by Mitchell Plitnick
They were dueling op-eds, one in the New York Times and the other in the Jewish communal magazine, Tablet. The question being bandied between them was whether Israel is becoming a theocracy. Not surprisingly, both pieces missed the mark. It’s not theocracy but unbridled nationalism that is the threat in Israel.
The Times piece was authored by Abbas Milani, who heads the Iranian Studies program at Stanford University and Israel Waismel-Manor, a lecturer at Haifa University and visiting associate professor of political science at Stanford. Their thesis is that Iran and Israel are moving in opposite directions on a democratic-theocratic scale, and that they might at some point in the future pass each other. Milani and Waismel-Manor are certainly correct about the strengthening forces of secularism and democracy in Iran, along with a good dose of disillusionment and frustration with the revolutionary, Islamic government that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini ushered in thirty-five years ago. But on Israel, they miss the mark by a pretty wide margin.
Waismel-Manor and Milani posit that the thirty seats currently held in Israel’s Knesset by religious parties shows growing religious influence on Israeli policies. But, as Yair Rosenberg at Tablet correctly points out, not all the religious parties have the same attitude about separation of religion and the state. Where Rosenberg, unsurprisingly, goes way off course is his complete eliding of the fact that the threat is not Israel’s tilt toward religion, but it’s increasingly radical shift toward right-wing policies, which are often severely discriminatory and militant.
Waismel-Manor and Milani collapse the religious and right-wing ideologies at play in the Israeli government. Rosenberg is right to counter this. There are currently three parties in the Knesset (Israeli parliament) which define themselves as religious parties: HaBayit HaYehudi (The Jewish Home), Shas, and United Torah Judaism (UTJ). Shas is the most explicitly dedicated, in ideology and practice, to a religious Jewish state. But it is currently in the opposition and has not seen much rise in its share of the electorate in quite a while. It is worth noting, as well, that Shas has generally been the most welcoming of all religious parties to a two-state solution, although its stance on an undivided Jerusalem is notoriously problematic.
UTJ is made up of two religious parties, which don’t always agree and sometimes split for a while and reunite later. But UTJ generally supports the status quo of religion in the state, and HaBayit Hayehudi, while ostensibly supporting a religious state, is much more focused on its radical nationalism. This is why Bennett, after some early difficulties, has found a way to work with secular parties like Yesh Atid and, most importantly, Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel, Our Home). Neither of those two parties, both major partners in the current coalition, could find common ground with UTJ or Shas.
That is very telling, because it illustrates where both the Times and Tablet op-eds go wrong. Rosenberg, who is also the editor of the Israel State Archives blog, is zealous in his determination to be a heroic “Defender of Israel” and in so doing he comes off as both snide and dishonest in his takedown of Waismel-Manor and Milani, despite the merits of his case. Surely so keen an observer of Israeli politics as Rosenberg claims to be could not have missed the thread that the two scholars detected but mis-identified in their piece. It is not theocracy that Israel is sliding toward, it is the passionate and often brutal oppression that extreme nationalism so often leads to. At the end of that road is fascism. And while Israel, despite some bombastic rhetoric of its fiercest critics, remains a long distance away from being fascist, the distance is not as great as it once was.
Rosenberg had the opportunity to issue an important corrective to the Times op-ed and grasp a teaching moment. Instead, he waved the Israeli flag and completely ignored the very real threat Israel’s increasingly right-wing body politic poses to the structures of democracy in Israel.
That threat is manifest in the ideologies and proposals of both Avigdor Lieberman of Yisrael Beiteinu and Naftali Bennett of HaBayit HaYehudi. I’ve explored in some detail the kind of future Bennett envisions; he is a leading champion of annexation of much of the West Bank. Lieberman, who is busily pushing stronger ties with Russia to increase Israel’s freedom of action, has repeatedly proposed such ideas as loyalty oaths for Palestinian citizens of Israel and the forced transfer of Arab areas of Israel to the Palestinian Authority. These, coupled with his general style and heavy-handed methods, have brought many people to describe him as a fascist.
But the threat doesn’t stop there, nor is it limited to the Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line. Various bills have been proposed to limit Israeli NGOs that work to support human rights, international law, and peace, many of which are staffed and supported by Israeli Jews. The bills have been directly targeting NGOs in these fields, not the right-wing ones which do not disclose their funding sources and operate in various shady ways.
And the effect is not limited to Lieberman’s and Bennett’s parties. The Likud, which has always been conservative and right-wing, has also seen a tilt in this same direction. Gone from the ranks of Likud are such party stalwarts as Dan Meridor and Benny Begin who, despite supporting settlement expansion and various hawkish positions, also stood firm by Israel’s democratic processes. They opposed the rightward march and now they’re gone.
Politicians like Meridor and Begin were able to stabilize Likud leaders like Benjamin Netanyahu in the face of rightward pressure, but those days have also passed. It is a mark of where Likud has gone that, not only did it form an electoral bloc with Lieberman in the last election, but an outspoken opponent of the creation of a Palestinian state, the son of Israel’s first Likud Prime Minister, Menachem Begin (who was, himself, once considered a terrorist by the British), Benny was considered too moderate for the Likud leadership.
Instead of right-wing leaders like Meridor and Begin, Likud features explicit opponents of democracy like Ze’ev Elkin, annexationists like Tzipi Hotovely and outright racists like Miri Regev. Here we find the common cause that Bennett and Lieberman find with Likud. Not religion, but the worst kind of nationalistic bigotry, one that leads to ongoing occupation outside the Green Line and increased institutionalized racism, whether you call it apartheid, segregation or whatever, inside.
Rosenberg merely wanted to demonstrate that the Times ran an op-ed that offered an inaccurate picture of Israel, hoping to strengthen the right-wing’s and center-right’s phony contention that the Times and other mainstream media treat Israel unfairly. He was right about Milani and Waismel-Manor mischaracterizing Israel. But rather than correct them with reality, he did it with pointless sarcasm and thereby perpetrated a lie by omission that is much more harmful to Israel.
The pull of Bennett and Lieberman has made Likud even more radically right-wing. It has made a party like Yesh Atid “centrist,” even though its leader kicked off his campaign in a settlement, claims to support a two-state solution while backing every second of Netanyahu’s obstructionism in peace talks, and proclaims repeatedly that Israel should not even discuss Palestinian refugees or dividing Jerusalem. That’s the new center in Israel.
And why wouldn’t it be, when the right-wing has pulled things so far from any kind of true moderation? That is the danger of where Israel is heading. It’s not theocratic, but it is repressive and a recipe for continued and escalated conflict. Milani and Waismel-Manor may have misidentified the threat, but at least they acknowledge there is one. And it’s getting worse.