Israel’s rightwing government represents the Judaization of Zionism

Haim Bresheeth-Žabner

Mondoweiss  /  March 31, 2023

Early Zionism sought to reform the “Ghetto Jew” into the secular Zionist militant. But now the new Israeli government not only wants to push society to the right, but to dismantle its secularism as well.

For three long months, thousands of Israelis have been going out at least twice a week to demonstrate against their new and extreme government. The sights on our screens are unprecedented — huge gatherings in the main cities, main roads blocked, the official premier residence under siege, thousands blocking the road to the airport every time Netanyahu is on his way to another capital, and every Thursday is now a National Disruption Day with most major systems either grinding to a halt or barely functioning. 

To make it even more difficult for Netanyahu and his unruly fascists on the Zionist right, some European countries, and even the US, have become more vocal about their disaffection. Is this Israel’s version of the color revolutions?

It is clear that most Israelis are against the so-called Judicial Reform, which the demonstrators call the judicial coup. Even some Likud voters — not the most well-behaved crowd at the best of times — have been deeply shaken by the ferocity of the changes. As long as the changes were mainly concerning the occupied territory and the more than six and a half million Palestinians living in historic Palestine, most Israelis would have backed their government as they have done so often before; but this government is clearly different — in its intentions, actions, tone, and especially its openness about its objectives. And for the first time, it is also focused on dramatically changing the life of Israeli Jews, not just of its Palestinian subjects living under a militarized apartheid regime.

Those changes are breathtaking — too many to enumerate here — and highly invested in changing not only the style of government, but the very nature of Jewish identity. Now, let us remember that the Zionist movement was, since its inception, a project of massive social engineering and identity transformation — of converting the Ghetto Jew to the New Jew of settler-colonial militarism — expansionist, arrogant, and exclusionary in character. 

That militarism reflected itself in Israel’s development into a warring state with a massive Military Industrial Complex, becoming the security state par excellence. The fact that the IDF and the Shabak and the whole deep state have come out against the judicial overhaul is evidence of how fundamental the inner conflict has become — not one over the nature of the occupation and its settlement project in Palestine, but over its public presentation, between the old elite and the new one. Either way, it is clear evidence of the centrality of the army in this militarized settler state.

Past governments, including those headed by Netanyahu, preferred a combination of denial and obfuscation, of covering up and hiding behind obvious smoke screens, avoiding clearly stating their political aims in Palestine. It allowed Israel to publicly maintain the fantasy of the “only democracy in the Middle East.” And the ruse worked.

But after 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, with thinly-veiled plans for the expulsion of as many Palestinians as it can get away with.

None of this was a serious enough reason to start protesting against Netanyahu for most Israeli Jews, who accept the occupation and its iniquities without a second thought. But this government also announced its intention to remove extant secular legislation, practically transforming Israel into a Jewish Halachic state — a variant of the Sharia state. 

The intention to “religionize” Israeli society (Hadatha in Hebrew) has been jarring to the part of Israeli society that still sees itself as mainly secular, in defiance of reality and statistics. More than 50% of Israelis describe themselves as religious, or Masorti, a less restrictive form of Judaism. Meanwhile, the percentage of ultra-orthodox Jews has increased exponentially, with a significantly higher birth rate than other Israelis. The statistics are clear: Israel is safely on its way to becoming a Jewish version of the Islamic Republic. While historical Zionism was a mainly secular movement, this changed a while ago through the social engineering of a new Jewish Identity, much like the Zionism of the Yeshuv sought to remake the “Ghetto Jew” into a secular Zionist pioneer. 

This development has been a long time coming, and it did not start with the judicial overhaul.

From ‘Ghetto Jew’ to Jewish militarism

While European Jews were becoming increasingly secular in many parts of Europe and the US since the start of the twentieth century, this version of a cosmopolitan Jew was the hate figure of Zionism, together with its mirror image — the Ghetto Jew. Much of Herzl’s inspiration for the “New Jew” came from Prussia in the nineteenth century — a source of inspiration he shared with Ben Gurion — projecting a militarized colonial power considering the territory surrounding it as Lebensraum [1], a space to be occupied and ethnically cleansed to enable settler colonization. Both Zionism and Prussian Nationalism saw Sparta as an apt model for their ambitions.

The Judaization of this political model necessitated a nationalist journey into the Jewish past, resembling the similar journey of German nationalism. The preferred past of Zionism are the militarized mythical figures such as Joshua of the book of the same name or Bar Kochva, a heroic figure of the great rebellion of Judea against the Romans. But alas, the Book of Joshua is not one of the literary achievements of the biblical text. Its 26 short chapters are the repetitive narrative of the total destruction of eleven indigenous communities in Palestine, with each of the chapters almost identically worded — the only difference being the name of the victim. This book of bloodshed — insisting on killing men, women, children, and animals — has become a sacred model for Zionists like Ben-Gurion and his generals in 1948. 

