In her landmark work, “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” Hannah Arendt posited that fascism had its roots in European imperialism. The expanding bullets that would rip up the bodies of countless World War I soldiers were first deployed in Africa. Concentration camps had their start in the Boer War, an internecine conflict between Dutch-descended Afrikaners and the British. Most importantly, a modern racism was what emerged from colonial rule.
Arendt, a German Jew who sat on the University of Chicago’s prestigious Committee on Social Thought, argued that it was this prejudice that had a boomerang effect. Pseudoscientific biological studies that justified eugenics were close cousins of genocide; if Africans were unter-menschen, so were Jews; there was only a small jump from the Kurtz of “Heart of Darkness” to Hitler.
To Arendt, World War II and the Holocaust represented Europe’s chickens coming home to roost as ugly ideologies: that rationalized conquest and exploitation consumed the continent’s otherwise liberal countries. Her thesis, then, is a warning to the contemporary world. Evil is never too far away. It is a worm searching for the cracks in the edifice of a free society.
Israel’s structure is starting to show signs of decay, ones linked to its 45-year occupation and settlement of the West Bank. This is not due to conflict with the Palestinians nor the country’s near-pariah status among the international community, but because the entanglement is leading to an erosion of the state’s founding values and allowing radical elements within Israeli society to strengthen and entrench themselves within the political system.
Theodore Herzl, considered the founder of Zionism, was a non-observant Jew, as were most of his contemporaries who immigrated to the Holy Land under the British Mandate. Except for a few, prayer was ancillary to their agenda; they drained swamps, planted forests, desalinated the water, established kibbutzim, started cities, and built institutions of mutual aid and government. When the state was declared in 1948, David Ben-Gurion envisioned a Jewish, democratic, and secular Israel.
But Ben-Gurion was a pragmatist above all, and he saw the need for compromise with a noisy minority. Ultra-Orthodox Jews, or Haredim, were given control over the rabbinate, which sets marriage and divorce policy, all government institutions were made to conform to Jewish law, and yeshiva students were exempt from military service. This accord, while distasteful to many, was acceptable to the majority.
In 1967, the status quo would begin to unravel after Israel romped in the Six Day War and won the West Bank, along with East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip, and the Sinai Peninsula. Israel wanted to trade land for peace, but the Arabs refused to negotiate with the triumphant Jewish State. Under Golda Meir, Israel began its Civil Administration of the captured territories, a regime that had undeniable benefits: in the West Bank, between 1968 and 1972, agricultural production doubled and per capita income increased by 80 percent.
Meir, a member of Israel’s left-wing Labor Party, permitted small-scale settlements in the West Bank for security reasons. The right-wing Likud Party, when it came to power later in the 1970s, had different intentions. Likud encouraged a massive wave of settlement-building and, with low property prices, lured many mainstream Israelis to neighborhoods just on the other side of the pre-1967 lines. The Haredim were motivated by something other than economics. With the same fervor of the imperialists’ who took up the white man’s burden, the ultra-Orthodox sought to establish a greater Israel, a state that would have the same borders as did David’s ancient kingdom. The West Bank was their Africa, the Palestinians their savages.
The communities they founded, a good number constructed illegally, were hotbeds for extremism. The residents rejected the trappings of a free society—democracy, pluralism, openness, the rights of women and minorities. Their retrograde views became a blight upon the land. They seized the fields and burned the groves of Palestinians; some even defaced Muslim places of worship.
And the Israeli government did nothing to stop them; in fact, it helped by perpetuating a culture of occupation in the West Bank. It forced Palestinians to travel on separate roads littered with checkpoints, authorized the use of administrative detention against West Bank inhabitants, and erected a separation barrier between Israel-proper and the territory.
Through successive right-wing and left-wing leaders, the settlements grew because governments needed the support of small, radical parties to control a majority of the seats in the Knesset (Israel’s House of Representatives), and today, 300,000 Israelis live in the West Bank, an arrangement that has drawn the ire of the international community and arguably violates the terms of the Geneva Conventions.
For years, the Jewish State, like Europe’s great powers, was able to maintain a free society at home and an occupation abroad. Now, the West Bank cancer is metastasizing. As the Haredi population explodes, the group is able to exert more political and cultural influence. The Likud government of Benjamin Netanyahu, bolstered by alliances with xenophobic and religious parties such as Yisrael Beiteinu and Shas, has pushed legislation that undermines Israeli democracy. Bills that allow Jewish communities to establish anti-Arab covenants on property and subject domestic non-governmental organizations to heavy fines if they advocate for a boycott of Israeli products or institutions have been enacted. Currently under consideration is legislation that would expand the definition of libel to include some criticisms of the government.
Then there is the raging culture war. Jerusalem’s Western Wall has been turned into a Haredi synagogue from which women and Reform Jews are chased away, where Christian clerics are attacked. In some ultra-Orthodox communities, the national transportation service has begun to run segregated bus lines. Haredi have even tried to impose dress codes. Last December, in an incident that attracted international attention, a gang of ultra-Orthodox men accosted an 8-year old girl on her way to school, cursing at her and spitting on her for her supposedly immodest attire.
These facts are not easy to point out. They will lead some to charge that I am a self-hating Jew. But I write these words out of love for Israel, for what it has represented in the past, and for all that it stands to lose. Europe kept its colonies. Israel should not.