“Zo ha-medina shelanu,” they said in Hebrew. “It’s our state.” We were standing on a cliff at Rosh ha-Nikra, a scenic Mediterranean overlook on the Israeli side of the Israeli-Lebanese border. I had struck up a conversation with three Muslim Arab Israelis, and we were talking about what had brought us to this particular spot. They told me they lived in a nearby town and had come to relax on Eid ul-Adha, the Muslim Feast of Sacrifice. I told them I was in the area with a group of 550 Jewish students from around the world – including more than a dozen from our university – helping to rebuild the north of the country after the war this past summer.

“Stay, stay,” they laughed. “There’ll be plenty to clean up from the next war, as well.”

I asked if they believed another war was imminent. “Betah,” they said. “Of course.” Hezbollah, they explained, is still receiving massive arms shipments from Iran via Syria. “It’s only a matter of time,” one of them told me, shaking his head.

We discussed their experiences during the war, and I asked them about their relationship to the Jewish state.

“Of course we feel a part of it,” they told me. “It’s ours, too.” They explained that although they don’t serve in the armed forces (the Arab community is granted a uniform exemption from service), they are able to contribute to Israeli society in other ways – by becoming professionals, volunteering in the community and participating in the democratic system.

“Guess who we voted for in the last election,” they asked me. I named a number of parties with predominantly Arab lists. “Nope,” they said. “Shas.” Shas is a party founded by Orthodox Jews of Sephardic extraction to serve the unique interests of that community. After having a hearty laugh at the puzzled look on my face, they explained that Shas looks out for the poor and the disadvantaged. “That’s important to us,” they said.

And that’s when it hit me.

Having spent just over a week painting the walls of bomb shelters and meeting residents in the mixed city of Akko, I had caught a novel glimpse of Israeli multiculturalism. Like the Christian Arab tour guide who called the Akko municipality to demand that a kosher eatery be opened in the city’s historic quarter. Or like the Jewish teenagers who spend their pre-army gap year volunteering to teach English and other subjects in Arab towns and villages. Or like the three young Muslim Arabs atop Rosh ha-Nikra who vote for an Orthodox Jewish political party.

As waves of extremism continue to course through the Middle East, it is comforting to know that we have an Israel. Warts, hiccups and all, Israel is a beacon to all who believe in multiculturalism, freedom, democracy, civil liberties and human rights. In a region darkened by tyranny and fanaticism, Israel shines ever brighter. Small wonder, then, that whenever Israel’s Palestinian neighbors are asked which country and governmental system they most admire, they invariably point to the Jewish state.

Atop the cliff at Rosh ha-Nikra, the voices of hatred and intolerance seemed as distant as the waves washing noiselessly onto the sands far below. And yet, there they were, far away but all too close, in Tehran and Damascus, Beirut and Gaza. Threatening, jeering, preparing. Drawing up plans for death and destruction and quietly, diligently, developing their dreadful means.

“Zo ha-medina shelanu.” Israel is our state, too – a beleaguered outpost of democratic values in a region in which they are so lacking, the living embodiment of that for which we stand. A shining city on a sand dune.

As we gaze toward the Middle East and ponder its future, let us look to the people of Israel as an example of what can yet be. If ever we are to achieve peace and stability in that troubled region, it will only be through the encouragement of moderates and the development of inspired communities. And it will only be by safeguarding the values we hold dear and those who embody them, even atop a precipice.

Avi Mayer is a senior government and politics and Jewish studies double major. He can be reached at amayer@umd.edu.