The Middle East and the Rise of Toxic Populism

The Middle East and the Rise of Toxic Populism
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem, 15 July 2018. EPA-EFE/RONEN ZVULUN / POOL

Our family attorney, when he saw a small something that could lead to enormous agonies, used to refer to it as being like lemon juice into a paper cut. Ouch. Increasingly, a brand of nationalism/ chauvinism/ identity politics is leading countries down a pathway strewn with booby traps or worse. The latest place to look is the Middle East.

In the current world, we are growing wearily accustomed to the resurgence of identity politics in a particularly toxic strain, as well as those closely aligned cousins of nationalism and chauvinism, as we discussed in several recent articles about the world we live in now (such as this).

We have seen it in the rise of right-wing populism in democratic states such as Germany, Italy, and France where the economic message (whatever it actually might ordinarily have been lodged in a populist movement) is largely subsumed within the anti-foreigner, anti-immigrant and anti-Roma rhetorical clamour against anyone “different”.

Even in Britain, the anti-Brexit fervour presumably was rooted in a particular economic message, but it eventually turned on an avowedly anti-foreigner crusade of the angry and the anxious.

Meanwhile, looking to Asia, Chinese government policy has almost always (throughout its long history) been weighted heavily towards the Han ethnicity. Nowadays, to be a Uighur or Tibetan and to hold any of their own ethnic political aspirations has put them on a collision course with the central government. Be a religious minority as well and things may be even tougher. India, with its reported (or rumoured) intention of denationalising Muslim citizens under a government that hews to a strongly religious nationalism of its own, has taken steps on a journey down a similar path, and the less said about Myanmar and the horrors of its dreadful treatment of that nation’s Muslim minority the better.

In new democracies such as Hungary and Poland, the more fragile democratic traditions have become beset by a new nationalism as well. In countries like those, the anti-foreign immigrant rhetoric continues to rise. In Poland, for example, it is now effectively forbidden to speak of any Polish participation that might in any way be seen as complicit in the slaughter of the Holocaust.

And, of course, in today’s America, a variant of ethno-economic populism led, or more honestly stated as egged on, by that flim-flam man of a con artist president, has emboldened and empowered racialised behaviour and public policy in many corners. In some of the most egregious cases, such as the neo-Nazi, white supremacists’ march in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017, there was the president’s appalling response to it. Emboldened by statements like that, the most extreme partisans are drawing on the despicable “blood and soil” trope fundamental to fascism in the 1930s. Others, perhaps embarrassed to be on point with such stuff, have nevertheless been encouraged by this kind of nastiness as they utter slightly diluted or more carefully couched variants of this language in many forums or as candidates in various electoral contests.

Nowadays, Trumpian government policy and the president’s own wild, over-the-top, faux news-littered, florid rhetoric follow right along with this, echoing those extreme views. One sees this, for example, in labelling of immigrants (especially the illegal ones) as vermin to be extirpated if necessary in order to keep the country as pure as possible for a hoped-for influx of Norwegian immigrants (Trump’s stated choice), instead of the lesser breeds from Latin America, Africa and Asia.

The Middle East, with its own long, multi-millennia history of empires, religions, migrations, invasions, conquests, captivities, and slaughters, along with its undoubted achievements in architecture, art, literature and ancient engineering, has also been a cauldron of ethnic/religious/racial animosities.

These are often enhanced by borders that transgress or ignore feelings of ethnic identification. The centuries-long split between Shia and Sunni variants of Islam (and with offshoots of Shia such as the Alawites) has been an important element in the Syrian civil conflict, in the Iraqi/Iranian conflicts (along with conflicting dreams of empire), with the internal fighting in Iraq that has broken through post-2003’s invasion, and in the oppression of the Yazidi and others by the Iraqi Daesh.

And then there are the harshly conflicting ethnicities that have led to centuries of strife and pressure on the Kurds by the Turks and the other nations where they exist, as well as the combined weight and damage of all the varied internal ethnic/religious divisions and external pressures in Lebanon.

