In the chains of Israel theocracy

Tikva Honig-Parnass, Wednesday 10 May 2023

This essay on state and society in Israel, 50 years after its founding, traces the roots of the new populist authoritarianism emerging under Netanyahu. Based on the marriage of Zionist colonialism and aggressive clericalism, the new regime is the logical expression of the Zionist project

The violation of women s rights, inherent in the Israeli laws of marriage and divorce never particul
The violation of women s rights, inherent in the Israeli laws of marriage and divorce never particularly bothered the leaders of the secular Zionist parties, including those of the Zionist left... Even now, as in the past, they are prepared to sacrifice full, universal civil rights, especially women s rights, on the altar of tribal unity around a fragile status quo


From Al-Ahram Weekly archives: Fifty years of dispossession 1948-1998

Issue: 21 May 1998


Fifty years after its establishment on the foundations of the Palestinian Al-Nakba (catastrophe), the Jewish state is still in the midst of a continuous process: that of realising the goals of the Zionist colonialist enterprise. From the start, the Zionist movement set itself the goal of establishing an exclusivist-Jewish state in the territory of historical Palestine, by dispossessing the Palestinians of their land and their homeland. This goal was only partially achieved in 1948, and was completed in 1967 with the conquest of all of Palestine.

Nevertheless, the Oslo Accords were needed so that world public opinion, Arab states and the Palestinians themselves could legitimate the Zionists' preferred "solution to the Palestinian problem": continued Israeli control over the territories occupied in '67, both by direct annexation (including, but by no means limited to, the settlements and bypass roads), and by means of a small Palestinian client state on Bantustan lines in areas with high concentrations of the Palestinian population. The emerging apartheid system here is thus designed to meet the ideological requirements shared by all streams of Zionism, including the Zionist Labour movement: separation to establish exclusive Jewish sovereignty.

COLONIALISM: On its 50th anniversary, the colonialist policies of the state of Israel are still in force, and are also applied to those Palestinians who remained within Israeli borders after the expulsion of most of the Palestinian people from their homeland in 1948. As is the case in the territories occupied in '67, within the green line the attack continues on what little land remains in Palestinian hands after 93 per cent was declared "state land", i.e. land on which only Jews are permitted to settle.

Similarly, the discriminatory planning and development policies instituted by all previous Israeli governments remain in force: to severely restrict construction and building in the "recognised" Arab towns and villages, and to destroy the approximately 180 "unrecognised" ones altogether by refusing to grant building permits or to allow such elementary infrastructure as water and electricity, and such basic services as education and health care.

The Zionist movement itself, and the colonialism of the state of Israel, is designed first and foremost to serve the regional interests of Western imperialism. Currently it is the US's interest in controlling the oil resources of the Middle East within a neo-liberal framework that is being introduced to the region, and is beginning to be implemented in Israel.

The policies of a "free" economy are destroying the remnants of the universal welfare state within Israel, leading to fierce unemployment rates and the pauperisation of broad sectors of the working class and petite bourgeoisie. In the 50th year of a state designed, ostensibly, to provide prosperity to all the Jewish people who settled in it, the gaps between rich and poor are among the widest in the Western world.

The pauperisation taking place now is not the fruit of Netanyahu's policies alone. It is the result of the cumulative effects of long-standing policies implemented by the Zionist Labour movement, whose continuous hegemony in the pre-state Zionist movement and in the state of Israel was interrupted only in 1977, when the Likud won the elections. The subsequent Labour governments, like the opposition Labour Party today, were not in principle any different from the Likud with regard to the policies of privatisation and a "free" economy, and the neo-liberal ideology that accompanies them.

In parallel to the convergence of Labour and Likud around neo-liberalism's economic policies, the differences between their respective programmes for the final solution under Oslo are becoming ever more blurred. The essence of the Beilin-Abu Mazen plan of March 1996, which Arafat recently announced is acceptable to him, will leave most of the Israeli settlements in place; on the territory that remains (not more than 50 per cent of the West Bank) a Bantustan state will be established, with its capital in the village of Abu Dis (adjacent to Jerusalem). This programme is now accepted (although not explicitly) by both Netanyahu and Labour.

