Democracy at Risk for Jews in Israel, Bare Survival for Palestinians


Richard Falk | Global Justice in the 21st Century – TRANSCEND Media Service

7 Apr 2023 – A modified version of this post was published in CounterPunch on 5 Apr 2023 which was written prior to the shocking attacks by Israeli armed police on worshipers in Al-Aqsa Mosque; further escalation may result during the days ahead if ultra-religious Jews go ahead with plans for incursions at Al-Aqsa in the course of the Passover holidays. As usual, governments in the West and the main media platforms insufficiently depict and condemn Israeli violence or the rockets fired from neighboring Lebanon as well as Gaza in response to the violation of Palestinian rights of worship producing disproportionate Israeli artillery and air strikes.


More than ‘Democracy’ Is at Stake in Israeli Protests

Israeli police violence at the Al-Aqsa Mosque directed at Palestinian worshipers in the midst of Ramadan on the nights of April 5 and 6 is a serious violation of international arrangements in Jerusalem to protect Muslim holy sites, none more sacred than Al-Aqsa. It interfered with prayer rituals important to hundreds of worshipers allowed entry, producing mass arrests, denials of entry to the mosque, and beatings of unarmed Palestinians. These incidents are of the same criminal quality as the settler destruction of the village of Huwara (near Nablus), and a reminder that Netanyahu is unwilling or unable to control these violent excesses of Israeli extremists acting in this manner with encouragement from leading members of his cabinet.

There are two interwoven conflicts currently playing out in Israel, but neither, despite the Western liberal spin, relates to a supposedly threatened demise of Israeli democracy.  Such a concern presupposes that Israel had been a democracy until this recent wave of extremism arising from the new Netanyahu-led Israeli government’s commitment to ‘judicial reform.’ A euphemism hiding the purpose of such an undertaking, which was to limit judicial independence by endowing the Knesset with the powers to impose the will of a parliamentary majority, if needed, to override Israeli court decisions by a simple majority and, in addition, exercise greater control over the appointment of judges. Certainly, these were moves toward institutionalizing a tighter autocracy in Israel as it would modify some semblance of separation of powers, but it was in no way a nullification of democracy as best expressed by legal guarantees of equal rights enjoyed by all citizens regardless of their ethnicity or religious persuasion.

Israel, as a Jewish State that confers by its own Basic Law of 2018 the inalienable right of self-determination exclusively on the Jewish people and asserts ethnic supremacy at the expense of the Palestinian minority within its own borders of more than 1.7 million persons undermines Israel’s claim to be a democracy, at least with reference to the citizenry as a whole. As well, Palestinians have long endured discriminatory laws and practices on fundamental issues that over time have led the governance policies of the country to be widely and convincingly identified as an apartheid regime. Israeli apartheid is operative in both the Occupied Palestine Territories and Israel itself. If the idea of democracy is stretched beyond reasonable limits, it is possible to regard Israel as an ethno-democracy or theocratic democracy, yet these terms are vivid reminders that to view Israel as a ‘democracy’ is itself a political oxymoron.

Since its establishment as a state in 1948, Israel has denied equal rights to its Palestinian minority. It has even disallowed any right of return to the 750,000 Palestinians who were coerced to leave during the 1947 War, and are entitled by international law to return home, at least after combat has ceased. The current bitter fight between religious and secular Jews centering on the independence of Israel’s judiciary is rather remote from most Palestinian concerns and is regarded as an intramural Jewish squabble. Such a view reflects the Palestinian disillusionment with Israel’s justice system. Since 1948, Israel’s highest courts  have consistently supported Israel’s most internationally controversial moves, including ‘unlawfully’ restricting Palestinians, establishing Jewish settlements in Occupied Palestine, denying the right of return, upholding the separation wall of occupied territory, collective punishment, annexation of East Jerusalem, house demolitions, and prisoner abuse.

On a few occasions, most notably with respect to reliance on some torture techniques used against Palestinian prisoners the judiciary has shown slight glimmers of hope that it might address Palestinian grievance in a balanced manner, but after more than 75 years of Israel’s existence and 56 years of its occupation of Palestinian territories occupied since 1967 this hope has effectively vanished.

Nevertheless, Israel’s control of the political narrative that shaped public opinion allowed the country be to be legitimized, even celebrated by hyperbolic rhetoric as ‘the only democracy in the Middle East,’ and as such, the one country in the Middle East with whom North America and Europe shared values alongside interests. In essence, Biden reaffirmed this canard in the text of the Jerusalem Declaration jointly signed with Yair Lapid, the Prime Minister of Israel at the time, during the American president’s state visit last August. In its opening paragraph these sentiments are expressed: “The United States and Israel share an unwavering commitment to democracy…”

Prior to Israel’s election last November that resulted in a coalition government regarded as the most right-wing in the country’s history, the U.S. government and diaspora Jewry seemed intent on ignoring the deepening civil society consensus that Israel was guilty of inflicting an apartheid regime to maintain its ethnic dominance that was subjugating and exploiting Palestinians living in Occupied Palestine and Israel. Apartheid is outlawed by international human rights law, and treated in international law as a severe crime, widely viewed as second only to genocide. Notable opponents of the extreme racism of South Africa, including Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, and John Dugard have each commented that Israeli apartheid treats Palestinians worse than the cruelties that South Africa inflicted on their black African majority population.

