Opinion

Israel Is Becoming an Illiberal Thugocracy, and I'm Running Out of Ways to Defend It

It's not just the BDS blacklist. In Israel, the basic rights and values underlying democracy itself are being repealed

An Australian graffiti artist works on his mural depicting U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the Israeli barrier in the West Bank city of Bethlehem. October 28, 2017
AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS

Block me.

Don’t let me enter Israel. 

I am a Jew. Three dozen of my relatives died in the Holocaust. My father, before he fled the Nazis, was an active member of Zionist youth organizations. By my understanding of what used to be Israel’s "right of return", I was under the impression that I had a standing invitation to visit or even move to Israel whenever I chose.

But apparently, the ideas and ideals underlying both that right of return and the State of Israel itself are undergoing a reconsideration.  

The vote by the Knesset last March to ban the entry of those involved in boycotts of Israel and the action this week by the Strategic Affairs Ministry to blacklist the leaders of 20 foreign organizations that are seen to support such boycotts suggest that in fact, the basic rights and values underlying democracy itself are being repealed in the country.

I know those rights did not exist for millions of Palestinians. I have throughout my adult life been deeply troubled by that fact. The Palestinians fully deserve a state of their own and candidly, having such a state is not only their right and what is right, it is what is in the best interest of the security of Israel. 

But I have rationalized maintaining my support for the State of Israel based on a few assessments. 

First, the creation of Israel was in my mind, just and necessitated by history. Next, my sense was that the issue of the rights of the Palestinians would be fairly resolved over time via negotiation - that history takes some time to adjust. Finally, I had that sense that fairness would prevail because Israel was founded upon democratic principles. These meant it recognized that the right of a state to exist depends on the consent of the governed and that the rights of those within its borders to express themselves freely would enrich, inform and ensure the nation’s political and moral health.

By banning those whose opinions are uncomfortable for Israel - even if those views are essential for Israel to hear and consider - not only weakens the country but it suggests that the reasons for my defenses of Israel are collapsing. 

Rally in support of Palestinian 16-year-old Ahed Tamimi, detained by Israel, at Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan, New York. January 5, 2018
AMR ALFIKY/REUTERS
Prime Minister Netanyahu at the weekly Knesset cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on December 17, 2017.
POOL/REUTERS

The fact that Israel's government is simultaneously systematically blocking the progress of peace, by measures ranging from the expansion of settlements to recent legislation making it harder for Israel to ever concede parts of Jerusalem in negotiations, only compounds this sense.

The rhetoric of Israel’s hard right and their grotesque revelry in the serial abuse of Palestinians, ranging from a 16-year-old girl to a paraplegic gunned down by Israeli soldiers, suggests that even worse may be in store.

Prime Minister’s Netanyahu’s government has done little to allay such concerns. To the contrary, Netanyahu has grown more strident and belligerent in passing months. His calls for the end of the UN agency helping Palestinian refugees seems cruel, inflammatory and foolhardy, as was his reported effort to consider how to forcibly deport African asylum seekers.  His political heirs within the Likud Party like Gideon Saar are at the same time trying to drive a stake through the heart of the two-state solution  to the Israel-Palestinian issue.

Indeed, one cannot help but wonder if Netanyahu is not only blowing with the winds of political change in his own increasingly right-leaning country, but whether he is taking a cue from America’s president Donald Trump, a leader who, like Netanyahu, is under legal scrutiny and who, as a defense, is behaving more and more irrationally and autocratically.

Netanyahu has embraced Trump’s "fake news" meme in attacks on free expression in Israel. He has goaded Trump on in his highly unconstructive announcement of moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and Trump’s decision to cut funding to the Palestinians. The two are winding each other up with displays of their "very stable genius." Proposing naming a Jerusalem train station by the holiest site in Judaism after a serial sex-abusing, pro-white supremacist, vulgarian perfectly captures this moment, one that is beyond both parodying and belief.

In short, the Netanyahu administration has done more than ban critics with this latest move and all those that preceded it. It is has turned supporters into adversaries. It has taken one large step in the direction of the illiberal thugocracies favored by the likes of Trump. It has made clearer still the case that Palestinians have been making for decades about the sham of Israeli democracy. And it has done something else.

It has broken the heart of those who wish deep within their DNA that Israel would have lived up to be even a shadow of the dreams our fathers and mothers had for it.

David Rothkopf is a senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His most recent book is Great Questions of Tomorrow (Simon & Schuster/ TED, 2017). Twitter: @djrothkopf