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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