South African apartheid was condemned at the UN and throughout the world as internationally intolerable racism. Allegations of Israeli apartheid have been abundantly documented in a series of authoritative reports: UN Economic and Social Commission for West Asia (2017), Human Rights Watch (2021), B’Tselem (2021), Amnesty International (2022). Despite these condemnations, the U.S. Government and liberal pro-Israel NGOs have avoided even the mention of the apartheid dimension of the Israeli state, not daring to open the issue for debate by attempting to refute the allegations.

As Dugard pointed out when asked what was the greatest difference between fighting apartheid in South Africa and Israel, he recently responded: “..the weaponization of antisemitism.” This has been borne out in my own experience. There was considerable conservative opposition to anti-apartheid solidarity initiatives with respect to South Africa but never the attempt to brand activists as themselves wrongdoers, even ‘criminals.’ The IHRA definition of antisemitism that conflates harsh criticism of Israel with hatred of Jews has given Zionists a powerful punitive tool by which to deflect pro-Palestinian activism by branding adherents as antisemites.

From these perspectives, what is at stake in the protests, is whether Israel is to be treated as an illiberal democracy of the sort fashioned in Hungary by Viktor Orban, diluting the quality of the procedural democracy that had been operative for Israeli Jews since 1948. The new turn in Israel gestures toward the kind of majoritarian rule that has prevailed for the last decade in Turkey, involves a headlong slide toward outright an intra-Jewish autocracy in Israel.

Yet we should note that in neither Hungary nor Turkey have governance structures of an apartheid character emerged, although both countries have been serious issues involving discrimination against minorities. Turkey has for decades has rejected demands from its Kurdish minority for equal rights and separate statehood, or at least a strong version of autonomy as well as upholding human rights. These instances of encroachment on basic human rights in Turkey and Hungary have at least not occurred within a framework of settler colonialism that in Israel has made Palestinians strangers, virtual aliens, in their own homeland where they have resided for centuries.

Racism is not the only reason to dissent from the democracy-in-jeopardy discourse, dispossession may be the even more consequential one. If native people were to be asked whether they worried about the erosion or even the abandonment of democracy in such settler colonial ‘success stories’ as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the U.S. the question itself would have no current existential relevance to their lives. Native peoples were never meant to be included in the democratic mandate that these encroaching settler communities adopted so proudly, while being contemptuously indifferent to the exclusion of native peoples.

Their tragic fate was sealed as soon as the colonial settlers arrived. It was in each instance one of marginalization, dispossession, and suppression. This indigenous struggle for ‘bare survival’ as distinct peoples with a viable culture and ways of life of their own making is one of several scandals of modernity. The destruction that was so produced amounts to what Lawrence Davidson has called ‘cultural genocide” in his path-breaking book of 2012, which even then included a chapter condemning Israel’s treatment of Palestinian society.

Underneath the encounter among Israeli Jews, which allegedly discloses a chasm so deep as to threaten civil war in Israel lies the future of the settler colonial project in Israel. As those who have studied ethnic dispossession in other settler colonial contexts have concluded, unless the settlers manage to stabilize their own supremacy and limit international solidarity initiatives, they will eventually lose political control as happened in South Africa and Algeria under very different schemes of settler domination. It is this sense that the Israel protests going on need to be interpreted as a double confrontation. What is explicitly at stake is a bitter encounter between secular and ultra-religious Jews the outcome of which is relevant to what the Palestinians can expect to be their short-run fate going forward.

There is also the implicit stake between those who favor maintaining the existing apartheid arrangements resting on discriminatory hegemony but without necessarily insisting on territorial and demographic adjustments and those who are intent on using violent means to extinguish the Palestinian ‘presence’ as any sort of impediment to the further purification of the Jewish state as incorporating the West Bank, and finally fulfilling the vision of Israel as coterminous with the whole of the ‘the promised land’ asserted as a biblical entitlement of Jews as proclaimed by the mainstream Zionist optic.

It is a mystery where Netanyahu, the pragmatic extremist, stands, and perhaps he has yet to make up his mind. Thomas Friedman, the most reliable weathervane of liberal Zionism weighs in with the claim that Netanyahu for the first time in his long political career has become an ‘irrational’ leader that is no longer trustworthy from the perspective of Washington because his tolerance of Jewish extremism is putting at risk the vital strategic relationship with the U.S. while discrediting what has long been an illusion of reaching a peaceful resolution of the conflict by diplomacy and the implementation of a two-state compromise. Such tenets of a liberal approach were deliberately rendered obsolete by the scale of Israeli settlements and land-grabs beyond the 1948 green line, which itself confined Palestinian hopes to only 22% of Palestine as it was under the British mandate and UN Partition Plan.

