In this first of four articles on current Israeli government strife, we explore some of the ways that Jewish political discourse has been "flattened" in Western media. We cannot talk effectively about the rise of extreme movements until we reckon with the gloss the West has placed over Jewish discourse.

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On May 14, Israel will celebrate seventy-five years since its Declaration of Independence in 1948, when the British Mandate of Palestine was terminated early after a UN resolution promoting partition between Arab and Jewish sectors led to a breakdown in British regional authority and sparked a massive civil war that stretched well into 1949, and beyond. It was a strange, brutal mess of a birth, wherein the US and Soviet Russia became bedfellows in their military and political support of certain Zionist causes, and the British reversed course on longstanding anti-Arab policies to protect a mixed bag of local economic interests. The country that emerged from this overcrowded delivery room has been a site of strife and complex identity formation ever since.

But seventy-five years on, Israel also now finds itself internally afflicted, as different political groups wrestle either to uphold democratic checks and balances or else to consolidate power and a sense of “security” deemed necessary for national stability. Last month, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose extreme right wing coalition government was sworn in this past December, attempted to advance judicial reforms that many felt would be the end of democracy in all but name for Israel. These reforms were met with widespread protests that challenged key aspects of Israeli identity, especially when citizens broke with national doctrine by refusing to show up for mandatory military service. When Netanyahu promised to postpone judicial reforms until May, he all but guaranteed that the country’s fraught anniversary will now be aligned with another deep political crisis.

The problem for Westerners trying to make sense of Israeli politics, though, is that our countries never got over all our meddling in the birth of this nation. For many self-absorbed reasons, ranging from widespread complicity in antisemitism up to and beyond World War II, to the exploitation of European Jewish residents to further Western colonialism and anti-Arab attitudes, to the all-consuming egotism of certain Christian groups that view Israel as critical to their own end-times rhetoric, to US savior narratives in which its statesmen get to play a decisive role in “solving” the Middle East “question”, we have routinely made Israel, and Palestine, about us.

Meanwhile, Israelis are no more monolith than any other demographic, and it is a form of “polite” antisemitism to gloss over the full range of complex secular and religious positions that underpin the politics of national identity—up to and including the existence of Jewish supremacist movements, the same as can be found along most any ethno-religious spectrum.

Indeed, Israel is no stranger to the sort of religio-nationalist rhetoric that also afflicts India and the US today. How could it be, when Israel’s whole history has been deeply entrenched in the goings-on of Western nations, too? In a better world, we would be able to talk frankly about all such nationalist rhetoric, wherever it reaches extremes threatening human dignity and the pursuit of democracy. We could discuss the overlaps between different faith-based nationalist movements, their regional distinctions, and possible recourse for their negative impacts.

But to do so, we need to let go of flattened Western histories of “the Jewish people”.

Which is exactly what, in this article and the next three, we’re going to try to do.

Unflattening Israel, and its peoples

Any time one writes about Israel today, the immediate question that springs to mind for readers is “Which ‘side’ is the author on?” After all, the Middle East is embroiled in what I last year described as gamified politics, in which scorecard reporting matters more than addressing the horrific crisis afflicting the region head-on, and asking ourselves what might be done to return dignity to all involved.

The bitter irony in this approach to reporting, though, will not be lost to many members of the Jewish faith itself, which has an entrenched tradition of “midrash”, or exegesis: the treatment of text as a potential site of revelatory insight, and as an invitation to think and read and interpret with care.

Nevertheless, part of the flattening of Jewish political discourse in Western media lies in how quickly gentiles (non-Jewish people) gloss over the differences between Judaism the religion, Jewishness as a faith-informed culture (both spiritual and secular), and Jewishness as a blood category haunted by living histories of persecution. There are differences in Zionism, too: secular formations that focus on the reclamation of perceived geopolitical entitlements for demographic security, others more interested in the kind of society being built wherever Zionists live, and religious formations that pursue specific lands as the fulfillment of spiritual destiny.

(We’ll come back to these forms as we address the current state of Israeli politics.)

Importantly, too, “the Jewish faith” is no more universal than “the Christian faith” and “the Muslim faith”. For all that many Jewish persons celebrate the role of critical thinking and ongoing textual interpretation, so too do many Jewish persons prioritize the rigidity and structure of religion in their lives. Were the original tribes of Israel not expected to be decisive? Was one meant to quibble over all possible readings of divine decree when called to war, or to obey the commandments?

