By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
Readers of Israel’s newspaper that is widely read among the feudal old elite were treated to another column on December 30 complaining about the persecution and supposed endangered secular elite. Carlo Strenger, who has argued in the past for “cantonization” of Israel, or what was called “separate development” in other places, once again claimed that “we liberals must striver for autonomy.”
Being a “liberal” and “left” in Israel is a self-defined position. What is Israeli liberalism? People abroad tend to hear “liberal” and think “liberal.” After all, why would some lie about being liberal? Perhaps the same reason Benito Mussolini claimed to be a socialist, the same reason Hendrick Verwoerd thought his policies would “improve” the life of Africans.
Too often people allow Israeli cultural elites to define themselves. Strenger writes that “western style liberalism based on individual rights is a minority position in Israel.” He claims “we should therefore demand a liberal-secular education system” where he argues “we’ll stop groups like Im Tirtzu from entering…we’ll forbid policies that support gender inequality.” He says it is important that an autonomous “liberal” Israeli mini-state takes shape where “all groups should stop trying to force their values down other people’s throats. And Israel’s liberals deserve their freedom.”
He compares the supposedly threatened and endangered “liberal” to the plight of other minorities, “in a situation similar to Israeli Arabs and Haredim.”
The secular ethnic nationalism behind Israel’s “liberals”
When I read these lines I think of the American whites who claim that affirmative action is harming white people and that white people are victims of reverse racism. I hear the voices in the UK of the English Defense League who claim that “indigenous” white British people are being suppressed, their “values” taken by invading minorities.
Think about the irony of Israel, founded as a nationalist-Jewish state by the Labor Zionist movement, where secularism and this so-called “liberalism” that is now “endangered” (one commentator claimed secular people were like Wooly Mammoth) ran everything. It ran the labor unions, it ran the health care, and most of all it balkanized society into “Jewish-only” kibbutzim, and “Jewish-only” moshavim, and Jewish only towns and “Arab villages.” It built a segregated education system where schools were either “Jewish-only” or Arab. It placed all the Arabs in Israel under a military curfew for almost twenty years. It denied people basic civil rights. It used torture as a normal way of interrogation. It had massive militaristic parades and nationalist songs. Marching, more marching. Nationalism. Ethnocentrism. Secularism. It was a movement that borrowed much from the inter-war nationalist movements of Europe, whether it was Greek nationalism or Irish nationalism or Franco’s Spain or Eastern European nationalism. The aesthetics of this nationalism were heavily influenced by Eastern European ideas that underpinned the Soviet model as well.
Now fast forward to 2015 and there is a bait and switch that takes place, where the wealthiest ten percent of Israel, the same people who control disproportionate amounts of land, almost all of it guarded by acceptance committees that discriminate based on religion and ethnicity, demand a “canton” for themselves and “autonomy.”
Basically what they demand is an Israel within Israel. In 1948 they created an Israel for themselves. They would get the good agricultural land, they would go to the good army units and the university. Others in Israel would be, as Arthur Ruppin wrote, “human material.” David Ben-Gurion and his friends debated whether to fully segregated Mizrahi Jews from Ashkenazim, and they feared what “primitive” Jews from Morocco would do to the “genetics” of the European Jewish people. This is actually how they talked. They settled on the concept of total separation of Arabs from Jews, and separate development, for the most part, of Jews from Arab and Muslim countries and Jews from Europe. Yaakov Sarid, the education minister said they must prevent non-Europeans from “storming” academic institution, i.e non-Europeans must not be “mixed” with the better superior Europeans (Verwoerd felt the same way). Jews from the East, called “Orientals” would be settled in “development towns” whereas “our” kind of secular “liberals” would be settled in bucolic kibbutzim and moshavim.
Separate and unequal. Now the concept after decades of trying this experiment, after the experiment took a different turn in 1967 and 1977, is to claim that a new Israel must be built within Israel. A new 1948, for secular nationalist “liberal” Israelis. Outside of their canton will be the teeming masses, the “people from the caves“, as one Israel Prize winner called them or “savage tribal people” as another called them. Secular European “liberal” Israel will preserve itself against the “others” who are defined as “illiberal” merely because of where they come from (Amos Elon said merely being a Jew from an Muslim country hurt Israeli democracy). The villa in the jungle will be preserved in an Blue Free State of a different kind.
There’s nothing wrong necessarily with nationalism or an ethnic nation state. But what is strange in Israel is the supposition that these are the most “liberal”concepts and the allegation that “others” are the real bad nationalists. Strenger for instance defines “only three parties” as committed to these “liberal democratic” values. These are Zionist Union, Meretz and Yesh Atid. Heads of two of these parties have been on record as saying they don’t want more “Zuabiz” or more Palestinians in the Knesset. Liberal, you say? Democratic, you say? Oddly, Hadash, a Jewish-Arab community party, that actually does support liberal values, is not included. Because when Israelis say “Liberal”, they often mean “Jewish only.”
In Israel being “liberal” is often not so much about values, but about where one is from, what ethnicity they are and what religion they are. People from Europe are “liberal”, people from the Middle East are not. Secular people are “liberal”, even if their brand of secularism is a form of fascism and extreme racism.
Is “liberal” a value, or the name of an exclusive ethnocentric club?
Liberal is a calling card to enter the club, to be a member, of what is called the “white tribe”, those who are non-white, are not “liberal.” A black person who loves democracy and wants equal rights, but who happens to be half Muslim, is not “liberal”, just because he isn’t part of the right group. Wrong background, wrong youth group, wrong religion. Ask an Israeli member of kibbutz why there are no Ethiopians allowed to be members of kibbutz. “They aren’t like us, they don’t share our values.” Why don’t they share your values? “Because they are Ethiopian.” It has nothing to do with being “liberal, it has to do with being different. The most exclusive, racist, extremist, ethnocentric club in Israel is the “liberal” club. To the point that this club, which once ran a country, wants its own country, within the country, it’s 1,000 little communities with yellow fences that keep people out based on race and religion, are not enough?
One day Israel must confront its “liberals” and demand that “liberal” not be an ethnic preserve dominated and colonized by one group. A civil struggle must take place to wrest liberalism back from the colonizers and demand it become a real liberalism where people are not judged based on their race and religion or country of origin, that there is no exclusive club, but a place for every group. If you want to build an ethnic mini-state, that’s fine, but don’t call it “liberal.” There is nothing liberal and pretty about a “European-only” club. Don’t confuse the English Defense League and National Front with being “liberal” and don’t let Israel’s version of those things pretend their values are “liberal” values.
There is a very clear litmus test for Israeli “liberalism.” Ask the following questions:
- Do you support segregated education? Should the majority of schools be segregated by ethnicity and religion?
- Do you support discriminatory acceptance committees and “Jewish only” communities?
- Can black people be your neighbors? Or are they kept out by your acceptance committee?
- Should students learn about all religions and multi-culturalism and different ways of life, or only “your values”?
- Do you believe that Arabs should be allowed to vote and serve in your parliament, or are they a “threat”, a “demographic threat” who should have their “own area”?
- Can non-Jews be liberal, or “liberal” is only for Jewish people?
- Can non-European Jews be liberal, or is it only for Europeans?
- Do you believe Jews who come from Muslim and Arab countries are “primitive” and do you think they should be allowed to live where they want, or they belong in “development towns”?
- Should torture be used by the state to extract confessions?
- Should each person have an equal vote, or voting should be based on religion and ethnicity?
- Do you believe in diversity and multi-culturalism?