The Israeli Knesset has voted 64-0 on a bill to limit judicial power. One of the objectives of the Bill is to limit the use of “reasonableness” as a standard to be used in judicial review. “Reasonableness” is a tricky concept: Vague and often circular. But Israeli courts had evolved a sophisticated jurisprudence around this concept. The issue, however, is not a technical debate over judicial power. This is a debate over the identity of Israel. It also has implications for the rest of the world.
Zionism was a response by secular Jews in the 19th century to a rising tide of European anti-Semitism. But the State of Israel came into being in the aftermath of the Holocaust, in conditions implacably hostile to its existence. But this state, built against all odds, had an energy, dynamism and openness. It was also an exemplar, admired, ironically both in India and Pakistan. Institutionally, the state was riddled with tensions: The tension between being a Jewish State and being a liberal democracy, being founded by a secular ideology but having to give immense space to orthodoxy.
Could ethnocracy and democracy be combined? The larger tension was this: Israel embodied some of the very features of nationalism that had led to Jewish flight from Europe in the first place. It denied Palestinians all legitimate rights, and slowly institutionalised the state terror of occupation, whose goal is nothing but subjugation of the Palestinians and annexation of all Palestinian territory. The Palestinians in turn, let down by bad leadership, were first used as political fodder by anti-Israel states, and then abandoned to their own tragic fate.
Israel legitimised itself and was cut a lot of slack because it claimed to be a functioning democracy, on one side of the so-called Green Line, anyway. In turn, there was always the haunting question: How far can you suppress a minority within, be an occupying power, and yet sustain democratic institutions? There are many who see this current crisis as simply a consequence of Benjamin Netanyahu’s will to power. In this view, there is no strong connection between occupation and authoritarianism. After all, to take one example, Menachem Begin, whose ideological credentials were no softer than Netanyahu’s, respected the independence of the judiciary. Israel’s judiciary survived wars and security threats. Israel does not have federalism or a bicameral legislature as a counter ballast to executive power. So the judiciary is important. The judiciary has not been able to prevent the atrocity of Occupation. But there is fear that its advocacy of a regime of rights could stand in the way of the government’s wholescale right-wing agenda. So it is hard not to see the ideological shadows of occupation legitimising Netanyahu’s individual will to power.
This is not the place to discuss how Israel might restore a constitutional balance. The protests in Israel have been powerful. But they are nowhere near providing a resolution to the challenges. For other countries, like India, there is a cautionary tale in the developments in Israel. In many ways, Netanyahu is a modernist figure. His grip on power rests on appearing to be tough on security, and riding a wave of Israel’s economic success. Ironically, this success has deepened, not resolved Israel’s divisions.
The failure of the peace accords weakened the political Left in Israel and depleted any ideological counter-ballast. Israel has a complex social matrix. Netanyahu mobilised support against old elites. He accused the old elite of being soft, culturally out of touch, contemptuous of orthodoxy — all exaggerated charges, but potent enough to sustain him in power. He mobilised the resentment of the orthodoxy against the secular and Jewish immigrants from other Arab countries against the old European-style elites. The wholescale destruction of institutions is legitimised in the name of anti-elitism. But the price of this political strategy is turning over the government to racists and ultra-nationalist elements.
The broad lesson of recent history is becoming clearer. Ultra-nationalism, or the far right, first appears to be a marginal element, one that we think we can contain. But it is not the numbers of the far right that matter: It is its effect. Like poison, it slowly contaminates the body politic, shattering any illusion that its effects will be limited. Economic growth and security do not tame it; in fact, it uses them to grow its power, till it is too late.
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Wherever culture enters politics, its implications will almost always be reactionary. We are in an era where the contradictions, infirmities and failures of liberal nationalism have been exposed. It is accused of both not being liberal or nationalist enough. The Israeli Right has called the bluff on a tension-ridden, imperfect, but pragmatic and secular Zionism, which could neither resolve the Palestinian Question nor give enough succour to orthodox Zionism. But what comes after is horrifying — a combination of authoritarianism and a more total ethnic supremacism. But the moral is clear. Nationalism will always demand more of liberalism than liberalism can extract from nationalism.
The Jewish Diaspora in the United States has been vocal in its criticism of Netanyahu’s authoritarianism. However, its force has been undercut by a reluctance to see the fact that there is a connection between occupation and authoritarianism; the ideology legitimising the former gives political ballast to the latter. And in any case, we are in an era where states would rather target their liberal friends than their fundamentalist foes. Criticism of Israel, even when Israeli citizens are criticising it, remains a taboo in American politics across party lines. America cannot be more vocal on democracy anywhere now, not just because of its internal disarray but also because it will have to reckon with the reality of Israel. Israel is now more diplomatically and politically secure. One of the odd achievements of the Trump administration was to enable the normalisation of relations between Israel and many other states, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE. This may not entirely be a bad thing from the perspective of geopolitics. But it also has the consequence of strengthening the free hand given to authoritarianism and ethnic suppression.
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It is perhaps emblematic of our times, that the admittedly contested word “reasonable” should now be the term on which democracy flounders. The contempt for that term, whether in judicial or political settings, is the licence to ideologies of unbounded power and fanaticism. In Israel’s floundering is a glimpse of the world’s future: More authoritarian, more divided, and in the grip of exclusionary and oppressive nationalisms.
The writer is Contributing Editor, The Indian Express
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