Analysis

Netanyahu's Israel Is Looking a Lot Like Orban's Hungary - and It Could Spell Its Demise

Both countries operate as ghettos that feed on the hatred of foreigners and refugees, on Islamophobia, and on hostility toward the European Union

Viktor Orban and Benjamin Netanyahu in Budapest, July 2017.
Haim Zach / GPO

Earlier this month, Zeev Sternhell wrote in Haaretz's Hebrew edition that after Israel shed the legacy of the British Mandate, it returned to the fold of Eastern Europe. This statement warrants an examination of the concept of illiberal democracies. The furor that erupted in Israel last month after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to condemn expressions of anti-Semitism in Hungary points to a strategic alliance between illiberal regimes.

In a historic speech in 2014, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban laid out a political philosophy under which the era of the enfeebled liberal democracy has passed, supplanted by the proud illiberal one. This is only a partial democracy, existing only in a formal sense, one where parliamentary elections are held but where power remains in the hands of politicians, technocrats and economically powerful players. This is achieved through a significant curbing of civil rights and a growing alienation of the country’s citizens from those wielding power. Sound familiar?

This concept of an illiberal democracy highlights the similarities between Israel and Hungary. They are both small countries “surrounded by enemies,” according to many of their citizens, islands of linguistic distinctness that have become like gated communities. They voluntarily operate as ghettos that feed on the hatred of foreigners and refugees, on Islamophobia, and on hostility toward the European Union, despite their shameless exploitation of resources provided by the EU.

Both countries are young democracies with a middle class that will not risk its advantages by opposing the regime. Both countries are built around a myth of an ancient kingdom, fostering fantasies of territorial expansion. Neither hesitates to interfere in the affairs of neighboring states while advancing far-reaching constitutional changes. The political discourse in Hungary and Israel is based on a demonization of "the other" and the labeling of anyone opposing the regime a traitor. Populism in both countries conceals a failure in solving key problems such as social inequality. In both regimes there is a slow consolidation of the rule of one unassailable ruler surrounded by yes-men.

There are several more concrete connections. At the height of the refugee crisis, Hungary bought security fences similar to the ones Israel has built, and both Netanyahu and Orban have been assisted by the same strategic adviser, Arthur Finkelstein, renowned for his aggressive propaganda campaigns for Republican candidates in the United States.

Targeting Soros' university

Sociologist Eva Fodor characterizes an illiberal democracy not as a stable authoritarian entity but as a frenetic and not always consistent flow of changes. Illiberalism is a moving target that enables the slow deconstruction of the rule of law, civil rights, freedom of association and transparency. It embodies authority with no responsibility. The political question is how to contend with a moving target.

In Israel, human rights groups are constantly hounded, the secular education system is increasingly infused with religion, and the public and academic discourse is subject to internal and external censorship. In Hungary, new laws are undermining civil society organizations, depriving anyone who doesn’t toe the line of their livelihood, and, more recently, attempting to eliminate a bastion of academic freedom and a symbol of Hungary’s open society, Central European University.

CEU, where I teach, is a thorn in the side of Orban’s illiberal project. It's no coincidence that someone referred to it in jest as CEJew, since many Jews and some Israelis study and teach there. The university is being accused of too much liberalism, where “liberal” in Hungarian politics is code for “Jew.” The “Jew,” as is well known, is larger than the sum of his parts.

According to Hungary’s ultra-nationalists, the university has become a subversive city-state operating in the legitimate capital. It is autonomous and thereby dangerous, since its independence challenges the state’s sovereignty. The university is ranked second in the world in the number of international students. One quarter of its 1,500 students and 40 percent of its teachers are Hungarian. The others come from 117 countries across the world, including from India, Pakistan, Iran, the Palestinian territories, Syria, Ethiopia, France, Germany and the United States.

In its insolent cosmopolitanism and by its status as a private institution in New York and Hungary, it constitutes a hybrid, and the fate of hybrids, we’ve learned in anthropology lessons, ranges from containment to eradication. Ironically, there are similarities in the way Netanyahu and Orban relate to Diaspora Jews who are unwilling to join the national project. The nationalist Hungarian and the Zionist Israeli join forces in trying to domesticate the European Jew who refuses to assume an identity.

The resistance

Paradoxically, the pattern of protests adopted by students and teachers only confirms the charges against the CEU. Instead of submissively accepting the authority of the master they have taken to the streets, and at the height of the resistance campaign 80,000 demonstrators stood outside parliament, a record for post-socialist protest movements. The protest went up a notch when a handful of activists managed to frame it in terms beyond the university’s status, setting the protest in a context of democracy and political representation.

And yet, in an illiberal democracy, as in an ethnocracy, the voice of the people isn't sacred. Orban didn't blink, and we CEU lecturers may find ourselves in Vienna next year. It’s not so bad, many will say, but most of us don’t want to move. In Palestinian terms we’ve become a symbol of academic “steadfastness” (sumud), and “resistance in existence.” The university’s founder, George Soros, was recently made an honorary member of the British Academy.

Similar processes are taking place in other illiberal democracies. In Turkey and Poland the regime is undermining democratic institutions, while in Israel the justice minister is spearheading a revolution in the legal system, Prof. Asa Kasher is overseeing an ethics code based on right-wing specifications, and the Im Tirtzu movement is doing the dirty work, branding university lecturers on the left.

Still, these regimes are weakened by their high-handedness. They’ve lost the political sophistication that until recently enabled the curbing of the opposition through the deceptive description “liberal.” Just as they are painting the political arena in black and white — who's not with us is against us — illiberal regimes heighten the sense of urgency among their opponents, which will bring about these regimes’ demise at their own hands.

Daniel Monterescu teaches at the Central European University in Budapest and edits Haaretz's Hebrew-language blog "Cities Shared and Shattered."