Monthly Archives: March 2023

Israel: Trapped in an oxymoron

Readers may need to be reminded: There are Palestinians living in the state of Israel. One could be forgiven for not appreciating this given the way UK mainstream media reports the so-called ‘democratic’ protests within Israel.

But the truth needs to be told: Palestinians comprise around 20% of the population of the state, rising to just over 50% of the population if one includes the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem – land Occupied by Israel and under its effective control.  

In an admittedly thoroughly unscientific assessment, based on my personal viewing/listening habits of mainstream media, I heard the word ‘Palestinian’ barely mentioned in reports on the ‘pro-democracy’ demonstrations, still less any examination of Israeli-Palestinian citizens’ perspectives. Palestinians are noticeably missing from the demonstrations, a fact that should at the very least aroused media curiosity as to why.

As to the 4.7 million Palestinians living under Israeli military law in Gaza and the West Bank, the Occupation itself making a mockery of pro-democracy rhetoric, mainstream UK media, as with mainstream Israeli opinion, generally sees no Palestinians, hears no Palestinians, speaks not of Palestinians.  We might dub this syndrome ‘negative affinity’: the way UK mainstream media replicates the lacunae, absences and seeming indifference to the perspectives of Palestinians.

Elastic words

A prerequisite for speaking intelligibly with another is agreement, implied for the most part, on the meaning that attaches to key words and concepts. True, language, being by its nature elastic, protean, allows for degrees of latitude in use, but there are limits beyond which the meaning of a word or concept cannot be stretched without doing violence to the possibility of speaking intelligibly with another.  

The question thus arises as to whether Israeli Jews, many of whom are demonstrating with passion and conviction to save ‘their’ democracy, have stretched the meaning of that word, ‘democracy’ beyond the degree of latitude that enables meaningful speech, thereby limiting the degree to which political action can be conducted in good faith.

Athenian democracy – you wouldn’t want it

As suggested, the meanings accorded words and concepts change in use, change over time.  Thus, whilst it may still be said that fifth century Athens marked the birth of democracy, we would not now hold it up as an exemplar of what present day democracy should look like.  

Athenian democracy was essentially based on an exclusionary principle, such that only free – non-slave, non-foreigner, non-woman – male citizens could vote and therefore have ultimate control of the Athenian polity and the actions that flowed from it.

If we look at what Israel means by democracy, we see that – at present – it dons itself in the accoutrements of a democratic state: citizens have the vote, a parliament, a Supreme Court and so forth.  But beneath this coat of many colours lies a more monochrome reality, one that ultimately governs the particular nature, the possibilities inherent in, Israel’s version of democracy.  I refer of course to what amounts to Israel’s built-in statute of limitations. To give its full title: Basic Law: Israel-The Nation State of the Jewish People, which goes on to say:

The State of Israel is the nation state of the Jewish People in which it realizes its natural, cultural, religious and historical right to self-determination.

The realization of the right to national self-determination in the State of Israel is exclusive to the Jewish People.

The contention here is that violence is done to language to propose that, given the Basic Law, Israel is a democracy in the way that term is generally understood.   Within the expression of the positive – the exclusive right to self-determination of the Jewish People – lies the unarticulated, but ever-present negative, the denial of the right to self-determination to any other category of people within the Israeli state. The Athenian exclusionary principle rescripted for current use.

What follows from this is that the current demonstrations are not inherently about securing democracy, properly understood, but about protecting particular sets of privileges aimed at re-embedding within the Israeli polity a broadly, but not exclusively, secular dispensation. 

Grand and tragic irony

The grand and tragic irony is that for those of us who wish for a genuinely democratic state, one that makes no claim to ‘exclusive’ rights for any particular population group, we feel compelled to support, in highly qualified support, those opposed to the current Netanyahu government, its personnel and policies. And why is this? It is, as the poem says, for fear of finding something worse.

At the time of writing, Netanyahu has called a temporary halt to pursuing his government’s judicial reforms. It is beyond my powers of clairvoyance to divine what may happen next. But the Netanyahu pause prompts the obvious question: What do the demonstrators want? The status quo ante bellum, the reversion to the position as it was before? Even supposing that were possible.  

