Israel: Neither Democratic or Jewish

For decades, much of the political struggle within Israel could be traced back to the fundamental conflict anchored in its Janus-faced self-definition – coined in the 1980s and legally formalized in 1992 – as a “Jewish and democratic” state. While centrist politicians have always emphasized the harmony of these two sets of values, the political wings have stressed their conflicts, with the left wing demanding to enhance democratic values against the Jewish values promoted predominantly by the right. This conflict has now ended in a clear, though somewhat unexpected result: celebrating 50 years of Occupation, Israel has become neither democratic, nor Jewish.

“The Only Democracy in the Middle East”?

Israel’s vanishing democracy stands out even while the entire world is drifting away from democratic values. Netanyahu’s coalition government is systematically emptying the country’s democracy, passing a new law every other day aimed at intimidating and silencing any dissent voice.

Thus, whereas the right-wing enjoys major donations from abroad – from Sheldon Adelson to American evangelists to Jared Kushner – left-wing NGOs in Israel are being singled out and delegitimized, in a Putin-like manner, by a series of laws for “being financed by foreign governments”, and their activity is progressively hampered.

A moderate left-wing NGOs like Breaking the Silence (former Israeli soldiers who talk critically about their occupation experience) is denied access to schools, with an art gallery closed after hosting an evening with it.

If several years ago it was radical Noam Chomsky who was not allowed to enter the West Bank, now a law prohibiting entry of all BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) supporters is coming up. Recently, even the vice president of a liberal Zionist Jewish-American organization that donates millions to Israel was detained at Ben-Gurion airport, undergoing hours of a humiliating interrogation with insinuations of “disloyalty”.

Much more than leftists, government-directed violence and incitement is aimed at the 21% Palestinian minority in Israel, as can be seen in the recent incident in Umm al-Hiran, a Bedouin village in the South. Its inhabitants – Arab-Israeli citizens, some of them serving in the army – had been moved to that location sixty years ago by Israel, that now decided to dump them at yet another location in order to construct a Jewish suburb on the village ruins. Arriving to demolish the village armed to the teeth, Israeli forces claimed an ISIS-inspired resident accelerated his car towards the forces, killing one policeman, and consequently shot dead. This story – reminiscent of the terror attacks in Berlin and Nice – was immediately propagated by police and cabinet ministers in an outrageous campaign of incitement smeared all over the media and social media.

By now, however, pressed by NGOs and remnants of the critical journalism, investigation has revealed that the Bedouin car driver, an admired 50-year-old schoolteacher, had no affinity whatsoever to any Islamist radicalism, no intention to commit any attack, and was just leaving the village with some of his belongings after telling his wife (herself a PhD college professor) he didn’t wish to witness the demolition of his home. He was first shot in his right knee by the police, consequently lost control of his car on the steep slope, and was finally left bleeding to death in his car, while police were preventing medical assistance that could have saved his life.

This is the typical treat Netanyahu’s government is giving its Arab citizens: discrimination, ruthless violence, incitement and fake accusations. Remember how Netanyahu portrayed Israeli Palestinians as “heading to the polling stations in droves, taken in buses by Left-wing NGOs” in the last elections, how by the same token he passed a law to impeach elected Knesset members, and so on.

Israel’s critical media too has been under fire for very long, pushing the country to place 101 in the 2016 World Press Freedom Index, next to Uganda and Kuwait, worse than Tunisia or Lebanon. Netanyahu is in control of the biggest Israeli daily, financed by his “friend” Adelson, while several other media are owned by other rich “friends” and allies or dependent on Netanyahu’s authority as Minister of Communications. Freedom of speech has been amended to exclude calls for boycotting settlements or settlers, with a follow-up law now in consideration to cut funding to universities with lecturers who back such a boycott. The list is getting longer every day; That’s not what democracy looks like.

Jewish? Not Anymore

Does this sellout of democracy go hand-in-hand with enhancing Israel’s Jewish character? The very opposite is true. The Ten Commandments, the quintessence of Judaism, are permanently, consciously waived.

