The following essay was published in our Fall 2022 issue, in the weeks leading up to the most recent election in Israel.
The ousting of Benjamin Netanyahu last year, and the rise of a short-lived governing coalition that included, for the first time in Israel’s history, an Arab party, presented the vanishing liberal left in this country with a much needed—if fleeting—moment of elation.
Fleeting, because despite the urgent need to end Netanyahu’s toxic reign, his removal—which may well prove only temporary—did not nudge Israel one inch from the disastrous rightward course it has been on for the past two decades. It’s not just that the two-state option appears more unachievable than ever. In political and juridical terms, Israel within the Green Line is today more illiberal than it has been since 1966, when it ended military rule over its Palestinian citizens.
The noisy pre-election clashes between the pro- and anti-Bibi camps paint a misleading picture. A casual observer would be forgiven for thinking that Israel’s Jewish majority is divided by profound ideological disagreements. In truth, when it comes to the issues that matter most for the country’s future—the control of the West Bank, the blockade of Gaza, and the status of non-Jewish citizens—Israeli Jews have never been more united. Unfortunately, that consensus places Israel’s Jewish majority far to the right of any recognizably liberal worldview.
According to a 2016 Pew survey, 79 percent of Jewish Israelis believe it is right for the country’s laws to favor Jewish over non-Jewish citizens, and 48 percent support the transfer or forced expulsion of Arabs from the country. These numbers track with the results of the previous elections. In 2021, only around 10 percent of Israel’s Jewish population voted for parties with any kind of commitment to egalitarian values. Political figures who have espoused openly transferist agendas—a position once considered outside the bounds of political legitimacy—now proudly occupy Knesset seats, and their numbers are predicted to grow significantly in the upcoming elections in November.
How did we get here? Why did Israel’s Jewish majority shift so decisively to the right? When did Israel begin its transformation into a majoritarian illiberal democracy?
Some would argue that it is misguided to ask why Israel is becoming increasingly illiberal. Israel, they would say, is not, never has been, and cannot by its very nature become a liberal democracy. True, Israel has never regarded the members of its Arab minority as equal citizens, let alone treated them as such. This is not a bug but a feature of Israel’s self-definition as a Jewish state—a project devoted to the welfare and future of an ethnically defined majority. Consequently, the best a young Palestinian citizen of Israel can hope for is to live as a second-class citizen in her country of birth, hemmed in on all sides by legal, economic, and cultural impediments designed to keep her in her place. The worst she can rationally fear, especially if she follows the explicit statements of political and thought leaders on the hard right, is far worse. So it has ever been for Israel’s Palestinian citizens.
Still, something did happen in the course of the past two decades. Israel’s Jewish majority has, indeed, become more emphatically and unapologetically illiberal since 2000, and it is important to understand why.
Jewish Israel’s pivot to the right is routinely explained in one of two ways: either as a consequence of the failure of the Camp David Summit and the extended period of horrific violence that followed in its wake, or as a result of the demise of Israel’s old left. The Second Intifada, it is said, killed the peace process and wiped out the last vestiges of Jewish-Israeli goodwill toward the Palestinians. Meanwhile, the sclerotic remnant of the mostly Ashkenazi old left lost its hegemonic role as arbiter of all things Israeli, giving way to decidedly less secular and more nationalist political forces: the predominantly right-wing Mizrachi Jews and the Religious Zionists.
These explanations are not wrong, but they leave out a key factor: the ongoing Jewish-Israeli backlash against the growing democratic assertiveness of the country’s Palestinian citizens. This dynamic inside the Green Line tends to fall outside the frame of international media coverage and is therefore largely invisible to non-Israelis. But the backlash against the increasingly vocal and trenchant demands for recognition and equality on the part of Israel’s Arab citizens has decisively shaped twenty-first-century Israeli politics.
Until relatively recently, the plight of Israel’s Palestinian citizens, who make up roughly a fifth of the country’s population, has been a political nonissue. As Dov Waxman and Ilan Peleg observed in Israel’s Palestinians: The Conflict Within, Israel’s “other Palestinian problem” went unmentioned in all the major peace initiatives, from Oslo to the Geneva Accords. It received scant attention from the various international mediators that have come and gone over the years. Even the Arab states and the Palestinian Authority have traditionally remained silent on the topic. Everyone, it seems, had more urgent matters to worry about.
Everyone, that is, except Israel’s Palestinian citizens themselves, who never needed external validation of their daily experience of discrimination and dispossession. Years of living as a barely tolerated minority in their homeland has shown them in no uncertain terms how the metaphysical riddle that is Israel’s self-definition gets resolved on the ground. As Ahmad Tibi, a member of the Knesset and leader of the Ta’al party, memorably put it back in 2009, “This country is Jewish and democratic: democratic toward Jews, and Jewish toward Arabs.”