Within histories of the Jewish faith, one finds quite a bit of dissent not only around specific religious mandates, but also about the role of mandate in one’s spiritual life. Is one expected to follow everything to the letter, or to wrestle with doubt? Unsurprisingly, then, even when Jewish groups around the world shared common persecutions, their responses to these persecutions often starkly differed.

Which leads to the last form of “flattening” in Western discourse: the failure to recognize Jewish peoples as having a multitude of ethnic identities. Of being, at times, both politically Zionist and decidedly of the US, maybe even informed by its gentile notions of manifest destiny; or European-descended, with painful family histories of lost lives and property in the Holocaust, and also of deeper antisemitic persecution even by Allied countries and European countries long before World War II.

There is, though, one curious exception to the above: a space carved out in Western media for Israeli military histories, which often abundantly serve US narratives of nation-building and defense. Often, when Westerners do have a deeper understanding of Israeli state politics, it’s initially achieved through fascination with Israeli histories of combat training, international collaboration, and military advances. This can present its own form of cultural “flattening”, though, because even though Israeli citizens have a military service requirement, this shared facet of state identity does not at all guarantee a uniformity of political and/or religious views.

Israelis are no more monolith than any other demographic, and it is a form of “polite” antisemitism to gloss over the full range of complex secular and religious positions that underpin the politics of national identity.

Histories of displacement and return

For all of the above reasons, there were many different paths the pursuit of an expressly Jewish state could have taken. In the 1800s, some were strongly in favor of ongoing assimilation, despite the hardships, within European nations where their ancestors had lived for centuries. Theodor Herzl, after reporting on the Dreyfus Affair, when a French officer of Jewish descent was wrongly convicted of treason, disagreed. From the brutal antisemitism not only in that crisis, but also amid the ongoing toll of Russian pogroms, the conviction underpinning his Zionist movement was clear: Jewish peoples needed their own state to be free of persecution.

But putting aside the debatable claim that having a state protects one from persecution (Ukraine would like a word), the where was complicated. In 1897, the first Zionist manifesto called for a legally assured resettlement in Palestine (then under the Ottoman Empire, broken into three states), with Jewish peoples federated according to regional laws. However, in 1903, Herzl also proposed that Jewish Europeans accept the Uganda Scheme, wherein the British would help Jewish citizens relocate to land that’s actually in Kenya (warning: British territorial hand-waving afoot!). This would allow the British to continue their own colonial ambitions, while ostensibly helping Jewish peoples flee European persecution. This proposal split delegates at the Sixth World Zionist Congress, and was condemned in part by those who feared that it would work, and detract from other Zionists’ belief that they were called to reclaim Palestine. Other possible sites, including Canada, Australia, Iraq, and Libya, also had their moment in the sun. The British eventually withdrew their offer.

(Not that they would be the only ones to imagine a different home for Jewish peoples: the French Foreign Minister Georges Bonnet discussed forced emigration of France’s Jewish refugees with German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop in 1938, and Nazi Franz Rademacher proposed similar in 1940. In conjunction with Adolf Eichmann, the SS officer assigned to the forced emigration of Jewish persons, Rademacher advanced Madagascar as a possible destination. A British blockade postponed the project, but it still served as a preparatory step toward the Final Solution.)

With this much richer range of beliefs and goals in mind, then, we’re left with some crucial questions, which the next three articles will seek to answer:

One, what happened to all this nuance in Western discourse? Why is it so difficult for us to talk plainly about the full spectrum of Jewish state politics?

Two, what are the major local actors underpinning Israeli internal politics today?

And three, what are the mitigating international factors that continue to complicate our ability to discuss Israeli government maturely on the world stage?

To be clear: many Israelis won’t give a hoot if the rest of the world understands local politics with greater nuance or not. So long as international groups are supporting their side in specific regional struggles, that’s all that will ever matter to some.

But as we face the rise of toxic ethno-religious nationalisms the world over, the humanists among us owe it to ourselves, and to each other, to better understand the phenomenon in all its messy nuances. To be able to differentiate between local manifestations. To recognize commonalities wherever they arise. To remember that no group is monolith, and no demographic a hivemind.

Only then do we stand a chance of building upon the deeper humanity we all share.

Israel and the West

Part 1: How we lost nuance with Jewish state politics

Part 2: Western complicity in Middle Eastern trauma

Part 3: Netanyahu and Israeli national politics

Part 4: The global fight to outgrow national strife

GLOBAL HUMANIST SHOPTALK M L Clark is a Canadian writer by birth, now based in Medellín, Colombia, who publishes speculative fiction and humanist essays with a focus on imagining a more just world.