Israel's democracy is under threat from messianic forces in gov't

Benjamin Netanyahu has empowered messianic forces for whom the democratic Israel envisaged by the Zionist forefathers is anathema.

 MKs Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich (center right behind Arye Deri) applaud at a special session of the Knesset to swear in the new government on December 29, 2022.  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
MKs Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich (center right behind Arye Deri) applaud at a special session of the Knesset to swear in the new government on December 29, 2022.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)

As Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government mutilates Israel’s hard-won democracy, it is shattering the Zionist vision of a national beacon on the hill. 

For all its patriotic protestations, it is Israel’s first post-Zionist administration. 

Netanyahu has empowered messianic forces for whom the democratic Israel envisaged by the Zionist forefathers is anathema.

How did Israel become a democracy?

That Israel would be established as a democracy was by no means a foregone conclusion. The founders lacked democratic roots; the country had been forged in war, and its enemies remained recalcitrant; its economy was tottering; it had to cope with fierce internal rivalries and with a babel of impecunious immigrations. These were all conditions inviting authoritarian rule.

Moreover, from the outset, the Zionist movement’s democracy-minded leaders had to contend with powerful countervailing forces: ultra-nationalists who saw no room for dialogue with the Arab other, and Orthodox fundamentalists opposed to the primacy of man-made law and who saw in Zionism’s secular alternative an existential threat. 

Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion declares Israel an independent state in Tel Aviv on May 14, 1948 (credit: ZOLTAN KLUGER)Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion declares Israel an independent state in Tel Aviv on May 14, 1948 (credit: ZOLTAN KLUGER)

The Zionist forefathers envisaged an open society of the free. Theirs was a predominantly secular revolution designed to liberate the Jews from the gentile oppression and religious constraints of Diaspora life. Driven by 19th-century enlightenment values, they advocated a secular society of the free and equal under the rule of man-made laws. Precisely because they had suffered so profoundly under arbitrary authoritarian forms, the Zionists were resolved to build their own society on sturdy democratic foundations. 

Most of the early leaders were on the same page: from the liberal-minded Herzl’s inclusive cooperative in Altneuland (1902) to the hawkish Jabotinsky’s proposed constitution for the state-in-the-making (1940), which included recognition of the Arabs as a national minority with collective rights, cultural autonomy and a form of federal power-sharing. 

“I am certain the world will judge the Jewish state by what it will do with the Arabs.”

Chaim Weizmann

Chaim Weizmann, the preeminent interwar Zionist leader, argued that the new state should be guided by the biblical prophets’ vision of universal justice. “I am certain,” he wrote in his memoirs, “the world will judge the Jewish state by what it will do with the Arabs” under its sovereignty. 

The would-be liberal state-builders were fortunate to inherit two key elements of democratic practice: party politics with universal suffrage from decades of Zionist tradition and a Western legal system from the British mandate. On gaining independence in 1948, they were able to incorporate both virtually as is. 

Pivotal in cementing the embattled country’s emergence as a democracy was then prime minister David Ben-Gurion’s concept of “mamlachtiut.” Primarily, it entailed putting the general good above partisan politics in service of the overarching state interest. It also advocated a dialectical relationship between the state and its citizens: In the name of mamlachtiut, they would be ready to make profound sacrifices for the state while it promoted and protected their individual needs and freedoms. 

This vision of  mamlachtiut helped shape the substantive elements in the young state’s emerging democracy. The primacy of the state led to the disbanding of partisan militias for a single army under civilian state authority; the commitment to serving the citizenry prompted the creation of a British-style civil service largely devoid of corruption. 

Mamlachtiut also meant limits on the powers of the incumbent majority and protection of dissenting minority interests: It entailed checks and balances on the executive through parliamentary oversight, an independent judiciary and a powerful attorney general serving as both legal gatekeeper and chief prosecutor. Although far from perfect in its execution, often guilty of the very partisanship it deplored and prone to use state security as grounds for suspension of democratic norms, Ben-Gurion’s mamlachtiut produced the basic template for Israel’s growing democracy. The early paradigm was reinforced over the years by legislation allowing for judicial review, a high court of justice with standing for all, limits on Shin Bet security practices, enhanced civil society and a freer press. 

There were, however, several fundamental flaws leaving it vulnerable to erosion: There was no constitution, no clear separation of religion and state, and an Arab minority under military government until 1966.

The lacunae left openings for the anti-liberal and anti-secular counter-revolution that erupted in the aftermath of the 1967 Six Day War. Not only did the war create a fundamentally undemocratic occupation, but it also released a plethora of submerged ultra-nationalist, fundamentalist and messianic forces.

Will Netanyahu let Israel's democracy be dismantled?

Fifty five years on, with Netanyahu’s willing connivance, these forces are now poised to dismantle Ben-Gurion’s carefully balanced institution building brick by brick. 

If they have their way, the government of the day will choose Supreme Court and other judges, nullifying non-partisan judicial independence; government ministers will appoint their own legal advisers, undermining the non-partisan watchdog nature of the civil service; the Knesset will be empowered by an override clause to strike down Supreme Court rulings against unconstitutional legislation or illegal executive action, emasculating the rule of law; the attorney general’s powers will be diminished by splitting the post in two; the crime of ministerial breach of trust, of which, inter alia, the prime minister is accused, will be annulled, severely restricting control of potential government corruption. In short, the government will be virtually free of legal constraints, leaving minorities, dissenters and individual rights unprotected. 

The ostensible object of this destructive exercise is to enable Netanyahu to escape justice. Breach of trust would no longer be a crime, and a friendly new state prosecutor could defer or even drop the outstanding cases. 

The pro-active messianics in Israel's government: What do they want?

