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January 06, 2003

Democracy 101

About a month ago, on December 6, 2002, an article entitled Conversation on the beach was posted on the web by Solly Ganor, an article which was subsequently reproduced by IMRA together with an introduction.

The article described a conversation Solly Ganor had with an Arab student, in which Solly Ganor criticised Islam. What happened subsequently, according to Ganor is this:

Then he gave me a fierce look and said: "If you had said in any Arab country about Islam, what you have just said to me, you would be a dead man!"

"I am sure I would. And if you had said in any Arab country denouncing their corrupt regimes the way you are denouncing Israel, you would be a dead man too. Yet, here you are, studying at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, allowing yourself openly to speak of subversion and treason against the State of Israel, without any fear of being arrested, let alone being killed for it. Doesn't it say something to you?"

"Yes, it says that you are weak, and that weakness will be your undoing," he said seriously.
Reading this brief interchange brought to my mind Pericles’ “Funeral Oration”, in which he presented democracy’s credo. The 2,400-year old words of Pericles are as alive today as they were when the Funeral Oration was given (winter of 431 BC), and they provide the best answer to the Islamic student who was Ganor’s interlocutor. Here are two passages from Pericles’ Oration [bold font added]:

Our constitution does not copy the laws of neighbouring states; we are rather a pattern to others than imitators ourselves. Its administration favours the many instead of the few; this is why it is called a democracy. If we look to the laws, they afford equal justice to all in their private differences; if no social standing, advancement in public life falls to reputation for capacity, class considerations not being allowed to interfere with merit; nor again does poverty bar the way, if a man is able to serve the state, he is not hindered by the obscurity of his condition. The freedom which we enjoy in our government extends also to our ordinary life. There, far from exercising a jealous surveillance over each other, we do not feel called upon to be angry with our neighbour for doing what he likes, or even to indulge in those injurious looks which cannot fail to be offensive, although they inflict no positive penalty. But all this ease in our private relations does not make us lawless as citizens. Against this fear is our chief safeguard, teaching us to obey the magistrates and the laws, particularly such as regard the protection of the injured, whether they are actually on the statute book, or belong to that code which, although unwritten, yet cannot be broken without acknowledged disgrace.

"Further, we provide plenty of means for the mind to refresh itself from business. We celebrate games and sacrifices all the year round, and the elegance of our private establishments forms a daily source of pleasure and helps to banish the spleen; while the magnitude of our city draws the produce of the world into our harbour, so that to the Athenian the fruits of other countries are as familiar a luxury as those of his own.

It is quite amazing how many elements of contemporary democracy Pericles cramped into two passages: from majority rule, through individual and economic freedom, to equality under the law - all are underscored. What a decisive answer to the Arab student who deems freedom to reflect weakness!

And yet, there is another lesson that flows from this contrast. Pericles’ Oration was given to honour the dead of the first battles of the Peloponnesian War (431 BC), at the end of which Athens was vanquished (404 BC). Democracy alone is no foolproof shield. If we want to see the demise of the anti-democratic spirit that the Arab student represents, we must stand by Israel with all our might.

Note: The complete text of Pericles’ Funeral Oration may be found on several web sites, such as the sites of the Constitution Society, Washington State University, and Temple University.

Contributed by Joseph Alexander Norland This piece is cross-posted on IsraPundit and Dawson Speaks.