Max Boot: I Don’t Recognize the Intolerant, Illiberal Country Israel Is Becoming

From a Washington Post column by Max Boot headlined “I don’t recognize the intolerant, illiberal country Israel is becoming”:

It’s never been harder to be a supporter of Israel. I should know; I‘ve been one as long as I can remember. In fact, I almost became an Israeli myself. When I left the Soviet Union with my mother and grandmother in 1976, we made lengthy stopovers in Vienna and Rome, where Israeli representatives tried to convince us to move to the Jewish state. It was a tempting offer, but since my mother spoke English, not Hebrew, we went to the United States. Yet while growing up as a Jewish kid in the Los Angeles suburbs, I still formed a fast attachment to Israel.

I came of age on stories of hard-working kibbutzim turning desert soil green and heroic Israeli soldiers rescuing hostages at Entebbe. At my bar mitzvah in 1982, I even gave a speech in defense of Israel’s ill-fated invasion of Lebanon — which says little about my perspicacity as a budding pundit but much about my devotion to Israel.

As an adult, I made numerous trips to Israel and marveled at the vibrancy of its culture. I always found Jerusalem, groaning under the weight of thousands of years of history, to be slightly oppressive, but Tel Aviv is a bustling, modern beach city where an ex-Angeleno can feel at home. My mother became so smitten with Israel that she spent months living there and spoke of moving there after her retirement from UCLA. (Sadly, she never got the chance: She died in 2018.)

Yet, while I retain affection for Israel, I often feel as if I do not recognize what it has become. This is a familiar feeling for me, since I am similarly befuddled by modern America: How did we turn into a land of book banners and covid deniers? Both Israel and the United States have been disfigured by the rise of populist rabble-rousers who have tapped into ugly and unsavory prejudices.

While our far-right president was narrowly unseated in 2020 and is now on the comeback trail, Israel’s far-right government remains firmly in control despite its exceedingly narrow winning margin. It just flexed its muscles by passing a law that will prevent the Supreme Court from overturning legislation on the grounds of unreasonableness — an admittedly subjective standard but one that has limited the ability of settlers to seize more land in the West Bank and of the ultra-Orthodox to be exempted from military service.

Hundreds of thousands of outraged Israelis have taken to the streets to protest not just a change in their country’s laws but in its very character. The secular, socialist Israel of my youth is fast disappearing. In its place is a far wealthier country — but one that is turning intolerant and illiberal.

There was, admittedly, always a tension between the Zionist and democratic strands of the state — tension that became especially pronounced after 1967 when Israel occupied the Gaza Strip and West Bank with all of their Palestinian inhabitants. But, in recent years, religious extremism and ultranationalist ideology have moved from the fringes of Israeli politics to the center of power.

The political parties representing Jewish settlers make no secret of their desire to annex the entire West Bank — which would entrench a military occupation that has been denounced by human-rights groups as an Israeli version of “apartheid.” And the political parties representing the ultra-Orthodox make no secret of their desire to repress women’s rights and LGBTQ rights and to impose theocracy on secular Israelis.

The Israeli cabinet now includes extremists such as Itamar Ben Gvir, a follower of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, who was convicted of supporting a terrorist organization and inciting racism. His cabinet colleague, Bezalel Smotrich, a self-described “fascist homophobe,” has advocated separating Jewish and Arab women in maternity wards, called for outlawing Arab political parties (which represent 2 million Arab Israelis), and incited the ethnic cleansing of Arabs in the West Bank.

Presiding over this extremist coalition is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a narcissist of few fixed convictions. Like former president Donald Trump, Netanyahu does not necessarily share many of his followers’ beliefs: Who, after all, imagines that an inveterate playboy like Trump is actually a firm foe of abortion or that a secular Israeli like Netanyahu actually wants to convert his country into a theocracy? But both Trump and Netanyahu cater to extremists to win and hold power — especially when doing so is essential to help them to escape the criminal charges they both face.

As finance minister twenty years ago, Netanyahu did much to create Israel’s reputation as a “start-up nation” by cutting government spending and deregulating the economy. Yet his new government is massively increasing subsidies for ultra-Orthodox schools and seminaries which produce graduates ignorant of math, science or English and unwilling to either serve in the military or pursue careers in business. The ultra-Orthodox, the fastest-growing part of the population, have already become a significant drag on Israel’s economy — and the new government subsidies, a group of Israeli economists warn, “will transform Israel … to a backward country in which a large part of the population lacks basic skills for life in the 21st century.”

Meanwhile, the soldiers and entrepreneurs who do the most to strengthen Israel, economically and militarily, feel increasingly alienated from the far-right state. Tech entrepreneurs are threatening to cut ties with Israel, and reservists in elite military units are threatening not to report for duty. Amos Malka, a retired major general who formerly commanded military intelligence and ground forces, recently said: “If I was serving now on the General Staff I would ask to immediately resign and a minute later explain I can’t serve a regime becoming a messianic extreme dictatorship.”

As a longtime supporter of Israel, I am filled with despair watching these developments and knowing that the United States is seemingly helpless to change Israel’s trajectory despite the $3.8 billion a year that Washington provides to the Jewish state. Netanyahu simply ignores President Biden’s wise advice to seek consensus before moving forward with major changes to the political system. Will he listen to Biden’s warnings not to annex the West Bank?

The United States and Israel are even increasingly at odds in their foreign policies, with Israel refusing to offer more than token support to Ukraine in its war against Russian aggression. Netanyahu is also trying to block Biden from reviving the badly needed Iran nuclear deal. Incredibly, during his current term in office, Netanyahu may wind up meeting the president of China before the president of the United States.

Israel is now an increasingly illiberal, and difficult, ally: the Hungary of the Middle East. That’s why it makes sense to discuss a phaseout of U.S. military aid to Israel, as was suggested to New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof by two former U.S. ambassadors to Israel, Daniel Kurtzer and Martin Indyk. Israel is strong enough to stand on its own, and the United States should not be subsidizing policies that are anathema to so many Americans — and Israelis.

Israel remains freer than its neighbors, and it still has large numbers of citizens who are willing to take to the streets to defend its liberal, democratic values. The protesters give me some hope for its future. But it is simply not the same nation I fell in love with more than 40 years ago. I am sad about what has already happened to Israel and worried about what will happen next. Like many Americans, I simply cannot support it as unreservedly as I once did.

Max Boot is a Washington Post columnist, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of “The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam.”

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