As a description of the actually existing State of Israel—as opposed to the mythical portraits one finds in popular histories of Zionism or the theoretical accounts of its regime that exercise the imaginations of political scientists—Tibi’s aphorism merely states the obvious. Israel systematically discriminates against its non-Jewish citizens in virtually every sphere of life: from infrastructure and education to policing and employment.
No single policy better exemplifies the disenfranchisement of Israel’s Palestinian citizens than the project of “Judaizing” the land. Since 1948, Israel has deployed a complex legal and bureaucratic apparatus designed to wrest land away from Arab hands for the benefit of the Jewish population. A report submitted in 2000 to Prime Minister Ehud Barak by an inter-university group of experts summarizes the consequences of this state-sponsored program (the situation has worsened since):
The Arabs make up 18% of the country’s population, but own only 3.5% of state land area. The jurisdiction of Arab local authorities extends over no more than 2.5% of the state land area. Over half the land owned by Arabs in 1948 has been expropriated by the state. . . . Arabs are effectively blocked from acquiring or leasing land in some 80% of Israel’s land mass. . . . Since its establishment, the state has not allowed the Arabs to establish new settlements. Dozens of long-established Arab settlements are unrecognized, and the state plans to evacuate them.
During the period since its founding, Israel has built hundreds of Jewish settlements inside the Green Line while establishing only a handful of Arab townships in the Negev Desert, chiefly with the aim of corralling the nomadic Bedouin tribes of the region and freeing up land for further Jewish development. This egregious and ongoing state of affairs, which touches upon the most basic living conditions and future prospects of one in every five Israeli citizens, gives the lie to Israel’s touted self-image as an outpost of liberal democracy in the Middle East—and this even before one raises the issues of immigration policy and the occupation.
All this is not to deny that Israel inside the Green Line boasts many liberal-democratic features, such as a free press, freedom of movement and association, and an independent (if embattled) judiciary, which make it, on average, a better place to live for most of its citizens than its neighboring states in the Middle East. By the same token, however, no honest observer could deny that Israel’s commitment to liberal values drops sharply at its legally enshrined ethnic line. Israel inside the Green Line is not merely a “flawed democracy,” as its liberal-Zionist advocates like to put it. All democracies are flawed. Israel is a country whose operating system is fundamentally at odds with the values that define the Western democracies with which it so energetically affiliates itself.
None of this is particularly difficult to see. But until fairly recently the suggestion that Israel’s regime inside the Green Line is illiberal could not get a serious hearing in the two societies where it matters most: Israel and the United States.
During the 1980s and 1990s, Palestinian writers and politicians who pointed out the irreconcilable contradictions at the heart of Israel’s self-image as a Jewish and democratic state—most notably, the academic turned politician Azmi Bishara—were considered beyond the pale, not just by the Israeli right, which has never seen the Palestinian citizens of Israel as anything but a security and demographic threat, but even among the secular liberals historically associated with Shulamit Aloni’s Ratz party (which later merged with two other parties to form Meretz). Though these liberals were already beginning to sense the tensions between their political commitments and the structural illiberalism of the state, they were not yet prepared to acknowledge these contradictions fully, never mind join hands with the likes of Bishara.
There were exceptions, even in the 1980s. In 1988, the Israeli journalist and intellectual Boas Evron dropped a bombshell of a book titled A National Reckoning (published in English in 1995 as Jewish State or Israeli Nation?), a ranging critical reinterpretation of Jewish and Zionist history that culminated in an argument for “[changing] the basis of the Israeli national definition and [founding] it on the conventional territorial principle—equality before the law of all citizens living within Israeli territory, irrespective of ethnic origins, race, community, religion, or sex.” But Evron, who died in 2018, was an intellectual’s intellectual—a writer whose presence is felt everywhere in the writings of Israel’s leftist intelligentsia, but who remains largely unknown outside that milieu. Perspectives like his could not get a serious hearing in the Meretz of the 1990s, let alone in the Labor Party or further to the right.
In the American scene, meanwhile, public and academic debates after 1967 focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, settlements, and the peace process, with scarce, mostly academic, attention given to the plight of Arabs in Israel proper. American liberal Jews, a political community with a shining historical record on civil and minority rights, were, by and large, oblivious to Israel’s structural inequities inside the Green Line. Nor did they take kindly to those who pointed out the incompatibility between their liberal values and Israel’s determined prioritization of one ethnically defined group of citizens over others. The indignant vitriol that greeted Tony Judt’s famous 2003 essay, “Israel: The Alternative,” which cast doubts on the country’s liberal credentials, speaks for itself. Like their leftist counterparts in Israel, otherwise decent American liberals preferred not to think too hard about how Israel’s ethno-statism squared with their egalitarian civic principles.
