Protest The Tectonic Plates Beneath Israel Are Shifting

The social protests of the summer, and the ongoing right-wing attack on left-wing activism are much more connected than they appear.

Eva Illouz
Eva Illouz
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Eva Illouz
Eva Illouz

As we approach the end of this year, we must take stock of two significant developments in Israeli politics in 2011: the protests that enthralled us and our media for many weeks; and the fact that the extreme right, with the support of the conventional right, has launched a frontal, militant attack on left-wing organizations, democracy and the rule of law, both inside and outside the corridors of power. Contrary to appearances, these phenomena are connected.

As someone who was raised in Europe, the protests were surprising to me in more than one way: the first surprise was their cozily consensual character. The protests reawakened the feeling of national solidarity that had long disappeared from Israeli society. While European protests had previously often ended up in harsh confrontations with the police, the local ones assumed the benign form of a festive and colorful national fair, complete with tents. Cooperation with the government and police was optimal, and a feeling of national solidarity between groups normally separated by class and religious belief quickly developed. The second surprise had to do with the protests’ peacefulness.

Protest in Tel Aviv's Kikar Hamedina, summer 2011

For a society that is often condemned by outsiders and insiders for its violence, this peacefulness over the course of many months was indeed remarkable. Israeli protesters insisted on a pacifist approach, for example, by not attacking political leaders who, in the first few weeks, contemptuously called them “sushi-eaters,” and by not disrupting traffic; indeed, the demonstrators did not use the tactics seen in most other countries. The third surprise was the refusal by protesters to cite specifically the screaming injustice plaguing Israeli society: between the privileges accorded to settlements and to the ultra-Orthodox on the one hand, and those enjoyed by the productive classes inside the Green Line.

While intellectuals and artists called on the protesters to define their political agenda explicitly, the latter refused to “be political,” and opted instead for a highly pragmatic style of building consensus in a highly polarized society. In a country so intensely divided by political issues, the protesters’ demands took the form of an economic-social revolt (for affordable housing, a lower cost of living, and improved education and health care).

The final and perhaps most profound surprise was the fact that the protests did not occur much earlier. All the characteristics of the protests and their consensual, peaceful and nonpolitical nature are connected to the activism of the extreme right in both official and illicit ways. Israeli society embodies characteristics from three different types of political regimes. The first is that of a classical social democracy, in which the welfare state and the citizen are bound by a contract: The citizen pays taxes in exchange for the state guaranteeing legal and social rights, free or subsidized education, medical care, employment and security, etc. Most social democracies provide a “neutral” framework whereby productive citizens of diverse religious and ethnic backgrounds can pursue what they define as “the good life,” and are guaranteed both civil rights and a minimal standard of living. In that sense, regardless of their differences, such persons are bound to each other by the connective tissue of citizenship, which provides a common framework that organizes social life. In Israel, such concepts are anchored in the Declaration of Independence.

Secondly, Israel can be described as a premodern regime, in three respects. The first has to do with the control of land, most of which is not for sale and is not privately owned per se. In the Middle Ages, control of land depended on religious affiliation (for example, a Jew could not own any). Similarly, a substantial amount of land in Israel today is controlled by the Israel Lands Administration because ownership of land is rooted in ethnic and religious categories (in contrast to being simply a commodity, in purely social democracies).

The second aspect of a premodern regime that is evident in Israel concerns society’s division into “orders” with significant qualitative differences. For example, feudal Europe was divided into three orders: those who pray, those who fight and those who work, each with reciprocal obligations vis-a-vis the other. Israel also has three orders, which, as in the feudal era, do not interact with each other, and have different rights and status: the non-Jews (the majority of them Arabs); Jews who pray and do not fight (Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox who study in yeshivas and are not productive in economic terms), and Jews who both work and fight (by the way, the Orthodox nationalists who both work and fight share far more in common with the class that prays than with the productive class).

The third characteristic of a premodern regime is that there is a system of privileges whereby one class provides subsistence to the priestly class, because the entire society is oriented toward maintaining religious beliefs and/or sustaining the religious stratum. For example, historically, in Christian Europe the Third Estate worked to provide for the needs of the clergy. In Israel, those who pray, like the Christian clergy in Europe, receive allowances and privileges on the basis of their religious beliefs and practices.

Finally, the third political regime around which Israeli society is structured is military. Children are raised to become soldiers, and the army plays a particularly large part in the lives of men, instilling in them the virtues of courage, fraternal bonds and self-sacrifice. Indeed, clearly the Israel Defense Forces plays a very prominent role in the country’s economy, culture and political system.

Dr. Eyal Chowers, a professor of political philosophy at Tel Aviv University, puts it well: He argues that in the territories, the army has played all the roles normally attributed to different branches of government executive, judiciary and legislative. Inside Israel proper, it tends to conflate the various branches of government. The military also shapes people’s attitudes by encouraging nationalism and the view that state security is the supreme concern. Indeed, many political problems, says Chowers, are routinely dismissed because they are trumped by “national threats” or because they are framed as “security” issues, thus further augmenting the military influence over the political and social spheres.

Defined by Jewishness

These three political regimes are embodied by a very specific form of citizenship that is unique to Israel, which is at once social-democratic, premodern and military. In comparison with their European counterparts, Israeli citizens are uncannily devoted and compliant to their state: they pay one of the highest rates of taxes in the world; sacrifice their comfort and sometimes even their lives in the army; and, as in the Third Estate, even help subsidize the clergy.

