Where Was the Left When the Settlers Hijacked Zionism?

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A right-wing protest in Jaffa during Operation Protective Edge.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

This past August, the Israel Democracy Institute – a middle-of-the road think tank politically – held what it called an “emergency meeting to discuss ways to prevent the deterioration of relations between Arabs and Jews in Israel.” The meeting drew an unprecedented number of Israelis from both groups. In a charged atmosphere, the institute’s founding president, Dr. Arye Carmon, claimed that not since the murder of Yitzhak Rabin, in 1995, had the institute seen such a strong response to its call to discuss what it defined as a critical situation. The analogy with Rabin’s murder was appropriate in yet another way. The same forces that vocally opposed the political path of the then-Israeli prime minister two decades ago were the same that today were undermining the legitimacy of Israel’s Arab citizens.

Rabin’s assassination was the deed of a lone individual who was by every standard a highly functional and competent member of a community dubbed the “settlers’ movement.” (Although he did not live in a settlement, he supported them and the desire to scuttle the Israeli-Palestinian Oslo Accords was the motivation for the murder he committed.) This community had relentlessly questioned the legitimacy of an elected leader’s attempts to arrive at a peace agreement, and none other than the then-head of Likud, Benjamin Netanyahu, echoed its opposition in what Israeli media characterized as a campaign of incitement.

Rabin’s murderer was tried, convicted and imprisoned, and Israel quickly recovered a sense of seeming normality. But Rabin’s assassination was not like the murder of, say, John F. Kennedy. It did not remain an event isolated from the historical destiny of the country in which it took place. Rather, it was the outward manifestation of deep, massive social and political undercurrents that have in the intervening years come out in the open, especially during the Gaza war this past summer.

Operation Protective Edge differed from other such operations, not only because of the scope and intensity of military power employed by Israel – 1,865 people were killed, 415 of them children, and entire neighborhoods and crucial civilian infrastructure were destroyed – but also because of the political climate in which it was carried out: According to polls conducted at the time, more than 90 percent of the Jewish population supported the operation, a consensus that was no doubt caused by the discovery of a network of border tunnels that threatened the heart of Israeli society, both geographically and politically. But even before the tunnels came to the fore, support for the war was accompanied, strikingly, by a hitherto marginal anti-democratic climate.

To remind the reader of a few representative facts. In the beginning of July, after the funerals of the three Israeli teens who had been abducted and murdered, Aryeh King, a Jerusalem city council member, called on the population to commit a “Pinchas-like act.” To Israelis, the reference to a biblical code word (from Numbers 25) for violence against members of an enemy population, would have been obvious, but the enemies he was alluding to were full Israeli citizens, whose only crime is that they happen to have been born Arabs.


Aryeh King, a Jerusalem city council member, speaks at a rally. Photo: Olivier Fitoussi.

Echoing the sentiment that Israeli Arabs constitute a real or potential threat, citizens from that population group were indeed attacked in several cities. Perhaps the most shocking example was, in Jerusalem, the kidnap and brutal murder of a 16-year-old Arab teen. In response to the latter, foreign minister and senior coalition member Avigdor Lieberman declared on his Facebook page that Israeli Arab rioters “do not belong in the State of Israel – and until that is resolved, their place is in jail.” When Israeli Arab leaders called for a general strike to show their solidarity with Gaza Palestinians and their protest against the military operation, Lieberman urged Israelis to boycott businesses belonging to any Arabs who participated in the strike.

Arabs were not the only ones to be physically assaulted and abused. From the beginning of the operation, Jewish human rights activists were pursued and severely beaten by right-wing protesters in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa. The fear of violent clashes made the police withhold permission for an August 9 demonstration in Tel Aviv of activists from Meretz and other left-wing organizations. The police claimed that they banned the demonstration based on a directive from the Israel Defense Force’s Home Front Command.

However, according to the journalist and political activist Haggai Matar, at the same time, much larger events and gatherings were taking place across the same city, and they were not shut down by police.