The question arises, does Israel, or at least that proportion of the population which considers itself liberal-leftist, even egalitarian, have the internal resources – ethical, political, spiritual, intellectual, emotional – to confront the inherent contradictions of its own position? In a nutshell, the view that it is possible to square the circle of conceiving oneself a democratic state, at the same time as being constitutionally committed to Jewish supremacism. 

The evidence thus far is that it is a contradiction that Israel finds difficult to acknowledge, still less to confront and explore.  In contrast, there is a strain of Israeli dissenting opinion that focuses on campaigning against the Occupation, this undertaken with vigour and rooted commitment, as I’ve had the privilege to observe. (It is not suggested that those opposing the Occupation are not also involved in the wider campaign) This stance is replicated among some out-of-Israel Jewish organisations, broadly on the liberal/leftist spectrum, which campaign both within the Jewish community, and more widely, to persuade/force Israel to end the Occupation. 

Which elephant?

The Occupation is sometimes characterised as the ‘elephant in the room’, i.e. the subject neither Israeilis, nor out-of-Israel Jewish communities want to talk about, hence the title of one Israeli anti-occupation group: ‘Look the Occupation in the Eye’.

Ending the Occupation is a good in itself, and the more campaigns against it the better.  However, from another perspective, focusing on opposing the Occupation could be construed as a form of displacement activity, a way, of avoiding, perhaps unconsciously, not the elephant, but the terrain upon which it walks. And this is on the unfirm ground of an oxymoron: democratic and Jewish.


Just before posting this article, I saw in Haaretz a piece by Anat Saragusti.  The title: ‘Israel’s Docile Liberals Must Share the Blame for the Judicial Crisis’.   In her article Anata fills out what is on her mind. 

We have managed, in the 75 years of the State of Israel’s existence, to create bypass routes that would enable us to imagine that we are living in a country that has a liberal democracy.

She then goes on to list seven areas where ‘docile’ liberals sold the pass to the least desirable elements of the Israeli polity.  The full article can be found here. I’ll share three extracts:

Few of us took to the streets when laws that reinforced Jewish supremacy were enacted….Few of us took to the streets when the nation-state law was passed, which de jure (and not just de facto) made Arabs here second-class citizens.

We consented to a Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty that does not include equality, or freedom of expression, or the right to demonstrate. We kept quiet in the face of this absurdity, and now that the regime coup is upon us…

Now, not only mustn’t we go back to the way things were, it is impossible to go back… We must stand up for equality and freedom of expression… We cannot be quiet or put the issue of the occupation in the hands of zealots, racists and supporters of Jewish supremacy.

Is release possible?

The article is not only a critique of Israel’s deep-rooted, seldom acknowledged, malaise but it also serves as a signpost pointing to a different vision for a state that, for the present, is trapped in its own internal contradictions.

Israel broken? Repairable?

The symbolism couldn’t be starker.

On the one hand, the many Israeli flags held aloft by Jewish religious nationalists as they marched through Jerusalem’s Muslin Quarter on Jerusalem Day, May 2022, shouting ‘Death to Arabs’. 

On the other, the many Israeli flags held aloft around the country this March 2023, notably in Tel Aviv, by Jews protesting against the current government measures to restrict judicial power, seen by them as an assault on Israeli ‘democracy’.

The same flag, different meanings. The one, rooted in religious fundamentalism and unconcealed racism. The other, making claim to be wedded to democracy, secularism and equal rights.  Certainly, the democracy protesters were marching for the protection of Jewish-Israelis’ right to live in a secular space with all the attendant freedoms that implies: marry who you wish, LBGTQ rights, self-determination in respect of religious, or non-religious, practice and so forth.

The Israeli flag has now become a symbol of national disunity, directing attention to the fault lines running through the Israeli state and the Zionist enterprise. I’ll come back to this later in the article.


