Israel’s fault lines and the loss of a Jewish humanity

Mark Braverman

Mondoweiss  /  May 3, 2023

Thomas Friedman’s condemnation of Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul is based on the false premise that the Israeli judicial system protects democracy. It never has for the millions of Palestinians under colonial rule.

Jewish American journalist and author Thomas Friedman began his career covering the Middle East in the 1980s. Friedman minted himself as a balanced observer of Israel, advancing a critique of the Jewish state while still maintaining his allegiance to the idea of a Jewish national homeland. Sensitive to Israel’s human rights problems, Friedman has argued for a more nuanced approach on the part of the U.S. government about what it means to be a “friend” to Israel.

In similar fashion, he has appealed to fellow Jews to demand that Israel respect Palestinians’ rights. But his commitment to the fundamentals of the Jewish homeland project has never wavered, even now, as awareness of Israel’s crimes has increased, and the public image of Israel as an embattled victim has begun to crumble. Instead, he is serving as a rearguard for Zionism. 

Friedman allowed himself to be used as a mouthpiece for U.S. President Joe Biden in a February 12 New York Times opinion piece when he conveyed Biden’s opposition to Netanyahu’s proposed judicial overhaul. Several weeks later, he urged the White House and Congress to join in “marching” with Israeli protesters “to ensure the 75th anniversary of Israeli democracy will not be its last.” Most recently, Friedman weighed in on the conundrum besetting diaspora Jews observing the current crisis, asserting that most Jewish American organizations and lay leaders now have to choose between “Israel’s prime minister and its fighter pilots.” 

But it’s a false choice based on a false premise.

A false premise

For Israel’s entire history, the judiciary has been useless in stopping the illegal annexations, land theft, violations of the human rights of Palestinians living under Israel’s control, and the institutionalized discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel. Few Palestinians have been in evidence in the current protests, both by design on the part of the organizers and because Palestinians are sitting out this campaign to defend a court that has done nothing to challenge a system of laws that has deprived them of their rights and has allowed Israel’s merciless project of colonization and ethnic cleansing to go forward. Friedman ignores the real problem, which is not democracy, but Israel’s record of war crimes and flagrant human rights abuses.

In furnishing the vehicle by which Biden delivered his message, Friedman played Biden’s game of appearing to criticize Israel while continuing to shore up its crumbling foundation. But both the Democratic president and the liberal columnist are flailing — trying to defend the indefensible, find a way to salvage a project nearing its inevitable collapse, and forestall Israel’s isolation and condemnation by the world at large. 

Why has this particular move by Netanyahu’s government incensed so many Israelis?  Reaching beyond the facile talk of “preserving democracy,” British-born Israeli journalist Anshel Pfeiffer points out that any problem the religious parties have with the Supreme Court has nothing to do with the land-grabbing illegal settler project carried out by the most zealous among them. “At most,” observes Pfeiffer, the court “has been a rare and inconsequential nuisance” in that regard.

What they are after, he maintains, is removing the court as an obstacle to the theocratic, ethnically-based Israel that they envision. The protests, therefore, are not about the court itself but “about a secular middle class recognizing that this may be its last chance to preserve what it has always seen as Israel’s essential character…a struggle for Israel itself.”

In identifying religion as a factor in the current crisis, Pfeiffer has named the elephant in the room. But in his talk about “Israel’s essential character” and the “struggle for Israel itself,” Pfeiffer misses the mark. The fact that Israel’s religious minority has taken control of the government is not an artifact of Israeli politics or a troublesome problem to be managed. For Israel, it is the inevitable outcome for a state founded on ethnic nationalist principles. To understand what is happening in Israel today, it is necessary to shine a light on Zionism itself.

‘We are patriots, we are good people!’

Eitan Bronstein Aparicio, the founder of Zochrot and, recently conducted on-the-street interviews with Israelis demonstrating against the government’s plan to strip the Supreme Court of its independence. This 12-minute video provides a rare look at Israeli society from the inside. Calling the protests “a nationalist celebration of mainstream Israel,” Bronstein Aparicio observed that the tens of thousands who have taken to the streets in a well-organized protest movement represent primarily one sector of Israeli society: “the privileged Ashkenazi camp.”

“We are patriots, we are good people!” declared one woman to Bronstein Aparicio, rolling up her sleeve and flexing her muscles to reveal the insignia of the Palmach, the elite “strike force” of the Haganah during Mandatory Palestine. “Our fathers built this country,” another protester said. “Bibi calls us traitors, but it is he who is the traitor. I served 30 years in the army, and now I am a traitor and a proud one!”  A group of combat veterans of the 1973 Yom Kippur War arrived with fellow veterans in a commandeered tank festooned with Israeli flags. “Perhaps,” Bronstein Aparicio asked one of them, “it is all the victories and conquests that have brought us to the situation today?” This attempt to shift the discourse was sharply rejected:  “No! This tank is not a symbol of war, it is a symbol of peace.  The tank gives power to democracy.”

