[Note: while I was struggling for days on end with this article, editing and dithering, I noticed that someone else has been thinking along the same lines… sometimes it’s nice not to be quite alone in an unpopular opinion.]
Over a long lifetime, I have been dragged into the maelstrom of no-white-hats-all-pain that is the Middle East Debate more times than I like to remember. Way back in the early 2000’s I put together a little heterodox reading list, hoping that it might somehow advance the cause of peace. Other than giving me the comforting illusion of having done something, I believe it had approximately zero impact.
Anyway, here we are again; it’s over twenty years later, and despite the best efforts of anti-Likud protesters in Israel, despite rivers of ink devoted to reasonable and humane editorials in Haaretz, despite corruption allegations and mass protests, despite many grassroots peace/justice projects like A Land For All and 972 Magazine and B’tselem… Likud and Bibi Netanyahu are still in power. And the IOF is bombing the bejeezus out of Gaza. The same injustices and cruelties have led to the same murderous insurgency, which has led to the same draconian, Imperial Roman style collective punishment. Rinse, repeat, escalate.
World outrage at Israel’s factor-of-ten (and counting) response to Hamas’ violent breakout of Oct 7th — the mass expulsion of Gazans from their homes, the cutting off of electricity and water, the bombardment of hospitals, schools, mosques etc. that has killed far more civilians than combatants — has led to large-scale marches and protests.
Inevitably, those protests — against a right-wing expansionist Israeli government unpopular with a substantial chunk of its citizens — have attracted antisemites riding on their coat-tails, seizing the opportunity to identify every Jew in the world with Bibi and his bombs. The lunatic Far White and the lunatic Islamist zealots have found temporary common ground in good old fashioned Jew-bashing. The lunatic Far White and the lunatic ultra-Zionists have found temporary common ground in good old-fashioned Arab-bashing.
American Jewish friends of mine are frightened. Antisemitism is on the rise again. So is Islamophobia. Vast amounts of money and energy are being wasted on war, that could instead make lives better. The world just got a lot less safe for everyone. Again. Rinse, shudder, repeat.
And though the tragedy of Israel and Palestine induces severe grief-fatigue and mental exhaustion, it’s impossible to look away. I find myself ruminating once again about the big picture, that remarkably strange project of forcibly establishing a Jewish ethno-state bang in the middle of the Arab world. Did anyone really think this was going to make Jewish people safer in the long run?
The initial land grab, the terrorist tactics of Irgun and the early settlers, the Nakba, Deir Yassin — all of that set the tone, right at the beginning. The six day war cemented it. The assassination of Rabin cured the cement. Arab anti-semitism that might (maybe) have been disarmed over time, was instead inflamed and hardened; the classic human pattern of endless vendetta was locked in for the foreseeable. Fortress Israel was born in terrorism and interethnic violence, surrounded by both pre-existing and self-inflicted enemies, utterly dependent on US military aid — a golden opportunity for a warmonger like Bibi to build a career on “protecting the people” from the (quite real) threat beyond the borders.
But thus was born also the other threat, inside the borders: the threat of fear-driven, illiberal, far-right, racist, anti-democratic politics.
It bears saying always that not every Jewish citizen of Israel is ready to fear and hate and “Other” their Palestinian neighbours; many Israelis continue to cherish the traditional European Jewish ideals of universal humanism, justice, moderation, reason, democracy, due process, peace-making. Not enough, though — apparently not enough to vote Likud out of office. As in many other “civilised” nations in the world right now, far-right ethno-statist populism dominates Israeli politics and is pulling the country further in a deeply troubling direction.
And as a result I’m asking myself a deeply troubling question lately — looking at what Likud and Bibi are turning their country into. I’m starting to ask whether the concept of an ethno-state can ever really be compatible with modern ideals like democracy, inclusivity, equality of citizens under the law. Can those brave, progressive, anti-racist, pro-democracy Jewish voices ever thrive and prevail, inside an embattled ethno-state?