The religious radicals in Netanyahu’s coalition, however, would go further, much further. For them, the prime minister is merely a “messiah’s donkey” on the way to a state ruled by religious law, a necessary condition in their view for the coming of the Messiah

Bezalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionist Party, Itamar Ben-Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Strength) and Avi Maoz’s Noam are all to a greater or lesser degree pro-active messianic movements. For them, the State of Israel is at best an instrument creating conditions for the Messiah’s coming. At worst, in its secularism and liberal democracy, it is an impediment. For all three, the coming of the Messiah is the supreme goal. It takes precedence over all other political or moral considerations. They see the discriminatory, racist and expansionist clauses they insisted on in their coalition agreements with Netanyahu as necessary steps in a grand divine design.

For Smotrich, pro-active messianism means halachic rule, Jewish supremacy and unlimited Jewish settling of biblical Israel. Ben Gvir’s erstwhile cry of “Death to Arabs,” now pc-muted to “Death to terrorists,” is part of an apocalyptic vision of a land freed of gentile presence in preparation for the Messiah’s coming. Maoz’s homophobia derives from a similar notion of pre-messianic purification. 

The source of this type of apocalyptic Jewish supremacist thinking can be traced to Ben-Gvir’s mentor, the late Meir Kahane. For Kahanists, Jews are engaged in a perpetual struggle with the gentile world. They are commanded by divine edict to take vengeance on “the goyim” (especially Arabs), in retaliation for their unrelenting persecution of the Jews. To create conditions for the Messiah’s coming, the biblical Land of Israel must be largely cleansed of gentile/Arab presence, and Israeli democracy, a foreign import, replaced by a Jewish theocracy. 

In 2017, Smotrich announced his “victory plan” for solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – crushing the Palestinians through annexation of the entire West Bank and massive Jewish construction in the “liberated” territory. His party now stands to take charge of “civil administration” in Area C (the 60 percent of the West Bank administered by Israel), with responsibility for the issuance of building permits, giving him the power (subject in some cases to Netanyahu’s approval) to authorize expansion of Jewish settlement while restricting the Palestinians.

Ben-Gvir, who, until it became politically imprudent, displayed a photograph in his living room of Baruch Goldstein, the Jewish settler who, in a Kahanist act of unprovoked vengeance on non-Jews gunned down 29 Muslims at prayer, will be in charge of the police, with unprecedented powers. These include authorizing or blocking criminal investigations, in flagrant contravention of the mamlachti concept of a non-partisan police force. Ben-Gvir also intends to place the Border Police directly under his control, giving him something of a private militia for action in the West Bank and in Israel proper’s crime-ridden Arab towns and villages. 

Maoz, who advocates a purification of secular Jews to prepare for the coming of the Messiah, will have final say over government-sponsored enrichment programs for secular schools. Needless to say, education toward democratic values will be curbed. 

The messianists have incorporated two blatantly racist amendments in the coalition agreements. The first would allow racists and inciters to racism to run for the Knesset. The second would permit refusal to serve customers or clients or to treat patients on religious grounds, opening the way for wholesale discrimination against, for example, gays, women and Arabs. 

Haredim: Opposed to pro-active messianism, still trying to erode democracy

While fiercely opposed to pro-active messianism as a presumptuous attempt to interfere with God’s will, the haredim in Netanyahu’s coalition are also encroaching on democratic norms. They are insisting on a Basic Law on Torah study to irreversibly buttress their access to generous state funding without serving in the army or studying secular subjects, perpetuating their unegalitarian failure to contribute to the country’s economy or its defense. Moreover, in that it coincides with their opposition to the primacy of the secular courts over Torah law, the haredim strongly back Netanyahu’s assault on the legal system. 

The threat to democracy is further compounded by the ruling Likud’s loss of its liberal dimension

Taken together, all this leaves the Zionist vision of a free and equal society under the rule of law exposed to a potent confluence of corrosive forces: a prime minister under indictment, a Likud party shorn of liberal values, haredi coalition partners dismissive of man-made laws, and messianists openly contemptuous of democracy itself

Israel’s international standing, its ties with generally liberal-minded Diaspora Jewry and its relations with the Arab world will almost certainly suffer. It could find itself facing a militant Iran with less international support. There will be less patience with its occupation, especially with moves to deepen it. 

Can Netanyahu stop the threat to democracy?

Netanyahu, riding the tiger, claims that as prime minister he will be able to control the extremists. But although he may be able to block racist legislation and temper moves in the West Bank, he has unleashed forces that may prove beyond his capacity to resist. 

To a large extent, the threat to democracy is of his making: He is behind the assault on the rule of law and will do nothing to stop it. He is also responsible for legitimizing the once ostracized extremists, for further encouraging haredi non-participation in the national effort and for dragging the Likud down to its current illiberal depths – all moves contributing to the creation of a broad political base for further anti-democratic depredation. 

Indeed, the tipping point may already have been reached. 

The perceived gravity of the situation has prompted a powerful backlash. Much of Israel’s secular majority and the more liberal among its religiously observant are outraged by what they see as an impending deformation of the country’s essence. School principals, mayors and local council heads, jurists active and retired, business leaders, journalists and politicians have spoken out, heralding the beginning of a large protest movement. 

Israel is fighting for its soul. At one end of the national spectrum is an increasingly autocratic, chauvinistic and religion-dominated country, tightening its hold on the West Bank and under growing diplomatic and economic pressure. At the other end, the inclusive open society envisaged by the Zionist forefathers, still at the cutting edge of modern technology and seeking ways to end the democracy-sapping occupation.

Clearly, for now, the anti-democratic forces are in the ascendant, and the Zionist enterprise as originally conceived is at risk.  ■