Yishai Lieberman Knesset Jan2010 Emil Salman
Shas leader Eli Yishai and Yisrael Beiteinu chair Avigdor Lieberman in the Knesset, January 2010. Photo by Emil Salman
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There is nothing left to say about how bad, harmful and useless the new citizenship law is: Labor Party Minister Isaac Herzog has warned that it is another step towards fascism; legal experts like Mordechai Kremnitzer have pointed out that it doesn’t serve any identifiable purpose except making Arabs feeling even less at home in Israel. Likud Ministers Benny Begin and Dan Meridor have pointed out how harmful the law is for the relation with Israeli Arabs and for Israel’s standing in the world.

Both Shas and Yisrael Beiteinu have already declared that they see this law as just a first step in a general attempt towards ensuring loyalty to the state by legislation. The time has come to ask what really stands behind this rising tide. The obvious answer seems to be that it is directed against both Israel’s Arab citizenry, whom Avigdor Lieberman is alienating and insulting almost every day, and Palestinians who want to gain Israeli citizenship.

But I think that this is not the whole story. Consider this strangest of alliances between Yisrael Beiteinu and Shas; one is a completely secular, ultra-nationalist, the other an ultra-Orthodox party. What do they have in common? Why are they lately so effectively cooperating with each other, together with other extreme-right parties?

I believe that what unites them is less a fear of Israel’s enemies (and Israel does have enemies). It is a visceral hatred for the Western values and the liberal ethos. They all hate freedom; they all hate the idea of critical, open discourse, in which ideas are discussed according to their merit. They keep criticizing what they see as the liberal bias of the media and academia, and they have made sustained attempts to curtail freedom of speech at the universities.

Lieberman’s disdain for these ideas breaks through at every possible moment: lately he has insulted French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Moratinos, telling them they should take care of their own problems in Europe before they come to advise Israel. This has been typical of him for a long time: Lieberman thinks that Israel should turn east; that it should no longer define itself as a Western country, and should finally shake off Israel’s original commitment to be part of the Western world.

Shas has made clear for decades that it just plays along with democracy; that it doesn’t believe in the idea of citizens thinking critically: they believe that only their spiritual leader, Ovadia Yossef, must determine what is right and what is wrong. Other ultra-rightists have been feeling for a long time that the commitment to universal values is undermining their program for the greater Israel in which Palestinians should have no political rights.

They cannot stand the idea that a liberal democracy should be based on rational legislation and is open to criticism by all. They are furious that tribal loyalty is not above criticism. Just lately, national religious rabbis have claimed that studying at universities is a danger for young religious people, because they internalize too many enlightenment values.

We are really talking about a right-wing anti-liberal coalition united by an instinctive hatred against the idea that there are universal standards of rationality and of morality. They do not want to hear criticism of their worldviews that relies on ideas that have, for a long time, been common to the free world. What we are seeing is a fight about Israel’s cultural and political identity.

It may be frightening, but it’s time to realize where we live. Isaac Herzog is wrong when he says that fascism lurks at the fringes of Israeli society. It is now in the mainstream. After all, even the majority of Likud ministers have voted for the shameful new citizenship law amendment.

Israel is now facing a fateful question: will it remain a liberal democracy, or is it on the way to becoming a totalitarian ethnocracy? This is not a rhetorical question. Democracies do not turn into autocratic regimes from one day to the next; it mostly happens step by step. The ugly wave of anti-liberal legislation we are witnessing shows that Israel has embarked on a slippery slope; and we cannot know where it will end. The day may well come when Lieberman and Yishai will argue that critical articles about the government are disloyal to the state, and must be forbidden; and the day may come where the repeated attempts to shut off academics who do not show sufficient “loyalty” will succeed, and they will be fired or jailed.

It is a truly terrible tragedy: we Jews have suffered throughout history from repressive, authoritarian regimes that accused Jews of not being sufficiently German, French, Russian or Spanish. We Jews have experienced the blessing of the enlightenment ideals that allow Jews around the world to live dignified lives and participate in liberal democracies. And the Jewish state is about to gradually erase these values, enshrined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence.

The likes of Eli Yishai and Lieberman cannot possibly be influenced by arguments like this. After all, they hate Enlightenment values and the principles of liberal democracy. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with whom I disagree in many respects, is, at heart, a believer in classical liberalism. He must ask himself whether he can live with the fact that, for the sake of political short-term gain, he is harming Israel’s democracy irretrievably.

And Isaac Herzog must understand that giving interviews saying that fascism is becoming a danger in no way absolves him from the responsibility of being a member of the government that is gradually burying Israel’s democracy.