How is it possible to explain the collapse of the remnants of the State of Israel’s democratic and liberal foundations, which is taking place before our eyes in the aftermath of the right-wing victory in November 2022? This is the question that is troubling commentators, politicians, and that part of the public that is shocked at the speed with which the process is happening: the dissolution of the regime’s democratic and liberal foundations and the authoritarian-religious takeover of the entire system of the state.
We are witnessing an attempt by politicians to control the legal system and the media, to turn the education system into a socializing agent of nationalist and religious forces, to exercise censorship over criticism and the free flow of information, to govern public space according to Jewish religious law, and to institutionalize Jewish supremacy in legislation while reducing the laws that establish democratic principles. We are also witnessing increased violations of the principle of equality between Jews and Arabs and changes for the worse in relation to the occupied Palestinian population, the expansion of settlements, a change of status in the occupied areas, and the institutionalization of apartheid.
The causes of this process are not to be found in the present or even in the recent past, but rather in the way the State of Israel has developed and conducted itself from the moment of its establishment. The seeds of the catastrophe were planted over the decades of the state’s existence; and ripened naturally into a regime overthrow under the conditions created by the results of the November 2022 elections. Among those protesting loudly now in 2023, figures like Dan Meridor, Tzipi Livni, Limor Livnat, Moshe Ya’alon, Ehud Barak, Yair Lapid, Gidon Sa’ar, and Avigdor Lieberman, all contributed their part when they were in leadership positions, to the reality that is being created today by Itamar Ben-Gvir, Bezalel Smotrich, Yariv Levin, Shlomo Kari, Avi Maoz, Aryeh Deri, Yitzhak Goldknopf, and, of course, Benjamin Netanyahu and his family.
It happened as a surprise, but the group that is running the State of Israel today, are giving the final push to the fall of democracy by exploiting the suitable circumstances after they won the elections and built a strong supporting narrative. The speed differs from one’s expectation that the process would happen over a longer period of time, like in Hungary and Turkey. Looking at its inception, it could perhaps be said that a state established in sin could not have existed otherwise, and that the breakdown of its democratic component was just a matter of time.
In the 1948 War of Independence, or the Nakba from the Palestinian point of view, Israel was victorious and established its state at a very high price, not only in Jewish victims. There was a high price in Arab victims as well, including the exodus/expulsion of some 750,000 indigenous Palestinians (about 70% of the Arab inhabitants of the land) and the destruction of some 450 Palestinian villages. This catastrophe, which happened to the Palestinian people 75 years ago, continues to pursue both its victims and its perpetrators to this day. The Jews in Israel are unwilling to take any responsibility for these events, and the Palestinians feel that the Nakba is still continuing.
The Beginnings in 1948 Were Authoritarian
Following the 1948 war, the State of Israel, under the leadership of its first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, expanded the territories allotted to it by the UN Partition Plan. At the time it faced two difficult challenges: 1) Creating a nation out of the refugees streaming into Israel from myriad countries, many of whom were survivors of the Holocaust in Europe where six million Jews were slaughtered; and 2) Standing strong in the face of threats from the Arab countries that did not accept UNGA Resolution 181 (the Partition Plan).
The state that was established had all the characteristics of authoritarianism, and its leader ruled it completely autocratically. Ben-Gurion established a military regime that governed the Palestinians remaining within the state’s borders; severely censored freedom of expression; demeaned the opposition and surveilled them; trounced any attempt to strike (the seamen’s revolt); differentiated between citizens who supported the regime and those who opposed it ideologically; discriminated against Jews who immigrated from Arab countries; instituted indoctrination into the school system; advanced his political cohorts to senior positions; and pressured cultural figures to refrain from criticism.
