Jewish and Democratic? The Boomerang Effect

Doors in Jaffa, Israel. Image courtesy of Omer Bartov.
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 our “Focus Israel” 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.

Hannah Arendt famously suggested that the rise of totalitarianism in Europe was the boomerang effect of the violence, oppression, and denial of rights by European imperialism and colonialism. What you impose on others will eventually come back to bite you.

This was for long the argument of the Israeli Left. As a teenager in high school, I remember us proclaiming that occupation corrupts. This was in the early 1970s, a few years after the euphoria of the Six Day War, the rapid victory by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) over several Arab armies, later seen as the root of the evil of unending occupation. It was also just before the Yom Kippur War of 1973, that entirely avoidable debacle in which thousands of Israeli soldiers of my generation died because of the arrogance of such politicians as Moshe Dayan, who had proclaimed that holding Sharm al-Sheikh (the shark-infested southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula captured in 1967) without peace was better than peace without Sharm al-Sheikh.

The debacle of 1973 forced Israel to eventually hand over the Sinai Peninsula. But this was a Faustian bargain. In return for giving Egypt back its territory and signing a peace treaty, Israel secured its hold over the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. With its mightiest enemy out of the game, it could do as it pleased in what Menahem Begin, the first right-wing prime minister of the country who came to power in 1977, named Judea and Samaria. This designation of the occupied territories west of the Jordan River has since been normalized in Israeli political rhetoric and most people’s psyches, making the very notion of referring to these lands as occupied appear vaguely threatening and potentially anti-Zionist, if not, indeed, antisemitic.

When Prime Minister Golda Meir visited my high school in 1972, some of the more left-leaning students called out to her, “What about the Palestinian people?” Meir responded calmly: “There is no Palestinian people,” adding, “I am Palestinian, and have the identity card to prove it.” She had lived in Mandatory Palestine, where ID cards for the Jewish immigrants were labeled “Palestine-Eretz Israel.” Born in Ukraine and raised in the United States, Meir had not a shadow of a doubt about her right to live in Israel, indeed, to be master of the land. Her tenure as prime minister can be linked directly to the 1973 debacle and the deaths of so many members of my generation in a war that could have been avoided through territorial compromise.

Earlier in her career, Meir was occasionally still capable of recognizing the injustice done to others. On May 6, 1948, after visiting newly conquered Arab Haifa in her capacity as Director of the Jewish Agency’s Political Department, Meir exclaimed: “It is a dreadful thing to see the dead city. Next to the port I found children, women, the old, waiting for a way to leave. I entered the houses, there were houses where the coffee and pita bread were left on the table, and I could not avoid [thinking] that this, indeed, had been the picture in many Jewish towns [i.e., in Europe during World War II or previous pogroms].” Born in Kyiv in 1898, one of her first childhood memories, as she wrote in her autobiography, was of her father boarding up the front door in response to rumors of an imminent pogrom.

What we as high-schoolers understood long ago has indeed become a reality. For most of its existence, starting in 1967, Israel has been an occupier, and occupation corrupts. It is not simply the land that is occupied, but its inhabitants. One can call these lands the occupied territories or Judea and Samaria, but the people living there are Palestinians. One can claim ancient historical rights over Nablus or Hebron, but their inhabitants have been living there for the last 56 years as an occupied population with no rights normally associated with democratic rule. For most of its existence, that is, a large portion of the population Israel controls lives under a regime of military oppression. To the outside world, Israel presents this as a temporary occupation. Internally, the very term occupation has vanished from the public discourse. Not only are these lands perceived as belonging by right to the Jews, the Palestinians living in them are perceived as an obstacle to the territories’ full and final inclusion in the state.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Jews have moved to cities, towns, and settlements in the West Bank, where they live under an entirely different legal status. Jews living in Hebron vote for the Knesset (Israeli parliament), even though, by international law, they are not allowed to settle in what Israel still claims to be occupied territory in its dealings with the international community. They are, in that sense, extra-territorial citizens. But Arabs living in Hebron have no impact on Israeli politics and live under the arbitrary rule of the Israeli military, which is increasingly controlled by the settlers. The half million Jews in the West Bank are masters of the land. The well over two million Palestinian inhabitants are subjected to the whims and violence of the IDF and the settlers.

