Opinion |

The New National Zionism

Israeli Justice Minister Shaked’s worldview recalls the racist xenophobia of the southern U.S. states during the 1930s and onward

Daniel Blatman
Daniel Blatman
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Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked speaking at the Israel Bar Association in Tel Aviv, Tuesday, August 29, 2017.
Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked speaking at the Israel Bar Association in Tel Aviv, Tuesday, August 29, 2017.Credit: David Bachar
Daniel Blatman
Daniel Blatman

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked is increasingly establishing herself as the leader of the new Zionism. This is not just the result of the constitutional revolution she’s leading by attempting to change the makeup of the Supreme Court or the series of bills that she’s been promoting, including the nation-state bill. These are just practical expressions of a coherent and consolidated worldview, focused on effecting a far-reaching transformation of the ideological basis on which the State of Israel was founded.

Shaked’s Zionism is not just another Jewish variation of the European liberal nationalist idea of the second half of the 20th century from the school of Theodor Herzl, Chaim Weizmann, Ze’ev Jabotinsky and others. Shaked’s new Zionism is a revolutionary synthesis of the colonialist settlement ethos of the labor movement and ethnocentric-racist Jewish components that together lead to a major revision of the fundamental definitions of the Jewish state. Shaked is essentially seeking to replace the Zionist idea – which despite the disputes that existed between its varied components focused on Jewish sovereignty as an existential need of a persecuted people – with a basic perception that defines the State of Israel as a uni-ethnic state that will fulfill the anti-liberal Jewish vision of colonialism. Her remarks this week at the Israel Bar Association conference in Tel Aviv were another stage in sharpening this ideology.

Shaked had already published the principles of her worldview recently in an article in the journal Hashiloach, and this is also the central concept of the nation-state bill she’s advancing.

“The Jewish state is therefore the state of the Jewish people. It is the natural right of the Jewish people to live like every other nation,” she writes. “A Jewish state is a state whose history is combined and interwoven with the history of the Jewish people, whose language is Hebrew and whose main holidays reflect its national revival. A Jewish state is a state for which the settlement of Jews in its fields, cities and towns is a primary concern. A Jewish state is a state that nurtures Jewish culture, Jewish education and the love of the Jewish people. A Jewish state is the realization of generations of aspirations for Jewish redemption. A Jewish state is a state whose values are drawn from its religious tradition, with the Bible the most basic of its books and the prophets of Israel its moral foundation. A Jewish state is a state in which Jewish law plays an important role. A Jewish state is a state for which the values of the Torah of Israel, the values of Jewish tradition and the values of Jewish law are among its basic values.”

Despite Shaked’s efforts to present her worldview as one that’s based on classic neoconservative principles and tends to use quotes from Milton Friedman, her worldview is drawn from much darker areas. More than the American conservatism of the late 20th century, her worldview is reminiscent of the racist xenophobia of the southern U.S. states during the 1930s and onward, and of the racist right that is hostile to immigration and is flourishing today in those countries created by European colonialism. Her declaration that “Zionism needn’t continue, and won’t continue, to bow its head to a system of individual rights interpreted in a universal way,” clearly attests to this.

During the 1930s, the years of the Great Depression and the rise of totalitarian regimes in Europe, the universal idea of individual rights faced a serious crisis in the United States. The risk of war and interracial tensions posed difficulties for human rights activists, especially given calls to redefine the essence of “Americanism” and the status of the country’s minorities as defined by their race, skin color, religion or ethnic background. The attack on the rights of these minorities also intensified due to the rising popularity of European fascism, which championed the definition of a state as a selective, collective community that distanced anyone not belonging to the collective. This was especially true in the American South and was expressed by the region’s racial segregation laws.

Shaked’s vision of the Jewish state is parallel to what southerners in the 1930s referred to as “preserving the American way of life.” To preserve this vision, it was not just permitted to pass laws that would uphold it and protect it from having to bow to individual rights; it was permitted to defend this vision with violence. Hundreds of instances of lynching and violence against blacks are the clearest proof of how deeply rooted these perceptions were. Israel is not so far from similar phenomena of non-state aggressive violence, for example against asylum seekers or against Palestinians. But what ultimately defined the American South was its unique legal system of racial segregation. This is where Shaked is heading.

However, it must be recalled that geographic separation was never the main objective of the whites in the American South. They certainly accepted the reality, perhaps even the necessity, of blacks and whites living alongside each other and interacting and maintaining relationships based on economic interests or employment needs. All this was subject to the dictates of the racial hierarchy, or what one researcher called “the era of racist capitalism.”

This is where Shaked’s Zionist vision is leading. Instead of white supremacy, we will get Jewish supremacy, together with an ethnocentric-racist vision that will allow for some vital economic practicalities. After all, Shaked’s Jewish state doesn’t want to separate from the Palestinians, and certainly doesn’t want to make them citizens. Just as in the American South the segregation and political discrimination against blacks created a brutal, racist social and political order, so will Shaked’s new national-Zionist state, which won’t be prepared to bow its head before universal definitions of individual rights, and will continue to brutally oppress minorities, whose only protection against the ideological tyranny she’s advancing are those universal definitions.

Within this vision we must also place the fear of refugees and the desire to expel them from the country at any price. The racist attitude toward them is a familiar phenomenon in societies with a colonial past and tradition, of which Israel is one. Behind the approaches that see the refugees as a threat is the need to preserve the ethnic superiority of the colonial majority, whose hold on the territory in which it lives has still not met the test of historical, long-term legitimacy. That’s why the need to tightly control the borders – the territorial ones but mainly the ethnic and racial ones – is so critical. The migrants and refugees are breaching these borders; they differ in their color, religion and lifestyle and thus do not only endanger the ethnic hegemony, but might also dilute the human quality of the majority society and transform it into an ethnic and cultural entity that’s different from the original one.

This is a new concept of the State of Israel. Shaked’s concept of Jewish ethnic superiority rests not only on a closely held ideology, but on the politics of fear. Israel’s political arena is now controlled by parties that nurture a politics of fear, and Shaked plays a major role in it. The main message of this fear politics is the need to maintain the state’s Jewish identity against the threatening world that is liable to overwhelm it and eliminate it. The Arab, Islamic and African components that surround the Jewish state on all sides could wash it away if it doesn’t fortify itself to prevent such terrible flooding.

Just as the extreme right in Australia or the United States seeks to erect a wall of legislation, backed by a strong navy or actual walls along the borders protecting the homeland (the colonialist one, remember) on all sides from infiltrators from Mexico or Afghanistan, so Shaked and her colleagues are promoting legislation backed by fences, checkpoints and a strong army that blocks Israel’s borders from the threatening hordes of black masses. This combination of ethno-racial superiority, appropriate legislation and the castration of the judicial system so that it cannot protect that which Shaked so despises – universal definitions of universal rights – are creating the new national-Zionism, the successor to historical Zionism.

Prof. Blatman is a historian at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

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