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The unraveling of Israeli democracy

Ultra-nationalist efforts to demonize dissenters are aimed at redefining the very nature of the state

A vicious campaign has been launched against the president of Israel, accusing him of collaborating with his country’s critics. An ugly video depicting human rights activists as foreign moles promoting the latest wave of terrorism is going viral. New legislation has been introduced to constrain and defame civil society organizations. Elected Arab officials are being accused, once again, of disloyalty. And key government officials — first and foremost the prime minister himself — are standing by, their uncharacteristic silence giving license to further assaults on Israel’s essential human diversity and pluralist character.

There is really nothing new in the ultra-nationalist surge of the past week. It is part of a systematic process of democratic regression that has been brewing for quite some time, focusing on any divergence from what is fast emerging as a dominant, ethnically-driven, exclusivist, monolithic worldview bent on rearranging priorities and redefining Israeli identity. It follows a pattern reminiscent of historical precedents of the most terrifying sort and contains whiffs of similar efforts taking place elsewhere. It can only be countered by a consolidated, broad, vocal and unerringly committed reaffirmation of the centrality of the principles of tolerance, justice and equality for Israel’s fundamental durability.

The unabashed purpose of the new nationalism in Israel is to redefine the nature of the state, confining it to the latter-day expression of the historic link between Jews and the land of Israel. By conflating the state with the (Jewish) “people,” no room remains for citizens and their rights. Anybody who does not fit into this mold or questions its premises is automatically suspect and potentially harmful to the state and its interests. Disagreements over substance are dismissed as acts of betrayal. Insularity is glorified as the ultimate defense against external criticism. Intolerance and bigotry are condoned in the name of security. The world — outside Israel and within its boundaries — is thus divided neatly into “us” and “them”: supporters and detractors, friends and enemies, those who are with us and those who are against us.

The purveyors of this new nationalism (divested of essential democratic trappings) originated in the right margins of Israeli society — deeply embedded in those national-religious circles which provided the backbone for the settlement enterprise. During the past decade, however, they have extended well beyond this initial base to also incorporate young, secular, educated, urban followers brought together by such groups as Im Tirzu and My Israel (Israel Sheli). They have been propped up by sympathetic journalists and frequently heralded by established think tanks (the Institute for Zionist Strategy, for one). They enjoy the backing of self-appointed overseers of progressive activities (NGO Monitor or Israel Academic Monitor). The consolidation of the Israel Home Party (Habayit Hayehudi) under the leadership of Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked has endowed them with a partisan base, increasingly replicated by Avigdor Liberman’s Israel Beyteinu. Adherents now constitute a majority of Likud parliamentarians and are heavily represented in the corridors of power.

The targets of these ultra-nationalists have expanded over the years. Less concerned with the legality of the groups they decry (since these are legal entities subject to constant oversight) than with their public legitimacy (which they seek to undermine), they constantly prey on those who do not conform to their definition of membership in the community — especially Arab citizens of Israel. They hound those who dare to question their precepts, notably civil society organizations which have increasingly given voice to a wide variety of individuals who criticize government policies and dissent from official actions (these include peace groups, human and civil rights associations and even social justice initiatives). Intellectuals, academics, performers and writers have been the butt of numerous campaigns. And public institutions which uphold civil liberties and minority rights — particularly Israel’s High Court of Justice and now the presidency — have not been spared.

For students of ultra-nationalist movements, there is nothing random or particularly innovative about the methods employed by Israel’s contemporary brand of patriotic zealots. Each campaign — whether repeatedly against the New Israel Fund, the Department of Political Science at Ben-Gurion University, Breaking the Silence, B’Tselem, The Public Committee against Torture or Reuven Rivlin today — is composed of three interactive elements. The first consists of the compilation — often by dubious means — of purportedly damning (and frequently slanted or fabricated) materials against potential targets. The second involves carefully planned and exceedingly well-funded public campaigns designed to debunk and delegitimize these organizations and their supporters and to impose a uniform discourse in the public sphere (the mastermind behind the most virulent attacks, Moshe Klughaft, is a close advisor of Minister of Education Bennett). And the third wraps the neo-national message in a cloak of official respectability through policy overtures backed by legislative initiatives (dozens of proposed bills aimed at discrediting, denouncing and/or defunding pluralist activities have been tabled in the last year alone).

The roots of what is now a systemic offensive against anyone or anything different is deeply rooted in diverging approaches to Israel’s ongoing conflict with the Palestinians, recently intensified by the country’s growing international isolation, which has highlighted the sense of vulnerability of many Israelis and accentuated a siege mentality. It has been facilitated by the palpable ineffectiveness of opposition parties and by the proliferation of progressive civil society activism in their stead. Above all, however, the continuous assault on the pluralism of the public domain reflects the insecurity of those in office and directly serves their interests by allowing the present leadership to shirk responsibility for Israel’s precarious situation and, by shifting the burden to those who disapprove of its course, entrench its hold on the reins of power.

Nothing emasculates alternative voices more than diverting legitimate debates over substance to emotional clashes over identity and hence loyalty. In today’s Israel, those who equate patriotism with an unwavering commitment to a communal-based, narrowly Jewish, interpretation of what is Israel possess an asymmetric advantage over those who insist on abiding by a broad, culturally-rooted yet universally-propelled, civic meaning.

At risk are key aspects of Israel’s already fragile democratic fabric: its protection of civil liberties (especially freedom of speech and association); its preservation of minority rights; its capacity to foster a broad and constructive public discourse; its support for independent associational life; and its ability to ensure adherence to the rule of law. Indeed, the meaning of democracy has been downsized to its formalistic shell which, stripped of its liberal content, increasingly confuses democracy with majority rule.

An Israel devoid of its deep democratic bearings, however, is at grave risk both domestically and internationally. It is more vulnerable to opprobrium from veteran democracies; it is more exposed to internal implosion and, most profoundly, it is decidedly more uncertain of who it is, what values lie at its core, and where it is going.

For far too long, the orchestrated assault on inclusive concepts of Israeli society has been ignored and its consequences sadly neglected. The latest attempts at discrediting democratic voices across the political spectrum have made it abundantly evident that dark winds symptomatic of proto-fascism are sweeping the country. These can no longer be swept aside or safely overlooked. If Israel is to survive, this trend must be combatted vigorously and decisively.

Those who care about a democratic Israel, one that holds true to the values of tolerance and freedom for all citizens and insists on seeking peace despite constant setbacks, should now awaken from their slumber and finally truly break their silence. They can resist purposeful muzzling by proclaiming their democratic vision on every social network, on every street corner, and from every balcony. They must speak truth to power by calling for a just society that even in troubled times fosters discussion and invites debate. This is what loving Israel means today; this is what true patriotism is all about; and this is what will ensure the country’s decency, humanity and safety into the future.

About the Author
Professor Naomi Chazan, former Deputy Speaker of the Knesset and professor (emerita) of political science at the Hebrew University, is co-director of WIPS, the Center for the Advancement of Women in the Public Sphere at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.