If we take into account that the occupation has lasted now for two generations, and is implemented by young Jewish Israeli men and women, we can appreciate the effect of such circumstances on Israeli citizens. The normalization of oppression, humiliation, and violence against others, the lack of civil rights and the rule of law, in a territory adjacent to majority Jewish lands and often within less than an hour’s drive from the occupying soldiers’ homes, cannot but create the boomerang effect outlined by Arendt. The erosion of democratic norms is inevitable. It is only surprising that it has taken so long to take effect in the Israeli political system itself.

But the boomerang effect is in fact much more long-term and profound. The main conundrum of the Jewish state is not rooted in 1967 and the occupied territories. Indeed, what has occurred since 1967 was not a transformation, as many on the Israeli left and liberal Jews elsewhere have suggested, but rather a continuation. Golda Meir’s response to what she saw in “abandoned” Arab Haifa did not have the expected political ramification. On the contrary, just a few days after she made those remarks, Meir said at a Labor Party (Mapai) Central Committee meeting: “I am not among those extremists—and there are such, and I applaud them, who want to do everything that can be done in order to bring back the Arabs. I say I am not willing to make extraordinary arrangements to bring back Arabs.”

As for the 150,000 Palestinians who remained after the expulsion of the vast majority of the Arabs from what became the state of Israel, an estimated 750,000 men, women, and children, Meir stated unambiguously that ill treatment of the remaining Arab population might prompt them to leave and discourage those who had left from returning, “and we would [then] be rid of the lot of them.” She called for a comprehensive discussion of the “Arab Question” in the Central Committee. But no such discussion ever took place. Instead, on June 16, 1948, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion told the cabinet that he opposed allowing the Arabs to return to Jaffa or to any other site, stating in no uncertain terms that “we must prevent at all costs their return.” Hence, in 1948–49 about 400 Arab villages and towns were depopulated and were soon thereafter fully or partially destroyed and made uninhabitable so as to prevent any return.

This was not merely a result of the 1948 War, but rather the accomplishment of what Zionism had hoped for since it originated in Europe in the late 19th century, namely, the establishment of an independent Jewish-majority state. Despite the support of the British government in Mandatory Palestine, which facilitated the immigration of hundreds of thousands of Jews to the land in the interwar period, on the eve of the 1948 War the Jews were still only a third of the total population of the land. The realization that since millions of Jews had been murdered by the Nazis, those necessary “human reserves,” as Ben Gurion referred to them, would no longer be available to create a Jewish majority state, made the issue all the more urgent. If sufficient numbers of Jews (especially the Ashkenazim preferred by the Zionist leadership) could not be brought to the land, the demographic balance would have to be transformed by other means. The war created that opportunity, and despite some moral qualms, as briefly expressed by Meir, the final decision was both unanimous and irrevocable. So much so, that across the political spectrum, with very few and marginal exceptions, the destruction of Palestinian civilization in Palestine was first perceived as inevitable and irreversible, and then silenced and forgotten. But not, of course, by the Palestinians.

Because the main goal of Zionism was to create a Jewish majority state, the assertion or even the meaning of its democratic nature was always secondary and qualified. Between 1948 and 1966, the remaining Palestinian population in Israel, even as it was given Israeli citizenship, lived under military rule, and a vast array of its civil rights were curbed. This rule of oppression and intimidation was not merely vindictive or prejudiced. It had a well-defined goal, namely, the appropriation of the vast majority of the lands and properties belonging to the remaining Palestinians by the state, and the subsequent handing over of these appropriated lands and properties to Jewish settlers. The process was largely completed by 1966. The following year, Israel took over the West Bank and began a similar process of land appropriation, which continues to this day.

