Is Modern Israel a Right Wing Project?

By Yakov M Rabkin | (Informed Comment) | – –

The recent appointment of the Soviet-born Avigdor Lieberman has aggrieved many liberal supporters of Israel. The man is on record as a proponent of ethnic cleansing, bombing the Aswan Dam in Egypt and stripping Arabs of Israeli citizenship. These critics bemoan an alleged betrayal of the ideas of the founders’ generation, such as Ben Gurion and Golda Meir, by the current Israeli leaders.

Yakov M. Rabkin is author of What is Modern Israel? 0011108_what-is-modern-israel-yakov-m-rabkin_560

I strongly disagree with these critics. Rather, today’s government of Israel, both its executive and legislative branches, reflect remarkable continuity and unswerving loyalty to the fundamental ideology of Zionism. Massive ethnic cleansing took place in 1947-8 under the command of Ben Gurion. All Israeli governments have ordered bombings raids on the neighbouring countries. Government threats of bombing Iran have been routine for a good decade. Arabs were placed under military rule from 1948 to 1966, a period of continuous rule of “the left”.

Lieberman is no different from the founding fathers.

The Zionist project in Palestine developed under the motto of hafrada, separate development. Israeli society and its elites adopted, from the very inception of the Zionist enterprise, a reductionist view of the “Arab” akin to racial anti-Semitism. On the ground, it made possible discrimination against Palestinian Arabs, Jews from Muslim countries as well as immigrant workers from Asia and refugees from Africa. Massive demonstrations have taken place in Israel against intimate relations between Jews and Arabs, and there is no civil marriage in Israel, which could have made mixed marriages possible.

Following the Nazi period and during the decolonization undertaken in the context of the Cold War, the principles of racial equality and aversion for war temporarily prevailed in European societies. While the ideology of racial and ethnic superiority went into eclipse in Europe between 1960 and 1980, it is gaining ground once more, particularly since the end of the Cold War. Eastern Europe is awash in it. While the use of force as a matter of course against “people of colour” in far-off countries had fallen into temporary discredit, throughout all its existence Israel has regularly attacked neighbouring countries and the Palestinians of Gaza and the West Bank. Israel has become a major source of specialists and equipment in the “war on terror.” Western countries and their allies draw upon Israeli expertise when they prepare their armed and police forces not only for operations in Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq and other Muslim-majority countries, but also for social control and repression of their own societies.

The right and the extreme right around the world have long admired the unfettered nationalism that underlies the State of Israel. For example, the White nationalists of South Africa identified with the State of Israel and lent it their support from 1948, while at the same time their National Party would not admit Jews. The close collaboration established between the Zionist State in West Asia and the Apartheid State in Africa reflected not only a confluence of interests but, equally, ideological affinities. This shows that anti-Semitism can co-exist with admiration for Zionism. Several right wing groups known for their anti-Semitic past—the Dutch Freedom Party, Vlaams Belang in Belgium, the English Defence League in Great Britain, and the Bündnis Zukunft Österreich in Austria—have all rallied enthusiastically to the cause of Israel in recent years. Herzl’s belief that anti-Semites will be “our best friends and allies” continues to ring true.

The international right likewise appreciates the dominant role played by former military officers in Israeli economic and political life, which legitimizes the conflation—usually more discrete in other countries—of politics and the military-industrial complex. Socialist Zionist movements withered within Israel, while the poverty rate there became the highest among the OECD nations, and Israel came to share with the United States the record of socio-economic inequality. This pauperization of masses of citizens has provoked relatively little social protest, and the little that did take place was defused by the usual means of invoking “existential threats”, be it Hamas, Iran or the BDS. This has turned Israel into a poster boy for neo-liberal economic policies, an attractive country for direct foreign investment, firmly integrated into the globalized economy.

When they overlap with systemic ethnic discrimination, socio-economic disparities, tend to provoke violent reaction, usually termed as terrorism and insurgency. Israel’s extensive military experience enabled it to become a major exporter of security equipment and anti-terrorism know-how. Thus Israel not only shows how the ruling elites can defuse social unrest with references to internal and external enemies, but also provides material means to use violence if such distraction is not effective. The many decades of occupation have made Israel a world leader in counter-insurgency expertise. The State of Israel remains vital to understanding not only today’s world but also the way its history can be manipulated to justify the rule of the right.

