Stephen Harper and a Canadian delegation visited the Middle East last week, making stops in Israel, Jordan, and the West Bank. While in Israel, the Prime Minister spoke to the Knesset and expressed his strong support for Israel, calling it, “a most extraordinary society, a vibrant democracy, a freedom-loving country with an independent and rights-affirming judiciary, an innovative, world-leading ‘start-up’ nation.”
Canada’s dedication to Israel has come under criticism, but I believe we are in the right on this issue. Israel is the only liberal democracy in the Middle East, and Canada should continue to defend its right to exist.

Israel has more freedom of speech than any other Middle Eastern state. A prime example of this occurred during the Canadian Prime Minister’s speech at the Knesset, when two Arab-Israeli members of the legislature objected to his praise of Israel, heckled him, and walked out. I doubt such treatment of an official guest would have been tolerated by many of Israel’s neighbours.

Israel’s system of proportional representation allows all voices to be heard in politics. According to BBC News, thirty-four political parties ran in the 2013 election, featuring a wide variety of perspectives including parties that support a two-state solution and oppose Zionism.  This democratic system stands out in a region littered with monarchies, theocracies, and dictatorships.

Israel is also quite progressive regarding LGBT rights. Gay citizens are allowed to adopt and have children through surrogacy, serve in the military, and are given equal rights in the court system. Gay marriages performed overseas are legally recognized, and many prominent Israeli politicians, including President Shimon Peres, have also come out in support of gay marriage. On the other hand, it is extremely hazardous to be gay in many Middle Eastern countries – in fact, it is often a literal death sentence. Homosexuality is punishable by death in Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, and by imprisonment in Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Oman, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Syria, and Kuwait.

Canada’s unfaltering dedication to Israel doesn’t mean that the nation’s policies are beyond criticism. Freedom to criticize the government is one of the main principles of democracy recognized by countries such as Canada and Israel. But we cannot have a meaningful discussion of political issues by simply trying to negate the existence of one of the parties. We should keep in mind that Israel allows its citizens more human rights than any other country in the region, and that they have a fundamental right to exist as a sovereign nation.

Canada fully recognizes these facts, and rightfully so. In order to have a reasonable discussion about the political situation in Israel and the Middle East, others should as well.

Originally published in The Fulcrum as “Canada’s support for Israel is the right thing to do,” February 1, 2014