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Why Are (Mostly Liberal) American Jews Silent as Right-Wing Extremists in Israel Threaten the Country's Democracy?

Political scientist Peter Beinart says that how Jews handle power will be the test of the Jewish tradition.

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I try to argue in the book that the narrative that’s very popular in the American Jewish establishment -- that Israel gave the Palestinians the moon and they responded with terrorism -- while there’s a grain of truth to it, it also misses some very important realities. The truth of the matter is that societies under that kind of threat or trauma, whether it’s America after 9/11 or Israel after multiple terror attacks, do tend to move to the right. Israel has not really recovered from that move since then.

JH: I certainly agree that external threats and security threats always play to the advantage of authoritarians and nationalists. There’s a piece of this I don’t think is discussed often enough in the United States. We haven’t seen an abundance of coverage of Israel’s social justice protests over the past year. But there’s been an outpouring of protests against growing income inequality, rising rents, student tuition issues, etc.

Israel, for much of its history, was a progressive state as far as its domestic and economic policies. It was basically a European-style social democracy. So you have the Second Intifada and the country moves to the right. I wonder how has that impacted Israel’s political economy? How has it impacted Israel’s social safety net?

PB: It’s an interesting question. You’re very right: Israel, much more than the United States, has a social democratic ethos. “Socialism” is not a dirty word in Israel in the way it is in the United States. There’s a strong public memory of collectivism, of things like the kibbutz.

But Israel has been affected by a lot of the same phenomena that have affected a lot of countries, which is essentially neo-liberal economic policies that have been fostered particularly by this Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu. He’s unusual, even among the Israeli right, in terms of his Thatcher-Reaganite kind of views of economic policy.

I think the social protest movement has essentially avoided the Palestinian issue because sadly the left in Israel seems marginal on the issue. They’re trying to garner a much broader swath. I think there are many progressives in Israel who hope that people will eventually make the connection – frankly, one of the reasons for the economic distress for many middle-class Israelis is that so much money has been pushed across the green line. The vast network of subsidies and the settlement project really has been the most ambitious social project that Israel has instituted since 1967. In a whole series of ways it’s cheaper for Jews to live in the West Bank than inside Israel. I hope that people will increasingly make that connection.

JH: A number of critics of the Israeli government have suggested that the ethos of the occupied territories has in a sense been creeping back across the Green Line. We’ve seen some legislation passed in the Knesset looking at new scrutinies for nongovernmental organizations who champion human rights. There was an effort, I believe a successful effort, to sanction organizations that celebrated what Palestinians call the Nakba – Israel's Independence Day. What’s your take on that? Do you see this sense of criminal justice blowing back?

PB: I think there’s a troubling dynamic taking place that I try to chronicle in my book which plays out a couple of ways. The first is that 20 percent of the Israeli population inside the Green Line are Palestinians. Traditionally they’re called Arab-Israelis but increasingly they’re calling themselves Palestinian citizens of the State of Israel. They are discriminated against quite significantly, but they do have citizenship and the right to vote, to be elected to the Knesset, and serve in the court.

 
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