Elections in Israel: Is Racism a Jewish Value?


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s victory in the Israeli elections reinforced some deeply depressing trends in Israel. The concrete outcome of the Israeli election – what the ruling coalition will be – may be unclear for several weeks.  What is clear is the declining quality of Israeli democracy.

Yes, there were contested elections, with at least 26 parties running.  But elections in Israel have become a device for moving Israel increasingly in the direction of right wing ethnic nationalism, not democratic values.

Israeli democracy is in steady decline.  We’re not talking about soft authoritarianism here, as in Putin’s Russia.  We’re talking about hard racism.  During the election campaign, Netanyahu used the kind of blatant anti-Arab racist language to scare his right-wing supporters into going to the polls that would be unthinkable in a Western country. He publically expressed strong alarm at the high level of Arab voter turnout.  Israeli Arabs make up 20 percent of Israel’s population. 

Imagine if a U.S. presidential campaigner publically expressed alarm at the high level of black turnout. “No other Western leader would dare utter such a racist remark,” Shelly Yacimovich, a member of the Labor Party, wrote on Twitter. “Imagine a warning that starts, ‘Our rule is in danger, black voters are streaming in quantity to the polling stations.’  ” Indeed.  Imagine, even, that a leader stated “Our rule is in danger, Jewish voters are streaming to the polls.”

It’s hard to know what’s more depressing:  that Netanyahu thought that appealing to overt racism might work or the fact that it did work. Earlier, on March 8, foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, who heads the ultranationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party, said that “disloyal Arabs should be beheaded.” One could be excused for thinking of a Jewish ISIS.

This is what passes for acceptable discourse in Israel these days. Elections there have become a vehicle, not for democracy, but for legitimizing anti-democratic values and practices. The problem goes deeper than simply the craven election rhetoric of leaders who want to get re-elected.  Public opinion polling provides troubling evidence of the rising racism of Israeli society. Polls consistently show rising anti-Arab sentiment among Israeli Jews. For example, a March 2010 poll by Tel Aviv University found that 49.5 percent of Israeli Jewish high school students believe Israeli Arabs should not be entitled to the same rights as Jews in Israel. Fifty-six percent believe Arabs should not be eligible to be in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament.

In October 2014, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin called for Israel to live up to its promise as a land of equality and to cure the epidemic of racism. “Israeli society is sick, and it is our duty to treat this disease,” he said.

But the election showed that Israel is getting sicker.  Racism and discrimination are becoming acceptable among large segments of the public.  A majority of Israelis, responding to Netanyahu’s racist scare tactics, voted for continued military occupation and the denial of Palestinian rights.  Millions of West Bank Palestinians, whose lives are entirely controlled by Israel, did not get to cast a ballot in the recent elections.  They live under an occupation apparatus that entrenches two separate legal systems, unjust military courts and a permit regime controlling most aspects of Palestinian life. Netanyahu’s statement just before the vote that he would never allow creation of a Palestinian state confirmed the suspicions of many observers that he had never been serious about a two-state solution. It added to the picture of a state determined to head toward international isolation.

These deeply troubling trends suggest that the Obama administration will need a new course of action.  It should begin by making clear that it will no longer use its veto to protect Israel from resolutions in the UN Security Council. 

Further, the outcome of the election is an open invitation to the growing Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, or BDS, movement.  As Israel’s government adopts a stance of permanent intransigence, even those who consider themselves friends of Israel will come to believe that the only strategy left for achieving a settlement of the conflict with the Palestinians is overt external pressure on the Israeli government.

NINA TANNENWALD is Director of the International Relations Program at Brown University.