The illusion of Israeli democracy has been shattered

Palestinians have been excluded from recent Israeli demonstrations.

Ilia Yefimovich APA images

People across the world have watched the thousands of Israelis demonstrating against their government with at least some bemusement. After 75 years of Israel denying its own agency in the terrible catastrophe it has inflicted on the Palestinians, its new government is now blamed for doing something most Israeli governments have never done – openly discussing the aim of controlling the whole of Palestine through an exclusive Jewish apartheid state.

That this aim requires a less-than-democratic society seems obvious, and arguably Israel has never been democratic in any real sense. But now that Jews will also face some loss of rights, the old elites responsible for the Nakba – the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestine – and all that followed are out on the streets.

They wish to defend their “Jewish democracy,” in which Palestinian flags and self-determination are outlawed.

The recent ructions present Jews abroad with a painful dilemma: Do they – as many do – continue to support Israel in an unqualified and unquestioning manner? Or is it a time for a somber, self-searching reflection – a rethink of their identity, no less?

Not something they would normally choose to embark on, and most seem to be shying away from the need to look in the mirror.

Exceptionalist strategy

The face of Jewish Zionism is hardly an appealing sight. The new Israeli government has been in power for nearly two months and the number and severity of Jewish terror attacks and anti-Palestinian pogroms by settlers and the army have climbed to terrifying heights.

Israel’s exceptionalist strategy has proved a success, allowing it to continue its occupation, its construction of illegal settlements and its denial of rights and the continued oppression of the indigenous people of Palestine.

The United States, Israel’s major funder and mentor, remains strongly wedded to the continued denial of Palestinian rights, even in the face of the current unrest. US President Joe Biden has perhaps proven himself to be even more damaging than Donald Trump to the Palestinian cause, which must be some kind of record.

Such uncritical and shameful US support for Israel has protected it from any sanctions. As long as Israel’s leaders sporadically mention their commitment to the two-state solution, this process of taking over Palestine has gone on mainly unnoticed.

The Western democracies – such as they are – are placated by this meaningless lip service, accepting it as the normative, required noise about the settler-colonial conflict in Palestine.

Terrifying plans in store

This went swimmingly for over five decades and would have continued for another five if Israel had not grown tired of the long series of elections and went on to elect the most right-wing government in its history. This was a government prepared to say aloud that Israel considers the whole of Palestine its own.

This claim is not a new one. Bezalel Smotrich, finance minister and ideological force behind the current right-wing Israeli administration, outlined in a 2017 article titled “Tipping the Scales” the options facing Palestinians (though he refers to them as “Arabs,” since the nationality of Palestinians is denied by his ilk). They may either accept that all of Palestine is rightly Jewish and live there as residents without citizenship, or simply leave the country.

For those who resist this generous offer, Smotrich reserves the promise of “decisive treatment by the security forces, with stronger intensity than is done currently and in conditions favoring us.”

In case such wording might be misunderstood, he describes his solution: “Whoever thinks he can stay here and continue to violently undermine Israel’s right to exist as the nation state of the Jewish people will face a decisive IDF [Israel’s military] that will quash him with God’s help by military means.”

Of course, the West Bank must be annexed to make such changes possible and to make Israeli law the law of the whole of Palestine. One suspects that if this was all Smotrich was suggesting, no Israelis would have chosen to go out and demonstrate.

While past leaders of Israel were much more circumspect when expressing their views – recognizing the need for less bragging and more action – what they did chimes exactly with the aims of the new administration.

Past leaders have known that such open talk might help the opponents of this process of dispossession of a whole nation – a process that most Israelis accept and partake in in a variety of ways.

But this is not all the new rulers of Israel desire. They have other plans, ones that terrify many Israelis.

De jure apartheid

Benjamin Netanyahu, a secular Jew if ever there was one, is adept at donning a kippa and pretending to be a believer, though until now it was seen as one of the embarrassing duties an Israeli prime minister must perform, a mere act. But this time, Netanyahu found himself with the only government on offer – the forces of right-wing, ultra-religious ethno-nationalist parties, which, together with the two ultra-Orthodox parties, enabled his coalition.

A Pew survey revealed some ominous findings: 89 percent of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Jews have voiced a preference for religious law over Israeli law, while only 3 percent of them say that democratic principles should be favored over religious law. Over 96 percent of ultra-Orthodox Jews believe the state should offer preferential treatment to Jews – a clean way of defining apartheid.

These figures were correct in 2016 when this survey was conducted and are certainly higher now, a fact clearly demonstrated by the 2022 election results. And with it comes the process of replacing Israel’s secular legislation with religious edicts – a process called hadatha, or religionization, in Hebrew.

While this process has been going on for decades, it has now arrived at the heart of the government and its policies and budgets. It’s a process that, despite what the minority of secular Jews would like to believe, is now clearly irreversible.

The near future could look something like this for Israel.

Advances in LGBTQ rights will be reversed; abortion will be made illegal (at least for Jews, one could assume, as it lowers the Jewish population numbers); schools and universities will be split by gender; and public transportation on Saturdays will be outlawed.

Netanyahu has the required number of members in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, to pass such and other legislation needed for a de jure apartheid and a Judaic republic.

To clinch this, the Knesset’s so-called reforms to the judicial system will remove high court powers to delay or stop legislation deemed unconstitutional. The court will become a rubber stamp for the religionized Israel, which will remove most of the current realities that secular Jews, once the majority of Jews, took for granted.

The legislative stampede is moving so fast that a month after it started being rolled out the first week of January, it makes the changes made by Hungary’s and Poland’s right-wing governments seem lacking in drive and vision.

Israel is facing the deepest political cleavage in its history. As opposed to the occupation and its many iniquities – not a topic raised by the demonstrators – the intra-Judaic agenda is what drives the big protests, shunned by most Palestinians and Jews who support their rights. Many Palestinians have tried to clarify their choice to avoid the demonstrations but this cuts no ice with Israelis.

A more humane system?

To return to the beginning of this tale, the situation places Jews in Europe, the Americas, Australia and elsewhere in a bind.

Should they continue to support the Jewish state or join the ranks of the opposition? After all, isn’t it their state?

In the US, there is a growing movement combining opposition to the changes with a clear break with Israel. As both Jews and US citizens, their voice counts and may have traction in the White House, eventually.

In Europe and the UK Jewish communities, the changes seem to have left many Jews punch-drunk, not quite realizing what is taking place or even disbelieving the process and its chances for success.

Such Jews may do well to consider whether their Jewish identity includes support of apartheid and ethnic cleansing, or if, alternatively, they prefer another more Jewish and humane value system based on democracy, justice and the ending of a brutal military occupation that harms them and the Palestinians.

Long decades of unquestioning support of Israeli atrocities have formed habits and attitudes that are difficult to ditch. But many Jews are likely instead to consider the old, traditional Jewish values of supporting equality and rights for all.

This is a testing time for not just such communities but for us all in Britain and beyond. A decade of defining any criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic has taken its toll on the rest of society, as have the concerted efforts of the Israel lobby to discredit any supporter of Palestinian rights.

Jews everywhere will have to choose. The choice is between the Judaism of the anti-Zionist liberal left – a continuation of the Bund, the socialist organization founded in the late nineteenth century – and that of Joshua, which is the one both sides of the Israeli conflict seem settled on.

Will they return to the cherished values defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and take a position against the impending atrocity before it takes place?

All world leaders should also take a position against the impending atrocity. This certainly depends on us all.

Haim Bresheeth-Žabner is a professorial research associate at SOAS, University of London. His latest publication is An Army Like No Other: How the Israel Defence Forces Made a Nation, Verso, London, 2020.