University heads issued stern and unprecedented warnings to students, urging them not to express themselves “in an extreme way” – a move perceived by many as an attempt to muzzle free speech. A law professor from Bar-Ilan University who expressed concern for victims on both sides of the conflict was sternly condemned by his dean, who demanded he issue an apology to the students who may have been offended by his expression of sympathy for the enemy. When an Arab Knesset member, Jamal Zahalka (Balad), during a meeting of the Knesset’s Interior Committee, accused the police commissioner, who had ordered a hard line against Arab protesters, of having “blood on his hands,” committee head Miri Regev, a senior Likud MK, called him a terrorist and ordered his removal from the meeting room.

These are just a handful of examples of many similar events that took place on a near-daily basis while the Gaza operation was under way. What all of them had in common was the striking fact that the calls for anti-Arab measures or even violence were being voiced by official representatives of authority, and that they concerned not a small ethnic minority, but a staggering 20 percent (at least) of the country’s citizenry.

At the same time, no other government representative pronounced the equivalent of the simple words with which Manuel Valls, the French prime minister, responded to the waves of anti-Semitism that last summer shook France, a country in which Jews count for less than 1 percent of the population: “To attack a Jew because he is a Jew is to attack France. To attack a synagogue and a kosher grocery store is quite simply anti-Semitism and racism.”

As far as I am aware, no Israeli official, with the exception of President Reuven Rivlin – who, relating to the rise in racism, commented earlier this fall that “Israeli society is sick and it is our duty to treat this disease,” and has in the interim continued to speak out on the subject – viewed attacks against Israeli Arabs as an attack on Israel itself. Nor am I aware of anyone calling for sanctions against Aryeh King or Avigdor Lieberman for their statements.

Grand religious vision

For sociologists like me, these events signal what we may call a shift in the normative center of a society. Elites – people who set the tone for politics, economics, culture, media and law – are responsible for signaling to the rest of society the boundaries that divide permitted and prohibited speech and behavior. It is by such ongoing “signaling” that norms are shaped. A normative center shifts when what used to be defined as morally unacceptable becomes authorized, endorsed and even encouraged – whether by the elites or by the population in general, or by both. This raises a natural question: What explains the fact that the same ideological and political forces that 20 years ago were marginal and even perceived as deviant have come now to define the terms of Israeli public discourse and have successfully managed to pose as Zionism?

Even before the actual settlement of the occupied territories became significant, settlers were an intensely ideological group. The now-defunct movement known as Gush Emunim promoted settlement activity in Judea and Samaria as part of a grand religious vision to bring back the Jewish people to its biblical territorial roots.

Religious narratives are powerful because they intrinsically combine the past and the future, the cause and the goal of national sovereignty, and frame both the past and the future in a collectively glamorous way (“We were chosen by God”; “We were given territory by God”; “We will redeem the land and bring the Messiah”). In the past, the Land of Israel was the gift of God to the Jewish people. And in the future awaits the redemption of the land for the entire Jewish people. For this reason, religious stories are psychologically almost always superior to secular ones: They tap into the need for grandeur and the need for certainty. The settlers’ religious vision succeeded in mobilizing secular people too, because it smartly used and combined security arguments with biblical stories.

For a long time, the movement was viewed by a large part of the Israeli public as a minor problem – a benign growth, as it were, that would be surgically removed at the time of a withdrawal from the territories. But Gush Emunim morphed into a looser but far more powerful body known as “the settler movement,” whose power structure is reflected in a governing council and through a vast network of religious elementary and high schools, yeshivahs, media and political parties.

The settler movement changed from an ideological one to a highly political one. In accordance with at least some religious interpretations, many leaders of Jewish communities in the territories openly hold views of the ethnic and religious superiority of Jews over non-Jews, and justify the seizure of land by saying it was promised to the Jewish people by God.

What enabled the spread of such bizarre, radical and anachronistic ideas were simple political facts: The territories were a veritable hothouse for the growth of many religious institutions, where the Bible was used to service the settlers’ political needs. Because the territories are regulated by a legal system based on a military code, which is in turn geared at insuring military security, and because the settlements rely heavily on the army that provides their defense, the main values of democracy in the territories – which consist of creation of neutral frameworks for the sharing of power with others – were weak, if not practically nonexistent, to start with. For this reason, even if some settlers think they value democracy, their actual social and political environment makes it difficult for them to understand its meaning and practice, so accustomed are they to interpret their lives in ethnic, religious and military terms.

