The newly elected Netanyahu government will include bigoted, intolerant, and violence-advocating ministers
Since its founding, Political Zionism has had two distinct and contradictory personas. One portrayed it as a national liberation movement that was liberal, democratic, tolerant, and inclusive. This was the face its adherents saw when they looked in the mirror, and it was the way they presented themselves to and wanted to be seen by the rest of the world.
In reaction to antisemitism and the resultant ghettoization and pogroms that victimized European Jewry, Political Zionism promised an alternative for Jews in which they would be free to realize their full potential as a people while practicing the values and fruits of liberalism in a home of their own.
The problem was that the European liberalism on which Political Zionism was modeled was, itself, based on a contradiction in that the benefits and progress it provided for Europeans were based on the colonial subjugation of Asians and Africans and exploitation of their conquered lands. As the early Zionists were immersed in that same European culture and worldview, it was without any hesitation or embarrassment that they saw themselves as an extension of the European colonial enterprise. That was why Theodore Herzl sought guidance on how to secure support for his proposed colony from Cecil Rhodes; or why he would write in the Jewish State that the enterprise he wished to establish would serve as “a rampart of Europe against Asia…and outpost of civilization against barbarism”; or why he proposed using the natives that his followers might find in their new colony to clear the land and engage in menial labor and then evacuate these natives to other lands.
Political Zionism was the dream of Jewish liberation, but its implementation was to be the nightmare of Palestinian dispossession. These two sides of the same ideology coexisted, with the upside acknowledged and celebrated, and its reverse ignored and/or denied. This was true not only for the founders of Zionism but also for its most recognized “liberal” champions: Chaim Weizmann, David Ben Gurion, and Golda Meir. Even Benjamin Netanyahu made his name in political circles as a proponent of the cause of “liberal Western democracy” versus the authoritarian, savage, terrorist Arab World.
Because such a worldview was so ingrained into Europe’s dominant sense of itself, the two faces of Zionism (the liberal and the racist) never raised an eyebrow. It was, if anything, understood and embraced by the British and French (and later by the US) who saw the need for, as Herzl had envisioned it, a civilized outpost to protect Western values and interests from the barbarians.
Maybe this is what is meant when Israeli and US leaders speak of our “shared values”—the fact that we both have been able to mask the “dark side” of our behaviors with the outward facing veneer of our “claimed values,” values that apply to “us” not to “others.” And we’ve both gotten away with this game, until recently.
For the US, it was the Iraq War and its attendant horrors, the epidemic of mass killings, systemic racism, and the emergence of the anti-democratic, racist, and xenophobic Trump movement that began to unravel the mask of our claim to be the bastion of “liberal ideals.” Despite Israel’s record of abominable behaviors toward Palestinians, it has taken much longer to peel away the veneer of liberalism from Israel’s image. One reason is that their propaganda machinery has been quite effective, and another has been the fear that pointing out the obvious (i.e., that Israel is engaged in oppressive and racist subjugation and dispossession of Palestinians) will result in the accusation of antisemitism.
In this context, it may be considered ironic that it was Israel’s own democracy that has finally exposed for all to see its underbelly of intolerance and racist violence. By electing a far-right coalition led by Benjamin Netanyahu’s hardline Likud party and including fanatic nationalists and intolerant ultra-religious parties, the most recent Israeli election served as a clarifying moment for the Political Zionist movement.
The newly elected Netanyahu government will include bigoted, intolerant, and violence-advocating ministers and deputy ministers who will oversee police, settlements, administration of the occupied territories, finance, and “Jewish Identity.” They include ideologues who advocate expulsion of Arabs from Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories; support rapid settlement expansion and annexation of the West Bank; back settler violence against Palestinians to demonstrate who’s boss; adhere to a theology that maintains that while Jews are full human beings with souls, Arabs are not; claims that human rights organizations pose an “existential threat” to Israel and therefore want them banned; maintain that only their rigid interpretation of Orthodox Judaism is true religion, and deny other Jews their rights; and insist on altering the status quo at the Haram Al Sharif, turning Jerusalem into another Hebron.
With ministers and policies such as these, the mask is off.
This is Political Zionism, without the frills. It is intolerance, bigotry, repression, and aggression without the accompanying rhetoric of “liberalism” to smooth things over or put on a pretty face for the world.
It’s been fascinating to watch how the major pro-Israel US groups have responded (or failed to respond) to this challenging situation. There were immediate protests over the ultra-Orthodox push to change conversion law, to outlaw LGBTQ rights, to restrict which “legitimate” Jews could immigrate to Israel, and to require the segregation of Jewish women at prayer. But these same leaders have been silent in reaction to the bigoted anti-Arab beliefs being espoused by key members of Netanyahu’s governing coalition and the policies they seek to implement that will further dispossess Palestinians.
It’s true that many of these ugly attitudes and policies have shaped the Palestinian reality for decades, but they were always covered by the pretty words and the outward face of Zionist liberalism. But now the mask is off and those who, for decades, have been covering for Israel have the responsibility to acknowledge the ugly reality their silence has allowed to fester.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Arab American Institute. The Arab American Institute is a non-profit, nonpartisan national leadership organization that does not endorse candidates.