Israel Turning Into Theocracy

It's Drifting Away From the Liberal Ethos of World Jewry

By Eric Alterman

Published December 12, 2011, issue of December 16, 2011.
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It is becoming increasingly obvious that a break between Israel and Diaspora Jewry, particularly its American variety, is fast approaching. The reason for this is that Israel is slowly but inexorably turning into a conservative theocracy while the Diaspora is largely dedicated to liberal democracy.

The strategy of the “pro-Israel” camp among American Jewish organizations and neoconservative pundits has been, so far, one of avoidance of unpleasant facts coupled with unpleasant insinuations about the loyalties of those who insist on taking them seriously. But denial can work in only the short term, and only with an American Jewish population that identifies closely with Israel and relates all threats back to the Holocaust. These conditions, like the generation that sustained them, are not long for this world. Once this aging constituency is gone, the truth will prove unavoidable and it will be too late to deny it any longer.

For another point of view, read Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s ‘Arabs Should Take Cue From Israel’

Israel is no democracy, and it never has been with regard to the 4 million Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza. It has always been a decidedly imperfect democracy concerning its own Arab citizens.

Lately, however, it has become less and less democratic with regard to the rights of its Jewish population. For reasons of demography, the Israeli body politic is increasingly dominated by Haredi Jews on the one hand, and secular nationalists, many of whose families emigrated from Russia, on the other. Neither group demonstrates any intrinsic interest in liberal political niceties like free speech, minority political rights or civil liberties.

The trend was already evident when the government passed a bill that makes any initiator of a boycott, whether consumer, academic or cultural, liable to be sued in civil court for damages by anyone who feels impacted by the boycott. A boycott is a fundamental right of free speech. Personally, I make it a point to boycott any Jewish philanthropy that contributes to the continued occupation of the West Bank. I do this for what I understand to be Israel’s well-being more than for that of the Palestinians, but if I were to say so aloud in Israel, I could be sued.

American organizations objected to the bill, but Israeli politicians, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, did not care. Now we see it was just a precursor to a whole host of anti-democratic legislation and regulation.

Among the bills that either have already become law or may be about to are:

A law, proposed by Likud party Knesset member Ofir Akunisthat would prevent political nongovernmental organizations from accepting more than NIS 20,000 from foreign governments or international organizations.

A law, authored by Yisrael Beiteinu Knesset member Faina Kirshenbaum, that will demand that all organizations not funded by the Israeli government pay a 45% tax on all donations from foreign states.

A law that regards film production and asks that cast and crew swear loyalty to Israel as a Jewish state.

A law that increases the fine for slander, NIS 50,000, to NIS 300,000.

Some of these proposed laws may not come to pass, but the intent of all of them is the same, and this is, sadly, the definite direction of Israeli politics. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman attacked those groups that seek to uphold civil liberties in Israel, for Jews as well as for Arabs, as “collaborators in terror.” Netanyahu has recently announced that not only will Israel begin expanding Jewish settlements in Jerusalem, but it will also confiscate Palestinian land for the purpose of retroactively legalizing illegal settlements, in direct contravention of the promises of both of Netanyahu’s previous predecessors, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert. The thrust of these actions is consistent with the political forces driving them — for instance, the dozens of municipal rabbis who not long ago issued an edict against renting or selling real estate to non-Jews (meaning Arabs), and the group of rabbis’ wives who wrote a collective letter suggesting that Jewish women avoid all contact with Arab men.

It’s true that Israel is home to many liberal Jews who would prefer to live in a secular democracy governed by the civil laws based on the precepts of the Enlightenment. But they are clearly a minority and getting smaller with the birth of every Haredi’s sixth or seventh child. What’s more, the American Jewish community does not intervene politically on behalf of, nor identify psychologically, culturally and religiously with, the Israeli minority.

So better to face the facts today, when the situation remains at least partially in flux. Kiddushin 39b in the Babylonian Talmud tells us, ”And wherever the potential for harm is ever present we do not rely on miracles.” Yet those who refuse to recognize the coming conflict between Israeli theocracy and Diaspora democracy are doing just that.

Eric Alterman is a CUNY Distinguished Professor of English and Journalism at Brooklyn College and also writes a column for The Nation.


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