A Hollow Democracy

Israel has never extended democratic liberties to Palestinians. Now it is beginning to deny them to its Jewish citizens as well.

The “Jewish and democratic” State of Israel has always been, as Palestinian-Israeli politician Ahmed Tibi quips, “democratic for the Jews, and Jewish for the Arabs.”

The Nakba, during which hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were expelled from their homes, and the Law of Return, which allowed for immediate naturalization for all Jews that immigrated to Israel, turned the Palestinian citizens of Israel into a persecuted minority.

After the 1967 war, Palestinians living in the rest of Palestine were deprived of all political rights, with millions of Palestinian refugees and their descendants denied the right to return to their homes.

But the settler-colonial logic of eliminating the natives from political life, if not from physical presence in the country, has also depended on maintaining the truth of the aphorism’s first part: “democratic for the Jews.”

Indeed, until recently it has been possible for Israelis and sympathetic observers to “deduct the Arabs” and portray Israel as a normally functioning Western democracy. Israeli Jews enjoyed civil liberties comparable to those available in liberal democracies — including the right to organize against the repression of Palestinians.

Today, this freedom is rapidly dwindling.

The Only Democracy

There have always been Jewish Israelis opposed to the oppression of Palestinians. Despite the popular hate they draw, organizations espousing direct action against the occupation, networks of draft resisters, and groups working to commemorate the Nakba have until recently been allowed to operate legally.

Oppositional journalists, primarily at the liberal Ha’aretz daily but also in other media, have been allowed to speak out, and bastions of academic critique such as Ben-Gurion University’s Department of Politics and Government and Tel Aviv University’s Department of Sociology have educated thousands of students. The left-Zionist party Meretz has participated in national governments and numerous municipal councils, even electing a mayor here and there.

This vivacious civil society has generally excluded Palestinian citizens of Israel, who make up roughly 20 percent of the population. The General Security Service (Shin Bet) keeps a watchful eye over Palestinian citizens and their institutions, insinuating itself deep into the segregated educational system and preventing university education in Arabic for fear of radicalization.

Palestinian movements are frequently outlawed, from the socialist al-Ard in the 1950s to the “northern branch” of the Islamic Movement last year. In every election cycle, the Electoral Commission debates whether Palestinian parties will be allowed to participate, and at the last election the minimum share of the vote required for representation in the Knesset was raised, explicitly in order to exclude them (a move which backfired spectacularly).

A bill currently under consideration, and supported by the government, would allow the Knesset to remove its remaining Palestinian parliamentarians on almost any pretext. Palestinian activists are also routinely subjected to intimidating interrogations and searches and lengthy arrests following demonstrations.

Yet ludicrous as the idea of Israeli democracy may be from the point of view of Palestinian refugees, residents of the Occupied Territories, or even the state’s own Palestinian citizens, it plays a critical function for the Israeli regime.

First and foremost, Israeli democracy — or “ethnocracy” — ensures the consent of the Jewish populace for policies that do not necessarily serve its interests. The neoliberal dismantling of the welfare state and sale of public resources; the siphoning of government funds to maintain affluent West Bank settlements, where less than ten percent of the population lives; institutional racism against Jews of non-European extraction, including Mizrahi and Ethiopian Jews; the monopoly of the misogynistic Orthodox Rabbinate over family law; all are legitimized as not only necessary to protecting the Jewish character of the state, but also as enjoying the democratic support of the Jewish majority.

Internal Jewish democracy also plays a crucial role on the geopolitical stage. The international media pays close attention to Israel’s fractious parliamentary life and to its civil society, whose NGOs also receive ample financial support from Western governments and foundations.

By vigorously criticizing Israeli state policies while refraining from criticism of the regime as such, liberal Israeli intellectuals enable the ruling elites of the United States and Western Europe to argue that Israel is the “only democracy in the Middle East,” thus justifying the enormous military and financial aid they channel to it among their own populations.

The real reasons for this support are, of course, predicated on Israel’s strategic importance to the West, but the illusion of Israeli democracy makes this backing that much easier to justify.

The Circle Tightens

But the democratic public sphere available to Jews in Israel has been under attack in recent years, and in recent months it has been shrinking rapidly.

At the head of the offensive stands Im Tirtzu, a non-governmental organization which began operations in 2008 with a campaign for censoring critical academics, before moving in 2010 to target Israeli NGOs which had provided evidence on human rights violations in Gaza for the United Nation’s Goldstone Report.

Im Tirtzu and other right-wing NGOs funded by wealthy American donors live in close symbiosis with politicians in both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party and its ally, the religious-nationalist Jewish Home.

Ayelet Shaked, who became a Knesset member for Jewish Home after serving as Netanyahu’s chief of staff and heading an Im Tirtzu clone called My Israel, exemplifies this milieu. As minister of justice since March 2015, Shaked has made Im Tirtzu-style McCarthyite tactics government policy, for example by pushing through a law requiring representatives of “foreign-funded” NGOs to wear special badges while in the Knesset.