The main difference, however, under Netanyahu's reign is the nature of the political regime, which is designed to mobilise support for neo-liberalism: the destruction of the old political parties and the old elites, the tendency to blur the distinctions between the three branches of the government, the refusal to cooperate with the Knesset and the criticism of the Supreme Court: these authoritarian features of Netanyahu's government are paving the way to a populist regime based on a direct, charismatic connection between the leader and the "people". Such a regime is reminiscent of the contemporary South American-style neo-Peronism, whose Israeli version is characterised by the close union of Zionist colonialism and aggressive clericalism.

In place of traditional party politics, Netanyahu conducts a "sectoral politics" consisting of the cultivation and bribery of the political representatives of various groups, including the Russian immigrants, ultra-Orthodox groups and the Shas movement, which sponsors a network of community health and education services.

This sectoral bribery serves neo-liberalism, as it both reflects the ideological preference for private charity over the principle of the universal rights of the citizen and is economically advantageous: the cost of sectoral bribery is less than that of financing a universal welfare policy.

THE SECULAR-RELIGIOUS RIFT: Granting power to the Orthodox establishment is not a novelty introduced by the Netanyahu government, but rather one of the structural features of the state of Israel since its establishment. During the years of Labour Party rule, however, there was a coordinated division of labour between the state and the Orthodox establishment in the form of the Supreme Rabbinate, initiated and supported by the nationalist-religious party within the Orthodox community (as opposed to the various ultra-Orthodox groups, who relied on their own religious authorities, and who were rather alienated from Zionism and the state).

The active cooperation of the nationalist-religious sector with Zionism and the state led the rabbinical establishment to adopt a more moderate position. This prevented them from interfering with secular life beyond the borders of the agreement known as the "status quo", and allowed them to play the role of mediator between the state and the Orthodox.

The power of the Chief Rabbinate was weakened, however, as the young generation of the nationalist-religious sector turned to both ultra-Orthodoxy and extremist Zionism, a process which began after the '67 War.

These young people now look to the heads of yeshivoth (religious seminaries) in the Occupied Territories and Israel as an alternative source of authority. This process, together with the ongoing "orthodoxisation" of the once secular extreme right, has led to the increasingly arrogant interference in secularist life by ultra-orthodox circles, with the Chief Rabbinate trailing behind.

The sharpening of the religious-secular rift was recently revealed during the main ceremony commemorating the 50th year of the state, which was characterised by militarist and religious symbols intended to mark the "victory of Zionism": the modern dance Anaphasa, by the Bat Sheva Ballet Troupe, was censored at the last moment under pressure from a middle-ranking Orthodox official (the deputy mayor of Jerusalem), because the dancers stripped down to short pants as the hymn "God Is One in Heaven and Earth (from the Passover ritual) was heard. The troupe refused the compromise solution suggested by President Weizman -- to wear long underwear -- and cancelled their appearance. None of the other distinguished Israeli artists who were scheduled to perform joined the dancers, and only the next day did dozens of artists organise a militant demonstration. It was the first demonstration ever organised by Israeli artists against the ongoing violations of the right to free artistic or political expression in either Israel or the territories occupied in '67. The demonstrators pledged to continue the struggle against "religious coercion" and for "artistic freedom".

The mass media hastened to describe these events as the beginning of a "cultural war" and an indication of "the greatest rift in Israeli society, one which threatens its unity". But even a superficial examination of the discourse which developed around this incident throws light on the ideological chains that secular Israelis place on themselves, and which prevent them from developing a principled and systematic struggle against the rule of religion. These chains are their deep commitment to Zionism and the Jewish state, which from its beginning has been half theocratic.

The most senior artists and writers, Israeli cultural heroes, the majority of whom support and celebrate the Oslo "solution", have repeatedly emphasised, in the debate which followed the incident, that they are struggling for "a Jewish and Zionist-democratic state, without religious coercion".

