In forty-eight hours, the world saw the electoral defeat of one right-wing leader and the triumphant return of another. While Jair Bolsonaro did not acknowledge that he had lost the October 30 Brazilian presidential runoff, he does now seem to have been forced to give up his claim to power. Meanwhile in Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu won the November 1 general elections, heading toward a far-right coalition of a kind the country has never seen before.
A short clarification is in order: most Israelis did not vote for Netanyahu (his bloc received 48.4 percent). He will however have a majority in parliament (64 of 120 seats) thanks to a law his party passed in 2014 that increased the threshold for parties to enter the Knesset to four seats (3.25 percent of the popular vote), thus creating obstacles for the Palestinian national minority, traditionally divided into several small parties. Indeed, with two left-wing parties failing to reach this threshold (Meretz and Balad), and with one allegedly anti-Netanyahu party mounting a transparent effort to waste left-wing votes (Ayelet Shaked’s Habayit Hayehudi), more than 7 percent of anti-Netanyahu voters will not be represented in the upcoming parliament. This is how gerrymandering looks in Israel.
Still, the big winner of the Israeli elections is not Netanyahu so much as his new ally, Itamar Ben-Gvir. A far-right provocateur in the campaign leading to Itzhak Rabin’s assassination in 1995, he has operated on the fringes of Israeli far-right politics for decades. Netanyahu, who faces several corruption cases, has enabled Ben-Gvir to mobilize young Israelis and win the elections in the hope that a right-wing coalition can change the laws that had brought Netanyahu to trial, or pass laws that will annul the power of Israel’s Supreme Court. In doing so, Netanyahu legitimized Ben-Gvir’s party (Otzma Yehudit, or “Jewish Power”) and ideology. Indeed, Ben-Gvir’s rants have become a commonplace spectacle on Israeli TV news — a form of entertainment even. With fourteen seats in parliament, Ben-Gvir and his followers now hope to conquer the Ministry of Internal Security. Whether Netanyahu is in a position to bargain with his new fanatical ally is yet to be seen.
From Brazil to Israel, the two right-wing leaders and the religious fanaticism propelling their political movements have never looked so similar. While right-wing populists in Europe and the United States have rhetorically labeled their political adversaries as the anti-nation, the Israeli and Brazilian versions are systematically and actively dispossessing indigenous populations that they believe have no right to be there. In other words, Ben-Gvir’s rhetoric, and the Bolsonaro supporters’ Nazi salutes, are simply the unashamed manifestations of movements that have made ethnic cleansing the center of their political project.
“Jewish State” or “Land of the Jews”?
To understand who Ben-Gvir is and what he wants, we should underscore that even his extreme-sounding ideas are hardly original. Ever since November 1947, when mandatory Palestine was divided in two, Israel — and the Zionist movement as its ideological core — have been unable to solve the Gordian knot between being a “democratic” and a “Jewish” state. The nuance in this formula complicates things even further. From 1947 onward, Israel has indeed been a “Jewish state”: its formal language is Hebrew, it operates according to the Jewish calendar, its laws are inspired by the rabbinical legality, and its education system teaches even the most secular of Israeli school children the truths of the Jewish bible.
True, Israel has not invented the nation-state as a concept. But in the Israeli case there is something different: the use of immigration policy and settlement of Palestinian land in order to confect a demographic majority. Jews have a right to “return” and earn immediate citizenship in Israel. For gentiles, on the other hand, naturalization in Israel is impossible unless married to an Israeli — a Jewish Israeli, to be precise. An Israeli Palestinian cannot expect his non-Israeli Palestinian wife to become a citizen. Israel’s state laws — and the infamous 2018 “Nation Law” in particular — have made this point clear. Still, within its sovereign borders Israel is considered by the West to be the “only democracy in the Middle East” and a country that defends individual rights, thereby abiding by the highest of liberal values.
Ben-Gvir threatens to undo this façade. For him, and the messianic settler movement backing him, Israel is not simply a Jewish state (Medina Yehudit) but the “Land of the Jews” (Medinat Ha’yehudim). As such, everything within its perimeters is Jewish property by definition. Similarly, they believe the state apparatus should serve the interests of those whom the rabbinical authorities deem to have Jewish blood in their veins. Not surprisingly, Ben-Gvir and his followers have been key actors in Lehava — an organization designed to prevent racial mixing (Hitbolelut) between Jews and Arabs, but which in actuality is known for indiscriminately beating harmless Palestinian men in the streets of Jerusalem. In their mind, Israel ought to become a state-sized Jewish ghetto whose sole purpose is to breed Jews to pre-Holocaust numbers and, in turn, hasten the coming of the Jewish messiah.
Ben-Gvir’s electoral campaign slogan “Who are the landlords here?” (Mi Po Ba’aley Ha’bait) is unambiguous. This crass rhetorical question sends the simple message: the landlords have returned to evict the invaders from their property. The identity of the latter is also far from being a mystery. For Ben-Gvir, the six million Palestinians dwelling between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean Sea are candidates for immediate deportation, followed by their supporters in Israeli society (left-wing Jewish Israelis), African refugees and, arguably, even members of the LGBTQ community.