But given that the West Bank settlements do not represent much more than 365,000 inhabitants (around 6 percent of Israel’s population), it remains something of a puzzle how they have succeeded in becoming perceived as the legitimate representatives of Zionism – a claim viewed by many, including this writer, as a usurpation of the name of what was originally a legitimate national movement.

What we can say is that they succeeded for four main reasons. The first is the fact that the state began having deep economic interests in the occupation. The second is that the settlements were very efficient at penetrating the political parties and creating within them highly mobilized factions. The third reason has to do with the very nature of Zionism, which needs to have its ideological forces regularly refueled. Finally, the opposition to this ideological activity has been very weak because of the particular character of Israel’s left. I will try to explain these reasons in detail.

From ideology to economics

1. With the actual settlement of the territories, what started as an ideological movement soon became an enterprise with enormous economic interests in land, agriculture, real estate and military undertakings, and in the very low costs of Palestinian laborers (who work without social protection and at much lower wages than they would receive in Israel). The people who benefit from these economic conditions are not only private investors but the State of Israel itself, which with time developed considerable economic investments in the territories.

The economic aspect of the occupation is seldom discussed, but it is a key factor in promoting its continuity. Although it is difficult to measure accurately the gains obtained by control of the territories, a variety of testimonies show that its direct and indirect benefits amount to tens of billions of shekels per year.

Israel’s control of the territories provides it and the various business organizations operating there with four kinds of benefits. First is the fact that Israel and various agencies take advantage of valuable natural resources in the territories – for example, by pumping water – without the benefits going to local residents. Israel has also established quarries in the West Bank, most of whose output is transferred to within the Green Line, that is, to Israel proper.

Second, the population under occupation is a source of cheap labor and lacks the rights that accrue to most workers within Israel. For example, a January 2010 report from the NGO Kav La’oved found that different payment deductions from the wages of Palestinian employees, money that was intended to be returned to them by way of social benefits, in fact went into the kitty of either the treasury or the Histadrut labor federation.

Third, the residents of the territories constitute a “captive market,” one that benefits exporters and importers in Israel. Economist Shir Hever claimed, in a 2011 interview in Haaretz, that Israel still exploits the Palestinian market, which inevitably has little choice but to purchase and import products from Israeli companies almost exclusively. According to Sam Bahour, who serves as a board member of a leading Palestinian bank, Palestinians import more than 85 percent of their goods and services from Israel.

Finally: Companies and financiers, both in Israel and around the world, generate revenues off the occupation by acting as contractors and service providers to Israel’s defense ministry. The occupation then serves as a means to promote arms sales and Israeli military expertise.

Both history and sociology suggest that the combination of ideology and economic interests is a powerful incentive for the formation of groups that will struggle hard to influence society to align itself with their interests. That is, when ideology becomes aligned with material interests – economic, political, territorial – it becomes a powerful tool for mobilization of social groups, making them highly committed to a cause. This is especially true when one of the actors with vested interest is the state itself, which is almost always the strongest player in the economic field and the most reliable steady supplier of nationalist ideologies. This explains, partly, the convergence of interests between official representatives of the state and the political parties that represent the settlers.

2. Highly mobilized, the settlers have defended their interests by penetrating established political parties and creating new factions. The current anti-democratic climate is the outcome of the alliance of three different parties now in the government coalition, each of which represents the combination of ideological, military and economic interests of the settlers. These three parties find their common affinities in that they each represent the settlers’ point of view in a different way: Yisrael Beiteinu, headed by Avigdor Lieberman, who lives in a settlement; Habayit Hayehudi, of Naftali Bennett who served as CEO of the Yesha Council (of settlements); and the Likud itself, which morphed from being a liberal party to representing heavily the worldview of the settlers movement.  


