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Israel’s drift to authoritarianism: An illiberal ‘Jewish democracy’ embraces the populist nationalist model

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Two important events happened towards the end of the third week of July in Israel: The ethnocratic settler-colonial state of Israel passed its new Jewish nation state law, which has been in the making for over two years now, and Hungary’s anti-Semitic Prime Minister Viktor Orban made a two-day visit to Israel. Despite the international uproar over the law, critics did not link these interrelated events, even though both events attest to a radical shift towards authoritarian governance in the alleged “only democracy in the Middle East.”

As an ethnocratic settler-colonial state, Israel can no longer suppress or manage the contradictions that have accelerated its development into an apartheid state. These contradictions include its ethnocratic Zionist settler-colonial ideology, ethno-religious particularity in all its ambiguity (Jewish as a referent for both ethnic and religious identities), and the secular, egalitarian democratic ideals to which it has paid lip services for seven decades. Moreover, traditional liberal democracies are becoming an obstacle to the power realignments in the region and around the world, forcing the Israeli ethnocratic settler-colonial state to find new ways to fit into the structural changes that the neoliberal global capitalist system is currently undergoing. Indeed, Israel emerged as the only winner of the Helsinki summit.

In this context, the law inaugurates the Israeli ethnocratic settler-colonial state as an illiberal religious-based democracy and apartheid state, while Orban’s visit confers legitimacy on it within the global power shifts today especially, the rise of far right populist nationalist movements in Europe and the U.S. This calls for inventing new strategies for universalizing the Palestinian struggle for freedom.

Illiberal Jewish democracy

Despite the uproar over the new law, this basic law did not introduce anything new in the way things have been done in Israel. Rather, this law merely enshrines the de facto colonial and apartheid realities in the Israeli ethnocratic settler-colonial state into a de jure status (law). At one level, therefore, this new law makes it possible to put the last 70 years of Israel’s ethnocractic history of ethnic cleansing and apartheid into their proper context. Hence, this law has nothing to do with safeguarding Jewish identity, tradition, homeland or even Western civilization. Rather, it exposes the history of the Israeli ethnocratic settler-colonial regime in all its brutal realities, by revealing the suppressed ethno-nationalism that drives such regimes.

However, the attitude towards this constitutive apartheid and colonial history has always been expressed in terms of a “fetishistic disavowal”—we all knew what was really going on, but all the same. So when Palestinian Knesset member Ahmad Tibi announces the “death of democracy” in Israel as a result of this law, it must be pointed out that it has been dead all along.

Oren Yiftachel, a renowned scholar of Israeli ethnocracy, convincingly argues that Israel’s democratic charade covers up a deeper ethnocractic apartheid structure. Such a structure, he points out, requires the institutionalization of racial laws that can guarantee Jewish supremacy and hegemony. Equality (before the law) and the redistribution of resources and rights become an elusive dream that will always be undermined at both symbolic and legal levels.

Thus, when Prime Minister Netanyahu states that “Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people, and respects the rights of all of its citizens,” he is evidently obfuscating the oxymoron that is an ethnocratic democracy. The rights of all citizens in such an ethnocratic polity can be neither respected nor protected, since the “only democracy in the Middle East” is based on securing the privileges and rights of one particular ethno-religious identity only. The hierarchical and exclusivist principles of the Israeli ethnocratic settler-colonial state stand on the opposite end of the universal and egalitarian ideals of any secular polity that deems itself the state of all its citizens.

The fact that Arabic was also demoted into a “special status” language in this law discloses the implicit common belief that Arabic is the “language of the enemy.” Any illusions about multicultural relations and coexistence will consequently be exploded. Indeed, activists have long dismissed the multicultural façade in this ethnocratic scene for what it really is: in a playful pun on the Hebrew word for coexistence (doo-qiyum in Hebrew), they sarcastically call it “dookie.”

The Populist Nationalist Model

It is no coincidence that the law was passed at a time when the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban was visiting Israel and meeting with Netanyahu. Orban’s visit does not simply stop at consolidating the Israeli government’s ties with the European far right. As a symbol of the European far right, Orban provides a blueprint for Netanyahu on how to suspend traditional liberal democracy and replace it with a religious-based democracy.

In a radio interview in May 2017, Orban called for “building an old-school Christian democracy, rooted in European traditions.” This “illiberal democracy,” as he called it in a famous 2014 speech, is grounded in a belief in “the importance of the nation” and a vigorous opposition to “any supranational business or political empire.” In the same speech, he also rejected the “Western European dogmas” that suggest that people should be “free to do anything that does not violate another person’s freedom.” The government has every right now to undercut freedom.

These illiberal ethno-religious democracies are sustained by a unique combination of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. First, they posit themselves as defenders of the West against “Muslim invaders”—Muslim immigrants and refugees for Orban and radical and militant Islam especially, Iran, for Netanyahu.

