The Knesset’s decision to investigate organizations that criticize the government’s policy on the Palestinian issue is yet another demonstration of the fear that grips Israeli elites. Their true concern is about Israel’s internal strength, rather than its standing abroad.
The Knesset’s decision to investigate organizations that criticize the government’s policy on the Palestinian issue may or may not prove to be a watershed for Israeli democracy. Either way, it is yet another demonstration of the fear that grips Israeli elites.
This fear is supposedly directed at Israel’s deligitimization abroad. The most frequently cited concern is the prosecution of IDF officers abroad, and the most popular target are Israeli human rights organizations which, their persecutors claim, distribute damaging and misleading information about Israel to foreign countries.
But that is not the only target for attack. Organizations which assist refugees have been denounced as a threat to Zionism. Groups advocating for a fair distribution of profits are labeled as servants of Iran and Hezbollah. Even protectors of the environment are sometimes compared to terrorist organization. Need I even mention what happens to those who struggle for the rights of Israel’s Palestinian minority?
The sum of all this belligerence is a picture of an Israeli establishment that is comically insecure, even hysterical. Israel just joined the OECD. It has never been sanctioned in any way. On the contrary – despite being a relatively wealthy nation, it is one of the world’s largest recipients of foreign aid. It is the only country outside the European Economic Area which participates in the European research and development program.
Its already vast military superiority in the region is further buttressed by a guarantee of permanent technological superiority by the world’s most advanced producer of armaments. Even terrorism against Israel, which was never a strategic threat, has waned in recent years, on all fronts – in the south, center and north of the country, as well as against Israeli targets abroad.
So why are Israeli elites so afraid? Although they will never admit it, perhaps not even to themselves, their true concern is about Israel’s internal strength, rather than its standing abroad. As I’ve written in the past, Israeli society has been demobilizing for decades now. Its formerly Spartan ethos has been almost completely reversed, creating soaring socio-economic gaps. Cohesion now has to be maintained by constantly fomenting nationalist paranoia. Although it is effective in the short term, fear mongering is a shaky long-term prop.
It certainly has real consequences. Like all countries, Israel has never been a perfect democracy. Within a certain scope of positions, orientations and identifications, it has generally allowed a wide array of liberties as well as fierce competition for political power. At the margins of this space of acceptable discourse, freedoms were much more restricted. Outside it – they were virtually non-existent. The center which defines legitimacy has shifted repeatedly over the years, and concurrently, various groups have dropped in and out of democracy’s remit. In recent years, we are witnessing a substantial contraction of this center, and as a result, groups that were always marginal are now being driven increasingly closer to losing their freedoms altogether.
We should not lose sight of the bigger picture, though. The erosion of democracy is always based on indifference and apathy. The recent crackdown is a reaction to the opposite trend. Israelis and Palestinians are standing up for democracy. Some pay with their lives. Others sacrifice their freedom. Most Israelis who oppose their government’s policy are giving up something more modest, yet significant: the assurance of their superiority and the belief in the justice of their privileges. The Israeli establishment is rightly concerned about these groups: they represent one of the biggest threats to the status quo.