The other historical figures serving as mythical inspiration for the young Israel are the Zealots of the end of the Second Temple period, fighting not just the Romans but also many of their brethren inside the besieged Jerusalem, ultimately causing the fall of the city, the destruction of the temple, and the banning of the surviving Jews from living in what became the Roman city of Ilia Capitolina, built on the leveled Jewish capital. Jewish culture and learning survived thanks to the famous rabbi and scholar Yohanan Ben-Zakkai, a sworn opponent of Zealotry, who had left the besieged city and signed an agreement with the Romans in which they gave him the town of Yavne and its environs, a day’s trip from Jerusalem, for the purpose of building a town of sages there. In essence, this would become the first Jewish university in ancient Palestine. Historical Judaism is impossible to perceive without this town in Palestine of two millennia ago, as well as the two similar centers of Jewish learning in what is today Iraq, built some five hundred years earlier by the Babylonian diaspora and giving the world the Babylonian Talmud.

Therein lies the problem — what does one choose from the Jewish past to serve as an identity model for a society claiming Jewishness as its defining characteristic? The choice of historical Zionism in Palestine and later in Israel was clear — they adopted the Zealots and Joshua as their models. After all, they saw the conquering and clearing of Palestine of its indigenous population as their main task, enabling the building of a Jewish state with the minimum of non-Jews. In doing so, they continued in the footsteps of Theodor Herzl with his plan of emptying Palestine of its “paupers” to establish the State of the Jews.

That this violent aim requires a less-than-democratic society seems obvious, and clearly, Israel has never been democratic in any real sense ever since its inception — it was and remained a Herrenvolk democracy [2], a democracy for Jews only. But now that Jews will also face some loss of rights, the old elites responsible for the Nakba and all that followed are out on the streets, enacting a complex social coup supported by the military-financial-academic-industrial social classes. [3] They wish to defend their “Jewish Democracy,” one which has developed and entrenched the illegal settlements project, with the full support of the Supreme Court, the heart of a settler democracy. 

Looking in the mirror at the new Israel

These ructions present Jews abroad with a painful dilemma: will they — as many of them do — continue to support Israel in an unqualified and unquestioning manner, or is it a time for a somber and self-searching examination of their identity? What they will discover is the image of militarized, colonial Zionism, fully-fledged and lacking table manners. 

Many Jews outside Israel will now face the painful realization that the Jewish State acting in their name has become an insufferable and offensive creature even to most of its Jewish citizens. After all, what is so Jewish about apartheid, military occupation, and decades of oppression? While most of the protestors are Zionist by inclination (and one suspects, by a lack of historical analysis), they find the current iteration of Zionist control one they cannot accept. Netanyahu must indeed have crossed all the red lines if he’s being faced with a counter-coup led by IDF reservists, the Shabak [Shin Bet], and a clutch of ex-generals not known for their excessive sensitivity to human rights. 

Statistics alone bear out the disturbing messages: Israel today is mainly religious and undemocratic, a regime of inequality and military occupation, and more right-wing than ever before, with or without Netanyahu. The demographic statistics are pointing to a swift intensification of these trends. Netanyahu’s government was democratically elected with the votes of this undemocratic majority. Zionism has now arrived after a long political journey and is facing Israelis, Jews, and others with a painful dilemma — is this racist and unjust regime to be supported as it prepares to dispossess and expel even more Palestinians? Do they prefer the Judaism of Yohanan Ben Zakkai or that of Joshua the bloody conqueror, and Itamar Ben Gvir, the fascist propagator? 

For Jews and non-Jews alike, to support this terrifying iteration of Zionism in the name of supporting a Jewish democracy is a travesty that even Israelis are now finding offensive. The time has come for Jews and all the rest of us to reckon with Zionist racism and oppression and to search instead for a non-Zionist political system offering equality and justice for all who live between the river and the sea. Not doing so threatens the lives of all.


[1] Literally, living space in German, a term used by German nationalists in the early part of the 20th Century, and later being identified with Nazi aims.

[2] Herrenvolk democracy is a system of government in which only a specific ethnic group participates in government, while other groups are disenfranchised, such as existed in apartheid South Africa.

[3]  Netanyahu and his son Yair were quick to announce that the US and CIA have financed the protest movement. They may well be right, when one considers the long history of US complicity in such coups elsewhere.

Haim Bresheeth-Žabner is a Professorial Research Associate at SOAS, University of London. His recent book is An Army Like No Other: How the Israel Defense Forces Made a Nation, Verso, London, August 2020