It’s also important to remember that Ben-Gurion signed an agreement with the ultra-Orthodox in the areas of education, military service, employment, religion, and welfare that paved the way for the current discriminatory situation. Today’s ultra-Orthodox, about 13% of Israel’s Jewish population, are a heavy burden on the state: Most do not serve in the army; the majority
of the men do not receive even a minimal (secular) education; and only about 50% of them participate in the workforce. Ben-Gurion also signed an agreement with the religious Zionists that allowed them to operate their own independent school system. They constitute about 11% of the Jewish population in Israel. Over the years, religious Zionists established a social-political-religious framework and infrastructure that began to lead the settlement enterprise; to influence all the social, political, educational and economic moves of the State of Israel; and to feel like an elite that has captured the hearts and minds of the people. The results are visible today as the representatives of this public lead the country toward nationalism, racism, and religiosity. In short, the golem has risen up against its creator.
Ben-Gurion opposed drafting an Israeli constitution, claiming that the British manage without one and that the issue could be addressed later. The lack of a constitution left a vacuum in the administration of the state. The results can be seen in the attempt at a coup d’etat today. While there is no constitution, a Declaration of Independence was drawn up and signed by 37 of the nation’s top officials in 1948. It states that the State of Israel “will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants” and will ensure “the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of race, creed or sex;” it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”
This document, however, has no legal status. It stands only as a symbol that is quoted a lot and used to convince Israeli citizens and the world that the State of Israel is a liberal democracy, a claim that had no practical foundation.
All of these decisions were made at the beginning of the state’s existence in a context that was very different from today’s context. Therefore, their judgment should take into account the reality that prevailed at that time. I, however, am not a historian but a political psychologist, who claims that these decisions and the statements of the prime minister at the time has serious effects on today’s reality. Apparently, Ben-Gurion did not foresee what would happen more than 70 years later, although a good leader is expected to foresee possible future outcomes of their decisions.
The reality created during the state’s establishment left its mark on what is happening today. The seeds of authoritarianism were sown in the young state that was ruled as an autocracy, although its citizens constantly heard that Israel was the only democracy in the Middle East. Most citizens were not familiar with democratic principles and values and did not learn them from their leaders’ behavior, since the majority of the public, including the leaders, came from nondemocratic countries or were socialized in Israel, without a democratic tradition.
The country’s leadership appropriated the significance of the Holocaust and used it as a beacon for fateful decisions under the slogan “never again.” They did not internalize the warning in terms of democratic, antiracist, and antinationalist education but in terms of moral disengagement, moral entitlement, and moral silencing. This allows them to ignore moral norms, because we have been victims throughout history and especially the victims of the Holocaust. The moral entitlement allows us to harm anyone whom we think wants to hurt us in any way. And the third premise states that other nations have no right to criticize us because they did not take steps to save Jews during the Holocaust.
Basic Premises of Ben-Gurion
Some of the rules of behavior set by Ben-Gurion remain and are influential to this day. Existential Insecurity: “Israel’s security problem is unlike the security problems of any other country: It is not a problem of borders, sovereignty – but a problem of physical existence, simple and straightforward.”
Basic Suspicion of Arab Intentions: “The Arabs in Israel must be judged according to what they might do, not according to what they have done.”
Contempt and Condescension Toward the Jewish Immigrants from Arab Countries: “Those from Morocco had no education. Their customs, the customs of the Arabs. They love their wives but beat them... Maybe in the third generation someone will appear among the Jews of the Mizrahi denomination who is a little different, but I don’t see it yet.”
Distrust of the Nations of the World: “On its long journey on the stage of world history, for 4,000 years, covering most countries of the world, east and the west, north and south, our people has constantly met with expressions of hatred and enmity, false accusations and assaults, persecutions and torture, destruction and slaughter… the hatred and enmity …took many different forms, but its contents did not change much…”
Ben-Gurion also stated in 1937, that every compromise over the partition of the land should be accepted but the borders of the State must not be set: “The possibilities for expansion will not be realizable if, from the first moment, the Jewish state does not direct all its efforts, its actions and its relationships – in construction, in the creation of power and in the establishment of its relations with its neighbors – toward our expansion in the country, with the desire, agreement and cooperation of our Arab neighbors.” This premise guides Israel today.
All these statements haunt us till this very day and serve as a basis for the policies of our leaders and even as grounds for the sentiments of the general public.