Having coveted their neighbors’ lands, water and all other resources for decades, Israel has now replaced “Thou shalt not steal” by the notorious “Regularization Law”, which only Ha’aretz keeps referring to by its true designation: the Land-grab Law. This law – which even Netanyahu had claimed “it would take us to [the International Criminal Court in] the Hague”, but later, as a leader of principles, supported it – represents a new peak in the Israeli land-grabbing in Occupied Territory. So far, Palestinian lands have been massively confiscated if they could be declared “state lands” with no private ownership – as if Israel were the state to whom the Palestinian occupied territories belonged. Other lands, including private ones, have been confiscated “for public use” – for the construction of roads, industrial zones, military and security installations of any imaginable kind, and so on – with the “public” in mind being always the Jewish settlers, never the Palestinian inhabitants. All these methods and other dubious practices, however, have not satisfied the settlers’ appetite, who have their houses built on undisputedly privately owned Palestinian land in dozens of Jewish settlements. The new Land-grab Law legitimizes this theft as well: now Israel sanctifies taking private lands from Palestinians not just “for public use,” but also to build private homes for Jewish settlers. “Thou shalt not steal,” settlers exempted.

The case of Elor Azaria shows how Israel waives the Commandment “Thou shall not kill” as well – “thou shall not murder” in the Hebrew Bible. Azaria, a young soldier, arrived at a scene in occupied Hebron after a Palestinian had tried to stab a soldier and had been shot. The Palestinian was lying severely wounded on the ground, surrounded by many soldiers and constituting no danger to anybody, when Azaria cold-bloodedly shot him to death. Since the whole incident was recorded by cameras, cover-up failed and the soldier was put to trial. He was accused of man slaughter, not of murder, and sentenced to ridiculous 18 months in prison. More importantly, his trial exposed massive support for his crime not just among the rabble, but also by senior politicians up to PM Netanyahu. Not surprising, given that even a so-called liberal like MK Yair Lapid claimed “you have to shoot to kill anyone who pulls out a knife or screwdriver,” not just the far-right-wing like Minister Bennett, who added “I killed a lot of Arabs, and there’s no problem with that.” “Thou shall not kill” – unless its Palestinians.

But Israel is no longer Jewish in yet another sense. And I don’t mean the discrimination and persecution of non-Orthodox (Reform, Conservative) Jews in Israel; Judaism, like its other monotheistic successors, has never been famed for tolerance. What I mean is official Israel’s stand towards anti-Semitism – what used to be the raison d’etre of the Jewish state. Though President Trump himself cannot be accused of anti-Semitism, some of his supporters can, and anti-Semitic utterances and hate-crimes have taken place all along his election campaign, culminating in vandalized cemeteries, swastikas smeared and fake bomb threats in Jewish centers during his first weeks in office.

Following a long Zionist-Israeli tradition, such incidents are widely reported, perhaps even over-reported, in the media: “the whole world is against us” is something Israelis love to hear. The Israeli right-wing has always been especially eager to point a finger at true and alleged anti-Semites, be it Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, the late grand mufti blamed by Nentayahu for no less than the Holocaust, or Europe in general. However, the Israeli right has turned a deaf ear to American anti-Semitism in the age of Trump. Even intentionally omitting any reference to Jews in the Holocaust Remembrance Day message remained without any Israeli comment. “An earthquake in the Jewish world,” wrote Israeli sociologist Eva Illouz; “Now, only liberal Jews in Israel and in the democratic world can claim to be the authentic opponents of anti-Semitism”. Israel’s ruling right-wing has by now waived even the most fundamental value of Jewish solidarity.

The Settlements Above Everything

Why did all that happen? Why has Israel stopped being democratic and Jewish? Because the Israeli state has by now been colonized by its own colonizers. The small minority of settlers and their extremist supporters have taken over most of the country’s positions of power – the Knesset, the government, the military, the police, almost the entire media – and subjugated them to their immoral, fanatic colonialist project. New Supreme Court judges have just been nominated: even in this liberal stronghold, settlers are now over-represented by a factor of 3: less than 5% of the population, almost 15% among Supreme Court judges are settlers. Each of the anti-democratic and anti-Jewish measures mentioned above can be traced back to the interests of settlers and settlements – including the willingness to turn a blind eye on anti-Semitism in the new American government for the hope it would give Israel a green light to entrench the Occupation, to confiscate and annex even more Palestinian land. The settlements have always been the greatest obstacle to peace – even Mr. Trump understands the notion that “every time you take land for settlements, there is less land left” – but now they destroy not only Israel’s chance to live in peace, but also its very existence, and its justification, both as a democratic and as a Jewish state.

Author: Ran HaCohen

Dr. Ran HaCohen was born in the Netherlands in 1964 and grew up in Israel. He has a B.A. in computer science, an M.A. in comparative literature, and a Ph.D. in Jewish studies. He is a university teacher in Israel. He also works as a literary translator (from German, English, and Dutch). HaCohen's work has been published widely in Israel. "Letter From Israel" appears occasionally at