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Old Israel and the new Middle East

Two opposing phenomena are interacting in the Middle East; the first is Israel, moving back to the past with its policies, laws and ideology, looking ever more like a "typical" Middle East country: closed, exclusive, violent, and culturally and religiously rigid. The second phenomenon is the effort made by some Arab countries to break away from the stereotypical image assigned to them for decades. They are shedding their unhappy past to move into a positive future, embracing modernity and democracy. That is the aim of the popular revolutions, despite the complexities and difficulties being faced.


Israel has always been promoted as an oasis of modernity, democracy and secularism in the "desert" of the old, authoritarian and religious Middle East. Now it is on the brink of changes which may affect its nature and beliefs about itself and its image in the world. The influence of rabbis and religious and far-right political parties is increasing; the state and society are both moving more towards a more religious outlook (58% of the Jewish population in Israel consider themselves to be religious), to the extent that many Israeli intellectuals and analysts call Israel the State of "Haredim" (religious extremists) and warn about establishing an "Iran here". The rabbis' control over Israel is similar to that of the ayatollahs' over Iran.

About that, Eitan Haber warns, "A few years ago, I wrote in Yedioth Ahranoth something along the lines of, 'the Arabs have become Jews – the Jews have become Arabs'." In the same newspaper, economist Professor Dan Ben-David said, "If Israel becomes a third world country, that will be the end of the whole project."

What is interesting is that religious extremism in Israel is synonymous with "National" Jewish extremism, considering Judaism to be a nationality, which means that these two extremes complement one another.

The explanation is that there are common roots between the two extremist views for Israelis, as both were founded on religious myths of the "promised land", "God's chosen people" and "Greater Israel". What also draws these two currents to each is that they both revolve around the Jewish self, which reveals racism against the "Other", the gentiles, particularly the Palestinians who are the indigenous people of the land on which the state of Israel was founded.

A third root is reflected in the extremists' opposition to democracy and democratic institutions. This is clear from the attempts to weaken the independence of Israel's Supreme Court and the enactment of laws based on religious laws.

Both religious and national extremists share hostility to peace and refuse to make any concessions to the Palestinians; their position is the result of racism and arrogance. Thus, extremists push through legislation which excludes Palestinians from full citizenship. Examples include the law which denies residency rights to Palestinians' spouses if they are from the occupied West Bank or Gaza Strip; andthe move to redefine Israel from a democratic state to the "National State of the Jewish People", despite the racism this invokes.

In practice, this emphasis on the Jewishness of the state includes the erasure of the Palestinians' historical narrative and the imposition of the Zionists' version. Israel is trying to remove Palestinians from the past, present and future to justify its existence from a historical perspective and find a "moral" basis for its own existence free from guilt for the plight of the Palestinian people.

This explains Israel's demand to be recognised as an exclusively Jewish state, thus pushing nationalism at the expense of citizenship. In defining Israel as the nation for all Jews around the world, it not only ensures that Jewish identity will take over the identity of Israel's Arab citizens, but even Israeli identity per se.

In all of this, Israel not only deprives Palestinians of their land, but also robs them of their right to existence and identity, and even their right to express themselves. This explains Israel's continued settlement and colonisation of the West Bank, particularly in Jerusalem, and it's Judaisation policies, allowing Israel to maintain control over the Palestinians with or without a peace agreement.

Ironically, this arrogantly racist way of dealing with the "gentiles", the Muslim and Christian Palestinians, has repercussions for Israeli society itself among Jews. They are manifested in the influence of religion on Israeli politics, the law, education and society, making religion the basic source of government policy and legislation.

The pervasive influence of extremist religious thought means that it is no longer realistic to regard Israel as a secular state in the true sense of the word; this has been commented on by many Israeli researchers and analysts. In fact, many have bade farewell to the secularism which has been eroded with the disappearance of the Israeli middle class and institutions such as kibbutzim.

Democracy fares no better than secularism in Israel, as the parliament legislates Arabs out of the equation. A minority of religious parties, holding no more than four seats in the Knesset, control the political game in Israel, including the judiciary, education and the status of women in society. Some of the discriminatory laws against Palestinian "gentiles" are also reflected in practices and laws which impose limits on liberal democracy between Jews inside Israel. Media restrictions, attacks on civil society institutions, limits to the powers of the High Court and changes to the education curricula all threaten everyone in Israel, Jew and gentile alike. Concerns about "undemocratic" Israeli laws have pushed the country's President, Shimon Peres, to describe draft laws promoted by right-wingers as a "march of idiots".

Some Israeli analysts believe that Israel is imitating its surrounding environment in being religious instead of modernist and democratic. One, Ari Shavit, said, "religious Jewish extremists go out to attack minorities, individuals and human rights… they surround the Supreme Court, the free press and the open society. There is an unprecedented flood of racism against Arabs, hatred of the secular and oppression of women that threaten to change Israel from enlightened to darkness… they are trying to change Israel into Iran, the 'Jewish Brotherhood' are trying to set in the state of the Jews the same effect of the 'Muslim Brotherhood' in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt… In Arab states, and in Israel, there has been no separation between religion and the state, as the mosque and the synagogue were not kept away from politics, thus both the Arab and Jewish identities still have a deep religious factor… it is time for the secular right wing to understand that if Israel turns into Iran, it will have no future, and it will be swallowed in the regional religious darkness." (Haaretz newspaper)

Thus, Israel is no longer the same country which tried to establish itself as a modern democratic and liberal project keen to secure the welfare of its Jewish citizens, in order to make itself an attractive model to encourage the world's Jews to migrate to it and thus distinguish itself from its neighbours. It has not succeeded; it has started to show its true colours as a colonial, racist and religious state controlled by rabbis, religious parties and extremists.

The problem for Israel is that while it is moving in this direction the world is looking towards universal values of modernity, based on rationality, secularism, liberalism and democracy, and the rejection of fundamentalism, religious extremism and authoritarianism. Israel will soon find itself isolated among nations. It long ago lost its status as a victim and will soon be an example of backwardness and obscurantism in the region, given further emphasis by the nature of the Arab revolutions.

Civil society institutions around the world have an increasing influence on the foreign policies of their countries. This is a threat to a state of Israel as it heads towards becoming "Old Israel", deprived of its exclusivity by the new Arab political environment built by the popular revolutions. It now has a decision to make between taking part in world affairs as a vibrant democratic state for all of its citizens, or sinking into isolation and obscurity as a relic of a colonialist, divisive and racist past.

*The author is a Palestinian writer. This article was first published in Arabic by Al Jazeera net 5/2/2012

Source: Al Jazeera

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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