Minister Naftali Bennett speaks at a Habayit Hayehudi faction meeting. Photo: Emil Salman

Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home) was established in 1999 by Lieberman, who left Likud to create a more radically right-wing party. It must be somewhat of an ironic victory for him that in the 2013 election, his party ran on a joint list with Likud. Yisrael Beiteinu’s base has traditionally been secular and Russian-speaking. It succeeded rapidly because it played on themes that would have been familiar to Russian voters: distrust of democracy, a vision of politics based on the exercise of force; and a worldview sharply divided between friends and foes, the use of state repression to quash opposition, and the use of the military to hold on to territory.

Lieberman’s political vision is strangely reminiscent of that of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and we can only muse about the affinities between what is known as “Putinism” and the radical right-wing ideology prevalent in the territories. Lieberman’s outlook is probably reinforced by the fact he lives in a settlement. His party is known for its declarations and proposed legislation against Israel’s Arab citizens, Arab states and human rights organizations. One of its slogans, for example, has been “No loyalty, no citizenship” – a line whose implied intent would be to strip of their citizenship Arabs who do not demonstrate adequate allegiance to the country. (One can only wonder what would become the fate of insufficiently loyal Jews.) In 2011, the party’s ministers supported legislation that was meant to restrict the ability of human rights groups to accept funding from foreign sources, a move that was a blatant demonstration of an incapacity to understand that human rights constitute the fundamental political, moral and emotional core of democracies.

Habayit Hayehudi (the Jewish Home) was founded in 2008 and explicitly defends settlers. It is based on the merging of several parties that advocated religious Zionism and a generally right-wing agenda. In last year’s election, the party won 12 seats in the Knesset. The contemporary party’s agenda is of the radical right-wing variety, similar to racist European parties. It promotes the idea that the Jewish character of the state should take precedence over its democratic character. Many of its MKs live in settlements. MK Orit Strock, for example, lived in the most ideologically hard-core of settlements, the Jewish community of Hebron, and served as head of its political-legal department. In 2011 Strock verbally attacked an Israeli court that had convicted her son of the kidnapping of a Palestinian boy in 2007, thus offering a striking example of the rejection of the rule of law manifested by many settlers.

Before the 2013 election, Yigal Amir, Rabin’s murderer, encouraged his family to vote for Habayit Hayehudi, whose success last year can be attributed to its success at recruiting secular voters, a development mostly due to the charismatic presence of its new leader, Naftali Bennett, who combines seemingly “secular” values as a past member of an elite army commando unit with his success as a start-up entrepreneur.

Likud is now a very different party from the one that once represented a liberal and secular worldview. It contains a highly committed faction that combines religious Jewish elements with a hard-line view of foreign affairs. Running on a joint list last year with Yisrael Beiteinu, it earned 20 seats in the parliament.

The party’s radicalization was most obvious in the fact that senior MKs like Benny Begin, Michael Eitan and Dan Meridor, known for their moderate views and for being defenders of the rule of law, were ousted by other members. Their spots were taken by young and radical MKs, such as Tzipi Hotovely, Danny Danon, Moshe Feiglin, Miri Regev and Yariv Levin, who advocate extreme right-wing policies. These MKs often express themselves against Arab minorities, Arab countries and human rights organizations, and promote laws that reflect this outlook. The presence of these new members has led to the somewhat depressing situation in which Benjamin Netanyahu – who used to be in the radical fringe of the Likud – is now a moderate within his own party.

These three parties – Yisrael Beiteinu, Habayit Hayehudi and Likud – share an ideological outlook in which the preservation of Jewish religion or Jewish ethnic identity are intrinsic goals of politics, which in turn justify the continued economic and military domination of Palestinians in the settlements and the liquidation of many key aspects of Israeli democracy.

3. The third reason for the normative shift in Israeli society has to do with the nature of Zionism itself. Most national movements disappear when they achieve their goal, that is, when they create a nation. They disappear through a process sociologists call routinization of charisma, which is what turns emergent ideologies, collective movements and charismatic leaders into normal institutions with fixed routines.