These ideas have been brewing in Israeli far-right fringes for decades. On top of them, Ben-Gvir is now reintroducing other fascist-sounding innuendos. Informed by the ideology of the Israeli racist theorist Rabbi Meir Kahane, he not only rejects universal ethics of liberalism and democracy, but exalts political violence as a value unto itself. Indeed, he has been convicted for countless acts of violence against Palestinians. Strikingly, Ben-Gvir is not interested in the political status quo in the West Bank, better known as the Israeli “occupied territories.” Rather, he actively pursues a definite violent confrontation that will rid Israel of its external and internal enemies once and for all and, along the way, rebuild the nation according to strict Judaic spiritual values — as he understands them, at least. His ideology is thus as messianic as it is insipidly fascist.
Israel in Latin America
Pro-Israeli Jewish Americans, whether conservative or liberal, tend to overlook Israel’s right-wing radicalization in the past decades. But Evangelical Christians around the world have noticed. As a part of their puzzling cosmology, they not only share Ben-Gvir’s fantasies of ethnic cleansing but also actively promote the battle against the Muslim world as a showdown of utmost eschatological importance.
This brings us to Jair Messias Bolsonaro. Netanyahu is an avowed ally of the now-outgoing Brazilian president, as he is with Donald Trump and other far-right leaders like Hungarian premier Viktor Orbán. Still, Bolsonaro’s affiliation with Israel goes beyond being Netanyahu’s kindred spirit. Bolsonaro and his wife identify with Israel in an almost bizarre fashion. Michelle Bolsonaro, a pronounced evangelical, appeared on Brazil’s election day wearing a T-shirt showing the Israeli flag, and continued to write on social media: “May God’s blessings be upon Brazil and Israel.”
Is the Brazilian right interested in the fate of Israel and Jews worldwide? Not remotely. More often than not, these people, and the military dictatorship they had served and to which they are nostalgic, have tended to voice antisemitic sentiments, as did all the military dictatorships in Latin America. Videos surfacing in recent days showcasing hundreds of Bolsonaro supporters performing the Nazi salute only go to show that these people are willing to consciously evoke what they know all too well signifies utter horror for Jews and Israelis alike.
Put differently, Bolsonaro and his followers do not identify with Israel. Rather, they believe they are Israel. Israel in Latin America. Like Israel, they, the (white) evangelical Brazilians of the south, believe themselves to be God’s chosen people and, thus, the true “landlords” in their own country. As such, they too believe themselves to be in a struggle against a foreign intruder, namely the left-wing Workers’ Party’s northern (dark) “communists” and Brazil’s indigenous minorities. That Bolsonaro represents Brazil’s powerful landowners and agrobusiness makes this “landlord” sentiment all the more conspicuous. This similarity between the Israeli occupation in the West Bank and the landgrab of indigenous lands in the Amazon is striking: the landlords do not feel a need to apologies for the rampant human rights violations they commit, not even murder. After all, God is on their side. This is their home, and against an intruder one acts in self-defense.
There surely are significant differences between the two countries. Brazil is a hemispheric superpower with more than two hundred million inhabitants, not easily prone to succumb to international pressures. Israel perhaps believes itself to be a superpower but, in truth, depends on the United States and the European Union — politically, militarily, and financially. Luckily for Brazil, the November 2022 elections have demonstrated the limitations of right-wing landlordism in Brazil.
The case of Israel is different if only for the fact that Netanyahu is a far more skillful politician than Bolsonaro could ever be. Particularly noteworthy is Netanyahu’s capacity to speak in multiple, if not contradictory, voices to different audiences. This notwithstanding, the Israeli right-wing camp is weaker than one might assume, and its landlordism is mostly detached from reality. Its leaders perhaps act from a biblical sense of entitlement, but also betray a misguided sense of international impunity and respectability. As such, they are more sensitive to international pressure than the Brazilian right.
Not Condemnations, but Actions
Which brings us to the question: what can be done? While it might be inappropriate for them to actively meddle with Israel’s internal affairs, it is more than reasonable for the United States and European Union — whose citizens’ taxes maintain the Palestinian Authority, thereby sustaining Israel’s occupation and land dispossessions — to take a steadfast stance against Israel’s far-right surge, rather than continue with the line that Israel is a vibrant democracy.
Any potential infringement of personal rights or destabilization of the Israeli legal system by Netanyahu’s future government should be met not only with condemnations but action. With Germany at its helm, the European Union’s treatment of Israel is still marked by a historical guilt complex. While this reality might not change, what can change is the Europeans’ tendency to courteously support any Israeli government regardless of who its ministers are.
There is little doubt that Ben-Gvir and his party members will soon hold important ministerial positions. The United States and European Union should make it abundantly clear that unless these far-right politicians publicly disown their racist avowals and pledge to protect civil liberties in Israel and the West Bank, they will be disregarded, defunded, and excluded from international forums. Anything shorter than that would mean that the United States and European Union will be an accomplice to their rhetoric and deeds.
To be sure, this is not a call to “boycott Israel.” Rather, it is a call to establish an international price tag on the far-right illiberal landlordism that has been corroding political systems in democratic societies worldwide. Should such a roadmap work in Israel, it might set an example for places elsewhere, ahead of Bolsonaro’s return, for instance. If anyone believes Bolsonarismo will simply disappear from Brazilian politics, they should quickly study the lessons of Netanyahu’s comeback. Bolsonaro has perhaps lost the 2022 elections, and seems unlikely (or unable) to stage a coup d’état in the near future. But he and his movement are not going anywhere. Landlords rarely do.