While living in a largely monocultural state, Iranians, too, have a long-developed, deeply held sense of ethnic uniqueness vis-à-vis others dating back over 2,000 years, and knowledge of Iran’s history continues to fuel dreams of a kind of revival of the Persian ascendancy that had stood atop much of the world, all those years ago. (Parenthetically, a friend who had lived for years in Iran, forty-some years ago, had insisted that the Iranians were convinced that they would be a great power – once again – in the 21st century.) Along the way, this pride has fostered a deep sense of distrust of other powers historically – czarist Russia, imperial Britain, the US – all apparently or in reality had been determined to divvy up Persia/Iran or control it through pliant rulers of their own choice.

And then, of course, there is Israel. The modern country is a de jure nation, founded under the auspices of United Nations decisions, and a member of that body (albeit with boundaries that remain yet to be determined, and with the final status of Jerusalem still to be determined).

Its creation is largely a result of two converging forces. The first was the horrific impact and devastation of the Holocaust on European Jewry and the search for a home of refuge for the remnant. The second, and still earlier, impetus of settlement stemmed from the Zionist movement founded in the late 19th century – largely in response to pogroms in Rumania and czarist Russia. This latter impetus was also built upon a metaphysical longing expressed in the ancient prayer, Next year in Jerusalem. By the 1970s, a modest majority of Israeli Jews were now tracing their ancestry back to the rest of Middle East and North Africa, and who had moved to Israel, in response to increasingly intense local pressures in those nations for them to leave – or from the attractions of a better (and safer) life in Israel. Thereafter, migrations from Russia and Ethiopia have also augmented the Jewish population in Israel.

Of course, this ethnic nationalism was constructed atop a piece of geography that had other occupants who, increasingly, in the ensuing years have, unsurprisingly, found their own expressions of their own ethnic nationalism. By the time the first Arab-Israeli conflict had ended in a ceasefire, Palestinian nationalism and a growing reservoir of grievance had crystallised with the flow of Arab refugees from the newly created state, even though the Arabs who stayed on in the new state were effectively treated as full citizens.

Post-1967, however, in the newly occupied areas of Gaza, the West Bank territories, and the Golan Heights, the de facto legal situation was very different. There, Arab residents (as opposed to the growing number of Jewish residents in new settlements – both official and unofficial/unsanctioned ones) have been subjected to a range of restrictions. These have, as a result, profoundly challenged the Israeli claims to broad international legitimacy for their state and for its commitment to western democratic values.

Along the way, that tension has helped deepen a divide within Israeli society itself. There are those who believe (perhaps a third of the Jewish population) the future must inevitably see the establishment of a full-fledged Palestinian state, despite the potential for real risk or merely “inconvenience.” In contrast, there are those (perhaps somewhat more than a third now, with the remainder of the population uncertain about which course is safest) who believe the ambivalent, ambiguous status quo can be maintained virtually forever. And this would include that shadowy half-existing semi-state of Palestinians; the low-level resistance within the West bank that occasionally flares up into something more profound; and the deeper form of militant resistance and concomitant conflict in Gaza – despite opprobrium over this in many quarters around the world.

This latter belief – and the religious-ethnic nationalism it is wrapped around – has now found an expression in the kind of politically conservative, religiously guided ideology under which the Israeli parliament has passed a new law, the Jewish National State Law, that has significantly downgraded, at least on paper, the status of non-Jews in the nation.

Moreover, it degraded the status of the Arabic language – a particularly emotive point for many – in a nation where some 20% of the population is Arab Palestinian – both Muslim and Christian. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had long insisted Palestinians must recognise Israel as the “nation-state of the Jewish people” – and now his governing coalition has pushed through a law that has made that statement of ethnic belief an established legal fact.

After the vote, The New York Times reported on that event:

In an incendiary move hailed as historic by Mr. Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition but denounced by centrists and leftists as racist and anti-democratic, Israel’s Parliament enacted a law that enshrines the right of national self-determination as ‘unique to the Jewish people’ — not all citizens. The legislation, a ‘basic law’ — giving it the weight of a constitutional amendment — omits any mention of democracy or the principle of equality, in what critics called a betrayal of Israel’s 1948 Declaration of Independence, which ensured ‘complete equality of social and political rights’ for ‘all its inhabitants’ no matter their religion, race or sex.