Their discourse, however, has not reached the point of speaking in the name of universal rights, including freedom of expression in the areas of the press and politics; nor have they mentioned the rights of more than two million Palestinians in the territories occupied in '67 and the discrimination against them in Israel. After all, such an attitude would have forced them to identify the essential contradiction between the Jewish-Zionist state and secular liberal democracy.

ZIONISM AND RELIGION: As Professor Zeev Sternhall of Hebrew University indicates, the conceptual-ideological framework in which Zionism operates has been shaped by the organic, tribal nationalism of "blood and soil" which developed in eastern and central Europe as the antithesis to the liberal nationalism with values rooted in the notions of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution.

This organic nationalism defined national belonging not according to political-legal criteria, but on cultural, ethnic, and religious bases -- which could easily be perceived as reflecting biological or racial uniqueness. The individual is not perceived as an intrinsic entity or value, but as an integral part, regardless of personal choice, of the national unit, to which he or she owes absolute loyalty.

The Labour Zionist movement, in addition to this "organic nationalism", also adopted national socialism in its Israeli version, known as "constructive socialism". This variant of socialism in the service of the nation required the subjugation of social and economic demands and the interests of the working class to "national aims".

Mobilising the working class to build the capitalist economy of the Zionist state-in-the-making was one of its "national aims". Building an egalitarian society was not among the goals of the leaders of the Labour movement. They were satisfied with existence of a system of services, such as health and education, which would prevent "excessive" inequality from undermining the foundations of national unity.

Religion was always a central component of national identity for organic nationalists. The centrality of the Bible in Zionism, however, helped make the religious dimension of Zionism even stronger than in other radical national movements. The Bible was used by Zionism not only as a means of cultivating national unity, but also as a source for legitimation of the Zionist claim of exclusive rights to all of Palestine.

As Baruch Kimmerling, professor of sociology at the Hebrew University, claims, "from the beginning, the Zionist project was made captive by its choice of Palestine as its target territory for colonisation and as the place for building its exclusive Jewish state. Neither the nation nor its culture could be built successfully apart from the religious context. This has been so even when its prophets, priests, builders and fighters saw themselves as completely secular."

Thus, Zionism preserved religious myths and symbols among its central symbols, including the cardinal "commandment" of Zionism: immigration to Palestine ("Eretz Israel"). The biblical connection to the land and the connection between the Bible and present-day life in the "old-new land" were strongly emphasised, both in the pre-state secular Jewish community (in which one used to learn the Bible six days a week) and in the state of Israel. Moreover, "the nucleus of the state's symbols remain today Jewish-religious. The rest is but a thin veneer of what only appears to be secularism [...] All the civic symbols and essentially the entire collective identity became subservient to religion, and Zionism itself turned into a sort of Jewish religion, incorporating civic elements as well."

This was the basis for the support of the leaders of the Labour Party (not just the Likud) for the settlements in the '67 Occupied Territories. They had inherited from the founders of Zionism the belief in the exclusive Jewish claim to Palestine as the ethical and moral basis for Jewish national existence. On the other hand, the '67 occupation necessitated a renewed and even more unequivocal religious legitimation. The heretofore small and marginal groups of religious Zionists became of central importance: the colonising and fighting pioneer vanguard, marching before the Zionist camp.

As Kimmerling states: "The settler with the kipah (skullcap) on his head and submachine gun in his hands is the most authentic representative of the hard core of their collective identity, whether Israelis want it to be or not. It cannot even be said that this is a distortion of Zionism, but rather that it is its logical expression, carried to the point of absurdity."

DISCRIMINATION AGAINST ARABS: The notion of an exclusive Jewish state is built on the identity between nation and religion accepted by Zionism. Three fundamental laws enacted in the first years of the state's establishment, and based on the religious definition of the "national" collective, were meant to ensure exclusive Jewish sovereignty, given the continuing presence of Palestinians within the borders of the state, even after 1948.

