Populist nativism of the East, West and Israel

Quelle: Shut­ter­stock

The anti-liberal revolt ist not limited to the US and Europe. Tenden­cies towards an ‘illiberal democracy’ and ethnic nation­alism can be observed in Israel as well. The Israeli author Dahlia Scheindlin refers to devel­op­ments in Poland and Hungary: The defi­n­i­tion of nation­ality by jus sanguinis, targeted attacks on the sepa­ra­tion of powers and intol­er­ance towards dissi­dents. The ongoing external threat to Israel amplifies tenden­cies towards a mental national fortress. Yet, the article ends with positive prospects: the stamina of Isreal’s democracy should not be underrated.

“Conser­v­a­tives in the Western part of Europe dream of a continent where majori­ties will be the ones shaping society; in the East they dream of a society without minori­ties and govern­ments without oppo­si­tions,” wrote Ivan Krastev, head of a Bulgarian liberal think tank in a recent essay in the New York Times. In the essay, Krastev compares the social movements of 1968 to the surge in right-wing nationalism/​nativism of 2018 and tries to distin­guish between Western from Eastern populism.

Israel too has been ruled by a right-wing govern­ments that increas­ingly traffics in nation­alism or nativism, harangues minori­ties, dissenting views and migrants.

What exactly do Israel’s right-wingers “dream” about, relative to the populism spreading through Europe? Is Israeli nativist/​populism more like the Western or Eastern European version?

The over­riding trait of Israel’s populist right is Jewish nation­alism. It is “nativist” in the sense that they perceive Jews as the true and only natives of the land – this of course is the historic meaning of Zionism throughout its history and policies to ensure a Jewish majority are not new. But, while the Israel’s founding Decla­ra­tion of Inde­pen­dence included provi­sions to “ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhab­i­tants irre­spec­tive of religion, race or sex“, the new nation­al­ists seek new ways to actively engineer the Jewish­ness of Israel through legis­la­tion and policy.

One of the first instances began over a decade ago. In 2005, the emerging politi­cian Avigdor Lieberman began floating the idea of redrawing Israel’s borders to excise large numbers of Arab citizens, who are a 20% minority in Israel. He called it a popu­la­tion swap or border adjust­ments (Israel would annex Pales­tinian areas with Jewish settle­ments); but the plan actually entailed ethnic-based forced de-patriation.

Lieberman’s political star rose, largely due to his open hostility to Arab citizens. His appeal grew beyond his base of former Soviet immi­grants and began to peel off votes from Netanyahu’s Likud in the 2009 elections. When the latter formed the govern­ment beginning in 2009, it proceeded to advance even more Jewish-exclu­sivist policies – perhaps in a nation­alist-outbid­ding cycle. The govern­ment under Netanyahu promoted the Jewish nation-state bill to define Israel consti­tu­tion­ally as Jewish, a “loyalty oath” bill for minori­ties who were to swear alle­giance to a Jewish and demo­c­ratic state, and intro­duced the condition for nego­ti­a­tions with the Pales­tinians that the latter must recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

The nativist sentiment and policy engi­neering recalls Krastev’s version of Orban’s Hungarian, Eastern, nation­alism. “’We do not want to be a diverse country. We want to be how we became 1,100 years ago here in the Carpathian Basin,’” he quotes Orban saying. If Hungary is only for the Magyars, similarly, Israel is only for the Jews. The resonance of this theme is certainly height­ened in the context of a protracted ethno-nation­alist conflict with the Pales­tinians, which makes the notions of ‘us and them’ a matter of daily life.

Such nativism takes two insidious forms: first, the cultic elevation of the majority identity, and second, venomous attacks on anyone in an outgroup.