And so the question of Israel’s character inside the Green Line went largely unheeded—barely visible to most, too uncomfortable for others—until a series of developments began to bring it gradually into focus.
First, in October 2000, came massive demonstrations in major Palestinian towns and villages within Israel, during which the police killed thirteen protesters, twelve of them Arab-Israeli citizens. The protests, concluded the government-appointed Or Commission, were the direct outcome of the “reality of discrimination” that Arab citizens of Israel experience but of which Jewish-Israeli awareness is “often very low.” Despite its detailed account of this reality and urgent recommendations for change, the commission failed in its attempt to generate awareness among Israel’s Jewish majority about what it means to be Arab in the Jewish state. For most Israelis, the main takeaway from this fateful juncture was that the “good Arabs” inside the Green Line are just as prone to bouts of senseless violence as their brethren beyond it.
The next milestone in this story was the publication of the “Vision documents”—a series of programmatic statements issued by different groups of Palestinian intellectuals and civil leaders in 2006 and 2007. The documents not only criticized Israel’s treatment of its Arab minority but also sounded a clear and unapologetic demand for recognition and equality.
The “Vision documents” did not speak in a single voice, but their description of the situation was consistent: “Since the Al-Nakba of 1948 (the Palestinian tragedy), we have been suffering from extreme structural discrimination policies, national oppression, military rule that lasted till 1966, land confiscation policy, unequal budget and resources allocation, rights discrimination and threats of transfer.” Redressing these historical wrongs, they asserted, would not be possible as long as Israel held fast to its ethno-statist self-definition. Israel’s regime, they insisted, would have to change to a system “based on attainment of equal human and citizen rights . . . [removing] all forms of ethnic superiority, be that executive, structural, legal or symbolic.”
Several factors prompted the release of the documents. The events of October 2000 reminded Israel’s Palestinian citizens of their precarious position and alerted them to Jewish Israel’s marked drift to the political right. But perhaps the most urgently felt cause behind the documents was a resurgence of interest among Jewish-Israeli intellectuals and think tanks in codifying an Israeli constitution.
Israel does not have a constitution. In its place, the Knesset has passed a series of “Basic Laws,” which are meant to serve as chapters in a future constitution but can, in most cases, be changed by a simple majority. The early 2000s saw several attempts to remedy this anomalous situation by offering blueprints for a constitution that would lend stability to the country’s regime. The Kinneret Covenant (2001) was framed and signed by dozens of prominent intellectual and political leaders on the left and the right, including such liberal-Zionist luminaries as Yael Tamir and Ari Shavit. The Gavison–Medan Covenant (2003) was the brainchild of the erstwhile president of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, Ruth Gavison, and the Religious Zionist rabbi Yaakov Medan. The Constitution by Consensus (2005), sponsored by the Israel Democracy Institute, was composed and signed by twelve well-known academics, chaired by former Supreme Court Justice Meir Shamgar.
These three would-be constitutions generated considerable public debate. They were discussed at length in academic forums, and they continue to serve as reference points in contemporary conversations about Israel’s legal-political basis. Yet all three were composed without including a single Arab representative. At a moment when an Israeli constitution seemed like a real possibility, Israel’s Palestinian citizens found themselves ignored yet again. The publication of the Vision documents was first and foremost a response to this sidelining. It was not just an alternative vision for Israel but a plea to be heard.
That hope backfired. Israel’s Jewish mainstream could chalk October 2000 up to native unrest, but the documents made it clear that the country’s Arab citizens had a principled complaint: they would no longer silently consent to remain a marginalized underclass, nor were they willing to wait until Israel settled its affairs in the occupied territories. They wanted equal standing in their homeland, and they wanted it now.
The Vision documents raised considerable alarm among Israel’s political establishment and security services. Shin Bet, Israel’s Security Agency, is reported to have warned Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that Israel’s Palestinian citizens were becoming a “genuine long-range danger to the Jewish character and very existence of the State of Israel.” Right-wing politicians, pouncing on the documents as proof of their longstanding view of Israel’s Arab population as a fifth column, began embellishing their parties’ platforms with various proposals for dealing with non-Jewish citizens, ranging from mandatory loyalty oaths to schemes for “encouraging” Arab emigration from the country.
