Israel’s Crisis of Democracy “Netanyahu’s Party Consists Primarily of Extremist Ideologues”

Israeli sociologist Eva Illouz: "One should never link a state so closely with religion."
Israeli sociologist Eva Illouz: “One should never link a state so closely with religion.” Foto: Lisa Hörterer / DER SPIEGEL

Israel’s new right-wing government has plunged the country into its deepest crisis since its founding, argues sociologist Eva Illouz. She says it is time for the world to take notice and act.

Interview Conducted by Julia Amalia Heyer


About Eva Illouz

Eva Illouz was born in 1961 in Morocco and grew up in Sarcelles, near Paris. She is a professor of sociology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She researches the relationship between emotions, economy and communication and has written several books including “Why Love Hurts: A Sociological Explanation,” which was published in English last year. Illouz also regularly writes essays and columns exploring the nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its consequences for Israeli society.

DER SPIEGEL: Ms. Illouz, fundamentalists on the extreme religious right are now at the helm in Israel and they occupy key posts in the government. What do they want?

Illouz: They want the final victory in this conflict, once and for all. This land, everything here, should belong to the Jews. The religious Zionists do not simply represent other positions, they want regime change. They attack basic humanistic values; they despise international law; they want to abolish the separation of powers.

DER SPIEGEL: Why do Israelis elect fundamentalists to power if they want to abolish Israel as a democracy in the Middle East?

Illouz: The question is, first of all, whether the majority really wanted this government. Or whether it was rather an accident of our electoral system. There are two camps in Israel today – they are no longer right and left, but consist of a moderate right wing and the extreme, messianic right. And then there are the ultra-Orthodox, the strict believers, who exert great influence. They, too, are becoming more and more nationalist. The left as a political force has disappeared, and it has only itself to blame. The Avoda, the Labor Party, which ruled the country for a long time, stopped speaking about the Occupation. They abandoned the Palestinians to their fate and began to imitate the right. But people are not stupid: If they have a choice between a copy and the original, they’ll choose the original.DER SPIEGEL 7/2023

The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 7/2023 (February 10th, 2023) of DER SPIEGEL.SPIEGEL International

DER SPIEGEL: Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, from the ultranationalist Jewish Power party, now wants to consider the death penalty following the attack on the synagogue in Jerusalem.

Illouz: Ben-Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich are settlers who hold a clear and even radical ideology. They want to criminalize homosexuals and march on the Temple Mount on Passover, which would break the status quo with Palestinians for this holy site. They do not want to make room for Arab Israelis to be equal citizens. For them, only Jews should have supremacy. They are more like a white supremacist group, perhaps closest to the Ku Klux Klan. They think that violence is a legitimate way to assert the religious and ethnic supremacy of Jews.



Die letzten Zeugen von Auschwitz

Beeindruckende Schilderungen der letzten überlebenden Zeugen von Auschwitz – reich bebildert mit Portraits.

Jetzt kaufen

DER SPIEGEL: In Germany, the new government in Israel tends to be compared to that of Viktor Orbán in Hungary.

Illouz: This comparison misses the point. Hungary, which is illiberal as far as I’m concerned, is nothing compared to what’s happening in Israel right now. Hungary does not have religious extremists in power; rule by religion is a different story. It could be the biggest crisis Israel has faced since its founding in 1948. Many of these people want to establish a halakhic state, a state governed by Jewish religious law, which would deprive women and non-Jews of practically any rights.

DER SPIEGEL: Tens of thousands of your compatriots are demonstrating against it. Can they make a difference?

Illouz: The tectonics are shifting in Israel right now. For the first time, people like (Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu’s former defense minister, Bogie Yaalon, a conservative, a hawk, are also demonstrating. And politicians like Naftali Bennett and Avigdor Lieberman, who used to be called ultra-right, are now considered moderates. Bennett, after all, wanted to annex parts of the West Bank 10 years ago, and Lieberman demanded loyalty guarantees from Arab Israelis. Perhaps the extremists in government are unwittingly producing a whole new camp, one that stands up for human rights, beyond all sentiments. There has never been anything like that in Israel before.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on a poster at an anti-government demonstration in January.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on a poster at an anti-government demonstration in January. Foto: Tsafrir Abayov / AP

DER SPIEGEL: Who could lead such a camp?

Illouz: The problem is that there is no great tradition of resistance in Israel. There are hardly any economic protests or strikes here. Nothing like the United Kingdom or France, for example, where people block the streets and gring the whole country to a halt when they don’t like a government plan.

