The Disruptive Power of Ethnic Nationalism and Israel Chooses Identity Over Democracy by Shlomo Ben Ami

The Disruptive Power of Ethnic Nationalism
Oct 19, 2018 Shlomo Ben-Ami

Nous publions deux articles sur la loi controversée « Israël, État-nation du peuple juif » de Schlomo Ben-Ami qui fût, dans le gouvernement d’Ehud Barak un des ministres des Affaires Etrangères d’Israël parmi les plus brillants. Nous rappelons pour montrer qu’il n’était pas un doux agneau, qu’Ehud Barak fût le soldat le plus décoré de toute l’histoire israélienne.
Avec le tandem Rabin-Peres, l’équipe Barak- Schlomo Ben Ami restera comme une “Dream team”.
Schlomo Ben Ami a écrit : « l’avenir d’Israël” un livre en tous points remarquable.
Leo Keller

The backlash against globalization has brought a resurgence of the old-fashioned politics of blood and belonging. Unless countries devise a new way to balance liberal democratic values and people’s craving for a sense of belonging, they will end up paving a path to disaster.

TEL AVIV – This summer, Israel passed a controversial new “nation-state law” that asserted that “the right [to exercise] national self-determination” is “unique to the Jewish people” and established Hebrew as Israel’s official language, downgrading Arabic to a “special status.” But the drive to impose a homogeneous identity on a diverse society is hardly unique to Israel. On the contrary, it can be seen across the Western world – and it does not bode well for peace.

In the last few decades of rapid globalization, nationalism never really left, but it did take a backseat to hopes of greater economic prosperity. Yet the recent backlash against globalization – triggered not only by economic insecurity and inequality, but also by fears of social and demographic change – has brought a resurgence of old-fashioned ethnic nationalism.
This trend is reflected in and reinforced by what some experts call a “memory boom” or “commemorative fever”: the proliferation of museums, memorials, heritage sites, and other features of public space emphasizing links with local identities and history. Rather than celebrating diversity, people are increasingly eager to embrace a particular and exclusive identity.

In the United States, white people increasingly view the prospect that they will become a minority – a milestone expected to be reached in 2045 – as an existential threat, and often act as if they are a disadvantaged group. US President Donald Trump capitalized on such feelings to win support, and his Republican Party is now relying on overzealous purges of “inactive” voters, stringent voter ID laws, and closures of polling places to make it more difficult for minorities to vote.

Meanwhile, support for the European Union’s enlightened values has eroded. Now, somewhat ironically, a grand alliance of right-wing nationalist parties has been established to improve their chances in the May 2019 European Parliament elections.
Such forces rail against “identity politics” (while speaking to predominantly white crowds who insist that they are their nation’s true representatives).
This rhetoric has gained sympathy from some intellectuals on both the left and the right. Multiculturalism and international cooperation, authors such as Mark Lilla and Francis Fukuyama argue, turned out to be a fantasy of the liberal elites.
Similarly, the British philosopher John Gray, who has long decried “hyper-liberalism,” has attempted to turn the Brexit vote – a clear outburst of nativism and xenophobia – on its head. According to Gray, by pushing for a “transnational government” that most Europeans did not want, the EU was responsible for the rise of the worst kinds of nationalism. Resisting Brexit, he insists, would restore a “dark European past.”

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s anti-terror laws, enacted after the 2005 al-Qaeda-inspired suicide bombings in London, made him the first Western leader to repudiate so-called hyper-liberalism. Today, such repudiation can be seen across the Western world, from Trump’s administration and the “illiberalism” of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and de facto Polish leader Jarosław Kaczyński to Italy’s populist coalition government.

Ethnic nationalism like that enshrined by Israel’s nation-state law has long been a staple of politics in Central and Eastern Europe. Blood and religion, not citizenship, was what defined the nation during periods of subjugation. After the devastation of World War II, many of the region’s nations recovered sovereignty through large-scale ethnic cleansing.
Post-war European integration failed to resuscitate Central and Eastern Europe’s fin de siècle multi-ethnic dream. Instead, the ghosts of xenophobia and ultra-nationalism have been revived, exemplified in Germany by surging support for the far-right Alternative für Deutschland, which rejects post-war Germany’s expiations.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s enlightened refugee policies might thus turn out to be the last manifestation of Germany’s politics of guilt. Similarly, in Austria – which, to be sure, never admitted guilt in the first place – Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s far-right, anti-immigration coalition is poised to end the EU’s politics of “identity annihilation.”
Western Europe was supposed to be free of ethnic nationalism. Modern nation-states were shaped along civic, not ethnic, lines, and the nation was defined as a community of citizens. Race, color, and gender were never supposed to be obstacles to full and equal civic participation.

Moreover, Western Europe is largely secular, whereas much of Central and Eastern Europe (not to mention the US) is more likely to link its identity to a religion-based moral order. Given these factors, in Western Europe, the rise of radical ethnic nationalism as a response to fears of terrorism and mass migration represents a more fundamentally transformative crisis.
This is all the more true of Northern Europe’s traditionally moral superpowers. The rise of the far-right Danish People’s Party and Sweden Democrats, with their roots in Swedish fascism and their nostalgia for the mythic white Sweden of the 1950s, amounts to a devastating blow to the most perfect model of social democracy that Europe has ever produced. The social-welfare state, the nationalists claim, cannot substitute for ethnic identity.