Pride in military prowess is a cornerstone of Israeli identity. Israeli governments across the political spectrum have risen and fallen on the basis of their perceived ability to protect their citizens from external enemies. For today’s protesters, a perceived internal enemy — the religious right/secular right coalition — threatens the image of the secure, free, progressive society at the heart of the Zionist dream. The protesters in Bronstein Aparicio’s video are indeed fighting an internal enemy — but they’ve got the wrong one. What they don’t get is that the religious takeover is entirely consistent with, indeed integral to, the state’s expansionist, supremacist, and militarist nature.  “There is to date nothing that Zionist Jewish fundamentalists have called for that has not been already committed or advocated by secular Zionism,” writes Joseph Massad. Haim Bresheeth-Žabner puts it another way: “[A]fter 75 years of denying its own agency in the terrible catastrophe it inflicted upon the Palestinians, the Israeli regime is now embracing its Zionist origins – openly discussing its intention of controlling the whole of Palestine through an exclusive Jewish apartheid state.”

Israel’s Zionist fundamentals are on full display in the current government. The focus on the Supreme Court and the call to save democracy is a red herring dragged across the trail leading to whatever will replace apartheid Israel. It’s not democracy in Israel that is on the line. It’s the possibility of a sustainable, decent future, not only for the dispossessed Palestinians but for Israel’s Jews, who deserve better. 

Joining Bronstein Aparicio are Israeli voices that rise above the din and the flag-waving fervor of the protesters. “I can’t demonstrate to protect the status quo,” writes Orly Noy, chair of the Israeli human rights organization B’tselem. “There are other ways to resist and fight what is happening. The focus should be on not committing war crimes in the first place.”  As Rachel Beit Arie, Director of Zochrot, warns: “In the midst of the struggle against the current government, we must remember that the root of the problem lies with the colonialist regime as a whole rather than bemoan a democracy that has never existed here.” 

The price of liberation

Hannah Arendt grappled with the same issues of identity and history that Jews confront today. Despite her anti-nationalism and distaste for allegiance to any collective or group, Arendt remained a lifelong supporter of Israel. But as early as 1946, she expressed misgivings, setting out the problem in chilling and prophetic terms: “Some of the Zionist leaders pretend to believe that the Jews can maintain themselves in Palestine against the whole world, and that they themselves can persevere in claiming everything or nothing against everybody and everything.” 

This, maintained Arendt, is a prescription for disaster: “If we actually are faced with open or concealed enemies on every side, if the whole world is ultimately against us, then we are lost.” With the founding of the State of Israel, she said in a 1964 interview, “a specific Jewish humanity was lost…You pay dearly for freedom, you pay a price for liberation.” 

The loss of humanity that Arendt mourned is on fearsome display in Israel today.  Notwithstanding her qualms about the costs of Jewish nationalism, Arendt appeared willing to pay the price. Would she feel the same way today? Would she come to realize that the price is too high?  When will it become too high for today’s Zionists, who appear, even now, to cling to the belief that Zionism can be made to work, that it is a necessary, even noble enterprise?  

I spoke with Bronstein Aparicio about what the demonstrations might mean for Israel. He doubted that the present government could last in the face of pressures from within and without. But I wondered what might be the far-reaching implications of this crisis. The longer-term and more critical question is, what does this mean for the Zionist enterprise itself?   In a recent speech, Bronstein Aparicio issued a passionate plea for his fellow Israelis, “captive in their own colonial identity,” to be liberated from the role of the colonizer.  

Whatever the fault lines for Israeli society now on display, they do not bring Israel closer to recognizing the problem at the root of this crisis. Besieged within walls of its own making, Israel continues in “the tormented dance of the colonizerin a constant state of contradiction and uneasiness” — to borrow from the words of Tunisian Jew Albert Memmi when he described the predicament of the French in North Africa. 

The real fault line for Israel, the earthquake to come — and I believe it will come — is the irreconcilability of Zionism with the conduct of a modern nation-state. Indeed, it’s the fault line running through human history — whether societies grant one group the right to dominate, exploit, and dispossess another or whether we can use our political systems, flawed as they are, to bring humankind to a realization of our unity and connectedness.

Mark Braverman is Portland Oregon-based author; he is Executive Director of Kairos USA, founded in response to the 2009 Kairos call of the Palestinian Christians’; he is Research Fellow in Theology at Stellenbosch University