Israel's secret fears

The nation that sees itself as the most misunderstood in the world celebrates its 60th birthday with

Israel marks its 60th birthday in a climate of increasing racism, intolerance, corruption and militarism. A nation that has long seen itself as one of the most misunderstood is now almost unable to understand the world beyond its borders. Fear and anxiety provide the mood music of the celebrations.

The past decade has brought a sharp increase in anti-Arab sentiment, which finds many forms of expression, from sordid chants at sporting events ("Death to the Arabs") to blatant racism and attacks on Arab colleagues by right-wing pol iticians in the Knesset. In such an atmosphere, it is almost impossible for Arab citizens (or 1948 Palestinians) to identify with the state of Israel, despite the terms of their legal status. Indeed, it is increasingly difficult for them even to protect their civil rights and express themselves freely in public.

Anyone who doubts the depth of anti-Arab feeling has only to scan the internet. On 8 May, I was commissioned by the popular news site Walla! (associated with the newspaper Haaretz) to write a short column about the Israeli national anthem, "Hatikva" (or Hope). Haaretz had asked another writer to support the anthem. I was commissioned to write against it and to suggest a more suitable one.

My main point of opposition was that the opening words - "As long as deep in the heart/A Jewish soul yearns . . . towards Zion" - excluded the more than one million Arab citizens of Israel. Walla! debates are allocated some two hours' airtime and previous ones, for example on economic issues or the evacuation of the Jewish settlements in Gaza, have generated talkback that was overwhelmingly right-wing. However, the anthem debate exceeded even my pessimistic ex pectations.

Within an hour 481 comments had appeared, 472 of which were vehemently anti-Arab and abusive of "bleeding-heart leftists". Some of the comments were simply racist, but the majority were nationalistic, betraying deep hatred of Israel's Arab citizens.

Such expressions are now commonplace. If an Arab member of the Knesset (MK) expresses solidarity with Palestinians in the besieged Gaza area, the comment will be scrutinised minutely by Jewish politicians and journalists. Accusations of high treason are commonplace. Proposed parliamentary bills single out Arab MKs for clearly discriminatory treatment. One right-wing former minister, Avigdor Liberman, regularly threatens his fellow MK Ahmad Tibi in tones that are becoming increasingly brutal. Liberman himself faces serious accusations of corruption and bribery and, as his indictment becomes virtually inevitable, he has resorted to lurid and vociferous language said to go down well in his largely Russian-speaking constituency.

Amid intensifying hostility and even derision, the Jewish left and a handful of liberals from the political centre try to voice their protest. Centrist Zionists dissociate themselves from anti-Arab sentiment and claim there is no contradiction between Israel's claim to be a liberal democracy and the view that the Zionist nature of Israel is paramount and transcends norms of equality and democracy. Others claim anti-Arab feeling stems from misguided nationalism rather than racism. A reputable economist in Tel Aviv compared "the fervent patriotism in Israel, accompanied by lurid hostility against Arabs" with anti-German sentiment in Britain before the Great War.

"It is not 'racist' in the sense of generalising the entire Arab population or regarding them as inferior to us," he told me. "If the Israelis and the Palestinians were to reach a peace agreement, the hatred would evaporate." Depressing as it may seem, that was one of the most optimistic statements I heard during the anniversary celebrations.

To celebrate Independence Day this year, Israeli television screened a documentary about the 1948 war veterans. The normally alienated and cosmopolitan television producers and directors had flooded our screens with sickening, even embarrassing, bits of nostalgia. This documentary, however, was a gem. The veterans in the film, some approaching their nineties and therefore somewhat frail, were taken to the southernmost Israeli city of Eilat, on the shores of the Red Sea.

All had taken part in the bloodless capture of Eilat and had become famous 60 years earlier for raising, in the beautiful bay, a handmade Israeli flag painted in ink, thus securing Israel's access to the Red Sea.

At one important moment in the film, they were requested to state their views on Israel today. Had it met the expectations they had had back in 1948? Were they pleased with the way Israel had evolved? All expressed bitter disappointment, pointing to rampant corruption, the accusations of bribery laid against Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, and the nation's collective failure to secure a peace agreement with its Arab neighbours, including the Palestinians.