The Israeli Declaration of Independence, which some have seen as a draft for a constitution that was never written or enacted, describes the future state as “based on the principles of liberty, justice, and peace,” and promises to “maintain complete social and political equality for all its citizens without any religious, racial, or gender distinction,” including “freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.” But the promise was never kept, not least because, as the same Declaration stated, this was to be first and foremost “a Jewish state in Eretz Israel, which is the state of Israel,” that would “be open to Jewish immigration and the gathering of the diasporas.” Ironically, even as the state was being formed and hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were being expelled, the Declaration promised those who might be able to remain in the country, a minority within a Jewish nation-state, equal individual (but definitely not national) rights. And just as soon as the war was over, even those rights, not least over property, assembly, free speech, political expression, and self-determination, were taken away, just as they were given fully to the Jews in the new state and to any Jews around the world who wished to join them. Indeed, depriving the Arabs of those rights was perceived as a sine qua non to facilitating the ongoing strengthening of the Jewish state.

How is all this related to the present state of things in Israel? Many have greeted the creation of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s current government, a mélange of extreme right wing, nationalist, racist, messianic, and ultra-Orthodox elements, the most radically reactionary cabinet in the country’s history, as a shocking turn of events. And to some extent it is. In fact, it represents a marriage of convenience between two groups. The first, headed by Netanyahu, is focused on the preservation of his power. If occupation corrupts, power has the same effect. To be sure, Netanyahu is not a pragmatist but rather an avid nationalist. In the past, he has also been generally cautious, surrounding himself with more moderate politicians as protection from the fanatics to his right. But now he is literally fighting for his life: either he remains in power, or he might end up in jail for years of corruption.

Such systemic corruption is not limited to one man. Around Netanyahu an entire universe of corruption has flourished, a kleptocracy that must stay in power both to keep enriching itself and to avoid paying the price for its crimes. In this sense, Netanyahu has created a mirror image of Vladimir Putin’s regime in Russia. And just like Putin, in order to survive despite the growing realization of his corruption, Netanyahu must corrupt the state as a whole, and especially its judicial system, the only remaining barrier in the country for maintaining the rule of law, at least for its Jewish citizens.

From this perspective, the so-called legal reform advocated by Netanyahu’s minister of justice Yariv Levin is at its core a bold attempt to preserve Netanyahu’s kleptocracy. In the struggle between the notions of a Jewish state and a democratic one, a third path is rapidly emerging, as it has in such states as Hungary, Turkey, and Russia— an authoritarian, illiberal system where the media, education, the judiciary, and the parliament, are under the control of one man and his cronies. Israel has never had a complete separation of powers, since as a parliamentary system, the executive always enjoys a majority in the Knesset. But the supreme court served to protect the system from the most outlandish abuses, and it is this last barrier that Netanyahu is mightily striving to remove.

The second group, however, is quite different. The shady religious, messianic, and racist cabinet members surrounding Netanyahu, especially such men as Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, are by themselves not at all new, but represent the most loathsome underbelly of Israeli society. Yet up to now they were kept on the margins and never managed to become part of the mainstream. Nonetheless, in recent years, as the Israeli media has tilted, following the Italian model, both to the right and to trashy programming seeking ratings rather than quality, these two men have accomplished a growing public presence precisely because their extreme views, repeatedly expressed on television, mirrored (and molded) those of growing numbers of the public who hitherto felt they had no representation or could not openly express their views.

Now that they are in the government, these men (and this coalition is made up almost exclusively of yarmulke-wearing men) are out to change the country in a different way from that envisioned by Netanyahu and Levin. For them, the balance between the Jewish and democratic nature of the state is not even an issue. Not only do they find democracy to be an obstacle to strengthening the Jewish aspect of society and politics, their own distorted version of Judaism is deeply rooted in racism, xenophobia, homophobia, Jewish and male supremacy, and rejection of all notions of free expression, religious equality, and tolerance. They are publicly and explicitly opposed to everything that the unfulfilled Declaration of Independence appeared to stand for, at least for Jews. In this sense, they are revolutionaries of the right and have many of the attributes of fascism.