Politically, Netanyahu needed the support of Religious Zionism to regain power and obtain support for judicial reform to evade being potentially held personally accountable for fraud, corruption, and the betrayal of the public trust. Yet ideologically, I suspect Netanyahu is not as uncomfortable with the scenario favored by the likes of Itamar Ben-Gvir and Benezel Smotrich as he sometimes pretends. It allows him to shift blame for dirty deeds in dealing with the Palestinians. To avoid the dreaded South African outcome, Netanyahu seems unlikely to oppose another final round of dispossession and marginalization of the Palestinians while Israel embarks on the completion of a maximal version of the Zionist Project.

For now Netanyahu seems to be riding both horses, playing a moderating role with respect to the Jewish fight about judicial reform, while winking slyly at those who make no secret of their resolve to induce a second nakba (in Arabic, ‘catastrophe’), a term applied specifically to the 1948 expulsion. For many Palestinians the nakba is experienced as an ongoing process rather than an event limited by time and place with highs and lows.

My guess is that Netanyahu, himself an extremist when addressing Israelis in Hebrew, has still not decided whether he can continue to rise both horses or must soon choose which to ride. Having appointed Ben-Gvir and Smotrich to the key positions vesting control over Palestinians and as the chief regulators of settler violence it is pure mystification to consider that Netanyahu as going through a political midlife crisis or finding himself a captive of uncongenial coalition partners. What he is doing is letting it happen, blaming the religious right for excesses, but not unhappy with their tactics of seeking a victorious end of the Zionist Project.

Liberal Zionists should be deeply concerned about the degree to which these developments in Israel give rise to a new wave of real antisemitism, which is the opposite of the weaponized IHRA kind that Israel and its supporters around the world have been using as state propaganda against critics of state policies and practices. These targeted critics of Israel have no hostility whatsoever to Jews as a people and feel respectful toward Judaism as a great world religion. Rather than respond substantively to criticisms of its behavior, Israel has for more than a decade deflected discussion of its wrongdoing by pointing a finger at its critics and some institutions, especially the UN, International Criminal Court, and the Human Rights Council where allegations of Israeli racism and criminality have been made based on evidence and scrupulous adherence to existing standards of the rule of law.

Such an approach, emphasizing the implementation of international law, contrasts with the irresponsible Israeli evasions of substantive allegations by leveling attacks on critics rather than either comply with the applicable norms or engage substantively by insisting that their practices toward the Palestinian people are reasonable in light of legitimate security concerns, which was the principal tactic during their first decades of their existence.

In this sense, the recent events in Israel are dangerously portraying Jews as racist criminals in their behavior toward subjugated Palestinians, done with the blessings of the government.  The unpunished settler violence toward Palestinian communities has even been affirmed by relevant government officials as in the deliberate destruction of the small village of Huwara.  photo-recorded aftermath of settlers dancing in celebration amid the village ruins, is surely a kind of Kristallnacht, which of course is not meant to minimize the horrors of Nazi genocide, but unfortunately invites comparisons and disturbing questions.

Such impressions are rendered even more plausible by harrowing photos of Israeli police beating Al_Aqsa worshippers. How can Jews act so violently against a vulnerable native people living amongst them, yet denied basic rights? And will not this kind of grotesque spectacle perversely motivate neo-Nazi groups and rightists throughout the world to castigate all Jews? In effect, Israel by both cheapening the real menace of antisemitism in this IHRA process of attaching the label where it doesn’t belong and at the same time arousing hatred of Jews by documented renditions of their inhuman behavior toward a people forcibly estranged from their native land. By so acting, Israel is making itself vulnerable in a manner potentially damaging to Jews everywhere, which is an inevitable global spillover from this inflammatory campaign of the Netanyahu government to victimize even more acutely the Palestinian people, aiming at their total submission, or better their substantial departure from their own homeland.


Richard Falk is a member of the TRANSCEND Network, Albert G. Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University, Chair of Global Law, Faculty of Law, at Queen Mary University London,  Research Associate the Orfalea Center of Global Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Fellow of the Tellus Institute. He directed the project on Global Climate Change, Human Security, and Democracy at UCSB and formerly served as director the North American group in the World Order Models Project. Between 2008 and 2014, Falk served as UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Occupied Palestine. His book, (Re)Imagining Humane Global Governance (2014), proposes a value-oriented assessment of world order and future trends. His most recent books are Power Shift (2016); Revisiting the Vietnam War (2017); On Nuclear Weapons: Denuclearization, Demilitarization and Disarmament (2019); and On Public Imagination: A Political & Ethical Imperative, ed. with Victor Faessel & Michael Curtin (2019). He is the author or coauthor of other books, including Religion and Humane Global Governance (2001), Explorations at the Edge of Time (1993), Revolutionaries and Functionaries (1988), The Promise of World Order (1988), Indefensible Weapons (with Robert Jay Lifton, 1983), A Study of Future Worlds (1975), and This Endangered Planet (1972). His memoir, Public Intellectual: The Life of a Citizen Pilgrim was published in March 2021 and received an award from Global Policy Institute at Loyala Marymount University as ‘the best book of 2021.’ He has been nominated frequently for the Nobel Peace Prize since 2009.

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