Why Gender Will Be a Key Battleground in Israel’s Fight Against the Illiberal State

An Editorial Board meeting on Women Artists in Jaffa, Israel. Image courtesy of Gitit-WMIL.

In November 2022, a far-right coalition government came to power in Israel. Led by Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party, this new government began pursuing what some have described as a quasi-authoritarian political agenda, which has sparked concern among Israelis and international observers alike. The articles in this series offer a wide range of insights, commentaries, and criticisms on what many consider to be a growing threat to the preservation of democracy in Israel.

The New Fascism Syllabus‘ “Focus Israel” series is being coordinated and edited by Jennifer Evans, Brian J Griffith, and Sophie Wunderlich.




This article was republished on the New Fascism Syllabus with the permission of the author and the original publisher, Haaretz

 

The news that Israel’s far-right Noam party has compiled blacklists of feminists and LGBTQ activists is a surprise only to those who have not followed developments in countries like Turkey, Hungary or Russia, where illiberal forces have taken over the state. What lessons can the opposition in Israel now draw from this decades-long process of making gender the main political battleground in other illiberal countries?

In the illiberal vocabulary, “gender” as a concept exists only as a political tool. It glues together different political forces that otherwise agree on few issues in order to pursue their common strategic goal: to build up an illiberal state as a viable and desirable alternative to the liberal state. Through gender, illiberal forces define the new normal, and what is – and is not – socially acceptable.

The full anti-gender script in use in Hungary, Russia and Turkey may not necessarily be fully implemented in Israel, i.e. defining progressive NGOs and activists as enemies of the state, rejecting the Istanbul Convention, banning gender studies and critical social science more broadly, restricting gay rights such as adoption and marriage, banning sex education in schools and restricting reproductive rights. Some of these, though are already in play in Israel, and others are forthcoming.

The new coalitional agreement, which includes amending anti-discrimination laws to allow businesses to refuse service on the basis of religious beliefs, is not yet a government program. But, like other elements of the anti-gender script, the real aim of discussing these matters as a viable legislative option is to normalize new political language and values through intensive public debate, and with this exhaust the opposition through endless and fruitless discussions. Progressive forces should be strategic about when and how to intervene in these debates.

This age, which sociologist Eric Fassin calls a period of “neo-liberal neo-fascism,” has seen illiberal knowledge transferred on an international level to disseminate alternative political strategies, while responses from progressive politics are narrowed down to the national level. This Illiberal International brought only one new element into the field of politics: their modus operandi. They not only use hate and fear in their ongoing legal counterrevolution to destroy existing institutions, but they also build up alternative and parallel institutions to the existing ones.

The main parallel organization for illiberal knowledge transfer is the Matthias Corvinus Collegium in Budapest. This institution, which is wealthier than Oxford University, uses money channeled from impoverished Hungarian higher education, and operates with the same ideological closeness and cruelty as the Marx-Engels-Lenin Institute in Moscow during the Soviet Union. Lacking any academic quality control, it provides a space for knowledge transfer, where Israeli intellectuals are willing to say what is expected of them normalizing the language of illiberalism like Gadi Taub. [Its lecturers not only receive a tax-free stipend higher than those offered by Harvard, but they can be sure that their work will be translated, popularized on social media or on state media channels funded, or simply occupied by, illiberal forces.

Israel already has a parallel system of religious and secular in education and in the army. So far, this system has guaranteed pluralism. But the new government raises the question of how some institutions channel taxpayers’ money away from one type of institution to another, weakening them when others are getting stronger. What will now be at stake is whether the state institutional system can be emptied out and a parallel system made hegemonic. A polarized, fragmented society and institutions are the aim and the modus operandi of illiberal governance.

The past decade sadly proved that the role of civil society organizations in fighting the illiberal state is extremely limited. By being constrained to comply with the legal framework set by the illiberal state itself, NGOs have become prisoners. The illiberal state uses the civic responses to it to strengthen itself – protests, demonstrations and criticism on the streets are used to show the international community that it is in fact a democracy. At the same time, the resistance from NGOs is consuming movements and activists from within.

In public spaces, bodies have great power and impact, but in this situation, protesting without a strategy only makes the opposition visible in the closest sense of the word, as the cities are full of cameras. It also mentally exhausts the opposition themselves, as they perform their labor of love day after day with no tangible results. The law, which is also being drafted in Israel following the Russian and Hungarian legislation, will make it financially impossible for NGOs to cooperate with international organizations, and they will be left on their own, their resources dwindling.

The watchdog function of NGOs, through which they exercise professional and democratic supervision over the government, is a legacy of the human rights movements of the 1960s, but now it is confronted with a fundamentally different state and politicians. Not only do they not have the resources and the legal framework to do so, but governments and politics have become increasingly shameless. It used to be humiliating for a leader to have thousands of people protesting against them. Now it is irrelevant, because the use of power is above any previous moral control. In fact, it even strengthens the cohesion of one’s own illiberal group.

In Israel, there are still institutional autonomies in universities and municipalities and in the military, which is no longer the case in Hungary. There is still economic power outside the control of the illiberal state that can support political activists, which is no longer the case in Hungary or Russia. The extremely diverse women’s movement in Israel needs to move beyond definitional debates and focus on the strategic issue of survival. It must focus on resistance from unexpected places even inside institutions officially captured by illiberal forces or outside the preview of the illiberal state.

The only way to do this is to forge alliances with unlikely coalitional partners orthodox women and on pressing issues, such as domestic violence and defending women’s rights to university education – today’s fight is for basic rights that we used to take for granted. The movement must keep a close eye on the approaches and results of the fight against illiberalism elsewhere, and learn from each other’s best practices. We badly need to counterbalance the Illiberal International for the sake of our future.

 

Andrea Pető is a Professor of History and Gender Studies at Central European University, Vienna, a Research Affiliate of the CEU Democracy Institute, Budapest, and a Doctor of Science of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences

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