Israel protests are at the heart of Zionism’s internal conflict

Israel protests are at the heart of Zionism’s internal conflict

Nearly half of the Israeli population is protesting the judicial reforms championed under the leadership of Netanyahu (AFP)
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The late Israeli commentator Uri Avnery once wrote: “I am increasingly worried that the Israeli-Palestinian struggle … is assuming a more and more religious character.” At first glance, this statement may seem baffling. If Israel is supposedly a “Jewish state” that serves as a “homeland” for all Jewish people, everywhere, does it not follow that the “struggle,” at least from an Israeli viewpoint, is essentially a religious one?

If only it was that simple.

Israel’s dichotomy is that it was founded by an ideology, Zionism, which purposely conflated religion and nationality.

“The Zionist movement was non-religious from the start, if not anti-religious,” Avnery wrote. He went on to cite a famous quote by the founder of Zionism, Theodor Herzl, that “we shall know how to keep (our clergymen) in their temples.”

Clearly, Herzl’s descendants could not keep the clergymen in their temples. The once-marginal impact of Israel’s religious Zionists has long exceeded the margins allocated to them by their liberal brethren. It is the likes of Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, Israel’s far-right ministers of national security and finance, respectively, who are the new kings of the hill. The days of Chaim Weizmann, David Ben-Gurion, Levi Eshkol and even Shimon Perez are long gone, most likely irreversibly so.

The irony and the source of confusion is that all past and current leaderships of Israel — liberal, conservative or religious — have been proud Zionists who see Judaism as a centerpiece in the Israeli identity. But how can one then understand the current layers of religious, class, ethnic and, ultimately, ideological conflicts at work in Israel?

The media’s presentation of Israel’s mass protests as a fight for democracy is misleading, at best

Ramzy Baroud

The simple explanation of Israel’s ongoing protests is that nearly half of the Israeli population objects to judicial reforms championed by an extremist right-wing government under the leadership of Benjamin Netanyahu. Protesters say that the mass mobilization aims to save Israeli democracy from the likes of Ben-Gvir and others.

However, there was no such mobilization when Israel passed its Nation-State Law in 2018. This legislation defined Israel as the “national home of the Jewish people, in which it fulfills its natural, cultural, religious and historical right to self-determination.”

The truth is that most Israeli Jews have no qualms about a law that exists to discriminate against the Palestinian citizens of the country. This should hardly be a surprise, as Israel is a settler-colonial state whose very existence was made possible by the expulsion of most of the native Palestinian population. The Nation-State Law, however, not only canceled the rights of the Palestinians, it also ensured some kind of balance between the competing Jewish Israeli groups.

Writing in Haaretz in 2017, Shlomo Sand asserted that Zionism was a national movement that “rebelled against historical Judaism” and that it “was mainly atheistic.” In this context, atheism did not simply translate to the denial of God’s existence, but also to the rejection of all religious myths, notions and beliefs affiliated with traditional Judaism. It is no wonder that religious Jewish organizations and communities in Europe initially rejected Zionism and perceived early Zionist leaders as heretics.

Yet terms such as “Jews” and the “Jewish people” remained essential to atheistic Zionists because such references were not only strategic and functional, but actually critical to the very survival of the ideology.

“For the atheistic Zionists, God was dead and, therefore, the Holy Land became the homeland,” Sand argued, describing how Zionists converted Judaism from a religion to a national movement.

This is why the Nation-State Law was phrased in such a way. When the terms “natural,” “cultural,” “religious” and “historical” are combined, they produce a relatively modern definition of nationhood — though an exclusivist and racist one.

The same way that liberal Zionists redefined religion according to nationalistic lines, religious Zionists are now redefining nationality according to religious beliefs. Armed with a legally binding definition of Israel as an exclusively Jewish state, many Israelis would like to see the religious component of the state become the dominant one, thus challenging the liberal Zionists’ peculiar definition of “democracy.”

For that to happen, the country’s political, educational, judicial and military systems would have to be entirely revamped to adhere to a religious messianic code and priorities.

It seems that the balancing act of liberal Zionists, of being both Jewish and democratic, has failed

Ramzy Baroud

Now that the most right-wing government in Israel’s history has a comfortable majority, the next step is to remove the main obstacle from its path: the judicial system and, in particular, the Supreme Court — the only entity capable of blocking or reversing the government’s decisions.

The media’s presentation of Israel’s mass protests as a fight for democracy is misleading, at best, as it fails to address the historical, ideological and, ultimately, class-based divides in Israeli society.

When the state of Israel was established on the ruins of historic Palestine in May 1948, it was liberal and atheistic Zionists who declared its independence, invented its founding myths and labored to give it international legitimacy. References to Jews, Judaism and the Jewish people were enough to give it a religious facade and appeal, but not enough to hand the keys over to religious Zionists. The latter group proved critical to liberal Zionists, as they became the backbone of Israel’s colonial enterprises in the Occupied Territories following the 1967 war.

Not until the late 1970s did right-wing, revisionist Zionism become more relevant, and not until recently did religious Zionists become the power brokers, dominating the Israeli government and some of the most critical political institutions.

It seems that the balancing act of liberal Zionists, of being both Jewish and democratic, has failed. This strange equation has served Israel well with its Western allies, which not only believed this perplexing reasoning but defended it as well.

Thus, without “Jewish” and “democratic” together in the same sentence, the idea of Israel will become even more indefensible in the future.

Ideological shifts do not appear and disappear overnight. Regardless of the outcome of Israel’s protests, the ideological shifts in Israel are seismic and long-lasting.

For now, liberal Zionists and their Western allies must accept the historical truth that Herzl’s clergymen have escaped the temples and are now running the country.

  • Ramzy Baroud has been writing about the Middle East for over 20 years. He is an internationally syndicated columnist, a media consultant, an author of several books, and the founder of Twitter: @RamzyBaroud
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