by Max Blumenthal
Catering to a rightward trending Israeli public that is fiercely opposed to a Palestinian state, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is advancing a “Jewish state bill.” In Netanyahu’s words, the bill will provide “national rights only for the Jewish people.” Some versions of the bill would make “Jewish tradition” and the “prophets of Israel” sources of legal and judicial authority.
For their refusal to back the bill, Netanyahu has sacked two “centrist” ministers, Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni, forcing early elections that could bring an entirely right-wing coalition to power. Liberal supporters of Israel are terrified that the next government will cast aside Israel’s claim to represent the only democracy in the Middle East to consolidate its sectarian Jewish identity. Channeling their fears, Livni proclaimed that the Israeli voters would determine “whether there will be a Zionist or extremist country here.”
For one of those extremists, however, Livni’s choice is a false one: “If this is racism,” the ultra-nationalist activist Baruch Marzel has said, “then the Jewish state is racism … the [Jewish National Fund] that sells only land to Jews is racism, and everything is racism.”
Marzel is a leader of Lehava, a group indirectly funded in the past by the Israeli government that campaigns against romantic relationships between Jews and Arabs. When arsonists struck a Jewish-Arab school last week in Jerusalem, burning a pile of bilingual books in the middle of a classroom, Israeli anti-racist activists were quick to blame Lehava, whose leaders have previously cheered mob violence against Palestinians.
As abhorrent as his activities might be, Marzel’s point about Israeli democracy deserves consideration.
Over 60 years before Lehava’s segregationist crusades, there was the socialist Zionist “Conquest of Labor” that organized Jews-only work collectives and boycotted businesses that employed Palestinians. Before the settlements, there was the kibbutz movement whose admissions committees denied residency to anyone but Jews. Before the wave of vigilante “price tag” attacks on Palestinians, there was the Nakba that expelled some 750,000 Palestinians in order to establish Israel’s Jewish majority. And as Marzel mentioned, there is the Jewish National Fund, a para-governmental group founded by Theodore Herzl to provide land exclusively to Jews which recently oversaw a program that would have led to mass expulsion of Bedouin called the Prawer Plan.
If a shift is underway in Israeli politics, it is primarily tonal. Israel’s rightists intend to carry on the Zionist project as originally conceived, but without the pretense of democracy. In a way, their honesty is refreshing.
Correction: An earlier version indicated that the Prawer Plan had been fully implemented and that Lehava had been directly funded by the government.
This article appeared in New York Times.