DER SPIEGEL: Why do so many people continue to trust Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister? It seems, after all, that he is concerned first and foremost with his own well-being.

Illouz: It’s a bit like Donald Trump. And like the Republican Party, the Likud has undergone a drastic transformation over the past decade. Like the Republicans, the Likudniks in the past were primarily pragmatists. Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, Ariel Sharon, they all compromised. But now, that party consists primarily of extremist ideologues, sometimes people with very strange ideas. Netanyahu himself has also changed. They say it’s because of his trial. He now sees himself as a kind of contemporary Dreyfus.

DER SPIEGEL: As someone who has been falsely accused. Yet Netanyahu, if he wasn’t currently prime minister, would have to face corruption accusations in court. And he no longer seems to care much about what the international community thinks of him.

Illouz: What may still matter to him are the Republicans. There are parallels here, too. What the white underclass is in the U.S., the Mizrahim – the Jews from Arab countries – are in Israel. The founder of Likud, Menachem Begin, turned them into voters for his bloc by suggesting that they should have a share in society – without, of course, doing much to change their miserable living conditions. Netanyahu has taken over. Many Mizrahim are now represented by the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, a loyal ally of Netanyahu.

DER SPIEGEL: That’s why Aryeh Deri, the ultra-Orthodox interior minister whom Netanyahu recently had to dismiss because of his criminal record, was so important to him.

Illouz: Yes. The left, on the other hand, is almost unanimously hated, yet much of what it did in the founding years was extraordinary. Building institutions in such a short time on such difficult terrain is almost unbelievable today. On the other hand, they were also very careless. For example, Ben Gurion’s treaty with the ultra-Orthodox: He was unknowingly creating the conditions for an ultra orthodox society.

“Israel is now very far from what it should have become.”

Eva Illouz

DER SPIEGEL: By granting expansive privileges to what was then a rather small group.

Illouz: One should never link a state so closely with religion. Religion is not meant to care about human rights. Once you identify your country with a very strong religious identity, it becomes more difficult to take human rights seriously. I believe that the reason we have ruled another people for almost 60 years now is because the state of Israel respects Jewish religious sensibilities. Otherwise, they might not have allowed a group of fanatics to settle in the center of the Palestinian city of Hebron.

DER SPIEGEL: It’s the only Jewish state in the world.

Illouz: Yes. But does that mean it should be religious? This is certainly not what Zionism intended. And it is now very far from what it should have become.

DER SPIEGEL: Almost 10 years ago, you told us in an interview that the real danger for the state of Israel comes from within. It looks like you were right.

Illouz: Israel is a strange country. It has to justify its existence all the time – or at least it thinks it has to justify it all the time. It is – still – seen as a democracy, but increasingly behaves like a pure ethnocracy. Israel knows only friends or enemies. It is modern, and yet it has something anachronistically primitive about it, something clannish. It was like that before, because of the status that minorities enjoyed in our country – that is, because of their quite open discrimination. Now Ben-Gvir and his colleagues are saying it explicitly: They want a majoritarian system.

DER SPIEGEL: Which means that the majority decides what happens.

Illouz: Not only decides, but dominates minorities and does not view them as partners and equals. In part, this is due to the security situation of Israel. But Israel has never had a problem making it clear that it’s actually only the Jews who determine what happens here.

DER SPIEGEL: A majoritarian democracy is actually self-contradictory.

Illouz: Populism wants to somehow maintain the democratic framework, but at the same time establish a kind of domination of the majority over the minorities – especially when the minorities want to have a loud say. Like the Palestinians, for example. Israel is therefore the dream of all populists: an ethnocracy that can claim to be democratic. Steve Bannon, Marion Maréchal, David Duke: They all take Israel as their model.

Radical settlers at a celebration in the Palestinian city of Hebron, with Israeli security personnel in the foreground.

Radical settlers at a celebration in the Palestinian city of Hebron, with Israeli security personnel in the foreground. Foto: Mamoun Wazwaz / Anadolu Agency / picture alliance

DER SPIEGEL: Where did the slide to the right in Israeli society come from?

Illouz: Entire generations of Israelis have been born during the Occupation. They no longer hold dear the desire to have an Israel without this permanent military conflict. Education and teaching have also become more religious and nationalistic. Finally, a lot of people actually believe the fear mongering of the right.

DER SPIEGEL: But it’s still a long way to extremists like Ben-Gvir and Smotrich.