I’m apparently not alone in these doubts. An editorial in Haaretz sadly concluded that Israel can choose to be a “Jewish state,” or a democracy, but not both. Gideon Levy, in 2021, wrote, “Those who prefer a Jewish state will vote to extend the discriminatory and infuriating amendment that marks a clear gap between the rights of a Jewish citizen and the rights of an Arab citizen, with outright Jewish supremacy in the legal code.”
More recently, a talented Israeli-Canadian film maker and media artist publicly renounced her Israeli citizenship; in a calm but deeply emotional statement she said, “I cannot be a part of this.” Continuing to hold an Israeli passport had — after a lengthy and wrenching struggle — become too contradictory with her core ethical and political values. There is something very wrong with this picture, when a Jewish woman of the diaspora feels she must renounce her Israeli passport on moral and ethical grounds.
A state which “belongs” exclusively to one ethnicity was business as usual back in the Bronze Age and earlier, at least in areas where no successful empire had yet spread: you had zillions of little kingdoms, each with their own languages and gods and royal family and so on, and they fought endless border wars with each other. But it wasn’t all that long before the stronger ones started expanding and absorbing the weaker ones, and then we had “paramount kings” and eventually empires; and the empires were by definition multicultural — because they absorbed various other ethnicities and religious sects as they expanded. Sometimes they extirpated the “false gods” of the conquered people and their languages as well — but usually they ended up enriching their own culture with words, concepts, technologies, arts etc. that other people had developed.
By force, or through commerce and colocation, many people intermarried and fraternised and did business with people of other ethnicities/nations. Much of the ancient world was surprisingly multicultural. The armies of Ancient Rome, for example, practised “diversity and inclusion” on a scale that would surprise (and upset) those modern-day white supremacists who cherish a romantic nostalgia for the days of the Caesars.
After various imperial consolidations and collapses and large-scale wars, we eventually “progressed” to the establishment of modern multi-ethnic nation-states, with the illusion of cohesion and homogeneity and stable borders on maps. Why “illusion”? we only have to remember the breakup of Yugoslavia to see how very fragile that illusion can be when tribalism kicks in — or consider Catalonia’s ongoing refusal to be part of Spain. But we did eventually get (in theory at least) to modern times and the idea of the civil multicultural secular democracy: a state where citizenship is a formality of law and every citizen is equal under that law, regardless of their religion or ethnicity (and in very recent times in some fortunate places, their sex, gender, and affectional preference as well).
The ideal of the modern liberal democracy seems to me the opposite of an ethno-state. In fact, the (so far) bloodless civil war going on in the US is in essence a struggle over whether the entire USA should, or should not, be a White Christian ethno-state. [OK, it’s also somewhat about oligarchy vs democracy, and ultrawealthy people not wanting to pay their taxes, and suckering poor people into voting to cut rich people’s taxes; but the White Christian part is very large and very loud.]
All the principles we hold most dear in modern liberal democracies and open societies, frankly, if put into practise must quickly undermine any ethno-state. One person one vote, regardless of race or religion. Equal treatment under the law. Separation of church and state. Democratic elections. Freedom of speech, religion, press, movement. Immigration based on skills and contribution to the economy or culture, not on race or religion. Children of immigrants naturalised at birth. Racism frowned upon, discrimination illegal. Religious persecution illegal.
For an ethno-state to exist in any meaningful sense of the word, it has to discriminate based on race and/or religion. It has no choice. If the preferred ethnicity is to remain in control of the territory (definition of ethno-state right there) then the state must do one of two things:
- forget democracy. Establish a ruling junta or aristocracy of the preferred ethnicity — a king, a dynasty, whatever; make sure only members of the preferred ethnicity can become nobles or generals or whatever and run the country. Any other ethnicities are just serfs, second class “citizens” or non-citizens, excluded entirely from political power. This will maintain one-ethnicity rule — and if that becomes minority rule, no problem: this isn’t a democracy.