This reality was softened during the term of Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, who replaced Ben-Gurion in 1963. His government moderated the authoritarian traits dominant during Ben-Gurion’s rule, such as the cancellation of the military regime in 1966. The Six-Day War broke out in 1967, however, and Israel found itself in control of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, and the Sinai Peninsula. This conquest was particularly significant for the Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, where Jewish settlements soon began to spring up in their midst.
The Occupation and the Emergence of Religious Zionism
Thus began the period of occupation that continues to this day. Israel controls a huge population (in the case of the Gaza Strip, from the outside) by trampling on human rights, confiscating land, collective punishment, expulsions, house demolitions, torture, creating an infrastructure of tens of thousands of collaborators, mass arrests (hundreds of thousands) including children, widespread imprisonment, killing and injuring a population which does not want to live under occupation - including those who are not engaged in violence. According to the occupiers’ doctrine, all resistance to the occupation is considered terrorism, and the occupied are not allowed to express their protest against the occupation in any way, even nonviolently. This state of affairs has lasted for more than 55 years and has destroyed Palestinian society. Both right- and left-wing governments have expanded Jewish control and settled some 200,000 Jews in occupied East Jerusalem, and approximately 475,000 Jews in some 125 settlements, and more than 100 illegal outposts in the West Bank. The effects of the occupation have spilled over into the State of Israel itself in many ways, such as discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel, delegitimization of the Jewish opposition to the occupation, restrictions on the free flow of information, etc.
These developments were led by the religious Zionists beginning already in 1967, with the support of the Greater Land of Israel movement that arose from the political, cultural, military, and social elites of both the left and the right. The influence of the Gush Emunim movement founded in 1974, after the shock of the Yom Kippur War spread and penetrated all aspects of the Israeli regime: political, social, economic, judicial, security, educational, and cultural. The entire system was captured by the idea of a Greater Land of Israel and cooperated fully. The judicial system, including the Supreme Court, accepted the lies of army officers and provided legitimacy for settlement construction under the guise of building military bases and, over time, found ways to authorize all the violent methods of the occupation. The economic system financed this enterprise. The educational system justified it with the removal of the Green Line from maps of Israel already in 1972. The military protected the security of the settlers and helped them expand into Palestinian areas. Without the support of all the governments, right and left, it would have been impossible to establish and maintain the occupation and the settlement of Jews in the occupied territories. The religious Zionists and supporters of the Greater Land of Israel penetrated all the corridors of government and furthered their aims with strength, cunning, and determination. Israeli governments violated Israeli laws and proper procedures in providing support for the settlement enterprise, which also violates international law. All this was done in spite of the vast majority of countries around the world, including Israel’s friends, which view the settlements as illegal and call for ending the occupation.
Peace With Egypt and the Emergence of Civil Society Resistance
In 1979, Israel signed a peace agreement with its number one enemy, Egypt. Protest against the continuing occupation began, mostly in academia and the cultural arena, and pockets of popular resistance arose in the form of mass demonstrations. Civil society organizations were established and began to voice their opposition to the persistent and systematic violations of human rights in the occupied territories.
In the mid-1980s, Education Minister Yitzhak Navon inaugurated studies in democracy and Jewish-Arab coexistence, and the atmosphere in the country opened up to expressions of protest against the occupation among the political echelons as well. This openness, among other factors, facilitated the 1993 Oslo Accords under the leadership of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. All of this came to an end in 1995, with the assassination of Rabin by a religious Zionist activist, and the small window of opportunity to resolve the bloody conflict was closed.
The Netanyahu Era Begins
In 1996, Benjamin Netanyahu, a fierce opponent of an agreement with the Palestinians, was elected prime minister using the slogan “Peres will divide Jerusalem.” Thus began a new era in Israel that has lasted until today. The process began when Netanyahu’s religious Zionist Education Minister Zevulun Hammer cancelled the education in democracy and humanistic Jewish identity projects of Prof. Mordechai Kremnitzer and Prof. Aliza Shenhar. It continued with Netanyahu’s famous whisper into the ear of the popular Kabbalistic Rabbi Kaduri in 1997, that “the left has forgotten what it is to be a Jew. They think they will place our security into the hands of the Arabs.” This whisper initiated a pattern of incitement whose echoes can still be heard years later, in the Labor Party as well.
