Israel was a country founded by socialists. David Ben-Gurion’s center-left Mapai Party dominated Israeli politics for its first thirty years. After ceding power to Likud for twenty years, the Labor Party under Yitzchak Rabin made a comeback, signing the Oslo Accords in 1993, which set an abstract framework for the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Almost twenty years later, in 2012, Israel is being governed by the most right-wing government in its history. The two-state solution is in a vegetative state and the ‘Israeli left’ is in the adjacent hospital bed. Israel’s Prime Minister, Benyamin Netanyahu, wins points at home for his obstinacy in the face of American pleas to halt settlement construction. There is support across the Israeli political spectrum for the separation wall between Israel and the West Bank, which separates Jews from Palestinians and restricts freedom of movement more than ever. Only a minority regard Israel’s unequal housing and immigration policies as illiberal.
There have been government sponsored campaigns to restrict and shut down left-wing and human rights organizations like the New Israel Fund and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. Israel’s Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman (who makes Netanyahu look like Rabin) says that leftist groups are “terrorist collaborators” while simultaneously suggesting that Israel support the PKK insurgency against Turkey, a former Israeli ally.
Most importantly of all, there is almost unanimous support for a vision of political Zionism that institutionally privileges Jews over non-Jews. In a country that was originally envisioned to be both “Jewish and democratic,” Jewish self-determination is sacrosanct while the self-determination of non-Jews has become irrelevant.
To properly analyze how far to the right the Israeli political spectrum has shifted, it helps to listen to Yair Lapid, a former journalist, who is preparing to enter Israeli politics and form his own party. Lapid told a business-academic forum at Tel-Aviv University that “the Palestinians right now are not ready to make peace with us….I don’t want to control three and a half million Palestinians because I’m an Israeli patriot, and I don’t want a state for all its citizens because I want a Jewish state.” Lapid has described Arabs as “sweaty baby-makers somewhere in the Middle East” who won’t stop killing each other.
In a letter to British academics calling for a boycott of Israel, Lapid wrote that if the occupation ended and the wall came down, he would be killed almost immediately. In fear mongering style that would make Dick Cheney blush, Lapid writes:
“Make no mistake. Should we do what the honorable British lecturers are demanding, I will die. Maybe not immediately but the waiting won’t be fun. It will take two or three months until my death (don’t worry; it won’t take longer than that). I will always ask myself how I am going to be killed. Will a Katyusha fall on my home burying me in the ruins? Will a suicide bomber explode his charge at the mall as I am buying my small daughter a pair of new shoes? Will someone run pass me with an axe on Allenby Street in Tel Aviv and slice off my head? Or maybe a sniper will take me down on my way to pick up my son from school?”
By all accounts, Lapid is a centrist in Israel.
So how did we get here? Why are Israeli politics so far to the right, that a person with views of Palestinians akin to Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich is considered a centrist?
- Rabin’s assassination: Since Rabin was killed (by an ultra-nationalist right-wing Jew), Oslo has fallen apart. The left’s momentum was halted and pushed back. The opposition leader during Rabin’s administration was elected to office—Bibi Netanyahu.
- The Second Intifadeh: Violent Palestinian protests against the occupation, in the form of suicide terrorism, caused the Israeli public to entrench. The protests started peacefully, but turned violent after thirteen Arab citizens of Israel were killed by Israeli security forces. In the years following the Intifadeh, concerns for security vastly trumped liberty. It was the Israeli 9/11 only slower. Despite the scarcity of victims of terrorism during the last decade, the Palestinian image has remained that of the inhumane suicide bomber of which Israel must be perpetually vigilant.
- Mandatory military service: In a small nation of 7.5 million people, the majority has served in the army. Israeli Arabs are not required to serve in the military and many do not. Military service heightens nationalism and concerns for security. Older generations of Israelis primarily fought foreign wars against the Syrian, Egyptians and Jordanians. Today’s soldiers fight more domestically, protecting Jewish settlers and raiding Palestinian homes in Gaza and the West Bank. This nurtures a dangerous “us versus them” mentality. Israelis used to swear their oath in front of the Knesset building, Israel’s parliament. Now, they swear to protect Israel, the Jewish homeland, in front of the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
- Religion: Israel is a Jewish state and its Jewish citizens tend to be religious. In Israel, the label “secular” does not mean “non-practicing” or “atheist” like it does in the United States. “Secular” Jews still go to synagogue and largely believe in God, while not following a strict interpretation of the Torah. For all of Lapid’s, Netanyahu’s and Sharon’s rhetoric about the demographic challenge of high Palestinian birthrates, within Israeli Jewish society, the ultra-Orthodox are by far the most fertile sect. Needless to say, firm religious beliefs breed socially conservative political beliefs. In Israel, this effect is magnified by a nationalism that is religiously conceived. 70% of Israelis believe that Jews are the Chosen People. Only 44% of Israeli Jews think that democratic values should trump Jewish law.
