History is full of bitter ironies, and it would certainly be one of the bitterest on record were Israel, the Jewish state established after the Jewish people had not been independent for 2000 years, to become unable and/or unwilling to help the world’s Jews at a time of rising antisemitism. You know, that renowned old bigotry that’s now being deliberately boosted by fascist billionaire Elon Musk, who appears to have bought Twitter with this express purpose in mind, even if he did have to boot “Ye” for being just a wee bit too crass about it.
Anyway, Israel may no longer care to stand for the world’s Jews, due to the country being swept along on the same currents of religious fanaticism and authoritarianism that are affecting the entire democratic world of our time. It is hard to express just how deep a violation of the spirit of Zionism this is. You see, the Zionist movement began in the second half of the 19th century in Europe in response to European nationalist movements, which in their origins may have been liberal, but which excluded Jews from their ranks. They might push for liberty and an independent sovereign state for all Italians or all Czechs or all Hungarians or what have you, but only for the Christian peoples of each of these countries. Jews were widely, if not universally, understood to be outside the body of the Volk.
It was for this reason, and because of rising persecution of Jews across the Continent, even in what was supposed to be a time of gradual progress and liberalization, that the Zionists said, all right, if we Jews are not welcome anywhere in Europe, we will reestablish a state in our historic homeland of Israel, and it will be just like the (liberal and democratic) European states struggling to emerge out of the wreckage of empires. That certainly was the vision of Theodor Herzl, the Austrian Jewish journalist who became the leader of the Zionist movement just before the turn of the 20th century. Herzl was a thoroughly secular man himself, with not much interest in the long history of the Jewish religion, nor in how it was practiced among the great masses of mostly Orthodox Jews of Eastern Europe. These people, who then lived in the borderlands of what was then the Czarist Russian empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, had drastically different fates depending on whether they stayed put, in which case most of them were murdered in the Holocaust; left for America or other Western nations like my ancestors; or left for what became the state of Israel, after the Holocaust and a bloody war for independence as the British “Mandate” (colonial) authorities withdrew.
In line with general European and international trends at the time, the leading strain of Zionism after Herzl’s death in 1904 was socialist, as represented by what much later came to be called the Labor Party in Israel. This party headed every coalition government in the new nation from 1948 until the elections of 1977, which saw the center-right Likud Party come to power. Likud was a fusion between the nationalist Herut Party, from the Hebrew word for liberty, which was led by Menachem Begin, and the smaller Liberal Party — liberal in the sense of free-market economics. Likud has now governed Israel for most of the years from 1977 until the present. Following the outbreak of the so-called Second Intifada in September 2000, the Labor Party and the entire Israeli left, which had sponsored the “peace process” with the Palestinians, went into such a steep decline that it has all but disappeared. So it is that following the November 1 elections, Israel is in the process of setting up a government once again helmed by Likud leader Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, but with its tone and emphasis set by smaller far-right parties. In this it is not exceptional, but very much like European countries such as Italy and Sweden, or India with its intolerant far-right Hindu nationalist government, even though Israel’s history and circumstances are of course unique. It is impossible to exaggerate the extremism of figures like Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, who are now on the verge of gaining broad powers after being treated as pariahs and criminals by both Labor and Likud-led governments, including Netanyahu’s, for decades.
Bibi himself has changed a good deal over the years, and not for the better. He served as Prime Minister from 1996 to 1999, and then again from 2009 until 2021. At first, he aspired to be something bike Israel’s Margaret Thatcher, getting rid of the remnants of the old Labor Party socialism, and establishing what he hoped would be a flourishing free market economy. He enjoyed a good deal of success in this respect, but with the rise of the “illiberal democracies” like that helmed by Hungary’s Victor Orbán or India’s Narendra Modi, Bibi has new and far worse models to emulate. He does so even though Orbán, the similar Polish far-right government, and of course Trump have given off clear antisemitic signals that worry the Jews of all three countries. Bibi has repeatedly defended Trump against charges of antisemitism, a stance that cannot be explained away on grounds of ignorance, since the Israeli leader spent many years as a child in the suburbs of Philadelphia, and his father was a renowned historian of the antisemitic aspects of the Spanish Inquisition. He cannot therefore be unaware that Diaspora Jewish communities, like the American Jewish community, instinctively oppose exclusionary nationalism such as MAGA’s because they understand that such movements almost always end up being hostile to their Jewish fellow citizens.
The hard truth is, Bibi simply doesn’t give a damn. He is acting out of what he regards as considerations of realpolitik to protect Israeli Jews, and nobody else. Therefore, Netanyahu has openly allied himself with Trump and the Republican Party of the United States, instead of trying to stay neutral in American politics as all previous Israeli prime ministers did. He is still a politician, and of course is making noises about what a great friend he sees in Joe Biden, but Democrats will not have forgotten his open contempt for former President Obama. As if to rub in the fact that the Jews of Hungary and America and everywhere else can go to hell for all he cares, Bibi is giving maximum scope and authority to the most extreme elements of his new coalition, who stand for an intolerant form of Judaism that is anti-gay, misogynistic, and hostile to all non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, including refusing to recognize as Jewish anyone who does not meet the traditional definition in Jewish religious law of being the son or daughter of a Jewish mother, or having converted according to the dictates of the ultra-Orthodox-dominated Israeli rabbinate. Only on gay rights has Bibi shown any willingness to stand up to the far right.
Bibi’s nascent government threatens to create an irreparable rift with American Jews while making Israel more like an oppressive Eastern European or Asian quasi-democracy than like the democratic world it has always tried to be a part of. I cannot help thinking that this wrong turn isn’t really because of the Second Intifada, but because a few years earlier, when an Israeli right-wing extremist assassinated peacemaking Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Bibi and Ariel Sharon were quick to shut down any talk of soul-searching among Israeli right wingers. The poison of extremism was thus allowed to seep into Israel’s bloodstream. We must hope that the moderate center that exists in Israel as in all democratic societies arouses itself to stop this dangerous government.