Second, they are getting mileage out of obscene abuse of anti-Semitism. While Orban has been condemned for his blatant anti-Semitism, he still considers himself to be a hard core supporter of Israel. On the other hand, the Netanyahu government has been courting anti-Semitic clergy and public figures and hunting down anti-Zionist Jewish individuals and organizations. The deal here will ensure Israel’s silence over the crackdown on the freedoms of immigrants and refugees in Europe, and the European silence over Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian indigenous population not only in the occupied Palestinian territories, but also inside Israel proper now.

It is also supported by the exclusion and isolation of the Palestinians. On his recent visit, it was reported, Orban did not schedule talks with any Palestinian leader, in a break with EU protocols. Moreover, there is a clear investment in Putin’s Russia that conceals a more dangerous trend towards legitimizing oppressive authoritarian regimes.

The confluence of these events will make it easier for Israel and its allies to complete the liquidation of the Palestinian cause (and any reference to resistance and steadfastness) and carry out their land swaps and transfer plans, however partial, for the Palestinian Arab population in Israel proper.  This will not make it easier, as some believe, to criticize Israel and show its true colors; rather, it makes it urgent for all those who believe in the universality of struggle to start linking the Palestinian struggle for freedom to the struggles of other disposable groups that are affected by these global far right regimes around a more fundamental antagonism.

Jamil Khader

Dr. Jamil Khader is Dean of Research and Professor of English at Bethlehem University, Palestine. His current project addresses the significance of Palestine for internationalist revolutionary theories and praxis.

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6 Responses

  1. JLewisDickerson on July 30, 2018, 2:41 pm

    RE: “Israel’s drift to authoritarianism: An illiberal ‘Jewish democracy’ embraces the populist nationalist model”

    “What My Escape From Hitler’s Germany Taught Me About Trump’s America”
    • And what Trump’s America teaches us about Netanyahu’s Israel.
    By Henry Siegman | | July 27, 2018
    LINK ~

  2. Talkback on July 31, 2018, 12:53 am

    “drift to authoritarianism”, “development into an apartheid state”.

    There is neither a “drift” nor a “development”. This has been the essence of the “Jewish state” since it was established through war and expulsion.

  3. Misterioso on July 31, 2018, 10:15 am

    The Duran, July 30/18

    “EU expresses concern over Israeli nationality law”

    “This is just another area where the EU and Donald Trump, and AIPAC, and Nikki Haley don’t see eye to eye.”

    By Frank Sellers

    “EU Foreign Affairs and Security Representative Federica Moghereini has declared that the Israeli Nationalist Law, passed on the 19th, acts as a hinderance to a viable long term peace arrangement in the region.

    “Al-Monitor reports:
    GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — The European Union expressed concern over the national law that was approved by the Israeli Knesset July 19. EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini clarified that the law grants Jews alone the right to self-determination in the country and will hinder a two-state solution.

    “’We’ve been very clear when it comes to the two-state solution, we believe it is the only way forward and any step that would further complicate or prevent this solution of becoming a reality should be avoided,’ stated Mogherini July 19.

    “The Jewish nation-state law reads: ‘Israel is the historic homeland of the Jewish people and they have an exclusive right to national self-determination in it.’ It demotes Arabic from an official language to a secondary language. There are 1.8 million Arabs in Israel, 20% of the total Israeli population of 9 million people.

    “Maja Kocijancic, Mogherini’s spokesperson, asserted in a July 13 press conference that the EU does not recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the areas it occupied in 1967 and does not consider them Israeli territories. The conference came against the background of a diplomatic dispute between Ireland (an EU member) and Israel over a bill banning the importation of products from Israeli settlements to Ireland.

    “On July 11, the Irish Senate voted 25 to 20 in favor of a bill banning Ireland’s importation of products from Israeli settlements. The bill will be presented to parliament for approval, though the ruling party in Ireland opposes it. The Israeli Foreign Ministry summoned the Irish ambassador to Israel July 12 to protest the bill and threatened to close the Irish Embassy in Tel Aviv.

    “America has already essentially admitted that it perceives whatever territory the Jews occupy in the Levant to be a rightful and legitimate part of the Jewish State, AKA Israel. A couple of other states, hoping that it would cause the Americans to look upon them a little more favourably, have followed America’s lead on the matter, and also moved their embassies to Jerusalem in a symbolic act to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish State. But this business of implicit racism involved the Israeli nationality law is something that just doesn’t mesh too well with the values of the Europeans, so they could have a hard time professing loyalty to both, since the Israeli nationality law all but states that the Jews alone hold rights to the area as their ancestral heritage and right, which excludes the same sort of benefits to Arabs living in the same area.”

  4. brwencino on July 31, 2018, 12:58 pm

    I so often disagree with the disguised Zionism (read “Jewish Identityism”) of authors of articles on this blog, I thought it only fair to say in response to this article–AGREE!

    • mondonut on July 31, 2018, 1:25 pm

      Now there is a committed hater- even Mondoweiss is full of secret Zionists.

      • Talkback on July 31, 2018, 2:33 pm


        Some even might mistake your hysterical parody of Zionist nuts for the real thing. I always crack up when you mimic their compulsive imbecile accusation of “hate”, “hate”, “hate”, “hate” … ROFL.

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