Israelis compare themselves to Hungary, but they’re more like Afghanistan
Under the influence of fundamentalist forces, Israel is moving further and further away from the influence of the West. And as in other parts of the Middle East, the moment may come when the Americans decide to cut their losses
By Ofri Ilany • (translated by Sol Salbe)
The images on TV seem to have been taken from a historical documentary. The president, his hands shaking, declares that we are facing constitutional collapse. The railway stations are full of protesters, who feel elation from the gathering and the political awakening. But it is hard not to notice that this is a certain community, very limited in scope, within Israeli society. At the demonstrations, you could sing the socialist-Zionist youth movements Blue Shirt hymn of yesteryear, plus the high-tech anthem, and most of the participants would chime in with roars of “Whoah, hey”. Anyone who wants to be honest with themselves would notice that the protest is mostly limited to the secular-Ashkenazi community. We are the only ones concerned about the situation.
What is the relevant historical precedent to what is happening now in Israel? In recent months, the political processes taking place here have often been compared to the erosion of liberal democracy in Hungary under Viktor Orbán. Among other things this comparison tells us that as far as most of us are concerned our dystopian imagination is also quite limited. Even when we imagine a catastrophic scenario, we prefer to envisage that we are in Europe. I was in Hungary a few months back. I saw an ageing, sleepy Central European country, with museums, opera and Sachertorte. Admittedly, the Orbán government controls the media and floods the public space with campaigns against LGBTIA “pedophile propaganda”. Needless to say, Hungary’s past also has the scars left from dark regimes. Still, Hungary is a member of the European Union and lies on the Danube, two hours from Vienna. We would love to be Hungary.
In fact, the relevant comparison to Israel’s current situation is far less amiable: the fall of Kabul. True, the situation is not as desperate yet. For the time being, no one is hanging on to the belly of a plane taking off — the influx to the airport has not yet begun. There are a few more stage on the way to get there. And you never know what will happen. But despite all the differences, the events that take place in Israel in 2023 and in Afghanistan in 2021 ultimately belong to the same process. Here, too, there is a pro-Western elite that is losing control over the territory, is pushed to the wall, and at the same time begins to look for a way out of here.
In a moment of crisis, the truth is revealed like a bolt of lightning. The events of the past week, and in particular the growing involvement of the Biden administration in the political crisis in Israel, highlight our actual situation. Like Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani’s Afghanistan, the facade of liberal democracy in Israel is maintained thanks to close ties to the US establishment. But under the influence of religious-fundamentalist groups in society, Israel is now threatening to slip out of the Western sphere of influence. Admittedly, the Israeli Right is also networked with the US and financed with US money; But it is linked to a different US, which today is itself hostile to the Western project. This is a conspiratorial, chaotic, religious and Putinist US.
Meanwhile, the American and European investors who drive the Israeli high-tech economy are beginning to clear their throats and calculate their steps. We have always explained to them that Israel is more than camels and religious extremism, but suddenly they are not really convinced that they haven’t been hoodwinked. And in one way or another, it is this global capital that maintains most of us. The moment our credit lines to the West are closed, it will become clear that Israel is just another arid Middle Eastern country with a few holy places. With all due respect to cherry tomatoes and start-ups, someone is also needed to buy them, and that someone isn’t in the Middle East.
At a demonstration at the Knesset they yelled: “Yariv Levin, this is not Poland.” But while we were hollering, many felt the Polish passport in their pockets. I do not have a foreign passport, but I am not fooling myself: I exist only thanks to European money. I can testify for myself that for a decade and a half I have actually lived from European or American funding sources: German investors, Dutch foundations, New York academic institutions. Only these somehow have an interest in maintaining a someone like me. It’s not just a matter of money: our orientation is western, the sources of influence are western, and our vision is western.
Living under Ottoman-like Capitulations
People of European background living in Israel have not really able to take root in this place and assimilate into the Middle Eastern population. It may not be pleasant to think of ourselves this way, but this is the truth: just like in the 19th century Ottoman Empire, we exist thanks to Western Powers wielding their influence like they did in Capitulation treaties of those days. It may have been a historical mistake to rely on this power, and it’s far from certain that there was another option, and in any case — it is too late to correct it now. At the current point in time, there is no point in self-righteousness and sentimental talk about integration into the region, which themselves are often financed by German funds. The mutterings about strengthening the left’s Jewish identity are also tiresome. This is similar to someone who missed the last train, and still insists on waiting at the station.
The battle is not lost: the US-Western forces that will maintain Israel for decades poured quite a bit of capital and prestige here. They will not so easily give up their grip on this piece of land. The affinity of US Jews and the holy places of Christianity also save us from the fate of just being just another bigoted oppressive Middle Eastern country. If Netanyahu persists with his disturbances, the Americans are going to remind him more emphatically who is the true landlord. Still, as in Afghanistan, the moment may come when the landlords decide cut their losses There is a limit to how long you can hold your finger in the dyke.
What to do in the meantime? We need to soldier on, but also to remember where we came from. Like our Jewish ancestors in all generations, we suckle from the nipples of the imperial powers. We are mainly embedded in our global networks. There’s no shame in being mobile: it’s what sets us apart from the trees. Even those who remain here physically would do well to tighten their grip on global cash. And at a certain moment, when the spaceship goes up in flames, we will have to put the request, like in the Star Trek series: “Beam me up, Scotty”.
Original Haaretz (Hebrew edition) translated by Sol Salbe, Middle East News Service: