Deliberative Democracy and Israel‘s Monocultural ‘National Us’

It is not long ago that the recognised litmus test of a vibrant democracy was how you treated your minorities. How far have we come from that now!

I began thinking about the anti-democratic impact of polarisation – which often begins with the little-noticed shutting down of opportunities for deliberative democracy (i.e. for an adult conversation between individuals who think differently and have different interests) such as killing off civility online – as I watched the escalating polarisation that has afflicted the Brexit process, threatening our democratic institutions. The escalating polarisation in the attack on the Labour Party by accusers of antisemitism within and outside the party shares some similar features. Indeed, it has become evident that the Labour Party as currently constructed is totally incapable of dealing with either polarisation.

As a result of being accused of dithering or sitting on the fence, the Labour Party is instead forced into a self-destructive authoritarianism of its own. In neither case were these peripheral issues that regrettably got in the way of those who support the many and not the few, which accordingly should be given short shrift. A Marxist might well say that both in the case of Brexit and ‘antisemitism’ the Labour Party has failed to see these as a front line in the class struggle in the contemporary world. You may well say, not surprisingly… since the UK Labour party is not a Marxist party. In this regard, like many leftwing parties, it is hopelessly economistic and ideologically tone deaf.

I have argued before that in the accusations and counter-accusations around the term Zionist, those who are avowedly anti-Zionist fail to articulate clearly the Monocultural National Us which lurks implicitly in this defining concept of the Israeli state. Criticism of Zionist support for the Israeli state may quickly plunge us into controversy over analogies with apartheid or the precise nature of a colonial-settler state, as we try to pin down what is uniquely appalling about Israeli policies with regard to Palestinians. Soon we find ourselves accused of antisemitism for singling out Israel for special opprobrium when there are many other transgressor states when it comes to human rights. Donald Trump is one such accuser, who doesn’t attempt to explain, of course, why the US singles out Israel for its special protection, considerable support and military alliance, regardless of its breaches of international law and the impunity with which Israel acts towards Palestinians inside and outside its borders.

By the Monocultural National Us in the case of Israel, we are talking, first and foremost about the nature of the state. The Zionist state claims to be especially for Jewish people: in fact it goes out of its way to offer Jewish people everywhere a special access to its citizenship. In this regard, and because Jewishness is linked to race and religion, it is very easy to make the mistake of seeming to criticise Jewishness when criticising the actions of the Israeli nation state. And it is not quite so simple as following the advice that one should always differentiate between criticism of the state and criticism of the Israeli people, in a situation in which so many Israeli citizens  and many sections of the Jewish diaspora seem to have bought into the exclusionary rights of the Monocultural National Us. Nor is this confusion of those trying to work out the difference between ‘popular sovereignty’ and a unitary ‘people’s will’ confined to Jewish people. Nationalisms springing up all over the world and in much of Europe all draw on the assumption that what is under threat is “people like us”. And that the threat – for them – precisely begins with diversity – “multiculturalism”, “cosmopolitanism” etc. etc.

It is not surprising that Jewish people have turned in this direction. Given the history of antisemitism, fear and violence in which the state was born, it is actually almost obvious that in this context the ‘Never again’ of World War II should with very little encouragement become, let us always have the upper hand and never be weak or frightened again. It is not at all surprising that internally in Israel, the exclusion and discrimination against its Palestinian minority (around 20 per cent of the population) has become entrenched over the years in laws that are deemed to “preserve the ability to realize the Zionist dream in practice”. It is not surprising that human rights, particularly minority and migrant rights are on the run in Israel, or that the Knesset Presidency recently disqualified a bill named: “Basic Law: Israel [is a] State for All its Citizens”.

And it is not at all surprising that the projected external enemy that always returns to threaten one’s peace has been steadily turning the Occupied Territories into a large open air prison that is a reproach and a scandal in the world. Because, once you begin to go down the path of the Monocultural National Us, predicated on a unitary ‘Us’ and a ‘Them’ defined as inferior if not threatening both internally and externally, this is the logic and inevitable destiny of the National Us. This is why it is so important to criticise the Zionist state and Zionism as the political philosophy which underpins the Israeli state, because it has so clearly become this monocultural or unitary type of National Us, backed by the violence of the state; and because it is in the nature of that same simple economy of desire that, unless it is recognised for what it is and stopped, it must lead to ongoing and escalating violence.

We have many reasons in DiEM25 for regarding this as a key debate for us. For this argument, what is wrong with the Zionist state has nothing at all to do with Jewishness, and everything to do with the unitary nature of the Monocultural National Us. It could be a unitary grouping of anybody and any-ism – as long as it had the capacity to construct a polarised “Us’ and ‘Them’. Its lethality would depend on its state capacity. The moment we begin to look at it this way, Trump has a point. There is something extremely normal, even mundane, about what is wrong with the Israeli nation state in its response to Palestinians. As a late-comer to the model, it is not very different at all from the European nation-state, only differing recently in the degree of violence internal and external that it has been willing to undertake in perpetuation of this nationhood. (See Jacqueline Rose’s thoughtful book The Question of Zion (2005), on how “Zionism …imported into the Middle East a Central European concept of …organic nationhood, founded on ethnicity and blood (or “land, descent and the dead”)… the very version of nationhood from which the Jewish people had had to flee.”)

As we look around Europe today, (and it is the same in the US, in India, in Brazil, Turkey, Russia, Philippines in more and more parts of the world) – we begin to see example after example of liberal states turning towards illiberalism as the Real People – “people like us” – begin to emerge in their midst, often led by a strong leader, while the rest are ignored, vilified and ultimately accused of treachery. Italy offered a good example, with the emergence of ‘the sardine movement’ who packed the squares across Italy just to make the point that Salvini alone does not represent the ‘will of the people’. Boris Johnson’s unitary ‘will of the people’ is the same formation in Brexit Britain. And ‘The Jewish community’, so incessantly invoked in the campaign against antisemitism in the UK Labour Party, is so dangerous because it constitutes yet another unitary ‘Us’ with its inevitable existentially threatening ‘Them’.

But the Real People are doing very well in the current rounds of elections. 70 million votes for Trump isn’t bad at all – is it? What Donald Trump wanted us to conclude when he challenged ‘Israeli exceptionalism’ as anti-Semitic is that an Israeli democracy so constituted has as much right to pursue such policies as any other democracy similarly constituted. But Rose’s point is the opposite one: that the rigour with which Israel pursues the defence of an exclusivist state based on racial and religious unity makes it a stark and leading example of the inevitably racist and self-defeating outcome of ‘organic nationhood’ and its modern descendant which drives what we were quick to identify as the highly dangerous Nationalist International.

Everywhere we look today, we see a decisive worldwide swing towards monocultural constructions of the ‘National Us’ – not just in Hungary or Poland, but a re-Christianising Italy, a re-laicising France, Brexit Britain, a central European “axis of the willing against illegal immigration”, the rise of the AfD in Germany, Vox in Spain, and so on and so forth – we could go on.

There are urgent conclusions we might indeed draw from the Israeli experience. The whole fracas around allegations of antisemitism has imposed a chill factor on many progressive organisations that is preventing them from debating the dangerous turn that has been taken, nationally and internationally, in the world at large, with the monocultural National Us – and certainly not Jewishness – as its driver.

In our transnational, democratising DiEM25 – one way to show solidarity with the predicament in which the Israeli people find themselves, is to raise these issues for urgent debate, allowing the international community hopefully to do more than bear agonised witness to the violence that results.

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