The first two of these laws are the Law of Return (1950) and the Law of Citizenship (1952), which allow any Jew to immigrate to Israel and to automatically become a citizen, while at the same time, deprive all Palestinian refugees outside the borders of the state of the possibility of returning to their homes. The third basic law, the World Zionist Organisation-Jewish Agency (Status) Law (the "WZO Law"), ensures that Jews, in actual practice, enjoy preference over the Palestinian citizens of the state i all matters pertaining to land ownership and budgetary allocations for building and development.

The WZO Law does this in a most cunning and hypocritical way: it authorises the various Zionist bodies, founded in the early 1900s, to function in Israel as quasi-governmental entities, in order to further advance the goals of the Zionist movement. They were assigned the functions of maintenance and support of cultural, educational and welfare activities, as well as the work of developing land, building projects in the existing Jewish communities and the establishment of new Jewish localities.

The religious definition of citizenship in the state of Israel, on which these discriminatory laws are based, violate the norms of modern nation-states, in which citizenship is generally defined in universal terms of political allegiance. The state of Israel is not defined as a state of all its citizens, but rather as the state of all the Jewish people throughout the world. In other words, the right to "membership" in the state, with all the rights that it entitles one to enjoy, is determined by the religious criterion of religious affiliation.

Two additional laws ensure the perpetuation of discrimination against non-Jewish citizens: the Amendment to the Basic Law: The Knesset (1985), provision 7(A), and provision 5(1) of the Law of Political Parties (1992). According to the Israeli Supreme Court's interpretation of these laws, a political party platform which calls upon the state of Israel to provide full and equal rights to Palestinian citizens, and/or challenges the Jewish character of the state, might find that it is disqualified from running in the national elections.

DEFECTIVE DEMOCRACY: Inevitably, however, the "Jewishness" of the state, which "justified" the denial of Palestinians as full citizens, boomeranged and denied a substantial part of basic civil rights to the Jews as well, both secular and religious.

Thus, the Orthodox establishment and the Chief Rabbinate were given control of the delineation of the national-collective borders which determine who is entitled to full membership in the Jewish state (an individual born to a Jewish mother or a convert in accordance with the definition of Orthodox Jewish religious law). This was done by means of absorbing religious personal status law as the law of the state and by assigning exclusive jurisdiction in this area to the rabbinate and its courts.

In other words, the legal and judicial system that relates to marriage, divorce and even burial, and which is based mainly on the Orthodox interpretation of the religious law, was assigned to the religious courts, and is not under the full control of the state.

Moreover, the incorporation of the Jewish religious laws into the corpus of state legislation (particularly in the area of personal status) confers on the Orthodox establishment the authority to enforce them on the Jewish citizens (equivalent powers have been given to Muslim, Christian and Druze courts to rule the personal lives of the state's Palestinian citizens). And indeed, in "the only democracy in the Middle East", civil marriages are not available to the citizenry to this day.

Of course, it is women who are the most discriminated against in accordance with religious law. Thus, for example, a Jewish woman cannot even obtain a divorce without the consent of her husband, even if he beats her, or is in prison or insane -- or if he has been missing for years but is not known to be dead.

It was not "religious coercion", however, that turned Israel into a half-theocratic state. This was made possible by the above-mentioned "status quo" arrangement, which was proposed to the Orthodox party, Agudat Israel, by the secular leader of the Zionist movement, David Ben Gurion, in June 1947, five months before the United Nations vote approving the partition of Palestine into Jewish and Palestinian states. According to this arrangement, the religious and Orthodox parties were promised that, in the ewish state which was about to be established, the Sabbath and laws of kashrut (Jewish dietary laws) would be enforced.

The Zionist movement also accepted the authority of the Orthodox Jewish establishment over all legislation having to do with birth, marriage, divorce and burial. In return the Orthodox, who until then had fiercely rejected Zionism, accepted the Zionist leadership as a representative of the Jewish people, came to terms with the state, and even signed the Declaration of Independence and participated with the Zionist religious party in the first government.

