Israel: A (weak) light of liberty in a dark corner of the world
Martin van Staden is the Head of Policy at the Free Market Foundation. He is pursuing a doctorate in law at the University of Pretoria. For more information visit

The State of Israel is not the world’s freest country and nor is it beyond reproach. But relative to its neighbours, Israel is a light of liberty that must be safeguarded from the authoritarianism that surrounds it. 

Foreign policy is just as much part of the political sphere as domestic policy is. Few topics are as big in foreign policy as the conflict between Israel and its neighbours. 

This topic has flared again in recent days as Hamas, a Palestinian terror group, launched an attack on Israeli civilian targets. 

For a liberal such as myself, liberty must necessarily be the standard I use to determine what to support or oppose – whether in domestic or foreign policy. The conflict around Israel is no exception. 

Assessing Israel 

‘What does freedom mean?’ is an interesting question to ask and debate in the abstract, but in practical matters I think every reasonable person has an acceptably accurate ‘hunch’ of what is representative of liberty and what is not.

It is too big a question to parse out for such a specific topic as the conflict around Israel, so it is useful to defer to the many, many indices that try to measure freedom, democracy, and respect for rights. 

Israel ranks 29th out of 167 states measured (scoring 7.93/10) in the Economist Intelligence Unit (United Kingdom)’s 2022 Democracy Index.

Israel ranked 30th out of 160 (scoring 70.90) in the Foundation for the Advancement of Liberty (Spain)’s 2022 World Index of Moral Freedom.

Israel ranked 34th out of 165 (scoring 7.57/10) in the Fraser Institute (Canada)’s Economic Freedom of the World annual report.

Israel ranked 62nd out of 165 (scoring 7.36) in the Cato Institute (United States)’s 2022 Human Freedom Index.

Israel scored 77/100 in Freedom House (United States)’s 2023 Freedom in the World index.

Israel ranked 97th out of 180 (scoring 57.57) in Reporters Without Borders (France)’s 2023 World Press Freedom Index.

Israel ranked 97th out of 180 (scoring 57.57) in France’s 2023 Reporters Without Borders 2023 World Press Freedom Index.

For the purposes of this article, it suffices only to say that Israel outranks all its immediate neighbours (including the State of Palestine, where data is available) and all the Middle East in each of the above indices – usually by a country mile. The island state of Cyprus is the nearest competitor that gives Israel a run for its money. 

Israel is not necessarily climbing in all these indices – in fact, it is regressing on some. There are therefore good reasons to be concerned with Israel’s trajectory. 

And, indeed, while these scores do generally put Israel in the ‘free’ half of the world, they are by no means indicative of Israel being the very pinnacle of liberty. 

Liberty? Pfft! History! 

It is usually here, after one has appealed to liberty, that there is a kind of demographic retort: the appeal to majoritarianism. 

In South Africa, it goes something like: ‘It is irrelevant that you prefer liberty – the majority has democratically decided to go with X.’ This demographic appeal is not available to those who favour the Palestinian cause, as they are a minority in Israel. Had there been more Palestinians than Israelis, you could bet your bottom dollar that the majoritarian appeal would have dominated everything else. 

So the next best thing, to critics of Israel, is history. Usually, this comes in the form of appealing to the United Nations-sanctioned partitioning of Israel from 1947, and how Israel has apparently ignored this plan. Even those on the Israeli side eagerly get drawn into a historical debate. 

Everyone seems to want to engage in a historical argument, as if magic elevates history to the most important consideration. 

Do not get me wrong: history is consideration, and often an important one, but it is not the only consideration and is not necessarily the most important. History is key when determining the legitimate ownership of property, for example. 

But it is less important, in my view, when determining morality in the context of foreign policy in particular. Why? Because property (for instance) relates to identifiable persons, and foreign policy relates to states

States have no rights, and therefore can never have a claim to victimhood. Palestine is not a victim of anything, and neither is Israel. These are bodies that can only ever legitimately exist to serve the core directive of politics: the protection of the liberty of actual individuals and communities. 

The historical approach to the squabble between Israel and Palestine must, to those primarily concerned with freedom, necessarily give way to the simple question: which side serves liberty the best? 

‘Western’ liberty 

With the historical argument dealt with, many would retort with a different form of the aforementioned demographic argument: that the conception of liberty used herein is a ‘Western’ one. 