Since roughly 2012, Israeli right-wing officials have led jingo­istic campaigns that are essen­tially incite­ment against asylum seekers from war-ravaged regions of Eritrea and Sudan. At first, the general anti-immigrant rabble rousing resembled the frus­tra­tions found in Western Europe as well, in Austria, Germany, Nether­lands – Western Europe. But it quickly moved to policy directed towards full removal of migrants from Israeli life. Over the next two years Israel built a wall/​fence to ban those who had crossed the Sinai desert on foot. The number of entries dwindled to near-zero. Although Israel is a signatory to the Geneva Conven­tion on Refugees and Stateless Persons, policies were imple­mented to pressure and encourage them to leave – the estimated number of African migrants declined from about 65,000 to roughly 40,000 over the last five years.

Israeli agencies made it hard for them to even submit appli­ca­tions for asylum, and the vast majority were never even reviewed. The percentage who were actually granted asylum status is well below one percent – extremely low relative to the 87% rate for Eritreans recog­nized as refugees, or 63% for Sudanese in the rest of the world.  Finally, early in 2018, the govern­ment has set about to deport them en masse to “third countries” on pain of being impris­oned in Israel’s migrant jails. The govern­ment and its consid­er­able support base once again rather reflects the Eastern European nativist dream of a society without outsiders.

Krastev’s essay leaves out a signif­i­cant distinc­tion between more moderate conser­v­a­tives and far right-wing populism. The former seek to win election and govern. Eastern populists seek to change the rules of the game. In Hungary and Poland populists have their own state insti­tu­tions in their crosshairs. It’s as if they recognize that their anger and fear-driven political aims can only be reached and main­tained by force; therefore, they must undermine the inde­pen­dence of the courts, control the media, suffocate civil society, and suppress oppo­si­tion. The distinc­tion between Western and Eastern here may be arti­fi­cial – it could very well be that if the far-right populists actually gained power in the West they would act in similar ways.


Quelle: Shut­ter­stock

On this point too, there is little question which version Israel resembles more. Since 2009, Israel has passed laws against political expres­sion (such as two separate laws against either Israelis or foreigners who support a boycott in protest against Israeli occu­pa­tion of Pales­tinians) and laws attacking the funding sources of civil society (the NGO law). Right-wing lead­er­ship in Israel has become synony­mous with weakening and discred­iting the court system for some years; the current Justice Minister openly seeks greater political control over the appoint­ment of judges, hopes to undermine the right of judicial review and generally end judicial activism. The national broadcast authority has been shut down and recon­sti­tuted in a less stable version; the Prime Minister himself has boasted openly of seeking to close a private tele­vi­sion station that is consid­ered a shade more critical of the government.

Under­mining domestic demo­c­ratic insti­tu­tions is the bridge between nation­alist vener­a­tion or attacking outsiders, to attacking insiders – the liberal or merely critical figures even if they hail from the majority “in-group.” For nearly a decade, human rights orga­ni­za­tions in Israel have come under crippling assault in public discourse. More recently, Israel’s Culture Minister has denounced a prize-winning film made by a Jewish Israeli director, due to the putative critique of the army; the Education Minister banned a book from high school reading lists by a Jewish Israeli novelist, for writing about a Jewish-Arab rela­tion­ship. The attempt to inhibit people’s opinions and burden the channels for expressing them turns anti-outsider nativism to canni­balism. Univer­sal­ists become self-haters; dissenters become traitors.

In contrast to liberal demo­c­ratic systems that strive to protect the rights of minori­ties, Netanyahu and closest supporters in govern­ment have moved to redefine democracy as an unchecked “tyranny of the majority”. They constantly refer to elections as the only true measure of legit­i­macy. They seem to presume that if the masses are unre­strained by pesky insti­tu­tions upholding liberal rights and minority protec­tions, those masses will depend­ably support their politics of exclusive majority supremacy.

But what if that assump­tion turns out to be wrong? If the insti­tu­tions of democracy are under­mined, “the people” might just also step up and prove the populists wrong. On a good day, when tens of thousands of Israelis protest a bill to muzzle the findings of police inves­ti­ga­tions against the Prime Minister, or to cry out against the depor­ta­tion of migrants – the people might still be a source of hope.


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