The violation of citizens' freedom of conscience in general, and that of women in particular, inherent in the Israeli laws of marriage and divorce never particularly bothered the leaders of the secular Zionist parties, including those of the Zionist left, because of their indifference to and even contempt for civil and women's rights. Even now, as in the past, they are prepared to sacrifice full, universal civil rights, especially women's rights, on the altar of tribal unity around the fragile "status quo".

The delay in enacting a secular constitution has been one of the main mechanisms perpetuating the suffocating sentence the secular Zionists have imposed upon themselves. A constitution would ensure the implementation of the promise made in Israel's Declaration of Independence to provide equal rights to all its citizens "without regard to gender, race or religion".

In the first days of the state, and despite a promise contained in the Declaration of Independence, the coalition headed by Mapa'i, the predecessor of the Labour Party, decided not to enact a constitution immediately, but instead to rely on a gradual enactment of basic laws -- without committing themselves to completing them within a definite time period. Thus, until 1992, not even one basic law which relates to the issue which is the heart and rationale of any constitution -- namely the defence of the basic rights of minorities and individuals -- was enacted.

The basic law designed to deal with this subject, the "Human Rights Law", was introduced in the Knesset, but got bogged down for years in various committees until, under the pressure of the religious parties, it was split into several separate basic laws. Only two of these have been enacted till now (both in 1992): the Basic Law: Freedom of Occupation (1992) and the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Freedom (1992), which is considered a mini-bill of rights by Israeli legal scholars. However, it lacks any clear clause guaranteeing equality of rights to all citizens, and any clauses explicitly protecting freedom of the press, expression and the right to demonstrate -- which are the foundations of democracy.

Moreover, the Human Dignity and Freedom Law explicitly declares that its aim is to anchor "the values of the state as a Jewish and democratic state". Thus, on its face, the law entrenches the superiority of the Jewish majority and ignores the Arab-Palestinian citizens in Israel. However, this superior status, which is based on the legal and ideological definition of Israel as a Jewish state, is also responsible for the denial of the basic rights of secular Jews as well.

The interpretation of the term "Jewish state" by Justice Aharon Barak, a secular Zionist thought of as representing the "liberal" position within the Supreme Court, locates his views very close to the religious perception of the Bible and tradition as the sovereign authority on the life of the Jews.

"[The] Jewish State is, therefore, the state of the Jewish people... It is a state in which every Jew has the right to return... It is a state of which the language is Hebrew, and most of its holidays represent its national rebirth... A Jewish state is a state that developed a Jewish culture, Jewish education and a loving Jewish people... A Jewish state is also a state where the Jewish Law fulfills a significant role... A Jewish state is a state in which the values of Israel, the Torah, Jewish heritage and the values of the Jewish halacha [religious law] are the bases of its values."

Thus, on the fiftieth anniversary of the Palestinian Nakba, Israeli society finds itself paying the price of its commitment to the ongoing Zionist colonial project, in its new Oslo form. It needs, perhaps now more than ever, religious legitimation for the "exclusive historic right" of the Jewish nation to all of Palestine.

As long as it continues to apply religious criteria to determine which members of society are entitled to full citizenship rights in the Zionist state, however, the Jewishness of the state will continue to generate chains of clerical control that prevent the realisation of full rights for the Israelis themselves.

Therefore, the opposition expressed by broad secular circles to "religious coercion" appears pathetic: their commitment to the Jewish-Zionist state -- and thus their collective identity, which is religious in essence -- distorts their very humanity when it comes to all that concerns the Palestinians. This prevents them from realising their own full civil rights, and freeing themselves from the chains of religion.


Translated from Hebrew by Yochanan Lorwin

* The writer is the editor of News from Within, published by the Alternative Information Centre, Jerusalem/Bethlehem.


This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly’s special pages commemorating 50 years of Al-Nakba, the Palestinian catastrophe when Israel was created on 15 May 1948. These pages, published in 1998, were part of a year-long series of articles documenting the history and nature of the Arab-Israeli struggle, as well as that of Palestinian dispossession and exile.

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