I have always found this line of reasoning problematic, because when you peer beneath the surface, it usually amounts to this argument: only those in the West are entitled to individual liberty, whereas the remainder have to accept tyranny

As one commenter – on a different topic – recently put it: ‘Using the very unequal and non-permissive western propganda [sic] trope of tyrant labelling for other cultures doing things the way they like doing things, doesn’t fly’. 

But it does fly

If you ‘like doing things’ in a way that happens to impose your preferences on others who do not ‘like doing things’ that way, then you can be labelled a tyrant. 

A preteen minor saying ‘no’ to the sexual advances of an adult in Paris, France, is in the same category as a preteen minor saying ‘no’ to the sexual advances of an adult in Kabul, Afghanistan. 

It does not – through some feat of magical cultural reasoning – become ‘okay’ to disregard the minor’s preference in favour of the adult’s, just because we are analysing a situation in Afghanistan instead of France. The minor in Afghanistan is an individual just as much as the minor in France, and both were born with the same, identical claim to have their liberty and agency recognised, respected, and protected. 

There is nothing ‘Western’ about this, even though the West might have come to this realisation first. Either liberty is universal, or it is not liberty. The imperative at liberty’s core is necessarily universal. 

Saying ‘liberty is Western’ is perverse. To think that only the people of the West get to be free but everyone else must be happy with tyranny, that does not fly. 

If the State of Palestine respects liberty less than the State of Israel, then this is not a legitimate ‘choice’ that Palestinians have taken against ‘Western’ liberty in favour of a ‘homegrown’ conception of freedom. It is, simply, tyranny. And to place Israel higher in the order of precedence than Palestine is, as a result, entirely reasonable. 

Israeli excesses 

Israel is no saint, however. Aside from not being nearly as free a society as it can be – it ranks only just above South Africa, and alongside Namibia, in the Freedom House index – its casual use of tactics that harm civilians and militants indiscriminately is unjustifiable. Cutting off water or power supply, shelling civilian areas (even after dropping leaflets), or presuming every Palestinian trying to travel to be guilty of something, is off the reservation. 

Innocent third parties are not pawns on the chessboard of someone else’s war. 

Israel makes use of excessive and often indiscriminate force, for which it can and must be criticised and even punished. Of course, Israel’s enemies – like Hamas – cannot be spared in this criticism, and certainly not spared punishment. 

On 7 October, Hamas militants stormed into a music festival that sought to promote peace, and gunned down (at the time of writing) some 260 unarmed civilians. The perpetrators of this massacre – including and especially the organisation that enabled them – should be hunted down. 

Hamas’s conduct does not, however, amount to giving Israel a blanket licence to victimise innocent Palestinians. It is simply wrong if Israel does that. 

But this immoral conduct should not inspire confidence in those who feel it necessary to label Israel an ‘apartheid state’: a preposterous notion. 

Khaled Kabub, a Muslim of Arab extraction who sits on the Supreme Court of Israel, is not required to enter the judges’ chambers through a separate entrance for Muslims or Arabs. There are no separate amenities that he must use, set apart from Jewish Israelis. 

Despite it being a ‘Jewish State’, Christians and Muslims and atheists can thrive in Israel. Being a religious minority in some of Israel’s neighbouring states, on the other hand – especially if you do things that directly contradict Sharia law – can at best be described as ‘difficult’. Even in Dubai, thought to be something of a ‘safe space’ for Westerners in the Middle East, the government has on occasion arrested women for being raped – another ‘non-Western’ conception of freedom? 

The accusation of Israel being an ‘apartheid state’ is an emotional trick more than anything else, and it distracts unnecessarily from the very real wrong Israel’s government does do and for which it can be taken to task. 

People can, then, understandably, feel uneasy about calling Israel a ‘free society’. But they must compromise, at the very least, on accepting that Israel is the closest thing that approximates to a free society in the Middle East. And this means something. In my view, for this reason alone, Israel is worth protecting from the often barbaric, often totalitarian, tyranny that surrounds it. 

ido.jpgIdo Derby was the official photographer at Nova, the Israeli trance-music festival in Southern Israel.

The photo was taken before at least 260 people died.

Derby had a lucky escape.