The right wing nature of political Zionism had long been clear to those who cared to pay attention. In 1935 Albert Einstein, along with other Jewish humanists, denounced the Betar youth movement founded by Vladimir Jabotinsky, the spiritual father of the current Israel government, calling it “as much of a danger to our youth as Hitlerism is to German youth.” Einstein, who espused cultural and humanist Zionism, was openly opposed to the establishment of a Zionist state in Palestine and repeatedly criticized the rightward drift of the Zionist movement in the 1940s. Irving Reichert (1895-1968), a Reform rabbi, pointed to a dangerous “parallel between the insistence of some Zionist spokesmen upon nationality and race and blood, and similar pronouncements by fascist leaders in certain European dictatorships.”

The very nature of settler colonialism invariably exacerbates ethnic nationalism. Hannah Arendt, an erstwhile Zionist and political philosopher had well understood this tendency and wrote in 1948, when Palestine was aflame:

“And even if the Jews were to win the war… [t]he “victorious” Jews would live surrounded by an entirely hostile Arab population, secluded inside ever-threatened borders, absorbed with physical self-defence…. And all this would be the fate of a nation that—no matter how many immigrants it could still absorb and how far it extended its boundaries (the whole of Palestine and Transjordan is the insane Revisionist demand)—would still remain a very small people greatly outnumbered by hostile neighbours.”

Hers was as much a prophesy as a warning.

The world continues to pay a high price for ignoring such warnings. Those who warned against the creation of a Zionist state saw their words treated with disdain, or at best with condescension. However, these same Jewish authors have proven to be prophetic in identifying early on the trends that have now become dominant in Israeli society. They had, in particular, foreseen the upsurge of chauvinism and xenophobia, the militarization of society and the popularity of fascist ideas. While only few Israeli politicians, such as Miri Regev, are “happy to be fascists”, most frequently fascism is treated as a threatening spectre invoked by former prime ministers, journalists and even military brass.

The State of Israel has been a vanguard and a barometer of right-wing trends that have taken place in economic and social developments, in international relations and warfare since the turn of the century. The inclusion of Lieberman and his extreme-right party in the government coalition is part of the country’s genetic code. Israel remains faithful to its principles. This is important to realize if one is to understand what is modern Israel and what roles it plays in the world at large.

Yakov M. Rabkin is Professor of Contemporary History at the University of Montreal. He has also been a Visiting Scholar at several universities, including Yale, Johns Hopkins, Hebrew, Bar-Ilan, Tel Aviv, Université Louis-Pasteur and the Smithsonian Institution. He has received research awards from Belgium, Canada, France, Israel and the United States.

Yakov M. Rabkin’s What is Modern Israel? was published by Pluto Press, London, in May 2016.

9 Responses

  1. To me the interesting distinction between Hitler’s attempt at totalitarianism (since no actual state has truly attained the totalitarian wish list) and Stalin’s is that Hitler’s state directed all its brutality at those defined as being “enemies without,” while Stalin spent so much effort at destroying “enemies within.” Hitler purged internal rivals by the hundreds, but defined his primary enemies literally out of the human race by the millions before planning their fate. That meant that an ordinary, obedient German could live pretty well and pretty freely until wartime privations closed in. Hitler feared their opinions, too; when he made his deal with the USSR, party members burned their cards in protest.

    That sense of tyranny defined by tribal status, of a conqueror tribe whose members live in relative freedom and prosperity and thus consent, should scare us, because that was the norm that underlay oppression and inequality in human societies for millenia before the rise of Communism. Even when white Western populations clawed some recognition of human rights out of their rulers, they had zero problem with conquering distant lands and imposing utterly different governance there.

    • In Israel the Marxist-oriented parties have historically been the bulwark for peace and social equality between Arabs and Jews.

      Tawfik Toubi, a 26 year old Christian Arab journalist from Haifa became a member of the First Knesset in 1949, elected under the Israel Communist Party slate – as was Meir Vilner, a signatory to the declaration of independence of Israel.