A recent study published in the journal Democratization shows that the overall level of liberal democracy worldwide now matches that recorded shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. There has been a “democratic recession,” as Fukuyama calls it, but it is concentrated in the more democratic regions of the world: Western Europe and North America, Latin America and the Caribbean, and Eastern Europe.
Given these regions’ importance to upholding the liberal world order, the rise of (white) ethnic nationalism has potentially serious consequences. Unless these countries devise a new way to balance liberal democratic values and people’s craving for a sense of belonging, they will end up paving a path to disaster.

Shlomo Ben-Ami

Israel Chooses Identity Over Democracy
Sep 21, 2018 Shlomo Ben-Ami

Israel’s new law stating that “the right to exercise national self-determination” in the country is “unique to the Jewish people » has been denounced for infringing on the rights of Arab Israelis. But the law’s real purpose may be more insidious: to ensure that Jewish Israelis remain in control, even if they become the minority.

TEL AVIV – Israel’s new “nation-state law” asserts that “the right [to exercise] national self-determination” in the country is “unique to the Jewish people,” sets Hebrew as the country’s official language, and establishes “Jewish settlement as a national value” that the state will work to advance. Liberals denounce the law for infringing on the Arab minority’s civil rights. But it may weaken Israeli democracy in an even more insidious way.

The new law – the latest move in the reckless drive by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s far-right coalition to turn Israel into an illiberal democracy – contradicts the 1948 Declaration of Independence and the 1992 Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty. Both guarantee the individual rights of all, Jews and Arabs.

Yet, in practice, the Israeli government has been defying those legal norms for a long time. While Arab Israelis may technically be constitutionally equal to Jewish Israelis , that has not stopped the government from discriminating against them. Most state land, for example, is held in trust for the Jewish people.

Likewise, long before the new law established that the Israeli government would “labor to encourage and promote” the “establishment and development” of Jewish settlements, the government was doing just that. Not a single new Arab village – much less a city – has been created since the establishment of the state of Israel 70 years ago, and old villages lack planning and zoning programs. This is why illegal construction is so common in Arab villages.

Moreover, a broad array of Israeli laws already explicitly and implicitly defines Israel as a Jewish state – a definition on which the international community agrees. The 1947 United Nations Partition Plan defines Israel as the state of the Jewish people. And the Israeli-Palestinian peace process has long been based on the principle that the Palestinians should exercise their right of national self-determination in a separate state on the other side of the pre-1967 borders.

Most Israeli Jews believe that there should be limits on their Arab counterparts’ political influence, with “crucial national decisions,” such as self-determination, being left to the Jewish majority. That is why former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who made social investment in Arab communities a national priority, resisted making the passage of the Oslo Accords dependent on Arab parliamentary support.
Despite all of this, as of 2017, over 60% of Arab Israelis reported that Israel is a good place to live (down from 64% in 2015), and 60% would rather live in Israel than in any other country in the world (up from 58.8% in 2015). Furthermore, in 2012, 60% of Arab Israelis reported that they accepted Israel as a Jewish-majority state, with official Jewish characteristics, such as Hebrew being the official language and Saturday being the accepted day of rest.

If the nation-state law’s tenets were already in effect, and generally accepted by the population, why pass it at all? The obvious explanation lies in the fact that, like US President Donald Trump and populist leaders throughout Europe, Netanyahu amasses political capital by appealing to the population’s base tribal instincts.

With ultra-nationalist and anti-Arab rhetoric, Netanyahu manipulates Israelis into believing that they are under threat, physically, demographically, and even existentially, thereby pitting them against their Arab compatriots. He won the 2015 election after having warned that the Arabs were heading to the polling stations “in droves.”

All of this, together with the demise of the peace process, has left a majority of Israelis convinced that their country cannot be both Jewish and fully democratic. So they have accepted the erosion of democratic values that Netanyahu has overseen, determining that they must put identity first. Given this, it is perhaps unsurprising that Israeli Arabs’ recognition of Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish and democratic state fell from 53.6% in 2015 to 49.1% just two years later.

But the nation-state law is not just another means of accumulating political capital among an increasing identity-focused electorate. There is another motivation at play – one that poses an even more serious threat to Israeli democracy.
Israel is a prosperous, advanced economy, but it is built on a labor market that is too small. Arab Israelis, however, represent a considerable labor pool (as does the Orthodox Jewish community, among whom the labor-force participation rate is much lower than among secular Jews). To advance its interest in Arab Israelis’ economic and social integration, in December 2015 the Israeli government approved a truly historic five-year plan.

Nearly three years later, the integration of Arab Israelis is progressing apace. According to the 2017 Israel Democracy Institute Index of Arab-Israeli relations, 70% of Israel’s Arabs speak fluent Hebrew, and 77% are not interested in separation. Moreover, Tel Aviv University’s Amal Jamal has highlighted the consistent increase in the number of Arab academics in Israel and the emergence of an Arab middle class in the country. This goes, he found, with a rise in national sentiments.

This is where the nation-state law comes in. The increasing integration and prosperity of Arab Israelis is empowering them to push back against discriminatory policies. With the nation-state law in place, however, their legal recourse will be severely constrained.
But this may not only be a matter of silencing an increasingly empowered minority; Israeli’s government could be laying the groundwork to suppress the Arab majority that would emerge if (or when) it annexes the occupied Palestinian territories. In this sense, the nation-state law is a kind of hedge against the government’s own expansionist policies – and a potentially devastating blow to Israeli democracy.
With the two-state solution all but dead, Israel has determined that its Jewish identity is more important than its democracy. This will be bad not just for its Arab citizens, but ultimately for Jewish Israelis as well.

Shlomo Ben-Ami

Shlomo Ben-Ami, a former Israeli foreign minister, is Vice President of the Toledo International Center for Peace. He is the author of Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy

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