Notably, the law applies only to organizations funded by foreign governments — primarily liberal human rights organizations — freeing right-wing NGOs, whose donors are non-governmental, from such restrictions.

Additional vectors for the constriction of the liberal public sphere are Minister of Education Naftali Bennett (Jewish Home), who has taken to censoring the books and plays students consume, and Minister of Culture Miri Regev (Likud), who has made the allocation of funding for culture on grounds of loyalty to the state her primary objective.

Heartened by the success of its representatives in government, Im Tirtzu has pushed on with a campaign against Breaking the Silence — a group of ex-soldiers which disseminates testimonies on human rights violations in the Occupied Territories.

In a chilling video produced by Im Tirtzu, Breaking the Silence is denounced together with other human rights NGOs as shtulim — literally, “planted ones,” connoting something like “collaborators” or “snitches” — for receiving money from sinister foreign governments like the Netherlands and Norway.

In January, in a step which apparently went too far and drew heat from Netanyahu and Bennett, Im Tirtzu denounced Amos Oz and actress Gila Almagor — both pillars of the establishment — for “supporting planted organizations.”

But perhaps more ominous than Im Tirtzu’s activities is the political turn of the liberal media. In January, Uvda — Israel’s most respected investigative news show — aired an “exposé” produced entirely by another Im Tirtzu clone, Ad Kan, with the intent of smearing the activists of the solidarity group Ta’ayush, which operates in the Southern West Bank.

An Ad Kan mole taped activist Ezra Nawi bragging falsely that he had turned over Palestinians who sold land to Israelis to the Palestinian Authority and that the latter had been executed.

When broadcast bereft of context, this tape was enough not only to brand Nawi as a traitor and murderer, but also to trigger his arrest and that of two comrades from Ta’ayush, Israeli Guy Butavia and Palestinian Nasser Nawajeh. The three were released by the courts, but not before Nawajeh was transferred to Ofer Prison in the West Bank to be tried under military law.

Ad Kan struck again in March with allegations that Breaking the Silence was “gathering intelligence” on military activities, this time broadcast as fact on Channel 2 News. Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon (Likud) quickly went on record saying that “if” the allegations were true, they would constitute treason. More recently, Ya’alon has himself become a target for insisting that a soldier who had been filmed shooting a bound and helpless Palestinian was “not a hero” and should stand trial.

Searching For Enemies

The constriction of the Israeli public sphere coincides with the rising pressure from Palestinian campaigns such as Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS). The most visible and contentious element of the movement is the academic and cultural boycott (PACBI), which targets precisely those segments of Israeli society that are often seen as bastions of opposition.

So far, many Israeli intellectuals have spoken against the boycott, though the apparent unanimity is a direct result of the climate of fear and of a law penalizing supporters of the boycott. But if the attacks on them from within Israel continue, they cannot be expected to continue to play this role. Some, including Israel’s most globally famous author, seem already to be refusing it.

The demoralization of the intellectuals may have grave consequences for the Israeli regime; though financial and military aid for Israel still enjoys public support across the United States and Europe, much of this support depends on the continued credibility of the “only democracy” trope.

Thus, what increasingly looks like a shutdown of Israel’s ethnic democracy cannot be understood as a premeditated move to serve the regime’s interests. The current dynamic is probably better understood as an acceleration of a trend inherent in Zionism, as well as in other repressive social formations: the need to identify threatening enemies in order to ensure internal cohesion.

The Palestinian resistance is in disarray, the Arab world has descended into internecine war, and Iran has been rehabilitated; the search for enemies thus turns inward, losing all proportionality with the real power of those supposed enemies.

But while it may weaken Israel’s position internationally, the collapse of Israel’s limited democratic sphere is not something leftists should be applauding. For one thing, it goes hand in hand with a further deterioration in conditions for both citizen and non-citizen Palestinians.

Moreover, there is no foreseeable scenario under which the Palestinian struggle can achieve its aims by pure force of arms. The seven million Jews who live in historic Palestine must be accommodated, and eventually, a critical proportion of them will have to be won over to supporting a negotiated solution if one is to be achieved.

Surely, the most important group to bridge the divide is the Palestinian minority within Israel, which has the most to lose from a war of annihilation and the most to gain from a resolution that guarantees their individual and collective rights.

Under adverse conditions, this group has recently found parliamentary unity in the Joint List, which subsumes leftists, liberals, and Islamists. Yet the Palestinian public itself implicitly recognizes the importance of maintaining contact with the Jewish population by electing the Jewish Dov Khenin among its delegates in a Knesset where Palestinians are sorely underrepresented. Outside the Knesset, too, those Israeli Jews who stand for equality and against occupation have a role to play.

The Palestine solidarity movement can do little to prevent the constriction of the democratic space which Israeli Jews have enjoyed, and it would be presumptuous to demand that it devote its scarce resources to that end, much less that it overlook many Israeli liberals’ lack of solidarity with Palestinians.

Nevertheless, it is in the movement’s interest to keep an eye on developments within Israel and to look forward to a day when a truly significant Israeli opposition — perhaps one forged in the fires of repression — can become a partner in decolonization.