- continue to embrace democracy in theory, but ensure that only the preferred ethnicity has a meaningful vote and cannot be unseated from power. One way to do this is by prohibiting immigration by people of non-preferred ethnicities — close the borders, so you don’t “let in” the undesired Other and the problem doesn’t arise. [We might perhaps consider Iceland as be a fairly benign example of a de facto modern ethnostate with limited immigration preserving (almost) a single-ethnicity electorate.] But what if you already have a significant population of undesired ethnicities within your borders? What if their numbers might increase? Now you face some tough antidemocratic choices and bad international optics, because the only remaining options for securely maintaining that ethno-state project are to disenfranchise the undesired other ethnicities, or to control/reduce their numbers (by forced sterilisation, by “culling”, or by expulsion). The ethnostate with pretences to democracy cannot afford to allow the undesired ethnicity to become a majority, or even an influential minority.
The primacy of the preferred ethnicity has to be maintained; this is the state’s very raison d’etre. So it seems to me that every ethno-state at some point must practise one or all of an escalating series of injustices: discrimination and exclusion, apartheid, ethnic cleansing. The first of these tactics is disturbingly reminiscent of “whites-only” suburbs and “sundown” towns, where people of colour were not permitted to buy property; the second is disturbingly reminiscent of apartheid South Africa and other colonial nations, where a BIPOC majority was kept in subjection and disenfranchised by a white minority. And the third is reminiscent of some of the very worst and most shameful chapters in human history.
Just to ice the cake of our moral dilemma, any ethno-state that plans to stay in business will also have to oppose intermarriage of the dominant ethnicity with any other ethnicity or religion (seen as dilution and loss of “ethnic purity”)… in other words, anti-miscegenation policies. Nationalist natalism is another logical development (gotta keep up the numbers of the dominant ethnicity!) — which can easily lead to the anti-abortion and anti-gay policies sadly typical of anxious ethnostates. (It is perhaps worth mentioning that far-right ethnic nationalist Smotrich is also a vocal homophobe.)
The overriding state priority of consolidating mono-ethnic rule also tends to lead to historical revisionism, with attempts to manufacture consent by “proving” the justice and righteousness of the dominant ethnicity’s claim to dominion. Given the various injustices of mono-ethnic rule in a mixed society, authoritarianism and censorship are likely to be employed as well, to preserve the dominant narrative and “combat subversion and impurity.”
The optics are just never going to be good.
Most modern nations have rejected apartheid, and most progressive people reject racial or religious discrimination — whether in immigration or in real estate. Selective disenfranchisement based on religion or ethnicity is also unpalatable to people in modern democracies.
But Israel — with its Nation-State Law and its illegal settlements — remains a troubling “special case.”
On the one hand, our memory of the Holocaust and the prevalence of modern anti-semitism lead us to perceive all Jewish people as perpetually at risk of oppression. This is true. Anti-semitism is real, it is ugly, and it has definitely not disappeared from the world just because the Allies won WWII.
On the other hand, the state of Israel gives its Jewish citizens special privileges and powers denied to their Arab neighbours, allows them to steal Palestinian land and homes with impunity, prohibits interfaith marriage, even in some places builds special roads for Jewish citizens only. This is also true.
Israel is “the only democracy in the Middle East,” and yet it’s a bit like Animal Farm — much more of a democracy if you’re Jewish, than if you’re not. The Jewish citizens of Israel are simultaneously an endangered species, and an arrogant religio-ethnic aristocracy. The cognitive dissonance is enough to give everyone a head (and heart) ache.
Bibi and the hardliners have taken the PR opportunity offered by Hamas’ most recent incursion, and they are running with it; unhinged rhetoric has been heard in the ranks of the Knesset calling for the removal of all Palestinians from Gaza — permanently — and annexation of the entire territory. Permanently exiling (or killing) all Palestinians sounds downright crazy and extreme… but it’s hard for me to see how an ethnostatist project can ever converge on sanity or moderation. It seems like crazy and extreme is baked in; and a quick survey of countries ruled by ethno-statist authoritarians — Hungary, Turkey, Russia, India (even the US if the MAGA faction wins in 2024 and implements their “Project 2025” plan ) — is not reassuring.
When ethno-statism comes in the door, human rights go out the window.