This being said, the current combination of authoritarian kleptocracy with religious fanaticism is not some kind of Deus ex machina. The origins of such types as Ben-Gvir and Smotrich go back to the extremist Rabbi Kahane’s movement of the 1980s, which originated in the United States and was eventually outlawed in Israel, and to the Gush Emunim (Block of the Faithful) movement of the 1970s, the first wave of religious settlers (at the time heralded by not a few members of the old left for their pioneering spirit), an outgrowth of the prominent Yeshivat Harav under the leadership of the Rabbi Zvi Yehuda, son of the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi in Palestine, and a staunch believer in the redemptive power of settling the land. As for authoritarianism, we must recall that Israel was never a liberal democracy, not under Ben Gurion and not under his followers. Liberalism as such was never part of the ideological make-up of hegemonic left-wing Zionism, and civil rights were often seen as an impediment to collective responsibility, the national spirit, and the realization of the Zionist dream.

Finally, to return to the beginning, insistence on its historical right and moral purity notwithstanding, Zionism was always essentially about land and people, in other words, about blood and soil. As an ethnonational movement originating in Eastern Europe and Russia it molded a new Jewish nation and insisted on bringing it back to its promised land. As a historical movement, it was an extraordinary accomplishment. But coming to Eretz Israel inevitably brought it into conflict with the indigenous population of the land. In principle, for Zionism there was no possibility of compromise. It soon turned out that the slogan, “a people without a land to a land without a people,” did not reflect reality. But if the land was not empty, the Jews nonetheless had to become a majority in it, one way or another. How would this process affect the politics of that state? That was always a secondary question. In the struggle between the Jewish (however defined) and democratic (however limited) aspects of the state, be it under the labor party, the Likud, or now the new cabal of authoritarian criminals and religious fanatics, democracy would always lose out. And so, eventually, it apparently has.


Omer Bartov is Samuel Pisar Professor of Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Brown University


  1. May I ask in regards to this: “by international law, they are not allowed to settle in what Israel still claims to be occupied territory”, exactly what “law” prohibits a Jew from living, as I do, in Shiloh? Does not Article 6 of the League of Nations 1922 decision, that “close settlement by Jews on the land, including State lands and waste lands not required for public purposes…shall be encouraged”, guarantee that right of Jewish settlement? And in writing, “Zionism was always essentially about land and people, in other words, about blood and soil”, is not every national movement about “land and people”?

  2. Aside from the fact that the slogan “a land without a people for a people without a land” was never widespread within the Zionist movement and that it disappeared after WW1, Omer Bartov who was once a liberal Zionist insists on placing the whole blame on Israel as if the Palestinians had not rejected the Clinton parameters in 2001, Olmert’s offer in 2008, and the Kerry-Obama principles in 2014.

    What’s more, he seems to believe that it was illegitimate to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Perhaps, he should remember Amos Oz’s answer to a journalist who asked him why his parents moved to Palestine: “There was no kind of list of choices. It’s not that they should have opted for the French Riviera, and by mistake they opted for Jerusalem.” Indeed, Zionism was about land and people (blood and soil): it saved half a million Jews.

    Perhaps, Bartov believes that Jews should have accepted to remain a minority in Palestine. Historians should not fall for anachronism. In the late 1940s, the world was still divided between countries that persecuted Jews and those that refused to welcome them. It was impossible at the time to predict that antisemitism would recede so much in the second part of the 20th Century. Hence, the creation of a Jewish state was more than necessary.

    Of course, the Palestinian perspective too is morally justified. They paid for a problem that was not theirs. But why can’t Bartov appreciate both perspectives?

    Finally, Omer Bartov fails to mention that in all the areas of Palestine that fell under Arab control, every single Jew was expelled (10% of the Yishuv).

    Last but not least: the Palestinians still refuse to recognize the existence of the Jewish people (unlike the Zionist left has come to terms with the existence of the Palestinian people a long time ago).

    Perhaps, Bartov should remember Isaac Deutscher’s parable who compared this conflict to a man who jumps from a building in fire and injures a passerby. There is no good or bad guy in this kind of situation. The Israeli far-right believes that the passerby had no right to be there, to begin with, whereas Bartov and anti-Zionist friends believe that “justice” means that Jews should have heroically stayed in the blaze.

    Just like Maoism and Trotskyism, anti-Zionism, which is one of the last remnants of communism won’t age well. It is sad to see such a terrific historian falling for this juvenile fashion.

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