As Israel celebrates its 75th anniversary, the state-building project it cemented into place in 1948 by expelling 750,000 Palestinians from their homeland is showing the first signs of unraveling.
The surprise is that Israel’s woes spring not, as generations of its leaders feared, from outside forces – a combined attack from Arab states or pressure from the international community – but from Israel’s own internal contradictions.
Israeli leaders created the very problems they all too obviously lack the tools to now solve. Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s bombardment of Gaza in recent days, killing dozens of Palestinians, should be understood in that light. It is one more indication of Israel’s internal crisis.
Once again, the Palestinians are being used in a frantic bid to shore up an increasingly fragile “Jewish” unity.
Israel’s long-term problem is underscored by the current, bitter standoff over Netanyahu’s plan for a so-called judicial overhaul. The Israeli Jewish population is split down the middle, with neither side willing to back down. Rightly, each sees the confrontation in terms of a zero-sum battle.
And behind this stands a political system in near-constant paralysis, with neither side of the divide able to gain a stable majority in the parliament. Israel is now mired in a permanent, low-level civil war.
To understand how Israel reached this point, and where it is likely to head next, one must delve deep into the country’s origin story.
The official narrative is that Israel was created out of necessity: to serve as a safe haven for Jews fleeing centuries of persecution and the horrors of the Nazi death camps in Europe.
The resulting ethnic cleansing of Palestinians and the erasure of hundreds of their towns and villages – what Palestinians call their Nakba, or Catastrophe – is either mystified or presented simply as a desperate act of self-defense by a long-victimized people.
This colossal act of dispossession, aided and abetted by western powers, has been reinvented for western publics as a simple morality tale, as a story of redemption.
Israel’s establishment was not only a chance for the Jewish people to gain self-determination through statehood so they would never again be persecuted. Jews would also build a state from scratch that would offer to the world a more virtuous model of how to live.
This tapped neatly, if subliminally, into a western, Christian-derived worldview that looked to the Holy Land for salvation.
Jews would restore their place as “a light unto the nations” by “redeeming” the land they had stolen from the Palestinians and offering a path by which westerners could redeem themselves too.
That model was embodied by the kibbutz – hundreds of land-hungry, agricultural and exclusively Jewish communities built on the ruins of Palestinian villages. There, a strictly egalitarian form of living would allow Jews to prosper by working the land to “Judaize” it, stripping it of any lingering Arab taint. Many thousands of westerners hurried to Israel to volunteer on a kibbutz and participate in this transformative project.
But the official story was never more than public relations spin. There was nothing egalitarian or redemptive about the kibbutz, not even for the Jews who lived in the new state of Israel.
It was actually a clever way for Israel’s rulers to disguise the mass theft of Palestinian land and entrench a new religious, ethnic and class divide between Jews.
Hierarchy of privilege
Israel’s founders were overwhelmingly from Central and Eastern Europe. David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, immigrated from Poland. These European Jews were known inside Israel as the Ashkenazim. They founded the kibbutz system and kept these fortified communities – that would later become a model for the settlements in the occupied territories – largely off-limits to anyone who was not like them.
The kibbutz were literally gated communities, in which vetting committees decided who could live there and armed guards manned the entrance to keep everyone else out. That meant most especially Palestinians, of course, but it also applied to Jews from Middle East countries who were recruited, reluctantly by the Ashkenazi elite, through the 1950s to the new Jewish state’s demographic war against the Palestinians.
These “Arab Jews” were identified in Israel as the Mizrahim, a term that usefully stripped them of their original identities – as Iraqi, Moroccan or Yemenite Jews – and lumped them together into a caste differentiated from the Ashkenazim. Today, the Mizrahim comprise about half of Israel’s Jewish population.
The kibbutz were not only nice places to live, with their spacious grounds for homes and gardens, but they were the hothouses for raising a disciplined, ascetic new Ashkenazi elite: the top ranks of the army, a large government administration, a business class, and the judiciary.
This elite, which had the most to lose from the struggle of the Palestinians against the theft of their homeland, used the school system to intensify the anti-Palestinian, anti-Arab “Jewish nationalism” that was Zionism.
And, out of fear that the Jews from Arab states might develop an affinity with the Palestinians and ally with them, the establishment cultivated in the Mizrahim a Zionism that required hatred of their own cultural, linguistic and national backgrounds.
The Ashkenazim dominated all levels of Israeli society, while the Mizrahim were often treated with contempt and racism, and restricted to more menial work.
The Ashkenazim expected to buy off the Mizrahim by placing them above, and in direct competition with, the Palestinians for resources. Nonetheless, despite some Mizrahim eventually making it into the middle classes, this hierarchy of power bred huge resentment among the second and third generation.
It also solidified a political divide, with the Labor party that founded Israel seen as an Ashkenazi party of privilege and its main rival, the Likud party, as the voice of the oppressed Mizrahim.
Netanyahu, who has been a Likud prime minister on and off since 1996, understood this divide well, even though he was Ashkenazi himself. Over the years he has become supremely adept at weaponizing these historic Mizrahi resentments to his own advantage.
Netanyahu’s political manipulations, his harnessing of Mizrahi grievance, have parallels with the billionaire Donald Trump’s success in tapping white working-class resentments through his Make America Great Again campaign.
The Likud and its far-right religious allies are so invested in the judicial overhaul not simply to keep Netanyahu out of jail from his corruption trial. It is easy for them to tar the senior judiciary because this privileged, unelected group of largely Ashkenazi appointees ultimately has the power to decide issues that both preserve Ashkenazi privilege and are now seen as critical to Mizrahi identity.
