The Zionist idea—the restoration of Jewish national existence in Palestine—took shape in the late nineteenth century, a time when the concept of nationalism was coming into its own. We now know it is an idea that can harbor dark and destructive forces that yielded World Wars I and II, bringing death and destruction on a scale no one could have imagined.
The two wars led to the emergence of less restrictive concepts of national identity and to multinational institutions, beginning with the League of Nations, which evolved into the United Nations, the European Union, the World Bank, NATO, and other regional institutions that have sought to soften and humanize the sharper edges of nationalist ideology. More recently, however, a backlash to that trend has produced a resurgent reactionary populist and authoritarian nationalism that has brought to power political actors, institutions and ideas that have racist, fascist and anti-Semitic parentage. The United States has not been spared.
In its earliest phases, Zionism was seen as a progressive movement, supported by labor unions and democratic socialist organizations, although it was opposed by the overwhelming majority of European Orthodox Jewry, which saw Zionism’s secular nationalism as heresy. More recently, following several decades of Likud political dominance in Israel, it has become increasingly clear that Israel is forging a national identity that is religiously defined, a definition recently adopted by Israel’s Knesset as a Basic Law.
That legislation left no doubt about its meaning when its sponsors declared the right to national self-determination in Palestine to belong uniquely to the Jewish people—not only the Jews who live there now but also those who may yet come to live there in the future. Palestinian Arabs and other gentiles who live there now, and even lived there for countless generations, have no such right. Yet non-Jews who convert to Judaism gain an immediate right to Israeli citizenship, as well as the right to national self-determination that Palestinians—including those who are Israeli citizens—cannot exercise, no matter how long they and their previous generations may have lived in Palestine.
This Jewish exclusivism can be explained only in religious terms—the Biblical promise that God is believed to have made to Abraham that the land of the Canaanites would forever belong to his descendants. But this religious belief has no more standing in international law than the contents of the holy writings of Islam, Buddhism or Christianity. The privileging of Israeli citizenship for Jews and converts to Judaism—whose conversions are performed by Rabbis who are government officials working out of the prime minister’s office—could not be more violative of the most fundamental democratic principles.
The notion that a State of Israel so conceived can claim to be both Jewish and democratic is an oxymoron. To be a democracy Israel would have to grant equal rights to all its citizens within Israel’s internationally recognized borders (i.e. the pre–1967 lines), as well as to the Palestinians in the West Bank as long as they continue to be denied their own statehood while kept under Israel’s military control.
Why did the founders of Zionism not anticipate the inevitable conflict between a religiously defined national identity and democracy? When Ben Gurion, who presided over the Jewish State’s birth, was asked why he was willing to grant certain Orthodox Jewish groups a number of privileges, such as exemption from military service and government funding of a separate educational system, he said he did so because he believed it would be a temporary arrangement, since these Orthodox groups would not survive in a modern state. Ironically, the Orthodox not only survived but thrived . Increasingly, no Israeli government will be able to come to power without the participation of Orthodox political parties. It is Israel’s democracy that is not surviving.
It is not just this new definition of Israel’s national identity and its subjugation of Palestinians in the West Bank, but its outreach to authoritarian leaders and its demonization of democratic countries that led David Rothkopf, a long-time leading American foreign-policy thinker, to include Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu in his description of Putin, Erdogan and Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman as “ despots, tyrants and wannabes .” Those offended by such a depiction of Netanyahu and the State of Israel need to be reminded it is none other than Netanyahu himself who publicly and repeatedly boasts of his friendship with xenophobic nationalists, some of whom have former as well as current associations with authoritarian, anti-Semitic and neo-Nazi movements. They include the leaders of Hungary, Poland, the Philippines, Austria, Saudi Arabia and Italy. And Netanyahu took great pride in having personally participated in the inauguration of Brazil’s new President, Jair Bolsonaro, who greatly admires the former rule of the Generals in Brazil.
The choice of these friends is not to say Netanyahu believes Jews need no longer to worry about enemies. Far from it. But their enemies, as Netanyahu sees them, are now mostly those who demand that the State of Israel must abide by its obligation under international law to end its occupation of the West Bank and to dismantle its illegal settlements. And more often than not, the enemies seen by him are Jewish “leftists” and human-rights activists, in Israel and in the United States, terms that not only for Netanyahu but for most Israelis have come to mean “self-hating Jews” and “collaborators with Israel’s enemies.”
It is now well-known that following the violence by neo-Nazis in Charlottesville in 2017—when Trump declared he could find little difference between them and the people who turned out to oppose them—Netanyahu could not get himself to utter a word of reproach to Trump. But neither did Netanyahu utter a word of reproach when his own son, Yair, whom he is grooming for political leadership in Israel, resorted to explicit anti-Semitic and Nazi memes when he attacked Israeli human rights activists. And Netanyahu went so far as to secretly send two Israeli experts to Hungary’s Viktor Orbán to help him organize a three-year anti-Semitic campaign targeting George Soros.
And let’s be clear about what Netanyahu has been up to with his pandering to Hungary, Poland and the rest of the Visegrad Group of Central European countries that comprise the nationalist right wing of the European Union. These are countries Donald Trump has reached out to as part of his effort to weaken and undermine the European Union, a wrecking Netanyahu has been more than happy to join in, not only in order to solidify his own relations with Trump but to do as much damage as possible to the EU so as to weaken its efforts to restrain Israel’s dismantling of the Oslo Accords. Netanyahu is ready to absolve Central European countries, especially Hungary and Poland, of the guilt of some of their own people’s collaboration with the Nazis’ murder of European Jewry in return for these countries’ assistance in undermining the EU’s efforts to salvage a two-state solution in Palestine.
History will not deal kindly with this devil’s bargain Netanyahu has entered into, not only because of what Israel will unfortunately have to pay sooner or later for the destruction of a two-state peace agreement but also because memory of the Holocaust is sacred, and should not be grist for Trump-style dealmaking. It is true that nations need to take national interests into account—situations that may call for silence, but not shameful exculpations for unspeakable evil.
Netanyahu imagines that his friendship with these authoritarian populist “strong leaders” proves his claim that he is no longer seen as the head of a small country but as a global leader. However, his deference—one that often comes across like obsequiousness to Trump and Trump’s fellow authoritarian racists and anti-Semites—mirrors most of all the Diaspora shtadlan, the Jew favored by the poritz (the local princeling or land owner in the Pale of Settlement to which Diaspora Jews were restricted in much of Eastern Europe and elsewhere) who importunes the shtadlan to withdraw his evil decree against his Jewish subjects.
The irony is that the shtadlan is now asking the poritz to confirm the legitimacy of a Pale of Settlement the Jews have confiscated in the part of Palestine they occupy illegally, and the poritz is more than happy to oblige. What better cover for anti-Semites who would rather see Jews in Palestine than in their own countries? In Netanyahu’s embrace, they come across smelling like philo-Semites.
Following the recent horrific murder of eleven Jewish worshipers in a Pittsburgh synagogue by an anti-Semite who was incited by Trump’s xenophobic fulminations against illegal immigrants, Netanyahu dispatched Naftali Bennet, his far-right Minister of Diaspora Relations (of all things) to console American Jews. Bennet’s consolation message consisted of admonitions that American Jews foreswear any criticism of Trump (a man American Jews loathed enough even before this event to vote overwhelmingly against his presidential candidacy) in gratitude for having moved the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and for ending U.S. condemnations by previous American administrations of Israel’s unilateral confiscations of territories intended for a Palestinian state.