- Fear and insecurity: Countries that are fearful and insecure tend to favor hardline leadership. Among other things, Israel was founded in order to keep Jews safe from a rapacious and anti-Semitic Europe. Israel was invaded by its neighbors in 1948 and 1973. The unique history of anti-Jewish discrimination explains the ostensible paradox: Israel feels ubiquitously insecure despite having a gargantuan military advantage over its enemies. The scepter of the Holocaust still looms large and Israelis tend to see threats, real or imagined, wherever they look (Palestinian ‘terrorists,’ Arab Spring ‘fundamentalists,’ and Iranian ‘lunatics’ pose just a few of them). While achieving a feeling of total security in Israel is a Sisyphean task, it has skewed the country’s politics to the right in the form of the occupation, separation wall, rigidity in peace negotiations, mandatory military service and the settlement project.
- Rampant segregation: Institutional segregation and societal constraints have prevented Israeli and Palestinian citizens from cooperating with one another. As a provision of the Oslo Accords, Israelis can’t travel to Area A of the West Bank, the sector under Palestinian administration, which includes major West Bank metropolises like Ramallah, Nablus and Hebron. Israelis rarely meet Palestinians except as menial workers and Palestinians rarely meet Jews out of uniform. This makes it difficult for Israelis to dispel the myths and fears they have about Palestinians, and engenders a reality where Israelis perceive Palestinians as their enemies.
- Selection bias: Since Israel is so young, every Jew in Israel is an immigrant, the child of an immigrant or the grandchild of an immigrant. Not all Jews decided to make aliyah and move to Israel. When analyzing Israeli society, it helps to think about what kind of person would choose to move to Israel. Many Jews move to Israel because of steadfast religious beliefs, which correlate with conservative politics. Other Jews immigrate to Israel because of anti-Semitism and religious persecution in Europe, Asia or Africa. The most recent wave of immigrants to Israel has been from the former Soviet Union, many of whom hold ultra-nationalist and authoritarian viewpoints, despite their low levels of religiosity. According to a poll in Haaretz newspaper of immigrants from the former USSR, 13% were prepared to cede any territory to the Palestinians, 66% think Arabs constitute a national security risk, and only 7% would be willing to have a Muslim Arab neighbor.
- L’dor va’dor: From generation to generation, Israeli Jews are becoming more nationalist, more religious, and more right-wing. Young Israelis today are more unwilling to compromise with the Palestinians over Jerusalem than their parents were. A 2009 poll by the Israeli Democracy Institute found that Israeli Jews are more religious than they were in 1999. From 2000 to 2010, enrollment in ultra-Orthodox school rose 57%. Less than half of Israeli first graders are secular. Over the years, physical segregation between Jews and Arabs has worsened, but so has the segregation of their narratives and histories. Today’s generation of Israeli Jews are less likely to meet, understand and empathize with Palestinian youth. The history of the Palestinian presence in Israel before 1948 has been so thoroughly erased that today’s generation is oblivious of it.
There is a clear trajectory: Israeli is becoming more authoritarian and ethnocentric. It’s vital for Jews in the Diaspora, especially in the United States, to support a vision of a more liberal, democratic and egalitarian Israeli society. As special as Israel may be to the American Jewry, it would be an affront to rubber stamp Israeli policies that would be unthinkable if they were proposed in Washington. Our liberal and democratic tendencies must not stop at the water’s edge.
As things stand now, Israel is unequivocally heading for disaster. Empowered by the Arab Spring, Middle Eastern politics will be subject to the capriciousness of public opinion as never before. An Israel that is unwilling to reconcile with its Arab minority will find that its military superiority and ultra-nationalism won’t make Jerusalem safer—it will make it endangered.