The events in Hawara, a Palestinian town on the outskirts of Nablus, are easily recounted.  Some 400 settlers from a nearby Settlement entered the West Bank village of Hawara, set fire to homes with their occupants inside, shot at reporters and apparently shot to death a 37-year-old Palestinian.   Reports from the area indicate that Israeli troops did nothing to prevent what is now widely described as a ‘pogrom’.  That the Settlers were planning an assault was known from the monitoring of their social media but this did not move the Israeli state to prevent the attack. Indeed, reports indicate there were at least some Israeli soldiers present at the time. They did nothing.   

From Touching Photographs:

By all accounts—and there are many first-hand witnesses—it was a night of terror in Hawara. The settler terrorists tried to break into houses and successfully set fire to some 40 homes, in nearly all cases with families huddling inside. Mothers tried to hide their children in the bathrooms or storage rooms; husbands who were coming home from work were unable to get through the vicious settler bands and received desperate phone calls from their wives: “They are here, dozens of them, trying to break down the door. They have broken the windows and they’re throwing flaming torches inside. The smoke is choking us. We can’t see or breathe. We’re going to die. Where are you?” By a miracle none of the children and women and elderly were killed. I guess God exists, sometimes.

Bezalel Smotrich of the Religious Zionist Party, now Finance minister and a minister in the Defence Ministry in charge of civilian affairs in the West Bank responded to the ‘pogrom’ at Hawara:

‘Huwara needs to be wiped out. State of Israel should do it,’

Events at Hawara should not be seen as a one-off, or in any sense unusual, as the report below demonstrates: another Jewish-settler attack, this time in Burin a suburb of Nablus, has been perpertrated.  Violence is the modus operandi of the settlers.  They harass and attack Palestinians all the time,  A violence allowed, facilitated, encouraged – yes, encouraged – by the Israeli state.

Protest one: Solidarity with Hawara

Groups such as ‘Look the Occupation in the Eye’, are active every week in protest against the Occupation and the Settlers.  Hundreds of them protested in central Tel Aviv on Monday against the settlers’ torching of Hawara.  Protesters also headed towards Hawara for a ‘solidarity visit’. They were blocked from getting there by Settlers and the army.  Settlers, however, had free access to Hawara. 

Protest two: Against Government’s reforms

On Wednesday, thousands of Israelis took to the streets in a nationwide mass protest against the government’s assault on the country’s judicial system.  This demonstration one among others taking place and planned.  From Haaretz:

Israeli police cracked down on the pro-democracy protesters in Tel Aviv and other locations, using tactics normally reserved for protests by Palestinians in the West Bank – including firing stun grenades, water cannons and confronting them on horseback.

Spot the difference

There is, however, a contrast to be noted here: the demonstration against governmental reforms attracted thousands. The one in solidarity with Hawara, hundreds. No doubt many, if not all, of the ‘hundreds’ also supported the other demonstration.  Nevertheless, the differential turnout is telling us something. 

I have previously remarked that, justified though the protests against judicial reform and related governmental changes may be, they have a solipsistic hue in that they are almost exclusively directed at defending the rights and privileges of, in particular, Jewish Israelis.  The Guardian reported:

Small blocs of anti-occupation protesters have marched at most of the demonstrations, but a refusal to allow Palestinian flags onstage in the Tel Aviv demos, and the fact that only two Palestinian-Israeli speakers have addressed the crowds so far, has left many Palestinian citizens of Israel feeling alienated from the anti-government movement.

The protests, in other words, are in support of an already warped democracy, one where Palestinians have only a diminished form of citizenship.  As for the Occupation, it did not generally figure in the outrage of these demonstrators.

The Supreme Court, in any case, is no defender of Palestinian rights.  It is deeply complicit in securing the legal framework that enables the Occupation to continue unhindered by Israeli legal impediment. 

What would ‘success’ look like?

Let’s imagine that the demonstrations against the judicial and related governmental measures succeed in having them cancelled, and another, almost certainly dysfunctional, government is formed. If experience is any guide, it will duck and dive, advance and retreat, do and undo deals with erstwhile governmental partners in the attempt to hold together Israel’s fissiparous polity.

