Mike Prashker
Israeli Shared Citizenship Educator, Social Entrepreneur and Writer

The not-so-subtle racism of Jewish exceptionalism

"Especially of a Nation" (screenshot)

Jewish-Israelis and Jews everywhere committed to the core democratic and Jewish values of human dignity and social justice for all, rightly tremble in trepidation.

We are appalled at the prospect of unprecedented electoral success for the “Religious Zionist” party in Israel’s upcoming election.

Despite, or due to, its well-documented racist, misogynistic, homophobic and xenophobic credentials, the “Religious Zionist” Party is currently polling at around 13 seats in the 120 seat Knesset.

It is right to be morally revolted by the poisonous beliefs of Itamar Ben-Gvir, Betsalel Smotrich and to be distressed by their growing electoral appeal. Likewise, it is appropriate to be concerned by the growing normalization of their extremist views among much of the Jewish-Israeli media and the related complacency of many Jewish-Israelis across the political spectrum.

Much less appropriate is the sentiment, whether held by Jewish-Israelis or by commentators across the Jewish world, that the rise of the “Religious Zionist” Party is somehow especially shocking and immoral because it is perpetrated by Jews and happening in Israel.

On closer consideration the roots of this argument are, however inadvertently, entangled with the roots of the racism it rightfully reviles.

The prospective growth of Israel’s extreme right in the upcoming elections – as big and bad as it is projected to be – is still unlikely to reach the levels of those of Sweden and Italy.

Sweden’s cynically misnamed “Sweden Democrats” Party recently garnered twenty percent of the seats in the Swedish parliament. Once again, despite, or thanks to its well-documented Nazi origins. In Italy, Giorgia Meloni, head of the “Brothers of Italy Party” has just been elected Prime Minister with twenty six percent of the votes. She stands at the head of a hard-right coalition that controls both the Senate and Chamber of Deputies. The “Brothers of Italy” Party’s roots in Italian fascism are well-documented.

This comparison is in no way meant to make any who care about the future of Israel as envisioned by its Founders feel any better. But rather to point out that the political popularity of rightwing extremism is currently a global trend that has contaminated other democracies.

Racism, misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia, and their poisonous bedfellows are always repulsive. They are never excusable, irrespective of context. That said, it is reasonable to observe that context matters and that for all the social, demographic, economic and even security challenges that Sweden and Italy face; Israel possesses all these and more, on steroids.

So why would anybody reasonably think that Jewish-Israelis would respond differently to Swedes and Italians at the ballot-box?

Those who expect Jewish-Israeli exceptionalism in the face of far more severe or even comparable societal challenges stand on dangerous ideological ground.

Jewish exceptionalism is to be expected from antisemites who routinely condemn Jews for being somehow different and worse. Conversely, there are others – prominently some evangelical Christians – who regard Jews as somehow invariably better.

But it more surprising when such a view is held by Jews, especially progressives. In so doing they are, generally inadvertently, adopting a tainted narrative of Jewish exceptionalism and moral superiority by asserting that ‘given our history – we Jews should know better’.

Ironically, many of the same critics, who tirelessly dignify the context, trauma and threat – whether real or imagined – of countless other communities, are dismissive of Jewish and Jewish-Israeli trauma.

Consequently, many of these same commentators – in what also amounts to a fit of sociological and social-psychological exceptionalism – are dismissive of the impact of real-world context on the political views of many Jewish-Israelis. While such contextual analysis should never aim to justify the unjustifiable, it is essential for its understanding and redress.

Progressive commentators assiduously and correctly explain such political shifts to the right in Sweden and Italy, USA, UK and many other countries, as the predictable historical and sociological consequences of rapid demographic changes, growing socio-economic gaps, security concerns and most prominently and powerfully, the perceived loss of national identity. They correctly explore the profound insecurity and fear of groups of citizens who have long taken their privileged status as given. Whether these be fears relating to the loss of white, Christian, male and straight hegemony, all threatened by changes to laws, values, narratives, systems, privilege, and language that sustain entitlement.

Notably, such analysis is rarely laden with the surprise and moral outrage frequently expressed when considering Israel’s political shift. Maybe this is because these commentators somehow expect Jewish-Israelis and Israel to behave exceptionally rather than normally?

While never setting aside justified moral outrage, progressives should be focused on understanding and addressing the factors that provide fertile ground for reactionary ideologies to flourish in Israel.

Most of these are well-known, including gaping and growing socio-economic gaps, the on-going conflict and unresolved borders, a lack of civic and symbolic belonging for all citizens of Israel, low levels of familiarity and trust among Israel’s diverse communities, with our Palestinian neighbors, and perilously low levels of trust between many minority communities and state institutions.

While always voicing moral outrage, progressives must avoid the adoption of racially tainted Jewish exceptionalism and focus our energies on redressing the fissures that scar the landscape of Israeli society. It is these that provide the cynical leaders of Israel’s extreme right the fertile soil in which to plant and nurture the poisonous fruit of their anti-democratic and un-Jewish values.

About the Author
Mike Prashker is an Israeli educator, social entrepreneur, writer and public speaker. He founded MERCHAVIM - The Institute for the Advancement of Shared Citizenship in Israel in 1998 and directed the NGO for 17 years before joining the Board of Directors. In 2014 Mike was appointed Senior Adviser for Strategic Partnerships at The Ted Arison Family Foundation where he is leading social cohesion initiatives, including "The Social Cohesion Leadership Program". Prashker’s book "A Place for Us All - Social Cohesion and the Future of Israel" (Alouette 2017) is published in a single volume in Hebrew, Arabic and English The book aims to contribute to the promotion of social cohesion by providing a precise definition, identifying geo-political, social and economic conditions conducive to its promotion and presenting a range of strategic initiatives for its practical advancement in Israel. While acknowledging Israeli society is in democratic crisis and at a critical cross-roads between accommodation and fragmentation, it also offers an optimistic re-assessment of the historical trajectory of Israeli democracy and inter-community relations.
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