So I really don’t understand Bibi’s long term strategy (assuming he has one, beyond desperately hanging on to power and avoiding prosecution). And I have to admit I also have difficulty understanding the fierce and sentimental attachment that so many diaspora Jews continue to feel for the current State of Israel as a “safe haven.”
Only 46 percent of the world Jewish population lives in Israel; if the existential threat of violent antisemitism were to menace the entire diaspora, they could hardly all flee “home” … to a nation that is already systematically dispossessing its second-class Arab citizens to grab more real estate for Jewish citizens. A mass return of endangered diasporic Jews would only send the risky and morally dubious project of settlement into warp drive, thus exacerbating all existing security (not to mention ethical) concerns.
So “Lifeboat Israel” seems more like a comforting myth today, than a realistic insurance policy. Meanwhile, Israel’s official actions and rhetoric are only making the diaspora community’s lives more dangerous… which may make that unrealistic lifeboat fantasy even more attractive, and increase uncritical fear-based support for those very actions and rhetoric, in a vicious cycle that seems unlikely to end well.
A Zionist on reddit asked me — during a civil and courteous discussion — what was wrong with ethno-states. “Poland is an ethno-state,” they argued, “and no one has a problem with that. Why shouldn’t Israel be one too?”
The irony seemed both painful and obvious to me. Poland was indeed (and some far-right Poles would say still is) an ethno-state; and one result of that was pogroms — in which Jewish people were persecuted and killed for being “different” from the dominant ethnicity and religion. They were not seen as real citizens, not “real Poles,” and so it was acceptable to rob and kill them.
And that long history of ethno-states and theo-states rejecting, persecuting, and killing the “different” Jewish ethnicity in their midst, is to my mind the strongest argument against the attempt to maintain a Jewish ethno-state. Because the inevitable result, sooner or later, would be a Jewish state whose policies and practises were uncomfortably reminiscent of those other states which historically persecuted the Jewish people…
And here we are.
One of the many meanings of “white privilege” is that I’m not likely to become a refugee — unless Canada turns stone fascist, which I suppose is not completely impossible. It’s been many centuries since anyone persecuted or conquered my ethnicity (most recently, we spent a few centuries doing that to everyone else, and I really wish we hadn’t). But if in some bizarre and unlikely future my ethnicity should become embattled, persecuted, reviled — if all us white people were driven out of our homes in Canada and forced to seek refuge, somewhere in the world — where would I go?
Would I head for the land of my birth, the UK, dear old Blighty, the mother country, that precious stone set in the silver sea? What if, in those intervening years, it had continued to decay into the Anglo ethno-state of Brexiteers’ dreams? A repressive little right-wing oligarchy with closed borders and apartheid-adjacent treatment of nonwhite Britishers? Could I, a left humanist, a feminist, an advocate for social justice, find a “home” in such a place?
Or suppose for a moment that some monstrous wave of fascism swept the planet, and there was only one country left on earth that still had what I would call civilised institutions: a progressive government implementing redistributive taxation to fund authentic social democratic policies, social safety nets, a free press, universal literacy, public libraries and schools, equality under the law for all citizens/residents, full citizenship for women, free and fair elections and an uncorrupted judiciary and police… all that good stuff. And now suppose that country were a Central African republic with a majority Black population… well, then… that would be my homeland.
Even if I became a single lonely pink and sunburnt face in a large brown crowd, struggling with a second language and a climate to which I was poorly adapted, that country would be where I would most truly feel safe. That would be my refuge. Those would be my people, who share my civic and moral values. That is where I would apply for immigrant status, and earnestly hope to be found worthy and accepted.
Because I really don’t want my safety — as a woman, as a writer, as a progressive secularist, as a person — to rest upon membership in an elite ethnic minority (or a majority for that matter). I want it to rest upon the maintenance of universalist, humanist values: the rule of law, freedom of speech, respect for reason and evidence, secularism, democracy, literacy, science, social equity, the whole package. I could not feel safe huddling in a fortified castle with people whose skin tone and language happen to match my own, but whose values offend me on every axis.