Routines liquidate what sociologists call “charisma” – the emotional intensity that accompanies collective movements. But Zionism differed from other nationalist ideologies in that it refused to routinize. It continued to refuel itself, long after the creation of the state and its institutions. Why? For two main reasons: It continued recruiting Jews from around the world and thus needed a permanent supply of ideological activity; and it needed to justify Israel’s existence in the face of both relentless ideological attacks from Palestinian nationalist movements and anti-Semitic sentiments of the global left.

In this context, the settler movement offered the appearance of a new defense of Jews and of a new patriotism, muscular, sunny, principled. It used, abused and subsumed the main vocation of Zionism – creating a democratic homeland for the Jews recognized by the world – to justify an explicitly colonialist policy.

Highjacking of Zionism

This highjacking of Zionism in turn created a new historical dynamic: The more colonialistic Israel became, the more the world attacked it, and the more Israel needed to justify itself, thus reinforcing a nationalist ideology readily provided by a belief in the eternity and the divine right to the Land and religion, and the need to destroy Amalekite enemies. In other words, the impossibility of Zionism to routinize itself, its need to preserve an intense level of ideological activity gives an intrinsic evolutionary advantage to groups – including religious ones – that are able to sustain a high level of ideological commitment. It puts at a disadvantage secular groups who become busy with nation-building and with their own lives.

4. We are still missing an element, however. All these factors – the alliance of political parties, the confluence of their interests with the economic interests of the state, Zionism’s difficulty in routinizing itself and its highjacking by extremist ideologies – alone do not explain how the settler ideology could become the normative center of Israeli society.

As we know from history, extremist views manage to change the normative core of a country when they do not meet with serious opposition. It has often been claimed that the reason for the lack of resistance to the right is to be found in the collapse of the left. By this familiar narrative, the left disintegrated because of the state’s failures to reach peace agreements, the second intifada and Palestinian terror.

The recent discovery of tunnels inside Gaza, for example, can only further weaken the left camp. But the reasons for its collapse are both more obvious and far more complex. The Israeli left collapsed because it suffers from three major structural weaknesses. For one, the fact that the left has been engulfed by the agenda of “peace” has made it less focused on the need to articulate and defend a set of core principles within Israeli society. That is, given the fact that Israel has real, objective enemies and lives in an environment that has repeatedly showed its lack of benevolence and hostility, the agenda of the left – peace – becomes necessarily intrinsically fragile, and can become easily threatened by the country’s volatile geopolitical context. The fact that the Israeli left has been too focused on the issue of the territories had the result of making it unstable, not focused enough on the essential core of democracy – human rights and universalism – and ultimately unable to defend aggressively the moral matrix that constitutes the foundation of peace values. 

The second major structural weakness of the left is due to the fact that Israel’s democracy was from the outset ambivalent regarding just how universalist it wanted to be: It defined itself as both particularistic, designed for Jews, and universalist, granting equal rights to all its citizens.

But the history of Israel did not maintain this ambivalence. Adalah: The Legal Center for Arab Minoritity Rights in Israel documents that more than 50 laws currently on the books discriminate against the Arab minority in Israel, in domains as varied as education, citizenship, residence rights and land allocation.


Graffiti in Jerusalem, which says 'Kahane lives' and 'A good Arab is a dead Arab.' Photo: Emil Salman

As long as Israel was still a shelter state, providing refuge for Jews from other countries, these laws could be seen as benign in intent, intended to redress the massive historical injustices of which Jews had been victim by providing them with a state in which their identity was not in question. But the political dynamic of the territories slowly changed the relationship between the particularistic and universalist dimensions of the state. It privileged the Jewish elements, blatantly contradicting the very essential core of democracy, which in most countries consists of the inculcation and institutionalization of universalism. All democracies have universalist social covenants – that is, covenants that enable in principle equality before the law of all their citizens (even the United States, which organizes itself around cultural differences, is nonetheless based on a radical universalist conception of human beings), and in most liberal countries of the world, that universalism has become stronger with time, as they have increasingly accommodated the demands for equality of the members of many minority groups.

