In William Styron’s devastating novel "Sophie’s Choice," a mother is forced by the Nazis to make the soul-crushing decision whether to send either her son or her daughter to the gas chambers. Israel has recently been presented with a similarly devastating choice by the Netanyahu government.
The country has been told it may now be either a Jewish state or a democracy, that it could not be both. Tragically, in the form of the recently passed nation-state law, the Knesset both accepted this perverse, profoundly false choice as a real one and has decided to condemn democracy, one of its founding, ennobling and essential ideals, to its death.
There is, of course, no defensible reason why a Jewish state should not also be a democracy. History reveals that few things could be more compatible than democracy and Jewish ideals, aspirations and cultural experience. In fact, it is impossible to understand how a truly Jewish state could reject the fair treatment of its people guaranteed by the rule of law, justice, or the necessity of tolerance. The new law certainly represents a rejection of the lessons of the past and a betrayal of many of the nation’s founders.
But the supporters of the nation-state law have effectively argued that Jewish identity, narrowly defined, is more important than Jewish values or ideals, falling once more into the trap that has tormented and damaged the country since its founding and Zionism since its inception.
They believe, or at least argue, that the most important question for Israel is, "Who is a Jew?" rather than, "What kind of society do we as Jews stand for?"
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It is a devastating error, rejecting deeply Jewish principles such as tikkun olam, the repairing of the world, the idea that we should work to improve societies to reverse the errors and injustices of the past. It also, every bit as damningly, rejects the fundamental human rights of the Palestinians who live within the borders Israel controls.
Israel’s harshest critics were once attacked for suggesting that it was an apartheid state. No longer. Netanyahu and the Israeli right have made them into prophets.
In making this error, the Prime Minister and the other backers of this legislative abomination, have once again cast their lot with others who are the forefront of the growing tide of ethno-nationalism worldwide. Netanyahu’s recent celebration of the visit of extreme right-wing Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is just the latest sign of this.
Orban is as vile as they come and represents, as many have observed, hateful views that are closer to those of the Nazis than they are to anything that should be associated with Israel. He has overseen rising anti-Semitism, fostered it himself with attacks on prominent Jews like George Soros, and complemented all that with demagogic attacks on refugees and "the other" that should make the skin creep of anyone who has any sense of decency or history.
From Netanyahu’s stance on the Polish Holocaust law to his embrace of Donald Trump, a president who has himself defended Nazis and turned his back on the dispossessed of the world, Israel’s prime minister has thrown in his lot with the wrong crowd and ideas. His recent currying favor with the godfather of the world’s hard right, Vladimir Putin, further underscores this.
There is therefore a geopolitical component to his turn to the hard right that reveals yet another Netanyahu character flaw-driven miscalculation.
Stung by the criticism of leaders in the European Union of his hardline and consistently inhumane treatment of Palestinians, it appears the Israeli prime minister has decided to align Israel more with the former Soviet bloc than with the richer, more tolerant societies of Europe.
One might be tempted to observe that, weirdly, the the U.S., the nation that led the Atlantic Alliance and oversaw the rebuilding of Europe, has a president who has seemingly made the same choice. But it is not so weird.
Whereas roughly a century ago, we saw the incipient rise of internationalist ideas as manifest in the notion of the League of Nations, today we are seeing a new group emerging that might be called the League of Nationalists.
While the League of Nations faltered, the ideals underlying it, from promoting the rule of law to promoting democracy, largely defined Western views ever since. We don’t have to look much farther than the consequences of the first stumbles of those ideas when they were first floated in the wake of World War II, to see the danger that rising nationalism and the ethnic identity-based politics it brings can cause.
Israel was founded as a consequence of the last conflagration that such intolerant and inhumane views brought. That today, it can have forgotten all those lessons, that it can no longer hear the cries of ancestors who were the victims of such institutionalized hatred, is profoundly disturbing. A nation founded in response to the tragedy of identity politics may well have chosen its own end as a result of them as well.
And, as unsettlingly, the dark tide that threatens to consume and destroy the Israeli experiment is spreading again as it did in the 1930s across the face of the globe, led by the leaders of great powers and enabled by the visionless, valueless opportunists like Netanyahu who have become their pawns.
David Rothkopf is a senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His most recent book is Great Questions of Tomorrow (Simon & Schuster/TED, 2017). Twitter: @djrothkopf