The extreme right in Israel has been around at least since the 1980s (e.g., Meir Kahane) but its political weight has been close to nil – until now. With the polls showing quasi-Kahanist MK Itamar Ben-Gvir garnering around 6-7 seats were he to run on his own independent party list (Otzmah Yehudit: “Jewish Power”) instead of joining with (not much less Right-wing) MK Bezalel Smotrich (Ha’Tziyonut Ha’Datit: “Religious Zionism”), clearly the extreme Right in Israel has suddenly become a social and political force. The question is “why?” – or to be more exact, “why now?”
To understand the main source of such a phenomenon, it pays to take a detour to the United States because in a profound way there is a strong parallel between the two countries. Trump became U.S. president largely due to xenophobia against large-scale “brown” immigration and the fear of losing cultural dominance. This had an economic component as well: immigrants (supposedly) taking jobs away from native-born Americans.
The extreme right-wing in Israel also is xenophobic and anti-immigrant. Of course, not against “real” Jews making Aliyah but rather fearful that two completely different types of non-Jews are flooding the country. The minor set: “non-Jewish” (by strict, halakhic standards) Jews, such as Russians, Ukrainians, (some) Ethiopians, African Jewish-claiming sects, etc. However, the main address lies elsewhere: “internal immigration” – or in the words of Netanyahu back in the 2015 election campaign: “the Arabs are coming.”
Whereas he was talking back then about Arabs showing up at the ballot box in droves, the subtext was clear: Israel’s Arabs are moving into the mainstream – which indeed they are. Close to half the pharmacists in Israel today are Arab-Israeli, as are a large portion of the nurses and somewhat smaller (but still significant) percentage of the doctors. They have begun to leave their traditional towns and villages to live in “mixed” cities; even buying land in rural settlements to build their own housing (given that Israeli zoning practice has severely limited expansion of Arab cities and towns). And, of course, Arab culture (culinary, music, language) has begun to permeate Israeli socio-cultural life.
These are all viewed by “identitarian” Jews (the most committed to Jewish religious practice and norms) as a serious threat to the Jewish(ness of the) State. True, these trends have been accelerating for a while. But what “broke the camel’s back” occurred fifteen months ago: for the first time in Israel’s history, an Israeli-Arab party officially joined the government. And not just any such party, but an “Islamist” one: RA’AM.
Forget the fact that back then PM Netanyahu himself tried (unsuccessfully) to form a governing coalition with RA’AM. The minute the Center-Left came into being with RA’AM as an integral part of the government, the Right’s diatribe against such political “treason” and fear-mongering about the “mortal wound” to Israel’s security began to quicken. The irony is that none of this has helped the Likud; rather, it has merely spurred the more extreme Likud supporters to move further to the Right in their party preference.
To all this, one should add that while most of Israel and the rest of the world view the Abraham Accords with the Gulf States as a major positive step forward in the Middle East, not so the far Right that sees this as one more step towards Israel’s cultural escape from traditional Judaism and incorporation into a wider “pan-Semitic” civilization. (It bears mentioning that the Hebrew Bible is replete with such alliances of Israeli kings with neighboring peoples.)
To be sure, the above are not the only reasons for the rapid rise of the far Right. For one, it’s not only happening in Israel (and the US): this week’s election outcome in Italy is but one of several similar, recent developments in the democratic world (last week’s Swedish election results is another example: of all places, Sweden!!) – there too the main factor is immigrant xenophobia and cultural loss. Moreover, some ancillary factors within Israel itself are also at play. For instance, many younger haredim are turning away from their traditional parties (whose leadership failed miserably in the Corona pandemic) to support Ben-Gvir as a more “authentic” voice of Jewish nationalism. This is a paradoxical development in that it absorbs them within the Zionist fold, but in a way that traditional, liberal Zionism (whether Labor or Revisionism) would not have countenanced.
It bears noting that incorporation of Israeli Arabs into general society is a huge plus for the country – not only because of the contributions that they can offer (especially economically), but also due to the fact that such “assimilation” is the best antidote to social frustration, preventing serious turmoil that could ensue if they are not allowed to become part of the main fabric of Israeli society. Moreover, most of Israel’s Arabs are fiercely loyal to their own religious and cultural traditions, so that fears of cultural influence on Jewish society are overblown – not to mention that Arabs constitute only 20% of Israel’s population with a birthrate today identical to the Jewish sector. Thus, the Jewish State is in no danger of “Arabization” – either from within or without.
In sum, Israel’s far-Right eruption can be seen as societal growing pains. Whether that becomes a chronic cancer for years to come or simply an acute pain in the backside that will pass shortly is unknown. Along with the rest of the democratic world, Israel will have to find its own path to greater socio-political tolerance of its expanding melting pot society, or suffer dire social and political consequences if it doesn’t.