Israelis, however, have marched in the opposite direction. The universalist aspect of democracy has been dismissed or underplayed from the start, and today is less and less understood by both Israeli political elites and ordinary voters. A 2013 survey by the Israel Democracy Institute shows clearly that younger Israelis, between ages 18 and 34, believe more than their older counterparts that the State of Israel should be “Jewish.” Even more striking, the same survey showed that when asked, “To what extent do you believe or not believe that the Jewish people are the chosen people of all nations?” – two-thirds of the Jewish respondents (64.3 percent) said they believe strongly or somewhat strongly that the Jewish people are indeed chosen.

At least two generations of Israelis have grown up with the settlements as part of their consciousness, making the settlers’ views win the benevolent indifference or silent approval of wide segments of the population. The Israeli left has lacked both the conceptual clarity to understand the crucial importance of universalism in any democracy, and the political determination to impose that vision of democracy on Israeli politics.

Endless ‘dialogue groups’

It follows that the strategy and even character of the Israeli left have been vastly misguided. We arrive here at the third structural and spectacular weakness of the Israeli left.

Consider this: What has been the main hobby of the political left for the last 30 years? To engage in “dialogue groups,” in which participants come out empowered by the discovery that the “other side” is made up of “human beings.” While engaging feverishly in such endless groups, it has neglected the main arenas of struggle: the power of rabbis in Israeli society, issues of civil law, school curricula, labor equality, the funding of religious education and citizenship equality. It has neglected what the European left has long understood: Any struggle against darkness must be muscular, and sometimes demands one to affirm core principles against national consensus. The point of an Israeli left-wing politics now is not to create sweet and soothing discussion groups, but to insist relentlessly and even aggressively on the uncompromising democratic character of key Israeli institutions.

Let me repeat: To my regret, dialogue groups do not further the defense of democracy; they make democratic values into moral mush. Instead: The defense of democracy in Israel demands now an intense struggle over its key institutions. Only institutions create habits, routines of thought and behavior that make people behave and think democratically. They do this through practice, rather than through values magically “discovered” in moving dialogue groups. The politics of dialogue is far weaker than the politics that has been waged by the extreme right and has been successful in capturing key social institutions.

Israeli society is often confusing to outsiders because it contains at once different political regimes: It is a colonial power that deploys a great deal of resources in controlling the Palestinian population. It is a militarized society in which the army plays a significant role as a provider of jobs, as an institution that defines cultural attitudes, and influences politics. And it is also a vibrant democracy. We are witnessing now the increasing mix and overlap of what were three separate regimes, an overlap that threatens the very core of democracy and makes the resolution of the conflict with the Palestinians take on a new urgency, as it is Israel itself that is now collectively aligned with the interests of the settlers.

Is everything lost? Not quite. Not yet. But we are situated at a decisive crossroads, where Israelis have to decide for themselves the importance of universalist democracy. As Sefi Rachlevsky has repeatedly suggested in his brilliant columns for Haaretz, there is still a small chance Israel can be saved from the dangerous and slippery slope of the anti-democratic forces at work in its midst (Rachlevsky, by the way, was one of the first to recognize the messianic forces in Israeli society.)

Both the left and the right have a responsibility to redefine for Israel the crucial importance of democracy. The moderate liberals who have been ousted from Likud can and must form a party whose vocation would be to unite all those who care first and foremost about democracy. On the left side of the political map, conceptual and political clarity can help create a broad coalition between its many organizations under the large umbrella of human rights.

Israeli Arabs will have to understand that they must join, at least for a while, the fray of Jewish democratic politics if they want their lives to improve. Both the moderate right and the entire range of the left are passionate enough about democracy to create two large and broad coalitions, one of the left and one of the right, around democracy. Only when Israel is able to create institutions that make Arabs full and equal citizens, will it be able to create a new, unprecedented and vibrant universalist Judaism, coping for the first time in its modern history with the problem of political sovereignty.

Until then, the Jewish-Israeli messianism that has taken hold of our society is in danger of becoming blinded by its own sun: It will become just another variety of zealotry, doomed to disappear at one point or another in its history, like other forms of messianism. The only messianisms that survived history were the universalist ones (Christianity, Marxism). The rest have always failed and disappeared, sometimes quietly, sometimes with noise, but always without leaving a trace.

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