In his short term as prime minister, Ehud Barak instilled the view that the Palestinians are not partners for peace and that Arafat had chosen violence to liberate his people from occupation. The Palestinian resistance that brought suicide bombers into central Israel and the framing of the situation by Barak effectively transferred most Israeli supporters of the peace process into the arms of the right. In 2009, Benjamin Netanyahu returned as prime minister and, together with his coalition partners from the left, right, and center, continued to cultivate the foundations of the catastrophe which ripened in November 2022.
An Apartheid System and the Erosion of Democracy
Meanwhile, in the occupied territories a system of apartheid had been developing for years, wherein the Jewish settler population and the Palestinian population live side by side under different legal systems and with different treatment by the authorities. The settlers benefit from all the rights of Jews in Israel, while the Palestinians live under a violent occupation.
In a series of decisions over the years concerning the occupied territories, the Israeli Supreme Court validated Jewish rule and usually accepted the dispossession of the Palestinians and the damage to their human rights. It is one of the main institutions that gave legitimacy to the continuation of the occupation and to the actions of the settlers. The Court also ruled in 2020,
that a person convicted of bribery, fraud and breach of trust could form a government. Yes, the Supreme Court in its decision unanimously said that it sees no danger to the fortress and allows Netanyahu to form a government. The Nation-State Law, passed in 2018 and upheld by the Supreme Court, continued the erosion of democracy in Israel. This is a Basic Law, a law with constitutional status, which makes clear that the state belongs to Jews alone. By openly privileging the Jewish nation over minorities who are also citizens of the state, this law violates the delicate balance between the State of Israel as a Jewish and a democratic state. The political echelon continued to exclude Arab parties from the government until the Lapid/Bennett government’s attempt to cooperate with Mansour Abbas of the conservative Arab Ra’am party during its short one-year term.
The Education Ministry, headed by right-wing politicians like Gidon Sa’ar, who had close relations with the ultraright Im Tirtzu organization, or by religious Zionist ministers like Naftali Bennett and Rafi Peretz, continued the nationalist, racist policies begun by Hammer, who gave budgets and legitimacy to the settlement enterprise and the idea of Greater Israel while emphasizing Jewish supremacy. Thus, generations of students were educated in the spirit of religious nationalism without adequate understanding of democracy.
For many years, organizations for the defense of human rights in the occupied territories have been considered traitorous. Being a leftist became illegitimate and so tainted that politicians fled from the label, which had once been a legitimate political opinion. Every criticism of Israeli policy is considered anti-Semitic. That’s how Israel defends itself from within and without. Many leaders who are today crying out against the destruction of democracy have contributed to this situation.
The media lost much of its credibility when some of its channels were purchased by tycoons who set political agendas. Many reporters and commentators supported a strong-armed policy against the Palestinians, and journalistic mouthpieces for the government which made light of Netanyahu’s criminal trial appeared. It is not by chance that the 2022 Freedom Press Index placed Israel number 86, after states like Nepal, Kyrgyzstan, and Ghana.
The damage to democratic values is also reflected in Israel’s treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, including the non-Jewish refugees from Ukraine. The concern for safeguarding Jewish supremacy in Israel and the rejection of foreigners overcame humane considerations, which should have prevailed in light of the Jewish past of hundreds of years of exile culminating in the Holocaust. At the same time, the government continued its tough policy against the Palestinians and ignored settler violence against them.
The Role of Right-Wing Research Institutes
In the past two decades, a number of right-wing research institutes have sprung up, such as the Shalem Center, the Institute for Zionist Strategy, the Israeli Institute for Strategic Studies, the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, and the Kohelet Policy Forum. These institutes combine economic and political conservatism with nationalism and formulate position papers that form the basis for legislation and political policies. The Kohelet Policy Forum, funded by Jewish American billionaires, prepared the main points of the judicial and media overhauls announced by Justice Minister Yariv Levin and Media Minister Shlomo Kari. Nationalist and religious organizations, such as Elad, ImTirtzu, Regavim, Lehava, and many others, were established with the aim of disseminating right-wing religious ideology and preventing the spread of opposing narratives. On the other hand, liberal left organizations and institutes were also established, which devoted their efforts to defending the human rights of Palestinians and explaining the sources of Israel's deterioration.