The most articulate of the veterans was Major General Avraham Adan, chief commander during the occupation of Eilat and the only senior officer, apart from Ariel Sharon, to emerge from the disastrous 1973 Yom Kippur War with flying colours. Adan masterminded the crossing of the Suez Canal in that traumatic war and has felt ever since that Sharon stole the glory which rightly belonged to him. Clear and lucid at 89, Adan was blatant in his criticism.

"Israel has changed for the worse," said the general. "Corruption gnaws at our fabric and threatens our very existence. We dreamed about a different, more egalitarian and more moral society."

Undoubtedly, Adan was expressing the feelings of most Israelis. Successive polls in Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel's most popular daily newspaper, show that the vast majority of Israelis do not trust the Establishment and are deeply wary of Olmert. Accusations of bribery are rife and it is almost certain that the prime minister will be indicted.

Uneasy conformists

Israel's Jews are conformist in their attitudes to institutions such as the anthem or the army, but they have become more aware of the impotence of their government and, at times, of its malevolence. The failure of the Israel Defence Forces in the Second Lebanon War of 2006 undermined the confidence of ordinary Israelis: the beneficiary of the crisis has been the right-wing Likud Party.

On 2 May, Haaretz carried an interview with Yaakov Weinroth, a respected barrister and self-professed Marxist. The paper's intelligent readership was treated to a breathtaking tour de force from this anti-corruption orator (who is, nevertheless, the legal adviser of most of Israel's corrupt politicians and of the settlers). Weinroth spoke at length in favour of social justice, yet expressed his support for the neoliberal Likud leader, Binyamin Netanyahu. Such contradictions confuse public opinion, and enhance Netanyahu's status not only in intellectual circles, but even among the direct victims of his social policies. False consciousness is not unique to Israel, but the geopolitical isolation of the country exacerbates the situation.

Perhaps the most telling sign of the nation's fear and distrust of the world outside came in the recent reaction to criticism levelled at the Chelsea Football Club coach Avram Grant in England. Grant has become an unlikely cult hero in his native Israel. Aviad Pohoryles, a sports commentator for Maariv, a popular Hebrew-language newspaper, found in Chelsea's unexpected win over Liverpool an opportunity to berate the British for their supposed anti-Israel attitude. England, he claimed, had always conducted a blatantly anti-Israel foreign policy: "Some of Grant's lack of legitimacy derives from this negative attitude towards Israel. Grant's presence at Stamford Bridge constitutes a certain answer to these heartless people."

Pohoryles is a reputed writer from the very mainstream, neither a settler nor a vehement right-winger. His deep suspicion of the British media, and his castigation of a journalist who happened to be critical of Grant's coaching style, hinting that the journalist's criticism was founded in anti-Semitism, are typical of an antipathy towards the British. There is a widely held belief that when the west criticises Israel, or when human rights organisations worldwide protest against the occupation, they are revealing deeply held, "traditional, Christian anti-Semitism".

Many Israelis, even liberals and left-wingers, hold Europeans morally responsible for the Holocaust either by participating in, or being indifferent to, the annihilation of the Jews during the Second World War. It would be a mistake to underestimate the profound influence such attitudes continue to wield on Israeli politics.

Haim Baram is a writer based in Jerusalem

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Secret Israel

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The people is sublime: the long history of populism, from Robespierre to Trump

If liberal democracy is to survive, the tide of populism will have to be turned back. The question is: how?

A spectre of populism is haunting the world’s liberal democracies. Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election, the narrow Leave majority in the EU referendum, Theresa May’s decision to call a snap election – breaking the spirit of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act passed by the government of which she was a member – and Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s victory in the recent Turkish referendum all testify to the strength of the populist tide that is sweeping through the North Atlantic world. The consequences have been calamitous: a shrunken public realm, a demeaned civic culture, threatened minorities, contempt for the rule of law and an increasingly ugly public mood. If liberal democracy is to survive, the tide will have to be turned back. The question is: how?

