Sunday, July 17, 2011 | 2 a.m.
I spent the better part of last weekend in Israel. It was a very quick trip to participate in the Jerusalem Film Festival, which is an extraordinary event held in modern facilities overlooking the Old City. The festival, the creation of Lia Van Leer decades ago during some of Israel’s darker days, hosts filmmakers and enthusiasts from around the world in a city where many of Earth’s great stories were first told.
I was there because “Where I Stand: The Hank Greenspun Story” was being shown for the first time in Israel, which, interestingly enough, is one of the most significant beneficiaries of my father’s lifelong commitment to “walking the fine line of justice.”
There were many who questioned my traveling to the Middle East given the turmoil that seems constant and the concern for personal safety that always looms large, especially when the daily news tells of protests, flotillas, rocket attacks and whatever else Israel’s enemies seem comfortable sending its way.
For the record, although I have been to Israel many, many times in my life, the last time I felt the least bit concerned for my safety was in 1962. And that was because I was a young man who just didn’t know any better.
However, given that I am in the news business, I felt it important to ask the question, especially since Jerusalem was as peaceful last weekend as anytime I could remember: Why do we get so nervous over here when the people who live in the middle of the action seem so, well, calm?
The answer is typically Israeli. It comes with a question: Do you see any reason why we should worry? That question, though, led to a more important inquiry about the potential consequences that could result from the Arab uprisings in many of Israel’s neighboring countries and the struggles each of those countries is having with as yet uncertain futures.
I will try to sum up what I learned with the usual warning that it requires looking at that part of the world through the eyes of the people who live there.
By now we are very familiar with the Arab Spring, which is the name used to describe the youthful Arabs who have protested in the streets of many cities in the region demanding that the various forms of tyranny under which they live be set aside in favor of some path toward democracy.
Because of modern communication — Facebook, Twitter and whatever else young people use to talk to one another across boundaries without censorship — those who took to the streets demanding a better life did so, perhaps for the first time, with some real knowledge about what that life might look like. Until then, the people, for the most part, were kept in the dark about the light by which many people around the world illuminate their lives.
When the government can tell ignorant people that they live good and happy lives, they don’t know enough to argue. But when the Internet paints pictures of what happiness and freedom can look like, what individual rights and liberties can be had, and what aspirations can be met, then it is no longer safe for any government to tell its citizens otherwise.
That is what happened in Egypt and that is what has continued to occur throughout the region. But what happens next? The concern in Israel is about what kind of government will replace the ones that have already fallen and will topple in the future.
There are two ways that can go. Backward — more dictatorships that will oppress the people and threaten neighbors — or forward, toward enlightened democratic institutions in which the young people can see progress and the creativity of a people can be unleashed. The genie has long since escaped the bottle, so if the government goes back to the past, those who yearn for freedom will push forward until democracy gets a toehold. It is just a question of time.
If you ask the people in Israel what is the single most difficult obstacle standing in the way of an enlightened future, they will describe it.
The Arab Spring is really a World Spring with young, Internet-educated people who now know about a better life, clamoring for their piece of that future in countries around the globe. But it is difficult, they say, for many Arabs to enjoy a beautiful spring when the people are standing around in their overcoats. Simply put, to enjoy the sunshine of a better tomorrow, those who seek a better future must not bury themselves in the cumbersome vestments of the past.
So what is that burdensome obstacle that may prevent Arab countries from fully becoming part of tomorrow’s better world?
It is called husband. For it is the husbands in Arab society who oppress the women in their lives. Fully 50 percent of much of the Arab world lives under the oppressive thumb of the other half.
How can Arab societies reasonably expect 21st-century countries — which long ago realized that women’s rights such as voting, driving a car, holding a job, working in government and, yes, telling their husbands what to do, were essential ingredients in a democracy — to recognize their own desires for acceptance in a civilized society?
They can’t. For if the mothers are held back, so, too, will be their children. And their children. Somehow that chain must be broken, for that is the way acceptance and opportunity lies. The youthful exuberance we saw in the streets was not exclusively male. Young women, fully empowered and fully partnered with their male counterparts, risked everything for a better tomorrow.
When you ask Israeli men the question about how they see their future unfolding in the midst of the Arab present, that is the kind of answer you get. It is a hopeful one. And, I suspect it is the answer their wives told them to give.
Brian Greenspun is publisher and editor of the Las Vegas Sun.