Israel’s security services and right-wing proponents of forced expulsion were not the only ones who responded harshly to the Vision documents. Consider the representative case of Amnon Rubinstein, a prominent liberal-Zionist intellectual, Israel Prize recipient, former Member of the Knesset, and one of the founders of Meretz. In 2007, Rubinstein penned a bitter article warning that the publication of the documents would roll back the progress Israel had made toward a more inclusive social-political reality. Rubinstein granted that Israel’s Palestinian citizens do “suffer some disadvantage in government budgetary allocations” but insisted that, all things considered, they’d gotten a pretty good deal: Israel’s Arabs enjoyed a lower infant mortality rate, higher life expectancies, and a better standard of education than they did during the British Mandate. Evidently distressed by Arab ingratitude for all these bestowed goods, Rubinstein concluded his article on a rueful note: “on the day the bash-Israel ‘vision’ was published, the airport authority announced that a mosque would be built in Ben-Gurion Airport. With the new radicalized ‘vision’ denying Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, such progress will be thwarted. Great pity.”
This peculiar argument, which lays the blame for Israel’s inequities at the door of those who chafe under and oppose them, is often heard here in Israel, as is its vaguely menacing coda. The people who take this line typically share Rubinstein’s liberal-Zionist profile. They are Jewish Israelis who sincerely want to live in a liberal democracy where human and civil rights are respected, but who also believe that Israel must remain Jewish in some (usually indefinite) way, depending on whether the speaker views Judaism as a national, religious, semi-biological, or historical category. This question has roiled the Zionist movement since the days of Theodor Herzl and Ahad Ha’am, and it has never been resolved. But these debates about what Jewishness should mean are typically removed from what Israeli Jewishness means right now, especially to those who fall outside its parameters. Well-meaning liberals are thus often bewildered and angered when they realize how their non-Jewish fellow citizens view the country. This uncomprehending dismay and anxiety form the emotional core of the Jewish-Israeli backlash that began in the aftermath of October 2000 and has been gaining momentum ever since.
In the years following the publication of the Vision documents, public and political discourse in Israel gradually shifted its focus from the moribund peace process to the newly discovered threat within. In a process best described as the Arafatization of the country’s Arab minority, tropes formerly attributed to representatives of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (and later of Hamas) began to be attached to Arab-Israeli political outfits and leaders. Parties like Balad and Hadash were collectively rebranded as “terror supporters,” and individual legislators—first Bishara, then Hanin Zoabi, and most recently the Labor Party’s Ibtisam Marana, and Mansour Abbas of Ra’am—were relentlessly hounded and demonized by right-wing politicians and pundits.
Netanyahu, the great impresario of Israel’s political theater, was quick to recognize the potential of this shift in focus and took to ramping up the anti-Arab rhetoric as a means to rally his base. His infamous dog-whistle broadcast on the eve of the 2015 elections, in which he urged Likud supporters to get out the vote because “Arab voters are moving in droves to the polling stations,” is one example; his 2019 description of Arab party leaders as “an existential threat to Israel” is another. These statements are not outliers; they are indicative of a pattern of discourse to which Netanyahu, his cronies, and political leaders to the right of Likud have all made colorful contributions, and which has accompanied and galvanized the Jewish-Israeli backlash since 2000.
The damage done by two decades of this rhetoric is difficult to quantify, but the legal encroachment on Arab citizens’ rights and protections is not. A database compiled by Adalah (The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel) lists over sixty laws (including thirty-five passed since 2000) that were designed to perpetuate the unequal status of the Palestinian minority. This body of legislation was recently capped off by the Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People, which was passed in 2018 and set Israel’s illiberal ethnic hierarchy in semi-constitutional stone.
Here is Netanyahu, following the law’s passage:
We have passed into law the basic principle of our existence. Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people, that respects the individual rights of all its citizens. . . . This is our state—the Jewish state. In recent years there have been those who have tried to cast doubts on this and thus undermine the foundation of our existence. That is why we made it into law: this is our anthem, our language, and our flag. Long live the State of Israel!
As is his wont, the former prime minister was speaking out of both sides of his mouth: regaling his base with jingoistic chest-thumping while trying to mollify liberal ears with disingenuous multicultural fluff. Netanyahu knew that the law’s phrasing deliberately omitted any mention of the rights of “all” Israeli citizens. Indeed, as his statement implies, it was precisely those unnamed citizens’ clamoring for their rights that animated the law’s framers in the first place. Evidence for this can be found in the bill’s penultimate draft, which included a clause granting ethnic groups the right to establish separate and homogenous communal settlements—a clear countermeasure to the famous Ka’adan case from 2000, in which the Supreme Court ruled that an Arab couple cannot be prevented from buying a home in an all-Jewish community. The clause’s bold-faced segregationism was apparently a bridge too far for the more moderate parts of Netanyahu’s coalition; it was eventually replaced by a watered-down version that turns Jewish settlement (and only Jewish settlement) into a constitutionally enshrined national value. The virulently illiberal subtext remained the same.