What has held these three regimes together has been the fact that the welfare state and the military have been defined by the Jewishness of the country. Because Israel was conceived as a Jewish state, the Israeli citizen has been exceptionally compliant to the demands of groups claiming to champion the continuity of that people, precisely because Jewishness has always been the trump card in the political arena. Even security demands are ultimately predicated on the necessity to preserve Jewishness as a common ground uniting the people. Jewishness in turn has been contained in and managed by the welfare state and a social democratic system.

People who go out to demonstrate often do so in response to forces they do not fully grasp. The protests this summer were a reaction to the fact that the three political regimes are increasingly breaking away from the single framework that held them together, each becoming powerful in distinct arenas, and clashing more and more.

The protesters were self-consciously apolitical and did not demand an overhaul of the country’s entire social structure per se rather, they sought better conditions of living. But theirs was a political protest, not in the benign sense of a protest organized by a political party, but in a more profound sense: It was sparked by increasing dysfunction in the political system. They protested, at times without knowing it, the fact that something in that system, which once enabled the three regimes to coexist, is becoming untenable.

Specifically, the premodern and military aspects are increasingly incompatible with those of the welfare state and social democracy, because, first, all over the world today, the legitimacy of a welfare state derives from its capacity to provide high or adequate standards of living; and second, because both market economies and social democracies are ethnically and religiously inclusive instead of being geared toward maintaining ethnic, racial and religious distinctions. This is the main reason why these markets and social democracies are such powerful tools in engineering social peace. In Israel, however, they are severely restricted by the premodern-religious political regime.

When the Likud came to power some 30 years ago, it started dismantling the socialized economy and the welfare state. This project, one must note, was not met with significant opposition from other sectors of society. In fact, most Israeli middle and working classes were eager to join the global economy, increase competition, attract foreign investors, and move to a full-fledged consumer market. The dismantling of the welfare state resulted in the erosion of public services (the deterioration of the school system and medical care), growing economic concentration and inequality. This was also accompanied by a new conception of social bonds between people, one that is prevalent in most market economies. It is based on self-interest, individualism, a global lifestyle and inclusiveness of any group (such as foreign workers) willing to join the system of production.

Meanwhile in Israel, however, two other institutions were promoting a contrasting ethos: the clergy and the military. Both demand self-sacrifice and a commitment to the collective, spiritual and territorial defense of the Jewish people. Thus Israeli citizenship has come to be characterized by an odd combination of an intense market-oriented ideology that stresses individualism and competition; economic concentration; strong state control of land; and dismantling of the welfare state and ideologically motivated devotion to the nation as a military and religious collective entity.

This combination has no parallel in the world. To put it differently: With the exception of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s cut in allowances to the Haredim, the transfer of funding to religious people and other sectors that ostensibly defend the Jewishness of the country (yeshiva students, settlers, etc.) has steadily increased over the last three decades.

No secular framework

It can thus be said that the erosion of the welfare state in Israel has been precipitated by three factors, not one, as in other countries. These are: neoliberalism, economic concentration and the increase in the portion of the economic pie allotted to the religious sector. This means simply that secular working people are left without a framework within which to organize their collective identity. Increasingly, Jewish identity or nationalism, or both, are the only remaining ideologies upon which to base a collective existence here.

The state represents the interests of investors and tycoons, of those who defend Jewish identity and Jewish territory, and to a much lesser extent, the interests of the many others who carry the state on their backs. Thus the protests have been a reaction to the fact that it is becoming increasingly difficult for working and nonreligious citizens to feel represented by the state. The banners that read “An entire generation wants a future” really meant: “An entire generation wants to understand who represents its interests.”

The rather odd hunger for solidarity and consensus during the protests was due to the fact that in this neoliberal state, so little is left for the hard-working Third Estate to use to organize a common identity.

Enter the extreme right. Its aggressiveness is an expression of the same processes: that is, it has objectively gained the political and ideological power that came with the dismantling of the welfare state, thanks to the demographic increase in religious populations of all stripes. Where previous secular frameworks of a state of social democracy were able to cope with the diversity of the collective body, now the premodern, religious-oriented regime has gained autonomy and increased power.

The fact that almost half of all children in elementary schools today are religiously observant is a clear indication that the balance of power has shifted. Instead of the welfare state being the powerful agent managing, regulating, reconciling between the three different regimes, the state itself is being challenged by the representatives of the premodern regime, and on several fronts through violent confrontations with the army and attempts to change the democratic character of Israel’s law and media and muzzle the universities.

Although different factions within the religious public are attacking democracy in different ways, they have a common interest: namely, the defense of a premodern regime based on religious and ethnic exclusivity. It emerges, however, that the army is stuck in an ambiguous position because it has conflicting interests: It needs the budget provided by a flourishing economy and cannot easily accommodate certain religious restrictions, and yet, increasingly, it is being won over by religious factions that provide it with a new reservoir of messianic ideas about its historical mission of preserving and expanding Jewish territory.

Because the management of the conflict with our neighbors has become routine, the military needs a new source of rationales and justification for its existence, happily provided by the religious worldview.

The social protests, in addition to moves by the extreme right, are the tectonic plates beneath Israeli soil, and these plates are now shifting, creating seismic tremors in the social body. For its part, right-wing activism represents the religious, nationalist and military forces that aim to defend the Jewish identity of the country. And that activism, along with the protests, are clear expressions of profound contradictory forces, and of the powerlessness of the welfare state and of social democracy to contain the contradictory regimes of Israeli society.

Prof. Eva Illouz is a member of the Center for the Study of Rationality and holds the Rose Isaacs Chair in Sociology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.



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