A Mizrahi academic recently set out some of the community’s historic grievances against the courts, including on housing matters, with the use of no-fault evictions against the Mizrahim to gentrify neighborhoods in the country’s center; the continuing mystery over the disappearance of many thousands of Mizrahi babies in the state’s early years, possibly so they could be secretly adopted by childless Ashkenazi couples; the forcible sending of Mizrahi children to boarding schools, a policy similar to that used against Aboriginal Australians and Native Americans; and regular confiscations of property by special collection courts that target debt-ridden Mizrahi communities.
The senior judiciary symbolizes for many Mizrahim the injustice of Israel’s Jewish religious-ethnic-class divide, and vilifying its members is the easiest way for the far-right to expand and further mobilize its main constituencies.
The current protests in Israel’s large cities really are what they look like: a battle for who dominates the public square. The Mizrahim are no longer prepared to be pushed into the background.
Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories in 1967 and the settlement drive it unleashed added a further layer of complexity to these social and economic processes, intensifying religious zealotry and anti-Palestinian nationalism.
The settlement project was initiated by the Ashkenazi leaders of the Labor party, but it soon came to be identified as a Likud political program.
This was in part because the secular Ashkenazi elite had little incentive to personally lead the settlement drive against the Palestinians in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza. This ruling class were safely ensconced in their comfortable, successful lives inside the internationally recognized borders of Israel.
So the settlement’s footsoldiers – in contrast to the “pioneers” of the kibbutz – were often recruited from more marginalized communities: the Mizrahim; the religious fundamentalists known as the Haredim (there are both Ashkenazi and Mizrahi wings); and a later wave of Russian-speaking immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
An economic incentive was the cheap land and housing available in the settlements. Homes were large and affordable because they were built on land stolen from Palestinians.
The settlements could expand without cost too: Israeli officials needed only to impose a military order to expel Palestinians, or they could delegate it to the settlers themselves, allowing them to terrorize Palestinians away.
This was supposed to mirror the Ashkenazi experience after the Nakba, when families acquired land en masse from the Palestinians who had been ethnically cleansed.
It was, however, much harder to contain the religious impulses that coincided with the settlement drive in the occupied territories, and the resulting resistance to making any territorial compromises with the Palestinians.
Israel’s victory in 1967 against its Arab neighbors and the subsequent occupation of the West Bank and Jerusalem – with their many sites closely associated with the Bible – were easily interpreted by those with even the most modest religious background as a miracle, a divine recognition of the Jewish people’s right to colonize additional Palestinian land, or “reclaim a biblical birthright”.
Settlements were often established close to sites of biblical significance, as a way to resonate with, and enhance, traditional religious sentiment. This bolstered the zeal with which the settlers were ready to collude with the state-military project of ethnically cleansing Palestinians.
Such zealotry was accentuated by an education system that not only segregated Jews from an unwelcome Palestinian minority in Israel, but between Jews themselves.
Ashkenazi children mostly attended secular schools, though ones that filled them with nationalist, anti-Palestinian fervor, while Mizrahi children often ended up in state-religious schools that inculcated in them even greater zealotry than their parents.
The sum effect was that the religious fundamentalists of the Haredim, the religiously conservative Mizrahim and the secular Russian community all became more overtly nationalist and anti-Palestinian. This shift in attitudes spread beyond the occupied territories, affecting members of these communities inside Israel too.
As a result, the modern Israeli right combines religious and ultra-nationalist sentiment to an incendiary degree. And given higher birth rates among the Mizrahim and Haredim, the political influence of this ultra-nationalist bloc is likely to keep growing.
New power bloc
Despite the intensifying Jewish divide in Israel, the Ashkenazim are no more immune to anti-Palestinian racism than the Mizrahim. The protests tearing Israel apart are not concerned with the welfare of Palestinians. They are about who gets to dictate the vision of what Israel is, and what part religion plays in that vision.
The fascist coalition party of Religious Zionism that propelled Netanyahu back to power late last year – now the third largest in the parliament – personifies the emerging new power bloc the Ashkenazi founders of Israel set in motion.
Its powerhouse and muscle is Itamar Ben-Gvir, whose parents hailed from Iraq. Ben-Gvir, who leads the most fanatical, thuggish wing of the settler movement, appears to be preparing for a head-to-head clash with the Israeli military leadership and intelligence services on Israeli security policy, especially in relation to the settlements and the vulnerable Palestinian minority in Israel.
The movement’s ideological heft comes from Bezalel Smotrich, whose grandparents immigrated from Ukraine and whose father was an Orthodox rabbi. Netanyahu has given Smotrich combined control over both the public finances and the occupation government that dictates administrative policy towards settlers and Palestinians.
Both men have historically been associated with the use of violence to advance their political goals.
Smotrich, meanwhile, was arrested in 2005 during moves to pull settlers out of Gaza as part of Israel’s so-called disengagement, in possession of hundreds of liters of gasoline. The Israeli security services believed he was plotting to blow up a major arterial road in Tel Aviv.
For decades, the Ashkenazi leadership assumed the religious right, especially the Mizrahim and Haredim, would accept their inferior status in Israel’s Jewish hierarchy so long as they were bought off with privileges over the Palestinians.
But the religious right is now greedy for more than the right to oppress Palestinians. They want the right to shape Israel’s Jewish character too.
The religious fervor the Ashkenazi establishment hoped to weaponize against the Palestinians, especially through the settlement enterprise, has come back to bite it. A monster has been created that increasingly cannot be tamed – even by Netanyahu.
Jonathan Cook is the author of three books on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and a winner of the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His website and blog can be found at www.jonathan-cook.net. This originally appeared in the Middle East Eye.