The first essential is to understand the nature of the beast. This is more difficult than it sounds. Most democratic politicians seek popularity, but populism and popularity are not the same. Today’s populism is the descendant of a long line of ancestors. The first unmistakably populist movement in history appeared well over two centuries ago during the later stages of the French Revolution. It was led by Robespierre (Thomas Carlyle’s “sea-green incorruptible”) and the Jacobins who promised a reign of “virtue”. They were inspired by the cloudy prose of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who believed that mere individuals should be subject to the general will of the social whole and – if necessary – “forced to be free”. As the revolution gathered pace and foreign armies mustered on France’s frontiers, the Jacobins launched the first organised, state-led and ideologically legitimised Terror in history. Chillingly, Robespierre declared, “The people is sublime, but individuals are weak.” That is the cry of populists through the ages. Appropriately, the Terror ended with Robespierre lying on a plank, screaming with pain before he was executed by guillotine.

The French Revolution – which began with the storming of the Bastille and ended with Napoleon’s ascent to an ersatz imperial throne – has an epic quality about it missing from later chapters in the populist story. Ironically, the second chapter, which opened half a century later, was the work of Louis Bonaparte, nephew of the great Napoleon. In 1848 came a second revolution and a second Republic; Louis Bonaparte was elected president by a huge majority. He tried and failed to amend the constitution to make it possible for him to have a second term; and then seized power in a coup d’état. Soon afterwards he became emperor as Napoleon III. (“Napoleon le petit”, in Victor Hugo’s savage phrase.) The whole story provoked one of Karl Marx’s best aphorisms: “History repeats itself; the first time as tragedy and the second as farce.”

There have been plenty of tragedies since – and plenty of farces, too. Trump’s victory was a tragedy, but farcical elements are already in evidence. Erdogan’s victory was even more tragic than Trump’s, but farce is conspicuously absent. The Leave victory in the referendum was tragic: arguably, the greatest tragedy in the three-century history of Britain’s union state. As with Trump, farce is already in evidence – the agitated comings and goings that have followed Theresa May’s loss of her Commons majority; the inane debate over the nature of the Brexit that Britain should seek; and the preposterous suggestion that, freed of the “Brussels” incubus, Britain will be able to conclude costless trade deals with the state-capitalist dictatorship of China and the “America First” neo-isolationists in Washington, DC. Unlike the French farce of Napoleon III’s Second Empire, however, the British farce now in progress is more likely to provoke tears than laughter.


Picture: André Carrilho

Populism is not a doctrine or a governing philosophy, still less an ideology. It is a disposition, perhaps a mood, a set of attitudes and above all a style. The People’s Party, which played a significant part in American politics in the late 19th century, is a case in point. The farmers whose grievances inspired the People’s Party wanted cheaper credit and transport to carry their products to markets in the eastern states. Hence the party’s two main proposals. One was the nationalisation of the railways, to cheapen transport costs; the other was “free silver” – the use of silver as well as gold as currency, supposedly to cheapen credit. Even then, this was not a particularly radical programme. It was designed to reform capitalism, not to replace it, as the largely Marxist social-democratic parties of Europe were seeking to do.

Rhetoric was a different matter. Mary Elizabeth Lease, a prominent member of the People’s Party, declared that America’s was no longer a government of the people by the people and for the people, but “a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street and for Wall Street”. The common people of America, she added, “are slaves and monopoly is the master”.

The Georgian populist Tom Watson once asked if Thomas Jefferson had dreamed that the party he founded would be “prostituted to the vilest purposes of monopoly” or that it would be led by “red-eyed Jewish millionaires”. The People’s Party’s constitutive Omaha Platform accused the two main parties of proposing “to sacrifice our homes, lives and children on the altar of Mammon; to destroy the multitude in order to secure corruption funds from the millionaires”. The party’s aim was “to restore the government of the Republic to the hands of ‘the plain people’ with which class it originated”. Theodore Roosevelt promised “to walk softly and carry a big stick”. The People’s Party walked noisily and carried a small stick. Jeremy Corbyn would have been at home in it.