Illouz: Ben-Gvir and Smotrich are the result of the so-called Kahana revolution. The Kach party of extremist Rabbi Meir Kahana was banned in 1988, but it didn’t take too long for its ideology to begin spreading again anyway through nationalist think tanks and through organizations that have now been working for 30 years to delegitimize the left in Israel. Their strategy has been as clever as it has been persistent, and financed by U.S. billionaires. If you ask the Jewish population whether they would rather be democratic or Jewish, 42 percent of them choose being Jewish. It’s a paradox, because the quieter things get for Israel in the region, the stronger the idea of being threatened seems to be.

DER SPIEGEL: Yet it wasn’t until 2020 that several Arab states normalized their relations with Israel, with the Abraham Accords.

Illouz: Netanyahu has done one thing above all else in all the years he’s been in power: stir up fear. Of Iran, of Palestinians, of Israeli Arabs, of Europe. And he has equated the Palestinians with the Nazis, because that is the most effective way to make them the final enemy. He may have been restrained in terms of military intervention, but in terms of his language, he is an agitator.

Israelis demonstrating in Tel Aviv against a move to grant lawmakers more control over the judiciary.

Israelis demonstrating in Tel Aviv against a move to grant lawmakers more control over the judiciary. Foto: Jack Guez / AFP

DER SPIEGEL: You yourself renounced Orthodoxy when Yigal Amir assassinated Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. Amir also came from the Kahanist orbit, like Ben-Gvir now.

Illouz: At that time, I asked myself what I was more: a Jew or a democrat. I had never thought I would have to choose between these qualities, because I lived in countries where it was possible to be both, in France or in the United States. But in Israel it was different. I said to myself, here is a Jew killing another, and this murderer has nothing to do with me. I felt that Yigal Amir and I did not belong to the same people. That’s why I left religion behind.

DER SPIEGEL: The first weeks after the new government took office were full of violence. In the West Bank, for example, 30 Palestinians died in Israeli security operations and from settler violence. In Jerusalem, seven Jews were killed in an attack on a synagogue.

Illouz: And this despite the fact that we in Israel subordinate everything to the security premise. Security legitimizes all actions: Human rights can be suspended; Palestinian homes can be destroyed; family members can be tortured or imprisoned. The Israelis accept this because it is a matter of their security. The sad point is that this security policy brings conflict and violence, i.e. insecurity.

DER SPIEGEL: Many Israelis are now hoping that pressure will come from outside.

Illouz: That would probably be the only thing that could save Israel from itself now. And I do wonder why the world doesn’t intervene. It is very difficult to disentangle two threads of Jewish history: One is that Jews have been the victims of one of the most terrible crimes in the history of humankind. But there is a second thread: Jews have become Israelis, they have acquired sovereignty. You cannot treat a sovereign, military state as if it was a victimized people. Many people, Germans especially, cannot distinguish between the two entities. That is a moral and analytical mistake.

DER SPIEGEL: A mistake that is repeatedly made. Why?

Illouz: The Israelis still live under the shadow of the Shoah. Some cannot distinguish between a Palestinian and a Nazi. And the Germans, in their own way, are so traumatized by what they did that they, too, can no longer distinguish. Such as determining when a country needs assistance and when it needs to be called to order. This situation is a direct consequence of the Shoah, and it still reverberates to the present day.

Foto: Lisa Hörterer / DER SPIEGEL

“To be pure, you apparently have to be on the side of the Jews, always.”

Eva Illouz

DER SPIEGEL: You also wanted to have this conversation because, as you wrote, you didn’t know whether we Germans understood what was going on in Israel.

Illouz: I do not think the crusades Felix Klein is conducting against left-wing Jews are very helpful in the fight against anti-Semitism.

DER SPIEGEL: Klein is the German government’s anti-Semitism commissioner. His comments, such as those about the Cameroonian historian Achille Mbembe, have not been universally well-received by Jewish academics.

Illouz: Felix Klein, as a non-Jew, wants to tell us Jews what we may or may not say, what is permissible and non-permissible discourse. That is very strange, to say the least.

DER SPIEGEL: In Germany, criticism of the Israeli government is often classified as anti-Semitism.

Illouz: There is something quasi-religious about the German approach to Israel and Judaism. A kind of penitence ritual? To be pure, you apparently have to be on the side of the Jews, always. If something good came out of this for Judaism or for Israel, I would say: Please, go ahead! But this behavior is neither good for the Jews, nor for Israel. If somebody you love is driving drunk, you would stop them – both for their own good, and for the good of other cars. The friends of Israel, those for whom Zionism has been important, should use all their influence to stop the Occupation.

DER SPIEGEL: Ms. Illouz, we thank you for this interview.


1 reply

Leave a Reply