The Battle for Israel Is Liberal vs Illiberal, Not Right vs Left

The long-term goal of Israel’s new political right, led by its standard bearer Im Tirtzu, is to turn Israel into a closed society. This is how we can stop them.

Carlo Strenger
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Im Tirtzu activists clashing with students at Tel Aviv University while calling for closure of left-leaning Political Science Department at Ben-Gurion University.
Im Tirtzu activists clashing with students at Tel Aviv University while calling for closure of left-leaning Political Science Department at Ben-Gurion University.Credit: Oren Ziv
Carlo Strenger

MK Benny Begin (Likud) – certainly never suspected of being a leftist – blasted Im Tirtzu’s latest campaign that “outs” Israeli artists like Amos Oz and David Grossman as moles. “There is an effort here to replace the word ‘mole’ with the word ‘traitor,’” he told Israel Radio last week. “The singling out of so-called traitors is an old-fashioned fascist technique that is both ugly and dangerous.”

The current battle in Israel is no longer between left and right. Israel’s current political right has mutated from the time it truly identified with liberal democratic values under Menachem Begin. With a few exceptions, like Benny Begin and President Reuven Rivlin, the new generation of rightists, under the aegis of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, wants far more than continuing the settlement project and taking over the West Bank.

The long-term goal of Israel’s new political right is to turn Israel into an illiberal, closed society. Their tactic was already described by George Orwell long ago: To take control of language, distorting it for their interest, thus shaping the public discourse.

Their first great achievement has been to make “right” synonymous with “Zionist and patriotic” and “left” synonymous with “anti-Zionist, self-hating Jews.” You can see their success in the panicky attempts of all the larger Jewish parties to avoid being labeled as left-wing, using “Zionism” in every second sentence and creating an almost comic competition for the label of “centrist.”

Israel is still an open society in which dissent is not officially persecuted, and this is a real pain in the neck for the new brand of Israeli rightists who strive toward an illiberal society. They want to shut down critical voices, and Im Tirtzu plays an important role in finding out how to do this. While not officially associated with any party, it serves as a testing ground for Israel’s illiberal forces for how far they can go toward totalitarianism by defaming their opponents and distorting reality. Im Tirtzu is, therefore, an important indicator of where Israel’s new rightists are really headed.

A good example is the success of Im Tirtzu’s unbearably ugly campaign against the New Israel Fund and its then leader, Naomi Chazan, in 2010. The political right realized that the public responds well to attacks on human rights NGOs. Ever since, Avigdor Lieberman, Yariv Levin, Zeev Elkin and Ayelet Shaked have pushed for legislation to marginalize, delegitimize and, if possible, outlaw NGOs that defend Israel’s civil society, which they want to destroy.

In a liberal democracy, the state is a superordinate structure responsible for security, allocation of funds, infrastructure planning and similar tasks. Civil society is independent of the state; so are the judicial system, culture, the media and academia. Politics also does not mess with questions of what is true – this is left to the relevant experts. Nor does the state determine what is culturally valuable – it creates independent committees to do so.

In an illiberal or totalitarian regime – whether of the communist left or the ultranationalist right – the state becomes the arbiter of truth and cultural value. Academia teaches what supports the regime; culture must express the regime’s values; the judiciary serves political power; and the media becomes an instrument of propaganda rather than a watchdog surveilling and reporting on power.

Illiberalism is the agenda behind Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev’s attempts to gain control over cultural production; behind Education Minister Naftali Bennett’s attempts to wrest control of the Council for Higher Education, a body explicitly created in David Ben-Gurion’s time to keep academia independent of political interference; and it’s also behind Netanyahu’s repeated attempts to close down Channel 10 television, which is critical of him. Meanwhile, he has a foreign donor bankrolling Israel Hayom, a newspaper that’s dedicated to nothing but supporting him.

What, then, is to be done? In the foreseeable future, there is no realistic scenario for a government committed to the two-state solution – which is the only coherent way to safeguard Israel as the democratic homeland of the Jews. This is the elephant in the room that the new rightists try to cover up with their obfuscation of political language and distortion of reality, and one of the central reasons why they want an illiberal political system.

We must go beyond the defunct labels of left and right, and adopt a language of liberal versus illiberal. We must fight to safeguard Israel as an open society and a liberal democracy. Israelis with a liberal state of mind, whether left or right of center, have to battle the new Israeli illiberal right’s distorted political language, and we must not play by the rules of their game.

We must take an uncompromising stand for clarity of thought and morality, and must speak uncomfortable truth bluntly – even at the cost of political popularity. Only if we succeed in keeping Israeli civil society and the vitality of Israel’s liberal culture alive long enough will the day come when the country can reemerge from its current, fanatic drift toward totalitarianism.

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