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OpinionColumnistsCathy Young

Israel's dangerous nationalist drift

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures as he

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures as he delivers a statement in Ramat Gan, Israel, on Thursday. Credit: AP / Sebastian Scheiner

Many of Israel’s strongest supporters in the United States, including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, were taken aback last week by an unexpected and unwelcome twist in Israeli politics.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, facing a tough election on April 9 in which a centrist coalition might wrest power from his Likud party, has actively encouraged the Zionist Home Party, which is promised two cabinet posts in his government if he wins, to share its ballot with the extremist party Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power). This is an alarming sign of willingness to mainstream virulent ultranationalism in Israeli politics.

Conservative Bloomberg View columnist Eli Lake bluntly refers to Otzma Yehudit as “Judeofascists.” The party, an heir to the late hatemonger Meir Kahane, advocates the ethnic cleansing of Arabs from Israel and Palestinian territories. Lake notes that one of the party’s leaders holds an annual celebration on the grave of Baruch Goldstein, the fanatic who opened fire on Muslim worshippers in a Hebron mosque 25 years ago, killing 29 people and wounding more than 100.

In the online publication The Times of Israel, esteemed Israeli author Yossi Klein Halevi writes that “Kahanism,” the ideology of Otzma Yehudit, is a repudiation of Classical Zionism, which wanted the Jewish state to be an equal in the family of nations. Kahanism proclaims Jewish supremacy and shunning of gentiles. It’s the anti-Semitic caricature of Zionism come to life.

Balancing Israel’s identity as the Jewish homeland with its nature as a democracy that also serves as a home to Arabs and other minorities always has been a task rife with inevitable tensions. Many observers believe that in recent years under Netanyahu’s leadership, there has been a dangerous tilt toward a nationalist vision.

These tensions came to a boil last year in the ferocious debate over a new law, narrowly passed by the Knesset, affirming that “national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.” The legislation downgrades Arabic from its status as a second official language and makes no mention of equality or democracy. Critics, including prominent Israeli politicians, said it was an insult to democratic values and to Israel’s non-Jewish citizens.

This time, AIPAC, the bulwark of Israel advocacy in the United States, has joined other American Jewish groups in a harsh rebuke. Netanyahu will still speak at the group’s conference next month. But there is no question that the alliance with Otzma Yehudit will worsen tensions not only within Israel, but also between Israel’s government and Israel’s American Jewish supporters.

I count myself among those supporters — not only because Israel is a Jewish state and home to my close relatives and friends, but because Israel is a democracy with a commitment to human rights above any other country in the region (despite failures to live up to those commitments). Israel is the target of irrational, murderous hate from many of its neighbors and of unfair attacks from American and European liberals who hold it to double standards. But Israel’s nationalist drift is not a justified response to these issues; it is part of the pernicious resurgence of militant nationalism across the community of liberal democracies, emboldened by the presidency of Donald Trump.

With his latest bargain — which he has cynically tried to “whatabout” by pointing to some liberal Israeli politicians’ contacts with Arab politicians who later supported terrorists — Netanyahu has shown how odious this drift can be. Perhaps his defeat in the election can become a small turning point away from the nationalist surge.

 Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.