The Nation-State Law’s message to Israel’s indigenous minority is clear: You are not an organic part of this state. It was not constructed with your welfare or rights in mind. Your presence here is an aberration. Or, as former Member of the Knesset Yousef T. Jabareen put it, “preexisting Israeli legislation has already codified the unequal status of Arab-Palestinian citizens; this Basic Law makes Arab-Palestinians’ status even more precarious. Indeed, this represents a deathblow to Arab-Palestinians’ civil and constitutional rights.”
I am writing this piece more than a year after an alarming wave of civil violence washed over Israel’s mixed cities. The scenes of October 2000 repeated themselves on a broader scale in May 2021, as Arab and Jewish mobs took to the streets, torching properties and religious symbols and lynching innocents in Lod, Bat Yam, Acre, and Haifa. Sporadic conflagrations have followed ever since. The history of these bloody two weeks in May is yet to be written. When it is, the Jewish-Israeli backlash will be one of the major explanations for the outbreak. It has shaped the social reality and cultural climate into which the Arab and Jewish youths who tore up the streets of their hometowns were born. They’ve never known anything else.
The immediate future looks bleak. The likely demise of the two-state solution, effective erasure of the Green Line, and imminent collapse of the Palestinian Authority will soon overturn the status quo that has sustained mainstream hopes in the viability of the Jewish-and-democratic formula. As a result, liberal-Zionist elites in this country will be forced to decide on which side of their hyphenated identity they stand.
After years of scaremongering and dehumanizing Palestinians, it’s likely that many liberal Zionists will abandon their democratic commitments for their ethnic ones, reasoning that that is the price of survival. It isn’t hard to envision how this will play out: Israel will crack down harder on Palestinian rights, essentially equalizing the status of Arabs within and beyond the Green Line. Legislation that further erodes the rights of non-Jewish citizens and outlaws their political representatives will be passed with a resounding Jewish majority. The deployment of military units in and around Arab towns inside Israel will soon follow. And so, in a mood of existential dread and against the backdrop of recurring bouts of street violence, for which the events of last May were but a mild prequel, Israel will complete its transformation. The Jewish-Israeli backlash will arrive at its conclusion: a Jewish and non-democratic state.
Whatever hope there is for a different future lies not with Israel’s Jewish majority. Among Jewish-Israeli society’s many idiosyncrasies is the fact that though its young people are more easygoing than their parents on questions of gender and sexuality, they are also much more right-wing and nationalist. During the past ten years, the highest levels of ethnic intolerance and segregationism in Israel have consistently been found among Jewish Israelis under thirty.
Those looking for a brighter future would do better to pin their hopes on the Palestinian citizens of Israel, specifically on the young people who are now emerging from the country’s universities and colleges. From a liberal perspective, this generation is the most interesting and heartening thing happening in Israel today. Its elites are not only better educated than their counterparts from previous generations; they are also more cosmopolitan, politically minded, and tech-savvy. Wedged between the constraints of a still mostly traditionalist and patriarchal Arab minority culture, on the one side, and, on the other, the myriad humiliations of life among a largely hostile Jewish majority, these young people have acquired tools to analyze and help change both.
Today’s young Palestinian citizens of Israel have the benefit of two decades of consistent and articulate opposition to the country’s structural inequities, as well as an established network of civil organizations to draw upon in formulating their own vision for the country. They are also, thanks to the dramatic expansion of higher education and omnipresence of online and social media, better acquainted with Israel’s majority culture, with its chiaroscuro of liberal and illiberal tendencies. As a result, they are at once more liberal than their parents and less willing to acquiesce to their status as second-class citizens. As one of the generation’s spokeswomen, Hanin Majadli, wrote in Haaretz, today’s young Palestinian citizens “will not make do with the ‘liberal’ scraps that Israel’s regime offers.” They will demand their full and equal rights in a language that mainstream Jewish Israel will no doubt brand as subversive but that European and American liberals will find difficult to resist.
When an internationally backed Palestinian civil rights movement begins in earnest, as it surely will, things in this country will get very difficult for a while. Exact outcomes are hard to predict, but whatever long-term hope this country has this way lies.
Nir Evron teaches English literature and American Studies at Tel Aviv University. He is the author of the Blossom Which We Are: The Novel and the Transience of Cultural Worlds (2020). Among his more recent publications are articles on Edith Wharton, the crisis of the humanities, American regionalist writing, and Hannah Arendt.