At present, it is grimly predictable that no imaginable Israeli government will address the structural, fundamental flaws of the Israeli state.  It has wilfully eyes wide open – passed the 2018 Basic Law that cements-in ‘national self-determination as exclusive to the Jewish people’.  In other words, Israel defines itself as a Jewish supremacist, ethno-nationalist state and there is little or no momentum to overturn that.   (Though see the One Democratic State Campaign.) In addition, the Basic Law proclaims: ‘…the development of Jewish settlement as a national value and shall [note the ‘shall’] act to encourage and promote its establishment and consolidation’. By any other words, this clause presages the annexation of all, or a major slice of, the Occupied Territories.  This clause alone establishes that even the idea of a two-state ‘solution’ is but a contrived chimera. 

The 2018 Basic Law is Israel’s self-constructed Separation Wall between it and the possibility of creating an authentically democratic state. 


Israel, in itself, is a fragile state, its internal contradictions now being exposed to itself in graphic, dramatic ways. And here ironies abound:

And perhaps the greatest irony of all is that Israel is inflicting on itself what BDS has for years so assiduously sought to achieve: the flight of capital and business out of the Israeli economy. From The Times of Israel:

Bankers estimate that some $4 billion has been transferred out of Israel and into foreign banks in the past three weeks, amid growing fears over the government’s impending judicial makeover, according to a Wednesday report.

Several unnamed banking sources…said the majority of the outflowing capital was transferred to Europe and the United States, and moved mostly by individuals rather than institutions. It said that in the past two weeks “about 50 companies,” mostly from the high-tech sector, had also moved money abroad.

Internal contradiction

Two contradictory visions of the state vie with each other for dominance.  There is what might be called the secular camp which, along with some non-ultra-religious adherents, is wedded, seemingly uncritically, to a version of the current flawed notion of what a democratic state should look like. Here the idea of an ‘independent’ Supreme Court is integral to its understanding of itself.  No matter, as alluded to above, that the Court has in effect sanctioned Israel’s Occupation. Settlements are adjudged illegal in International Law. Yet at least one sitting judge’s home is in a Settlement. 

A certain degree of political myopia is required to sustain the broadly secular camp’s political vision. Palestinians are more-or-less out of mind, the Occupation perhaps even more so.  The state dons itself in the accoutrements of a democracy sufficient to obscure its essentially Apartheid character. Al Jazeera reports:

Israel’s parliament has passed a law denying naturalisation to Palestinians from the occupied West Bank or Gaza married to Israeli citizens, forcing thousands of Palestinian families to either emigrate or live apart.

This is the state beloved by the West in particular. 

This secular constituency, if it thinks about it at all, would likely as not relinquish the Occupied Territories, or at least a proportion of them, and go along with the two-state ‘solution’ if pressed. For the past fifty-six years it has felt no such pressure.

The other vision, is of an overtly, loudly proclaimed ethno-religious state.  One hemmed-in, or from their perspective, liberated, by religious prescriptions that they are happy to inflict on  other Jewish religious dominations – to the extent that they recognise them at all – and secular Jews.  The Occupation does not represent an issue for them because it is not in fact, from their perspective, an Occupation at all.  The West Bank in particular being seen as an integral part of Israel – from the river to the sea. As the 2018 Basic Law suggests.

As to Palestinians, they are surplus to requirements; they can be expelled and/or further marginalised within the Israeli state.

Toxic governance

The current Netanyahu coalition government is so toxic, so racist, so beyond the pale of what Western democracies are pleased to call their fundamental values, that one can almost hear Western leaders shifting uncomfortably in their seats as they try to figure out how to square their effectively uncritical support for Israel, with a now beyond-justifiable regime seemingly indifferent to the slithery, not-quite-convincing admonitions the West feels able to issue. 

Israel: Broken? Repairable?

Israel is replete with fault lines, only two of which have been touched upon in this article. Certainly it is a country in flux , the ground beneath its feet no longer firm.  There is a sense that something has broken, perhaps the illusion that Israel had of itself. 

But not only for Israelis, but also perhaps for non-Israeli Jews.

Will we confront the contradictions inherent in so many of our positions, the primary one being the delusionary belief that a state can at once be a vehicle for the self-determination of Jewish people alone, yet also democratic. From this error, all that is ill flows.