Liberal democracy and religion-5: Israel’s bleak future as a democracy

The brutal behavior of the Israeli government in boarding an aid flotilla and killing some of the people on board and then justifying the action may have come as a shock to some but should not. For a long time, it has been clear that Israel is sliding further and further into becoming an authoritarian state based on religious orthodoxy that treats the Palestinians in the occupied territories with practices that strongly resemble the abhorrent apartheid policies that used to be practiced by South Africa.

Because of the rising influence of orthodox Jews, Israel has started making rules based purely on religion into laws that everyone, believers and non-believers alike, must follow. Recently Benjamin Netanyahu used the Bible to support his claim to be able to build in East Jerusalem.

Peter Beinart’s article describes how Israeli politics is moving farther and farther away from a liberal democracy.

Hebrew University Professor Ze’ev Sternhell is an expert on fascism and a winner of the prestigious Israel Prize. Commenting on Lieberman and the leaders of Shas in a recent Op-Ed in Haaretz, he wrote, “The last time politicians holding views similar to theirs were in power in post–World War II Western Europe was in Franco’s Spain.” With their blessing, “a crude and multifaceted campaign is being waged against the foundations of the democratic and liberal order.” Sternhell should know. In September 2008, he was injured when a settler set off a pipe bomb at his house.

The article goes on to say that the demographic trend of Israel’s Jewish population is going to make things even worse.

Israeli governments come and go, but the Netanyahu coalition is the product of frightening, long-term trends in Israeli society: an ultra-Orthodox population that is increasing dramatically, a settler movement that is growing more radical and more entrenched in the Israeli bureaucracy and army, and a Russian immigrant community that is particularly prone to anti-Arab racism. In 2009, a poll by the Israel Democracy Institute found that 53 percent of Jewish Israelis (and 77 percent of recent immigrants from the former USSR) support encouraging Arabs to leave the country. Attitudes are worst among Israel’s young.

While Israel still has a somewhat free press, there have been increasing efforts to suppress freedom of speech, going so far as to detain at the borders and then bar entry to the West Bank to Noam Chomsky when he had been invited to give a speech. The government even destroyed all copies of a newspaper that had an investigative report on the 2008 assault on Gaza. Uri Blau, the journalist who wrote it, even had to go into hiding, perhaps because it would have had stories like this one from a United Nations report:

Israeli ground troops ordered around 110 Palestinian civilians into a single home in Gaza City’s Zeitun neighborhood and ordered them to stay indoors on Sunday. On Monday morning, Israeli forces repeatedly shelled the building, killing at least 30 of the civilians inside. It then refused to allow ambulances to retrieve the dead and dying people for days.

What is going to happen is that as Israel comes more and more under the sway of its increasingly Orthodox religious right wing population, it will pursue even more racist policies towards the Palestinian people and become an even greater international pariah.

Instead of putting pressure on Israel to move in a more liberal democratic direction, the Israel lobby in the US actually encourages the authoritarian trend by trying to make sure that every politician in the US seeking high office swears unswerving loyalty to Israel. As a result, we have the executive and legislative branches willing to express support for almost any actions by Israel, even if it might harm the long-term strategic interests of the US. The way it manages to pull this off is by making it seem as if the interests of the US and Israel are identical. Glenn Greenwald recently highlighted New York senator Charles Shumer’s abhorrent views where he states that he supports the Israeli government’s view that the entire population of Gaza should be punished right up to the point of starvation. And the audience of Israel supporters in the US actually applauded him. Other US politicians and commentators have followed suit without any outcry at all, let alone at the level reserved for Helen Thomas when she said objectionable things about Israel.

In an interview, historian Tony Judt expresses his views on the long-term danger to Israel of depending on the unconditional support of the US and discusses how its current psyche of victimhood came into being.

In the case of both Israel and Iran, we see how easy it is for two countries that once showed promise of becoming liberal democracies to be steadily driven away from that under the sway of religious groups. As a result, the future of that volatile region looks exceedingly bleak.

If the appeal of religion is not nipped in the bud before religious groups can gain in strength, it seems like only a matter of time before those groups gain power and influence, with potentially disastrous results.

POST SCRIPT: Pandering to the Israel lobby

Each election season, we have the spectacle of politicians pandering away to Israel and the last presidential election was no exception, as this The Daily Show demonstrates.

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The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
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For more on pandering to Israel, see clip here.


  1. Robert Allen says

    >If the appeal of religion is not nipped in the bud…

    Uh, I think it’s more like a flower in full bloom at this point..

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