WE HEAR A great deal from liberals in the West these days about the rise of authoritarian and illiberal governments across the world: from Putin’s Russia to Orbán’s Hungary; from Trump’s America to Erdogan’s Turkey; from Modi’s India to Duterte’s Philippines.
We don’t hear so much about Netanyahu’s Israel — despite the fact that the country, as former Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami has conceded, “is succumbing to its deepest ethnocentric impulses” and is “now well on its way to joining the growing club of illiberal democracies, and it has Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to thank.”
Some might say “on its way” is an understatement. According to Hagai El-Ad, executive director of B’Tselem, the Israel Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, the Jewish state could be considered a founding member of that particular club because it has enjoyed a “significant head start” on the rest. For example, the practice of “describing the opposition and specifically human rights organizations as traitors, and then also calling for their criminal investigation … may sound familiar to listeners from various countries … in which authoritarian governments are on the rise,” he tells me on the latest episode of Deconstructed, “but, hey, Israel has been there way before.”
Consider the array of “anti-democratic” laws that have been passed by the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, over the past decade; laws which have had a chilling effect on freedom of speech and expression. In 2011, there was the “Boycott Law,” which made any Israeli individual or organization that calls for a boycott against Israel liable to be sued for damages. There was also the “Nakba Law,” which authorized the Israeli finance ministry to cut state funding from institutions that reject Israel’s character as a “Jewish” state or mark the country’s Independence Day as a “day of mourning.” In 2015, there was the “NGO Law,” which targets foreign-funded human rights organizations inside Israel and was described by Meretz politician Mossi Raz as a “semi-fascistic law that harms democracy and silences dissent in a way that is reminiscent of Putin’s Russia.” (Of 27 organizations threatened by this law, 25 of them are left-wing or human rights groups.)
Then there is Israeli public opinion, in which the shift to the authoritarian and racist right has been remarkable in recent decades. According to polling by Pew, nearly half (48 percent) of Israeli Jews now support expelling Arabs from Israel, while the vast majority of them (79 percent) believe that they are entitled to deserve “preferential treatment” over non-Jewish minorities in Israel.