Israel is no longer a liberal democracy. As Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government took office on 29 December, its illiberalism was evident. No longer a matter for debate or polite embarrassment, the contempt for liberal ideas brings all the disparate factions together: against the media and intellectuals and increasingly against the old Western-inspired Israeli political system and the existing Israeli constitution, including its Basic Laws.
Bezalel Smotrich, for example, calls gay pride parades “worse than bestiality” and in 2017 published a violent political manifesto detailing how best to force Palestinians to “truly internalise the loss of national hope,” “killing those who need to be killed.” In 2019, he told students at the Mercaz Harav Yeshiva in Jerusalem that his Union of Right-Wing Parties wanted to be put in charge of the ministry of justice “because we want to restore the Torah justice system.” Instead, he was appointed finance minister in Netanyahu’s government.
His colleague Itamar Ben Gvir, arguably even more radical, oversees the critical Ministry of National Security.
Yariv Levin, the new justice minister, announced on January 5 a set of sweeping changes to the powers of the High Court, limiting its ability to strike down legislation, while placing the power to appoint judges in the hands of the executive. No effective checks and balances would survive in the reformed Israeli political system, the very checks and balances that define a liberal democracy. Many of the reform’s proponents view the High Court as an undemocratic organ with the ability to thwart the will of the people.
None of these developments are unexpected. The state of the Law of Return (“every Jew has a right to immigrate to this country”), whose flag includes representations of the Star of David and the traditional Jewish prayer shawl, is not and will never become a liberal state. But there is still a battle to be fought. Will Israel become a nationalist or even theocratic state, excluding everyone who does not accept the oneness of people, land and religion? Or can the tradition of Jewish values flourish in the context of a civilization state open to other cultures and civilizations?
There is a powerful case for a civilization state, but the idea of civilization needs to be distinguished from national or ethnic identity. The latter is irrational and takes pride in accepting race or revelation as a basis for political power. It is defined by opposition to some other group against which you are pitted in existential struggle: Jews against Palestinians, whom Smotrich defines as anti-Jews. It ends in bloodshed.
Civilization, by contrast, is an exercise in political reason, the effort to organize collective life around principles that express our fundamental relation to truth, to the world and to each other. The idea of organizing a state around a distinctive civilization is increasingly gaining ground around the world. It corresponds to the crisis of liberalism as a universal program of political and social life.
Liberal ideas, for all their intellectual appeal, derived their ultimate force from the unrivaled economic and military power of the countries – France, Britain and the United States – where they originated from the 18th century. That power is weakened today. End of history? Even the dogmas keep changing. Liberal ideas on race and gender, for example, have changed so much during my lifetime that they have become unrecognizable. A renewed competition with rival systems of thought and statecraft might not be such a bad idea if liberalism is no longer so sure about final truths.
As liberal power wanes, rival civilizations are reaffirming themselves as models for how to arrange political and social life. Countries such as Turkey, Israel, India or China now constitute the best candidates for civilization states and have a renewed claim to be part of the global search for the most compelling political beliefs and political system for delivering the good life. Judaism and Hinduism, for example, have for thousands of years developed answers to fundamental political questions on freedom, justice and equality. It’s implausible that nothing on these matters can be learned from those traditions, or that we can only place our hopes for political salvation on Western values.
But these countries will fail to become civilization states unless they are able to navigate between the liberalism they no longer accept on the one hand, and the ethnic or religious nationalism they feel tempted by on the other. The civilization state is a third type beyond both liberalism and nationalism.
Why should a Jewish or Hindu civilization state refuse to accept the existence of different traditions and ideas? Why should it demand others accept the loss of hope and happiness? Why should Ben Gvir feel that the way for Judaism to become a light upon nations is to storm the Temple Mount complex and ritually humiliate Muslims and Palestinians? If these civilization states see themselves as superior to liberal ideas then they must offer better solutions than liberalism has done to the questions of diversity and pluralism.
Pandit Deendayal Upadhyaya, who died in 1968 but remains one of Prime Minister Modi’s main intellectual influences, liked to argue that every religion was compatible with Hinduism because the Hindu ideal is a civilization, and a civilization is not related to a mode of worship or religious belief. In a speech just two years before his death, he went on to say that the Hindu tradition had been open to influences from Islam, so a Muslim could hope to make his own contribution to its growth. He was this impish: “A Hindu does not discriminate between Ram and Allah. He recites Vishnu Sahasranam in the daily schedule, he will be too happy to add one or two names to the thousand terms attributed to God Vishnu.” Deendayal is extraordinarily popular among the ruling party in India, but the core of his thought is often conveniently left out.
A civilization looks up from the world of blood and instinct to the world of light and progress. The challenge today is to turn the revolt against liberalism into a civilizational rather than a national project.
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