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?
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.