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“In a word: Democracy”

Keynote address by Garry Kasparov at the Weizmann Institute of Science’s honorary PhDs conferment ceremony

I want to thank the Weizmann Institute of Science for having me here. It is an honor to receive this recognition. To be here in Israel at this moment feels like a moral duty.

Israel’s existence as a Jewish state remains nothing short of a modern miracle. I was born in a country where “Jew” was a mark of shame borne on your passport. My father, who was Jewish, carried that burden while growing up in a world without an Israel.

Yet for all of this, a Jewish state is not enough. If Israel were only the nation state of the Jewish people, if it were only a place where the Hebrew language is spoken and Jewish culture is celebrated, it would not be a sustainable enterprise.

Countless masses from the Far East to the Middle East have traded their homelands for foreign shores because it is better to live freely in an unfamiliar place than to stay put, bereft of liberty and opportunity.

“Millions of people have come to Israel in the past seventy-five years because it is a Jewish state. But they have stayed because Israel is also a democracy.”
— Garry Kasparov

Millions of people have come to Israel in the past seventy-five years because it is a Jewish state. But they have stayed because Israel is also a democracy. While your autocratic neighbors squabbled and fought amongst themselves, Israel survived in the face of overwhelming odds because it is a democracy. Israel’s greatest strength is its open society and its greatest strategic asset is its alliance with other free nations.

Values are a stronger glue for any relationship than fleeting geopolitical interests. Yes, Israelis may have disagreements and quarrels about America’s foreign policy – I have my criticisms too – but ask any Armenian or Syrian what it means to be “allies” with Russia and Iran, and it will quickly become apparent how important it is that Israel’s greatest patron is another democracy.

The enemies of Israel, America and other democratic countries understand this. Democracy is not only the greatest safeguard for your rights, it also lends itself to prosperity. The dictators understand this as well. They can’t outpace Israel or America economically. They can launch horrific attacks, as we have seen from Bucha to Be’eri – take note that the very same drones Iran pointed at Israel last month have been provided to Russia to terrorize Ukrainian civilians for two years. But for all of their brutality, the dictators fail to contest the military supremacy of the free world.

So they attack the very idea of democracy.

“Americans have an opportunity to change their leadership once every four years. Lately, Israelis have had the opportunity to change their leaders four times a year – although it seems you keep ending up with the same results.”
— Garry Kasparov

While Israel, Ukraine, Taiwan and other frontline democracies face aggression from authoritarian adversaries, there is another war raging in the information space. This battle is waged with retweets rather than rockets, but it is no less important. It yields real life results, which we in America see manifest from college campuses to Capitol Hill.

Today’s authoritarian propaganda does not breed Bolsheviks. Instead, it cultivates opportunists, nihilists and burnouts. Iran doesn’t need us to believe in the Islamic revolution – they simply need us to abandon the ideals of the American revolution, which guide not only the United States, but are an example for Israel and so many other nations.

Undoubtedly there are antisemites and radical true believers in the Hamas cause at the core of the protests against Israel. And as a Russian, I’m obligated to say that I cannot rule out the possibility that some protesters have received, shall we say, “extra help.” But ultimately, hatred of Israel is a stand-in, a proxy for a more far-reaching disaffection with liberal democracy. The far-right and far-left both feel the deck is stacked against them. So when the extremes lash out and cry “death to Israel,” “death to America” is rarely far behind.

This is how Israel’s enemies have seized the upper hand. They turn to a generation that was ten, eleven years-old in 2016 and say: look how Israel and America are alike. In their racism. In their inequality. Have you had a bad day at work? Israel is probably somehow connected too. This is all you can expect to get from liberal democracy. Better to sit out the elections, to cut ourselves off, and let the house burn down.

“If the most extreme chants of 'from the river to the sea' were to be realized, I can assure you that Palestine would not be free – it would be yet another dictatorship among many.”
— Garry Kasparov

It’s true that neither America, nor Israel, is perfect. Many of our problems are homegrown. But our shared democratic values provide us a framework to peacefully address these issues.

Americans have an opportunity to change their leadership once every four years. Lately, Israelis have had the opportunity to change their leaders four times a year – although it seems you keep ending up with the same results.

Most Russians have had this opportunity perhaps twice in their lives. At best, a Palestinian in Gaza has had one opportunity to choose their leaders. Most Iranian and Chinese people have never had this opportunity. They have no means to hold those at the top accountable. And if the most extreme chants of “from the river to the sea” were to be realized, I can assure you that Palestine would not be free – it would be yet another dictatorship among many, beholden to the arbitrary whims of ideologically-driven thugs.

So let’s debate policies and criticize leaders. But let’s recognize that it’s democracy that permits us to do so. We shouldn’t be shy in saying that the alternative on the other side of the Gaza border, across the Ukrainian frontier, on the opposite shore of the Taiwan strait, leaves no potential for progress.

This isn’t some abstract, philosophical argument. I’m making this appeal as someone who lived the alternative. It’s real. Tangible. It’s surveillance, degradation and harassment. Perhaps I don’t need to tell that to you – Israelis share a genetic memory of persecution by Nazis, reactionary Arab regimes, and, of course, the Soviet Union. But for others it bears reminding. That the experience of dictatorship in our DNA makes our responsibility ever more significant. To make sure authoritarian aggressors are defeated on the battlefield. To hold the line against their apologists and imitators at home. And to champion the right of the individual to choose their destiny, to speak their mind and to hold their leaders answerable for their actions – in a word, democracy.

 

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