Almost without exception, populists promise national regeneration in place of decline, decay and the vacillations and tergiversations of a corrupt establishment and the enervated elites that belong to it. Trump’s call to “make America great again” is an obvious recent case. His attacks on “crooked Hillary”, on the courts that have impeded his proposed ban on Muslim immigrants from capriciously chosen Middle Eastern and African countries, on the “fake news” of journalists seeking to hold his administration to account, and, most of all, his attack on the constitutional checks and balances that have been fundamental to US governance for more than 200 years, are the most alarming examples of populist practice, not just in American history but in the history of most of the North Atlantic world.

There are intriguing parallels between Trump’s regime and Erdogan’s. Indeed, Trump went out of his way to congratulate Erdogan on Turkey’s referendum result in April – which gives him the right to lengthen his term of office to ten years, to strengthen his control over the judiciary and to decide when to impose a state of emergency. Even before the referendum, he had dismissed more than 100,000 public servants, including teachers, prosecutors, judges and army officers; 4,000 were imprisoned. The Kurdish minority was – and is – repressed. True, none of this applies to Trump. But the rhetoric of the thin-skinned, paranoid US president and his equally thin-skinned and paranoid Turkish counterpart comes from the same repertoire. In the Turkish referendum Erdogan declared: “My nation stood upright and undivided.” It might have been Trump clamorously insisting that the crowd at his inauguration was bigger than it was.

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The best-known modern British populists – Margaret Thatcher, Nigel Farage and David Owen – form a kind of counterpoint. In some ways, all three have harked back to the themes of the 19th-century American populists. Thatcher insisted that she was “a plain, straightforward provincial”, adding that her “Bloomsbury” was Grantham – “Methodism, the grocer’s shop, Rotary and all the serious, sober virtues, cultivated and esteemed in that environment”. Farage declared that the EU referendum was “a victory for ‘the real people’ of Britain” – implying, none too subtly, that the 48 per cent who voted Remain were somehow unreal or, indeed, un-British.

On a holiday job on a building site during the Suez War, Owen experienced a kind of epiphany. Hugh Gaitskell was criticising Anthony Eden, the prime minister, on television and in the House of Commons, but Owen’s workmates were solidly in favour of Eden. That experience, he said, made him suspicious of “the kind of attitude which splits the difference on everything. The rather defeatist, even traitorous attitude reflected in the pre-war Apostles at Cambridge.” (Owen voted for Brexit in 2016.)

Did he really believe that Bertrand Russell, John Maynard Keynes and George Moore were traitorous? Did he not know that they were Apostles? Or was he simply lashing out, Trump-like, at an elite that disdained him – and to which he yearned to belong?

Thatcher’s Grantham, Farage’s real people and David Owen’s workmates came from the same rhetorical stable as the American populists’ Omaha Platform. But the American populists really were plain, in their sense of the word, whereas Thatcher, Farage and Owen could hardly have been less so. Thatcher (at that stage Roberts) left Grantham as soon as she could and never looked back. She went to Somerville College, Oxford, where she was a pupil of the Nobel laureate Dorothy Hodgkin. She married the dashing and wealthy Denis Thatcher and abandoned science to qualify as a barrister before being elected to parliament and eventually becoming prime minister. Farage worked as a metals trader in the City before becoming leader of the UK Independence Party. Owen went to the private Bradfield College before going up to Cambridge to read medicine. Despite his Welsh antecedents, he looks and sounds like a well-brought-up English public school boy. He was elected to parliament in 1966 at the age of 28 and was appointed under-secretary for the navy at 30. He then served briefly as foreign secretary in James Callaghan’s miserable Labour government in the 1970s.

Much the same is true of Marine Le Pen in France. She is a hereditary populist – something that seems self-contradictory. The Front National (FN) she heads was founded by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen – Holocaust denier, anti-Semite, former street brawler and sometime Poujadist. In the jargon of public relations, she has worked hard to “de-toxify” the FN brand. But the Front is still the Front; it appeals most strongly to the ageing and insecure in the de-industrialised areas of the north-east. Marine Le Pen applauded the Leave victory in Britain’s referendum – she seeks to limit immigration, just as Ukip did in the referendum and as the May government does now.

