrugged, “one of the most influential business books ever written”) could have counted herself among Israel’s early supporters given Israel’s roots as a quasi-socialist society. Brook wasted no time in answering. Israel, he said, through hard work, determination and creativity (and yes, a little help from its friends) turned a desert into an oasis. In a world divided by “creators and looters,” he said, echoing Rand, Israel has proven itself to be the former.

As Israel continues to endure criticism by world leaders, journalists and protesters in the streets (an anti-Israel rally in Pittsburgh last week featured stuffed bedsheets simulating dead Palestinian “bodies,” reported The Jewish Chronicle), as well as Hamas’ steady stream of rockets directed at civilian areas, I cannot help but return to Obama, Brook and Rand’s binary equation of creators and looters. Israel is not a perfect nation. No nation made of people ever will be. But on balance, how could anyone credibly argue that Israel has not given the world more than it has taken?

Israeli Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer was recently quoted in Washington Jewish Week as complaining that, for many observers of Israel, “history begins at [this morning’s] breakfast.” If Israel’s critics would look farther back than Israel’s (provoked) military response to the murder of the three Israeli teenage boys and Hamas rocket fire, back instead to Israel’s founding in 1948, they would see that Israel’s first gift was peace. Israel offered to share the land it now controls with the Arab people who lived there; its offer was refused.

Moreover, Israel’s Arab neighbors ganged up to destroy the nascent Jewish state. In the decades since, Israel has made many other remarkable peace offerings. Those, too, have been met with rejection and more violence.

But Israel has offered more to its neighbors and the world than simply a path to peaceful coexistence. Israel has pioneered a whole host of scientific, medical and agriculture inventions and innovations. Israel gave us the world’s smallest medical camera; the optical heart monitor; the drip irrigation technique; the 8088 processor (the “brain” of the first PC); biocatalysts used in the production of biodiesel; solar windows. Would that I had the newsprint to continue. The list goes on.

In closing his remarks last week about the doomed Malaysian plane, President Obama urged us to “lift up” and “affirm” those who work to repair the world rather than destroy it.

Let’s start with Israel.

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