But perhaps I can only think that way because my grandparents were not singled out and exterminated for their ethnicity — who knows; these questions are never simple. Conclusions I draw from a position of relative safety and privilege may not hold up under more rigorous field-testing.
Enough of “what if” and thought experiments; let us return to the depressing facts on the contested ground.
What I — a non-Jewish observer — see in Israel today is … racial segregation of schools; rightwing Likudite Jews beating up on and threatening other Jews for being anti-Zionist, for wanting peace, for being fed up with Bibi and his corruption and his warmongering. I see a far-right government attempting heavy-handed repression of speech and public protest. I see authoritarian populism and revanchist fantasy being eagerly adopted by an internal underclass. I see the seed crystals of fascism.
I see classic authoritarian ethno-statism. And I see that ethno-statism being admired by white supremacists in the Anglosphere. Among the diaspora, I see hardline Zionist Jews publicly forming alliances with notorious far-right anti-semites. I see Bibi apparently aspiring to join the Orban/Erdogan/Putin country club.
The irony is heart-stopping. Far-right ethno-statism led directly to the murder of six million Jewish people in the 20th century — an attempt to exterminate European Jewry. And in the Knesset, some Israeli Jews on the far right are calling for the extermination of the Palestinians as a people. This is painful to witness.
I see inspiring and heartening news from Israel also: I feel admiration and love for the conscientiously objecting Jewish Israelis who are standing up to their government and demanding justice and peace. They are heroes. Some of them are paying a high price for speaking out or refusing IOF service. Their courage humbles me.
But I wonder, how safe are secular progressive (or ultra-Orthodox) anti-Zionist Jews today, in “their own” country? The country that was supposed to ensure the safety of Jewish people? To what extent is Likud policy, particularly the wilful destruction of most of Gaza, decreasing the safety of Jewish people in the diaspora? or of Israeli citizens in general?
It’s a tragic conundrum… and I fear it may have been baked in from the very beginning.
Increasingly I have the disheartening sense that an ethno-state is a fundamentally immoral proposition: it codifies the untenable position that one kind of human being, one class of citizen, is better and more valuable and should have “more rights” than another. But when one person somehow deserves “more rights” than their neighbour, those are no longer rights; they are special privileges encoded into a caste system.
That fundamental immorality, that failure to respect our universal humanity, that privileging of one ethnicity or religion above all others, I suspect can only — over time, no matter how good the original intentions — corrupt the politics and culture of the nation.
If Israel goes much further down this road, then my kind, humane, and principled Jewish American friends will be suffering heartbreak and shame over the country that was supposed instead to fill their hearts with comfort and pride. And I will be grieving with them. Apartheid, ethnic/religious prejudice, injustice anywhere must grieve any person who believes in human rights and human decency. And they must grieve us even more when the historical irony is as gut-wrenching as it is in this instance.
How far will Israel’s slide towards fascism actually go? Will there come a day when intellectuals, artists, peace activists, honest lawyers, opposition politicians, refuseniks, outspoken writers and journalists must flee the country in a New Diaspora? [edit, a couple of weeks later: at least one observer of the situation claims that this may already be happening]
Let us hope it doesn’t come to that.
[Note: someone is undoubtedly going to ask why I haven’t spent more time condemning Hamas and the Arab nations surrounding Israel for their theofascist tendencies, violence, illiberalism, antisemitism, etc. And my answer is that this was not the subject of my essay. Many of the regrettable features of those nations derive from their own theocratic and ethno-statist traditions; much of the same critique does indeed apply; but I am grappling here only with the thorny question of whether a self-defined ethno-state such as Israel can really walk the talk of the “modern democracy” it claims to be, and thus keep the approval and support of progressive people around the world. Many of the surrounding Islamist states make no pretence of being a modern secular democracy, but are still ruled by hereditary kings and bound by religious law. This is a grave concern, but beyond the scope of this essay.]
[Note: I don’t use AI text generators. This essay was written by a human, using fingers, on a keyboard. I do use an AI art generator (because I can’t draw or paint well and can’t afford to purchase copyrighted art).]
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