Above all, the Front National appeals to a mythologised past, symbolised by the figure of Joan of Arc. Joan was a simple, illiterate peasant from an obscure village in north-eastern France, who led the French king’s forces to a decisive victory over the English in the later stages of the Hundred Years War. She was captured by England’s Burgundian allies, and the English burned her at the stake at the age of 19. She was beatified in 1909 and canonised in 1920. For well over a century, she has been a heroine for the Catholic French right, for whom the revolutionary triad of liberté, egalité, fraternité is either vacuous or menacing.

***

The past to which the FN appeals is uniquely French. It is also contentious. A struggle over the ownership of the French past has been a theme of French politics ever since the French Revolution. But other mythologised pasts have figured again and again in populist rhetoric and still do. Mussolini talked of returning to the time of the Roman empire when the Mediterranean was Mare Nostrum. Trump’s “Make America great again” presupposes a past when America was great, and from which present-day Americans have strayed, thanks to Clintonesque crooks and the pedlars of fake news. “Take back control” – the mantra of the Brexiteers in the referendum – presupposes a past in which the British had control; Owen’s bizarre pre-referendum claim that, if Britain left the EU, she would be free to “rediscover the skills of blue water diplomacy” presupposed a time when she practised those skills. Vladimir Putin, another populist of sorts, is patently trying to harness memories of tsarist glory to his chariot wheels. Margaret Thatcher, the “plain, straightforward provincial” woman, sought to revive the “vigorous virtues” of her Grantham childhood and the “Victorian values” that underpinned them.

As well as mythologising the past, populists mythologise the people. Those for whom they claim to speak are undifferentiated, homogeneous and inert. Populists have nothing but contempt for de Tocqueville’s insight that the ever-present threat of majority tyranny can be kept at bay only by a rich array of intermediate institutions, including townships, law courts and a free press, underpinned by the separation of powers.

For populists, the threat of majority tyranny is a phantom, invented by out-of-touch and craven elitists. Law courts that stand in the way of the unmediated popular will are “enemies of the people”, as the Daily Mail put it. There is no need to protect minorities against the tyranny of the majority: minorities are either part of the whole, in which case they don’t need protection, or self-excluded from it, in which case they don’t deserve to be protected.

Apparent differences of interest or value that cut across the body of the people, that divide the collective sovereign against itself, are products of elite manipulation or, in Thatcher’s notorious phrase, of “the enemy within”. For there is a strong paranoid streak in the populist mentality. Against the pure, virtuous people stand corrupt, privileged elites and sinister, conspiratorial subversives. The latter are forever plotting to do down the former.

Like pigs searching for truffles, populists search for subversives. Inevitably, they find what they are looking for. Joe McCarthy was one of the most squalid examples of the populist breed: for years, McCarthyism was a baneful presence in Hollywood, in American universities, newspaper offices and in the public service, ruining lives, restricting free expression and making it harder for the United States to win the trust of its European allies. The barrage of hatred and contempt that the tabloid press unleashed on opponents of Theresa May’s pursuit of a “hard” Brexit is another example. Her astounding claim that a mysterious entity known as “Brussels” was seeking to interfere in the British general election is a third.

As the Princeton political scientist Jan-Werner Müller argues, all of this strikes at the heart of democratic governance. Democracy depends on open debate, on dialogue between the bearers of different values, in which the protagonists learn from each other and from which they emerge as different people. For the Nobel laureate, philosopher and economist Amartya Sen, democracy is, above all, “public reasoning”; and that is impossible without social spaces in which reasoning can take place. Populism is singular; democracy is plural. The great question for non-populists is how to respond to the populist threat.

Two answers are in contention. The first is Theresa May’s. It amounts to appeasement. May’s purported reason for calling a snap general election was that the politicians were divided, whereas the people were united. It is hard to think of a better – or more frightening – summary of the spirit of populism. The second answer is Emmanuel Macron’s. For the moment, at least, he is astonishingly popular in France. More important, his victory over Le Pen has shown that, given intelligence, courage and generosity of spirit, the noxious populist tide can be resisted and, perhaps, turned back. 

David Marquand’s most recent book is “Mammon’s Kingdom”: an Essay on Britain Now” (Allen Lane)

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Secret Israel