We can sum up by saying that it is not surprising that the 2019 Democracy Index stated: Comparing Israel’s relative place concerning the state of its democracy to the 36 countries in the OECD, most of the time it is at the bottom of the list. Only in one measure – political participation – is Israel in the top half of the member states of this organization. In eight other measures (such as, civil rights, democratic rights, freedoms, civilian participation, freedom of the press, democratic equality) it is located at the very bottom of the lowest quarter…. In other words, Israel is a state which has a democratic electoral process but does not have a full commitment to the basic values of liberal democracy.
The liberal democracy, the one that most of the speakers in demonstration are talking about, is based on the following values and principles. It demands a full equality in opportunities and standing before the law as well as equality of rights and duties. Liberal democracy demands respect of rights of the minorities and freedom from and for. The former refers to freedom from arbitrary detention, freedom of worship and freedom of the press, and the latter denotes free political organization, freedom to choose and be elected, the freedom to demonstrate and the right to receive information about the actions of the government. Liberal democracy requires independence of the three branches: executive, legislating and judiciary. But of special importance is the autonomy of the judiciary system. Liberal democracy demands transparency and the checks and balances that allow continuous independent supervision of the system. And lastly but the least in liberal democracy the protection of human rights is a must that cannot be compromised.
The right has not stood still but has pushed for far-reaching changes that have crossed new red lines, all with the consent of the courts and the support of state institutions. Programs were formulated for changes in the judicial system, education, society, and even the police and the military. The foundations for what is happening now were laid years ago in different ways. The torrent did not begin with today’s deluge but with drips in an ever-strengthening flow, in anticipation of the conditions that would allow it to execute its ultimate plans for dismantling the state’s democratic and liberal foundations. Their hour has now come. Unusual conditions have enabled all the nationalist, racist, messianic, and religious forces to join together in a homogenous coalition under the leadership of a man in the middle of a criminal trial, who wants to save himself from serving a prison sentence. In order to avoid this fate, he is prepared to give free rein to a bunch of extremists to carry out a regime coup without firing a single shot.
It Is Our Duty to Stop the Drive Toward a Totalitarian Regime
The present government coalition has been enabled to stride with confidence toward a regime with clear totalitarian indicators, as in the cases of Turkey, Iran, Hungary, and India. This disaster is happening because the coalition misrepresents the essence of democracy and is lying in order to whitewash the steps it is taking. The revolution we are witnessing today was
crystallized over the years by these same forces, who only now have dared to reveal it as, in their view, conditions have ripened for a complete revolution in all areas of Israeli life, including religion, the judiciary, education, media, and the economy. Demography is on their side, and the religious circles are waiting to change the regime. At the same time, Jewish society, including the younger generation, has become predominantly rightist.
For decades the leaders have repeated the mantra that Israel is democratic, both during Ben Gurion's time and later, after the occupation became institutionalized with the settlements
and turned into apartheid. They failed to grasp the essence of democracy, because the democratic regime is complex and multilayered and therefore requires reflective and critical thinking to understand it. In the battle for consciousness, however, whoever manages to control the narrative wins. The current battle is taking place over the democratic narrative: Was Israel ever a democratic state, is it now, and will it be in the future?
I don't know if the forces of Israeli resistance which have arisen today in the face of the coalition’s actions will succeed in stemming the tide. There is a high probability that many of the coalition’s plans will be executed. There may be compromises that will erode Israeli democracy further. The government is in the hands of extremists who dream of a religious-nationalistic state. We need to remember that many of the leaders of the current resistance had a hand in the creation of the existing situation, although they never imagined that people who came to power in fair elections would take such an extreme direction. The latter want to dismantle the democratic and liberal foundations of the state and build a state with totalitarian culture. It is our duty not to allow them to do it. We have a onetime opportunity in view of the unprecedented demonstrations to improve the functioning of Israeli democracy rather than settle for compromises. The struggle for the future is still going on, and we can only hope that the democratic forces will prevail.