Nir Evron

Liberal Israel’s rude awakening

Why didn't they notice the country's long slide toward full-blown illiberalism? Because it wasn’t yet happening to them.
Israeli soldiers checking Palestinian IDs at the Qalandia checkpoint between the West Bank city of Ramallah and Jerusalem, July 1, 2016. (Flash90)
Israeli soldiers checking Palestinian IDs at the Qalandia checkpoint between the West Bank city of Ramallah and Jerusalem, July 1, 2016. (Flash90)

For self-described Israeli liberals, the past few months have been the rudest of awakenings. Listen to the hoarse voices and look at the drenched faces of the women and men marching through the sweltering streets and you’ll find not just anger and fear but also a nagging sense of disbelief. Can this really be happening? What’s become of our country?

Seasoned interpreters of Israel seem equally bemused. “The Israel We Knew is Gone,” announces the headline of one of Thomas Friedman’s recent op-eds; “I [am] learning to see the country with new eyes,” writes Matti Friedman in The Atlantic a few weeks ago.

I wish I could say the same.

Having taken to the streets almost every week since the protests began, I fully share in the broadly felt anger and fear. It’s the wide-eyed amazement I find troubling. To explain why, let me try to convey how the current situation in Israel appears from the perspective of two groups you don’t hear much about these days: the country’s tiny pocket of committed leftists and human rights activists, and its largest ethnic minority, the Palestinian citizens of Israel, who make up more than twenty percent of the population.

Call these people the Unsurprised. They’ve been sounding the alarm for decades, pointing toward the rising tide of Jewish supremacy and explaining to anyone who cares to listen – in Israel and abroad – that the system of Apartheid that Israel has been fostering in the Occupied Territories will not remain contained. It’s only now that Israel’s anti-liberal forces, spearheaded by the ideologues of the settlement movement, have actively turned to reshaping Israel inside the Green Line, that people are again beginning to listen. Over the last two decades, very few cared to.

In the early 2000s, I joined a core group of 51 IDF reservists (our numbers later grew to several hundred) who publicly refused to serve in the Occupied Territories. The occupation, we argued, was not just morally indefensible but would lead to the “corruption of the entire Israeli society.” All hell broke loose. The right-wing, naturally, branded us as traitors. But to our surprise, much of the fire came from liberal Israel: that is, from the selfsame, mostly secular, middle-of-the-road Liberal Zionists who are now calling for civil disobedience and announcing that they will refuse to report for reserve duty if the government stays its undemocratic course.

It may be uncomfortable to acknowledge, but the fact is that as long as the victims of Israel’s march of folly were Palestinian, mainstream Israelis were not merely indifferent to the reality taking shape on the other side of the Green Line; they were its active enablers. The reason that members of this hitherto silent and complicit majority are now reexamining their assumptions is the recognition that Netanyahu’s coalition of messianic thugs and ultra-Orthodox hardliners has designs on them too. What many among them are viscerally realizing for the first time is that the real threat to Israel’s existence is not the defeated people whom we’ve been holding under the boot of our military might, as they’ve been repeatedly told, but that boot’s spiked sole: the settlement movement. Which is more or less what Israel’s vanishing left has been saying all along.

The good news is that not since the 1990s have so many Israelis been receptive to this message. As a result, there is once again a sliver of a chance to mobilize significant swaths of the Israeli electorate against the settlement movement and its creeping annexation of the West Bank.

But to confine the problem of Israeli liberalism to the occupation, though tempting, would be a copout. Jewish Israelis who sincerely want their children to live in a liberal democracy have to look squarely not just at the regime that lies on the other side of the Green Line but also closer to home.

What many in the protest movement still refuse to acknowledge is that Israel inside the Green Line is not and has never been a liberal democracy. True, over the last few decades, the country did evolve an impressive range of Western-liberal institutions, including a free press, a strong and independent judiciary (for now), and a better set of procreative rights than most US states. These achievements are a cause for pride. But our society’s liberal features are exceedingly tenuous. Israel has no constitution, no bill of rights, no centuries-long democratic culture. The only thing propping up its embattled liberalism, as the last few months have made clear, are ad-hoc social arrangements.

But there is a graver problem. Israel has never extended its tenuous liberalism equitably. While Jewish Israelis enjoy most of the freedoms expected in a Western democratic society, Israel’s non-Jewish citizens are hemmed in on every side by legal and unwritten forms of discrimination. Over the last two decades, as Israeli politics moved increasingly to the right, the situation has worsened. Knesset Member Ahmad Tibi’s well-known aphorism, “This country is Jewish and democratic: democratic toward Jews, and Jewish toward Arabs,” is, from a legal standpoint, truer now than at any time since 1966 when Israel ended its military control over the Arab population within its borders. And with people like Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir at the helm, the future for Israel’s non-Jewish citizens looks even bleaker.

Jewish Israelis are not particularly perceptive when it comes to the experience of their non-Jewish fellow citizens. There are many reasons for this, some more defensible than others. But the main cause is that Israel is set up precisely so that its oxymoronic self-definition as a Jewish and democratic state works out relatively smoothly for them. They may not be able to get a civil marriage or divorce and have to contend with the lack of public transportation on the Sabbath. But such nuisances are amply compensated for by a rowdily permissive public sphere that imposes few real restrictions on their individual liberty.

Not so for Israel’s non-Jewish citizens. For them, to venture beyond their chronically neglected and crime-ridden towns is to find themselves perpetual suspects in a largely hostile landscape, while being the target of a steady stream of discriminatory legislation designed to make sure they remain second-class citizens in their homeland.

In terms of its treatment of its Arab minority, contemporary Israel is roughly where the US was in the early 1960s with respect to its African- and Native-American citizens. No, Israel inside the Green Line is not the Jim Crow South. However, the differential treatment of citizens on the de facto basis of their ethnicity is woven through Israeli law.

Much ink has been spilled over the passing of the so-called Nation-State Basic Law back in 2018, which set the second-class status of Israel’s non-Jewish citizens in semi-constitutional stone. But arguably more insidious legislation has continued to trickle down from our house of parliament since. Only a few weeks ago, the Knesset passed an amendment to the law against sexual harassment, imposing stricter penalties on sexual offenses committed out of a “nationalist” motive – or, in plain speak, sexual crimes perpetrated by Arab men against Jewish women.

Feminist legal scholar Orit Kamir writes that this amendment “hijacks the law against sexual harassment, to serve a worldview that classifies women as sexual objects that embody national pride.” This legislation comes on the heels of another amendment that expands the right of admissions committees in small towns and villages to decide who gets to move there, so as to allow these communities to preserve their “social-cultural fabric.” I’ll leave the reader to draw their own historical comparisons.

When Arab-Israeli rapper Tamer Naper says to the protesters, “the thing you are fearing – we’re living it,” he is talking about this reality. But, to date, only a small minority of the Jewish Israeli population has been prepared to confront it directly. That willful ignorance goes a long way toward explaining why so many Jewish Israelis and sympathetic outsiders feel that they don’t recognize the country anymore. Israel’s gradual slide toward full-blown illiberalism wasn’t happening to them.

It is still unclear whether the unexpected political reawakening currently roiling Israeli society is strong and honest enough to address Israel’s long-entrenched inequities. But without such self-reckoning, even if the protest movement is successful, it will only take the Israel of 2023 back to where it was in 2022. This would prove a short-lived victory. It will delay the country’s slide toward theocratic autocracy by a few years at most while giving the lie to the protest movement’s liberal cri de cœur.

About the Author
Nir Evron is chair of the Department of English Literature and American Studies at Tel Aviv University.
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