The new law promotes the development of Jewish communities, possibly aiding those who would seek to advance discriminatory land-allocation policies. And it downgrades Arabic from an official language to one with a ‘special status.’ Since Israel was established, it has grappled with the inherent tensions between its dual aspirations of being both a Jewish and democratic state. The new law, portrayed by proponents as restoring that balance in the aftermath of judicial rulings that favored democratic values, nonetheless struck critics as an effort to tip the scales sharply toward Jewishness.”

Its opponents have argued that this law’s passage has been a decisive demonstration of the ascendancy of the ultranationalists within Israel’s government, “who,” The Times went on, “have been emboldened by the gains of similarly nationalist and populist movements in Europe and elsewhere, as Mr. Netanyahu has increasingly embraced illiberal democracies like that of Hungary — whose far-right prime minister, Viktor Orban, arrived in Jerusalem for a friendly visit only hours before the vote.”

The opposition was unable to block its adoption and its proponents appear to have drawn upon the increasingly dramatic support for Netanyahu’s government from the Trump administration. As a result, the Netanyahu government – the most right-wing and religious coalition government in Israel, ever – has been pushing hard on many fronts to take advantage of its legislative weight. These include controls over the news media, degrading the authority of the Supreme Court; limiting efforts by left-wing policy advocacy bodies; as well as moves to endorse the de facto annexation of parts of the West Bank. It has also been working to undercut the police in order to minimize the effects of multiple corruption investigations against the incumbent prime minister. All of these pale before the tenets of the new basic law, however.

In celebrating its passage, the prime minister had argued:

This is a defining moment in the annals of Zionism and the annals of the state of Israel.”

This was after the acrid, acrimonious debate in the Knesset that had preceded the final passage. Netanyahu then went on to say:

We have determined in law the founding principle of our existence. Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people, and respects the rights of all of its citizens.”

Not surprisingly, critics of the new law are particularly strenuous over its impact on the fragile balance between the nation’s Jewish majority and its Arab minority, and if it was intended to be a strong expression of the national identity, it has further opened up the fissures in an already fractious and fractured society. Ultimately, the bill passed into law in the 120-seat assembly by a vote of 62 to 55 with two abstentions and one absent member.

As soon as the result was in, the Arab members of the parliament ripped up copies of the bill, now law (an incident seen on news channels around the world), shouting the word, “Apartheid!” as Ayman Odeh, the head of the Arab contingent’s Joint List and its 13 seats (the third biggest bloc in the Knesset) waved a black flag. Odeh had previously been interviewed by this author during a recent visit to South Africa. Yael German, a centrist opposition member, didn’t mince his words much either, calling the new law “a poison pill for democracy”.

The New York Times went on to note:

Dan Yakir, chief legal counsel for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, said that while largely only declaratory, the new law ‘will give rise to arguments that Jews should enjoy privileges and subsidies and rights, because of the special status that this law purports to give to the Jewish people in Israel.”

In that regard, he added, “this is a racist law”. Ah, ethnic, racial, religious nationalism is such a friendly thing, something South Africans have become fairly well acquainted with as well over the years. Yakir himself went on to argue in his media comments:

There is a plausible argument that the new basic law can overrule the right of equality that is only inferred, and is not specified anywhere in our constitution.”

There are also those who have argued that this law is precisely the kind of thing giving those who view Israel as an apartheid state their ammunition. As Amir Fuchs, an expert in legislative processes at The Israel Democracy Institute, an independent research group in Jerusalem has argued:

I don’t agree with those saying this is an apartheid law. It does not form two separate legal norms applying to Jews or non-Jews.”

Nevertheless, he also noted:

Even if it is only declarative and won’t change anything in the near future, I am 100 percent sure it will worsen the feeling of non-Jews and especially the Arab minority in Israel.”

Or as South Africa’s own Judge Dennis Davis has written about the new law:

A more than 20% minority group now finds its language, which prior to this legislation was an official language, is downgraded to a more ambiguous ‘special status.’ This clearly fuels legitimate perceptions of a discriminatory practice. So does this clause: ‘The State sees the development of Jewish settlement as a national value and will act to encourage and promote its establishment and consolidation.’”

Such expressions of increasingly extreme nationalism can only make any efforts to resolve one of the world’s most intractable tangles that much harder. Great job, Prime Minister Netanyahu. DM


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