Will triumphant messianic far right destabilize Israel?

The Israeli government voted this week to nullify the ability of the Supreme Court to block unconstitutional laws. This has provoked criticism around the world, including many Jews, and it has seriously divided Israeli society. Police joined by far-right gangs are physically attacking those they see as opponents. basic democratic rights are at stake. There has been a wave of strikes and protests. Some 10,000 military reservists have refused to report for service. H Scott Prosterman writes about all of this (Informed Comment 27 July 2023) and draws parallels with what has been going on in the United States. He doesn’t criticise the ideology of Zionism, but he does take issue with the rise of the toxic bigoted version.

The Knesset passed a law preventing the Supreme Court from striking down laws they find “unreasonable” in light of the country’s basic laws and from nixing governmental appointments on grounds of corruption.

Israel judicial changes: Doctors and medical workers on strike

Video from Al Jazeera English

This is the culmination of a campaign by Israeli PM Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, and Ministers Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezelal Smotrich to consolidate their far-right wing coalition power in perpetuity, and to pass anti-democratic legislation to ensure that aim.

This step would aid Netanyahu’s fight against graft and corruption charges and upend democratic norms in Israel. It would also open the door legislative annexation of Palestinian territories in violation of international law.

If a majority in the US Congress took similar steps in these polarized times a civil war could erupt here that would make January 6 look like a picnic.

The battle for democracy in Israel thus mirrors the parallel struggle in the U.S. The protest dynamic in Israel, on the other hand, bears some similarities to recent US movements, from “Occupy Wall Street” to “Black Lives Matter,” with big crowds in the streets that sometimes block key thoroughfares.

I have discussed the vertical alliance between Donald Trump and Israeli PM Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu; and pointed to the political, governmental and historical parallels.

Donald Trump and Benyamin Netanyahu have an affinity with each other

The rise of the Zionist far right is connected with major population movements. A mutant brand of zealous religious Zionism has supplanted the political Zionism that was established in Basel in 1896, after the organic Jewish settler movement began in 1882.

The “Revisionist” (fascist-leaning) Zionism of Vladimir “Ze’ev” Jabotinsky, who founded the Jewish Self-Defense Organization in Odessa and then helmed far right wing organizations in British Palestine, ultimately gave rise to the Likud Party, which first came to power under Menachem Begin, a Jabotinsky protégé, in 1977.

The Likud won in part because it attracted the support of many Mizrahi, Middle Eastern Jews, who felt disadvantaged by the Labor Party establishment dominated by European, Ashkenazi Jews.

The right-wing zealotry that Begin promoted was wrought up with the ambition to gobble up the remaining Palestinian territories under a regime of settler colonialism. Even leftist and centrist Israelis often supported the settlement movement in the West Bank, which Israel seized in 1967. Those hundreds of thousands of settlers, many of them ultra-Orthodox or Mizrahim and on the far right politically, are championed by several of Netanyahu’s coalition partners and are in a position to dictate policy to the centrists.

So first, the relatively secular far right Likud supplanted Labor, and then Likud itself increasingly allied with the religious, messianic Zionists, bringing them to power.

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (AJDC-aka “The Joint”) was founded in 1914 to aid Jewish victims of World War I, and Jews settling in Palestine.

This refugee relief organization has been branded as a “radical leftist organization” by Minister of National Security Itamar Ben Gvir, as he moved to defund its programs. He canceled a 3 million shekel ($817,000) allocation to fight crime in seven troubled Israeli Arab towns, because the program is run by the AJDC.

The Hon. Daniel Cormer, former Israeli Ambassador to India to called this, “a scandalous, anti-Zionist and anti-Jewish move,” while opposition lawmaker Meirav Cohen tweeted, “Boycott the Joint? Seriously? Who’s next? The Jewish National Fund?” This right-wing mindset is tragically represented by Ben-Gvir, “whose worldview doesn’t extend beyond the settlement of Kiryat Arba,” as characterized by Haaretz columnist Yossi Melman.

Haaretz columnist Yossi Verter argues that Netanyahu, “. . . made a blood pact with the racist, messianic, ultra-Orthodox and nationalist State of Judea . . . He will now be able to marginalize the Supreme Court, depose the attorney general, and appoint a ‘general prosecutor’ to prosecute his cases.”

Bibi’s “fan base” is the ultra-Orthodox Haredim and far-right settler communities, and he’s granted their entire wish list of agenda items; including ongoing exemption from military service for the Haredim, and the equivalent of Israeli Proud Boys in key ministerial positions.

Israel now faces a constitutional crisis, in which the Supreme Court could strike down the legislation designed to curb its powers. The government may in turn refuse accept the new decision and seek to retaliate.

This active political volcano is a result of four years and five inconclusive elections in Bibi’s pursuit of these goals. It has become the battle for Israel’s parliamentary and perhaps, spiritual soul.

The conflicts pitch existential questions for Jews such as, “What is Zionism, and what has it become?” How did a political movement designed to protect Jews from persecution morph into a monstrous force of persecution of its own?

Thousands gather in protest of divisive Supreme Court

Video from USA Today

Thousands of protesters have been met with violence by the police and government supporters in throughout Israel. Bibi is trying to turn Israel into his own singular dictatorship.

After the beatings by police and organized right wing thugs at the demos, Bibi called it a “necessary democratic step aimed at restoring the balance between the branches.”

Bibi’s buzz phrases such as “balance” and “safeguarding rather than endangering democracy” turn the obvious meanings of “balance” and “democracy,” pointing to just how Orwellian his far right and corrupt agenda has become.

Israel could well be heading toward its own January 6. The parallels are real. Both the Republican Party and Likud have empowered and invested in their countries’ most extreme far right-wing ideologues, and seized upon opportunities and vulnerabilities to dismantle democratic guard rails that disrupt their agenda.

While the U.S. has empowered Congressional Reps such as Marjorie Taylor Green, Tommy Turberville, and Lauren Boebert; Israel has elevated Bibi’s extremist henchmen Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich to czar-like positions on the Cabinet, where they can pursue their worst draconian fantasies against both Palestinians and Israeli leftists and centrists, whom they dismiss as traitors and terrorists. 

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