Leader of the Bayit Hayehudi party Naftali Bennett has raised eyebrows on the left and vote tallies on the right since his controversial interview to Israel’s Channel 2, where he publically proclaimed the right to defy IDF instructions in the case of a future disengagement: "If I receive an order to evict a Jew from his house and expel him, personally, my conscience wouldn't allow it I'd ask my commander to exempt meAn order over which a black flag flies shouldn't be obeyed,” noting, "Conscientious objection is a built-in part of being a soldier."
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While political pressures and the denouncement of prominent politicians seemingly coerced the 22-year army veteran into retracting his statement the following day, Bennett articulated a widespread attitude in the ultra-nationalist camp in a week that also saw a slap-on-the-peyus conviction of settler activists for the infiltration of the Ephraim army base last summer, clashes between hilltop youth and soldiers sent to evacuate the Oz Zion outpost, and yet another High Court-mandated delay (possibly in response to the threat of potential violence) for the demolition of the Amona encampment.
With intensifying confrontations between the IDF and Palestinians and an increasing number of so-called price-tag operations over the past year, there is growing concern amongst the policy class about “settler terrorism” — including an excellent analysis of its proximate causes and a call for action in the past issue of Foreign Affairs - in the Wild West Bank. Yet, recent discussions about disobeying orders a la Bennett camouflage the wider historical dimension of this phenomenon: There has been something rotten in the State of Israel since its inception regarding the sanctity of the law and now, with the settlers' violence and civil disobedience, the Israeli establishment is only reaping what was sowed many decades ago.
Before his untimely death to cancer at 62, in the midst of the second intifada, the pioneering scholar of Israel’s radical right Ehud Sprinzak wrote extensively about the Israeli ultra-nationalist movement and broader trends of ideological extremism. Although some of his best-known theories were formulated over thirty years ago, they still aptly characterize Israeli political culture today. Most resonant are his writings on what he dubbed “Israeli illegalism,” a set of both behaviors and beliefs which he defined in a seminal article as an “illegalism from the top”, meaning "a prestigious and influential ideology which either degrades the rule of law or assigns it a low priority.” Far from a recent development, he argued that “legalism in the Western sense of the term never was an integral part of democratic system established in Israel,” a system that arose from the non-democratic origins of the political heritage of both the early Zionist founders and the Ottoman political culture in which they were forced to operate upon their arrival in Palestine.
Over time, both ideological illegalism – the kind of Zionist theology that asserts that rules are meant to be broken - and operational illegalism - the tactical strategies that enshrined these beliefs - became entrenched in Israeli political life, evolving from the “functional illegalism” of the Yishuv period that brought the State of Israel into existence to both an open and obscured illegalism of law-bending, ad-hoc decision-making, and corruption endemic since 1948. (Certainly, these trends accelerated with the administration of the occupied territories after 1967.) Likewise, Sprinzak argued in his later book, The Ascendance of Israel's Radical Right, that the radical right of the generation after 1967 and its descendents merely borrowed from this early political tradition the ideal of being “good Jewish democrats.” Good Jewish democrats derived their justification for resisting any political authority that challenged their Zionist-Jewish doctrines from precisely the same principles of “what is good for the Jews” upon which their Israeli forefathers founded the state itself.
The question of this election then, is not whether Naftali Bennett, Moshe Feiglin, Benjamin Netanyahu, or any of the other right-leaning politicians in this election contest are “good democrats” — or whether religious aspects or aspirations of their political platforms will attenuate their attitudes toward democracy — but rather whether any candidate across the political spectrum will confront the challenge of illegalism in Israeli political culture. Certainly it is not a problem that is restricted only to the quarters of the far-right: The settler camp is only symptomatic of a serious, endemic mindset of lawlessness and the impromptu rule making “b'shetach” (in the field) that characterizes Israeli society today. If the Israeli political establishment continues to caricature this attitude as a divergent anomaly of their political opponents, it will once again miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity in the upcoming Israeli election.
At the height of the Oslo Peace Process in 1993, Sprinzak wrote of an incipient “Age of Reform” of this improvisational and unguarded culture, believing that “behind the present passivity of most Israelis there is a genuine quest for change, and that this general sentiment may be galvanized into public action, provided the right leadership is found.” The 2011 summer of social protests could have been a possible beginning of that process of public outcry and demand for change (restating the centrality of the rule of law and comprehensive normalization), but the demonstrators – while themselves embodying the spirit of illegalism by their squatting in tents on Rothschild Boulevard and across the country – focused mostly on economic issues divorced from the corruption and illegalism of the political system. While the protests opened up the debate about greater socio-economic equity, they didn’t do much to change the fundamentals of political culture in Israel.
However, it is hard to see where Israel will draw alternative historical models. While the Americanization of Israel has had a profound influence of Israeli politics and culture, the United States also suffers from its own crisis of illegalism - but also in a country currently perceived as run by a kleptocracy of the 1% which is confronting the rampant challenges of violence and vigilantism, not least in the wake of the Newton massacre, which raised new questions about law and order. Meanwhile, Europe is currently engulfed in its own economic crisis, with increasingly violent street clashes and allegations of intrinsic illegalism and corruption within their own political system. While Israel’s neighbors continue to strive toward an Arab Spring, its own lessons for the region are evolving and uncertain. Nevertheless, one can only hope that Netanyahu, Bennett, and the other candidates of the 2013 election will live up to the challenge of being the lone democracy in the Middle East — but by being more than just “good Jewish democrats” this time around.
Dr. Sara Hirschhorn is a graduate of Yale and the University of Chicago and is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University, researching the Israeli settler movement, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the U.S.-Israel relationship. Her dissertation, '"City on a Hilltop: The Participation of Jewish-American Immigrants Within the Israeli Settler Movement, 1967-1987," is now available on Proquest.