Newsletter #66: No State of Exception w/ Edo Konrad and Joshua Leifer

By Maia Silber

Tonight is the last night of Passover, which means that Jewish families around the world may gather for a final time amid Israeli protests so widespread that the country’s president has warned of imminent societal collapse. If they’re anything like my Jewish family, the seder discussion may turn to politics. Lately, in such discussions, I’ve found myself confronted with a position against which it’s frustrating to argue: some of my relatives condemn the current Israeli government, but insist on the existence of a just Israeli state.

This is in essence the argument being made now by many Israelis participating in the protests, which erupted in late March after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu moved forward with plans to gut the country’s independent judiciary. Protestors, often carrying Israeli flags, are calling for a restoration of democracy and what they see as their country’s founding ideals. (There are, to be sure, some more radical constituencies among the protestors, but their relationship with the mainstream movement is fraught). In Israel, it’s not the right-wing populists but their opposition who want to make their country great again.

As Edo Konrad and Joshua Leifer explain in this week’s episode of The Dig, the right-wing coalition that has pushed for judicial reform is in fact a novel development in Israeli politics. Since 2019, Netanyahu’s Likud party has consolidated an alliance of the religious Haredim (strict adherents to orthodox Judaism), secular ultra-nationalists, and the largely Mizrahi working and lower-middle classes. These seemingly disparate groups are united by a politics of grievance against the secular Ashkenazi elite that has benefited most from the country’s turn toward neoliberal economic policy. This turn was facilitated by the Likud party itself in the past quarter-century of its mostly uninterrupted dominance.

Listen to this week’s episode of The Dig here.

But as Konrad and Leifer also make clear, no dominant Israeli political coalition has ever really disavowed the project of settler expansion and the forced removal of Palestinians that project requires. In its earlier center-right substantiation, the Likud Party strengthened the military-security state and defended Jewish settlement in the occupied territories. A once more robust Labor Party did envision the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. But Prime Minister Ehud Barak effectively declared his own party irrelevant when he concluded that Israel had “no partner for peace” at the Camp David summit in 2000. And even in the heyday of the Left, the much-mythologized kibbutzim were border-expanding settlements as well as socialist communes.

There is no Israeli state separate from the history of its policymakers. My relatives’ position emerges instead, I think, from the recognition of the obvious contradiction between Israel’s increasingly authoritarian politics and the liberal values that most American Jews claim to share. Yet if they — and Israeli protesters — want to find a resolution to this contradiction, they won’t find it in Israel’s past. While the Israeli state has always incorporated elements of procedural democracy, Konrad and Leifer point out that it has only extended democracy to all of the people subject to Israeli rule for a single year: between the end of martial law over Palestinian citizens in 1966 and the beginning of the occupation of the West Bank the following year.

That’s because democratic politics are fundamentally incompatible with settler colonialism. Inclusion is incompatible with dispossession; choice is incompatible with force.

Further Reading The protests over the judicial overhaul in Israel are also occurring in the context of escalating violence by Israeli police forces and paramilitary groups against Palestinians. Jewish Currents and +972 are also covering these raids, most recently at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in East Jerusalem, where four hundred Palestinians were detained and beaten last week. Past Dig episodes on Israel-Palestine include our interviews with human rights attorney Noura Erakat and the organizer Linda Sarsour.