The political crisis in Israel, which has brought enormous crowds into the streets protesting the new far-right government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has become a crisis for us, too, and for people like us. We are American liberals and liberal Zionists who have always supported Israel and have always regarded American support for Israel as a point of patriotic pride.
We have always known exactly why we hold those positions. We have seen in Israel an essential refuge for oppressed and persecuted Jews who have fled to the reestablished Jewish state from Europe, Russia, the larger Middle East, Africa and beyond. And we have seen in Israel an admirable project, still in the works, for a democratic and liberal society. We have always revered Israel’s 1948 Declaration of Independence, with its solemn enumeration of the fundamental obligations of the new Israeli state: “it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture”.
But Netanyahu’s new government has put those democratic, tolerant and rational principles under greater pressure than Israel has seen before. It is not just a matter of the proposed law restricting the power of the Supreme Court, the only check and balance in Israel’s system — a law that Netanyahu has proposed apparently for the corrupt purpose of rescuing himself from his own legal morass. A number of racists, misogynists, homophobes and theocrats have taken powerful ministerial posts in his government, and the whole spirit of their enterprise is visibly hostile toward the culture of democratic tolerance and rationality.
The new government threatens Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, who will face an ever-more aggressive campaign to establish still more Jewish settlements. It threatens Palestinian citizens of Israel proper, who will face increasing challenges to their legitimate status in Israeli society. It even poses a threat to Jews outside Israel. People with a valid claim on Jewish identity who, even now, are fleeing to Israel and the haven that Zionism promises will find the Jewish state closed to them because they do not meet the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox definitions of membership in the Jewish people. And the government threatens Jewish solidarity more broadly, given that most diaspora Jews adhere to rival currents of Judaism or to secular and unaffiliated currents that are disparaged or condemned by the government’s theocrats.
Populism is by definition a threat to institutional stability, and the populist quality of Netanyahu’s government poses a threat to Israeli institutions as well, even the legal system. No one supposes that Netanyahu wants to preside over an undermining of Israel’s military and police. And yet his ministers are bound to do just that, either because they will encourage an extremist Jewish vigilantism in the West Bank or because they will encourage the ethno-nationalists, who might attempt to undermine the command structure of the Israel Defense Forces. The recent spiraling of violence was to be expected in this newly inflamed atmosphere, and it will only play into the hands of radicals on both sides.
All this — the human costs imposed on the Palestinians, the undermining of Jewish unity, the populist attack on the country’s institutions — threatens Israel’s standing in world affairs. The 1948 Declaration of Independence invoked the Jewish people’s right to be recognized among the “freedom-loving nations”. Today, the freedom-loving nations are demonstrating their power by uniting in support of heroic Ukraine. But Netanyahu and his government appear to be drawn more toward the authoritarian model of Viktor Orban’s Hungary.
There are people on the left who will call for an end to U.S. military support for Israel. We conclude instead that Israel today needs and deserves support — but of a new and double nature. Israel still needs and deserves the maximum in U.S. military aid — because Israel has real enemies, and its enemies are no less strong than before. Not even a country with a grotesque government deserves to be destroyed.
Yet Israel also needs and deserves maximum political support for the Israeli protesters in the streets. It is the anti-Netanyahu protesters, and not the Israeli government, who represent the hope for the decent and liberal Jewish state that the world needs, that the United States has always favored, and that has served the Jewish people so well in the past. We urge Israel’s truest friends to adopt this kind of double, but not contradictory, support: Yes to the Israeli defense system and yes to the protesters. And we urge the Biden administration to do the same, and to do it openly and articulately.
Paul Berman is the author of “Power and the Idealists”. Martin Peretz’s book “The Controversialist: Arguments with Everyone, Left Right and Center” will be published this summer. Michael Walzer is the author of “The Struggle for a Decent Politics: On ‘Liberal’ as an Adjective”. Leon Wieseltier is the editor of Liberties.