      MK Toubi would become an unofficial liaison between the Israeli government and the P.L.O. and would sit in the Knesset well into the 1980s – he was the last surviving former member of the initial Knesset body when he died a few years ago.

      MK Meir Vilner was stabbed by a right-wing Israeli extremist in 1967 over his opposition to Israeli’s initiation of the Six-Day War.

      Today, the Hadash Party is the entity that is Marxist in orientation holding seats in the Knesset. Hadash is composed of both Arabs and Jews. Dov Khenin, a Jewish lawyer and political scientist, is the sole Jewish MK currently serving in the Knesset under the Hadash ticket.

      Immediately following the formation of Israel, a sizeable percentage of kibbutzes were ideologically Stalinst, but by the 1960s, most of these collective farms were no longer operated by Communist adherents. One kibbutz that was Stalinist during the 1960s was one in which U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders lived on – and which no doubt influenced his current political worldview.

      There are heavy Marxist influences among Israeli Arabs today with cities such as Nazareth voting heavily for Communist candidates. The Marxist-themed Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – listed by the U.S. State Department as a foreign terror organization – remains a prominent fixture among West Bank Palestinians with its late former leaders, Dr. George Habash and Abu Ali Mustafa, being glorified by all levels of Palestinian society.

        • Certain leaders of the kibbutz movement pushed their members toward Stalinist ideals; the Soviet collectivization of farms under Stalin had some semblance to the structure of kibbutzim in Israel and the British Mandate period.

          However the Doctor’s Plot and Prague Trial cases targeting Jewish citizens within the Soviet bloc cooled the enthusiasm that kibbutz leaders displayed toward Joseph Stalin’s ideals.

          A link to the history of Stalinist ideology on kibbutzim in Israel:

          link to

      • “Immediately following the formation of Israel, a sizeable percentage of kibbutzes were ideologically Stalinist, but by the 1960s, most of these collective farms were no longer operated by Communist adherents.”

        I would disagree with the above-cited statement. While most of the kibbutzes were indeed Marxist in orientation–socialist and communist–that is a far cry from being Stalinist. To say they were “Stalinist” is to imply that any deviation from “orthodoxy” within the kibbutz would be met with imprisonment or death.

        There certainly were no “show trials” that resulted in “confessions” and executions, as there were under Stalin. Much less were there attempts to eliminate an entire class, as Stalin attempted in the case of the Kulaks.

        If one disagreed with the socialist-communist orientation of the Kibbutz, one might be forced to leave it. But that is hardly resorting to “Stalinism.”

  2. Israel was founded not by right-wing ideologues but by very left-wing Eastern European Marxists-Socialists. In face, that is the reason the Soviet Union was the first country to grant Israel “de Jure” recognition at it’s establishment in 1948. The author seems to think that only “right-wing” governments engage in ethnic cleansing, bombing other countries, touting nationalism, etc. He would do well to educate himself on the history of the Soviet Union, its Eastern European satellites, Maoist China, and a dozen other examples.

    • “Israel was not founded by right-wing ideologues…….”

      Ze’ev Jabotinsky was the leader of Revisionist Zionism and is considered the founder or the Irgun terror gang as well as a leader of the Herut Party – which in conjunction with other conservative parties in Israel held about one-third of the seats of the First Knesset.

      In 1948, the right-wing Israelis in the Irgun were almost on the cusp of a civil war during the Altalena incident when an arms supply ship chartered by the Irgun was fired upon by Israel Defense Forces soldiers led by Yitzhak Rabin. Menachem Begin had commanded the Irgun at this juncture and stopped the bloodshed.

      Jabotinsky’s followers would coalesce after his 1940 death politically and would eventually form the Likud Party, which has dominated Israeli national politics since the late 1970s.

      Right-wing ideologues such as PM Netanyahu – whose father Benzion Netanyahu was personal secretary to Jabotinsky – currently control the Israeli government.

      • Jabotinsky was not among the major founders of the state of Israel. Most of the “founding fathers,” such as chaim Weizmann and David Ben-Gurion, were left wing socialists. That israel has embraced right-wing ideology now has no bearing on the majority of founders who were left-wing socialists.

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