For Netanyahu and His Ilk, Hatred Is Essential

Jewish nationalism would be incomplete without hatred of Arabs

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Supporters hold a photo of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Ramat Gan, March 4, 2019.
Supporters hold a photo of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Ramat Gan, March 4, 2019.Credit: \ Amir Cohen/ REUTERS
zeev sternhell
Zeev Sternhell

Our current election campaign, as well as the American one two years ago, confirms most of the criticism that was heaped on democracy already at the end of the 19th century. In the meantime, everyone has learned that no other system is better, even if democracy’s flaws haven’t disappeared and no resolution is in sight.

Already at the inception of their discipline, the founders of social science determined that the strongest forces that motivate people are hatred and myths. Thus, in the politics of the street, reason was perceived as fulfilling only a marginal role.

It later became clear that the most effective instrument for fomenting hatred is radical nationalism, which sees the nation as an organic entity, a product of a unique history. Hatred of the stranger, the other, the different, anyone who doesn’t share that unique history, generated the myth of the enemy within.

It’s no coincidence that this was the basis of modern anti-Semitism even where the Jewish minority was small and well-integrated in society. As expressed by Charles Maurras, one of the worst French nationalists and anti-Semites, anti-Semitism was a requirement without which French nationalism was incomplete.

This indeed is the method employed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his ilk: Hatred of Arabs and a stoking of fear of them is a methodological need for these politicians, without which Jewish nationalism would be incomplete.

But it’s not only Arabs. Since the end of the 19th century, the nationalist right has constantly accused the educated and liberal establishment, the “elites,” of sapping the nation’s strength. They’re all labeled the enemy within, they’re all traitors because they all demand the protection of human rights, the preservation of equality and most Enlightenment values, and the defense of the system without which there’s no democracy. This system, as the American founders put it, is a strong and independent judiciary’s oversight of legislation, with checks and balances between the different branches of government.

It turns out that this method still works, whether or not there’s a world war or inflation — or a severe economic crisis and unemployment, as was the situation in Europe in the 1930s.

History never repeats, but something can still be learned from it. Two conclusions can be drawn from what’s taking place before our eyes. One is that liberal democracy is a fragile system, always under the shadow of a crisis. It therefore requires constant protection against forces that rise up to destroy it. The second is that culture and ideology can overcome social and economic interests. This has been the case in Israel from the start.

However, the idea that national goals precede any economic or social considerations has achieved its full destructive result only in the last half-century. The result has been the gradual retreat of the Labor Party, before right-wing Likud became sufficiently entrenched to ensure its continued rule despite all its failures — from the ruinous inflation of the Begin government and the needless deaths of the first Lebanon war, up to the current dead end.

For the center-left, the real crisis happened not in 1977, but in the elections of 1981 and 1984. It turned out that the animosity toward the cultural and social establishment was a permanent fixture deeply rooted in society, and that this was the factor shaping politics.

This is the reality with which Benny Gantz's Kahol Lavan and Labor must now contend; it’s too bad they’ve realized this too late. The only party that has taken the correct path all these years is Meretz. One thing is clear: Sycophancy toward the right has never worked, and walking in its footsteps now won’t produce a miracle.

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