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How Israel’s Illiberal Democracy Became a Model for the Right

Israel maintains a system of unequal citizenship system for Jewish and Palestinian Israelis. This version of democracy has long prevailed in Israel, and the Jewish state’s supporters now offer it as a blueprint for the right around the world.

Conservative legal scholar Eugene Kontorovich testifies at the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem on November 8, 2017, Tasos Katopodis // Dissent Magazine

Amid the mass slaughter and starvation of Palestinians in Gaza, it is easy to forget the political drama that gripped Israel only one year ago. After assuming power in December 2022, a new far-right government led by Benjamin Netanyahu had proposed a slate of judicial and administrative reforms that prompted a wave of anti-government protests. Concerned journalists, former U.S. and Israeli government officials, and major American Jewish organizations issued ominous warnings about democratic backsliding. Israel, it seemed, was heading in the direction of illiberal Hungary.

This framing was never quite convincing. While hundreds of thousands of Israelis marched to save democracy, most refused to address, or even acknowledge, the occupation. A country that maintains an unequal citizenship system for Jewish and Palestinian Israelis—and disenfranchises approximately 35 percent of the population in territory it controls on account of their ethnic identity—does not match the conventional definition of democracy. But there is an alternative idea of democracy in vogue among partisans of the global right, one built around the right to discriminate and to privilege the needs of the nation over those of individuals in general and minorities in particular. It is this version of democracy that has long prevailed in Israel, and which the Jewish state’s supporters now offer as a blueprint for illiberal leaders around the world.

Aided by new institutional networks that spur the circulation of right-wing ideas and practices among Israeli, Hungarian, and American conservatives, the Zionist right has acquired ideological heft and global recognition by joining the legal right to discriminate to a defense of national particularism, tradition, and other “conservative values.” The champions of illiberal democracy claim to represent a venerable alternative to both liberalism and fascism; their political vision is more accurately described as ethno-authoritarian. One problem, as Israelis began to experience during last year’s crackdown on anti-government protests, is that states built around eliminating enemies of the people eventually tend to devour their own.

In the wake of Hamas’s gruesome attacks on October 7, Israel’s scorched-earth retaliatory campaign managed to turn widespread international sympathy into condemnation in record time. With over 32,000 Palestinians killed at the time of writing—the majority of them women and children—and hundreds of thousands more on the brink of starvation, Israel’s siege has neither eliminated Hamas nor freed all the hostages held in Gaza. Even stalwart supporters of Israel like New York Senator Chuck Schumer have begun to waver, calling from the Senate floor for new elections to oust Benjamin Netanyahu.

In this context, the cozy relationship that Likud, Israel’s premier right-wing party, has long cultivated with conservative parties worldwide has proven critically important. These are not official interstate relations—though they do often involve heads of state, like Hungary’s Viktor Orbán—but inter-factional ones between the Israeli right and its counterparts in the United States, the United Kingdom, Central Europe, and even countries in the Global South like India and the Philippines. To respond to Schumer’s rebuke, for instance, Netanyahu spoke directly to Senate Republicans, an echo of his 2015 address to Congress at the behest of former House Speaker John Boehner.

While Likud’s efforts to cultivate ties with foreign activists and intellectuals go back decades—arguably beginning with the mutually advantageous relationship between Likud founder Menachem Begin and televangelist Jerry Falwell in the 1980s—the Israeli right has only recently offered the Jewish state’s particular brand of illiberalism as a global model. Intellectuals and activists have put a new spin on Israel’s discriminatory political and legal system—born out of state-building via conquest and dispossession—by elevating it as an alternative to the liberal constitutional model centered around individual rights and freedoms. As Yoram Hazony, author of The Virtue of Nationalism and chairman of the Edmund Burke Foundation, which convenes the National Conservatism Conference, wrote in a 2015 essay, “The universal constitution of Rousseau and Kant is the one ‘politically correct’ constitution permitted by a certain strand of radical Western political thought that has currently become fashionable in the West.” This dangerous tradition, he continued, “made deep inroads in Israel. And with it the suspicion that the Israeli regime is not a ‘true democracy’ and will not be legitimate until it is reshaped into a ‘state of its citizens.’” For Hazony, Israel’s democratic deficit is a feature, not a bug—an alternative constitutional model that defies liberal universalism.

Notably, Israel is one of only four countries in the world that lacks a written constitution. The Israeli Declaration of Independence stated that a constitution would be adopted no later than October 1, 1948, but neither the First Knesset nor any successor has ever done so, despite dozens of attempts. In fact, David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, was staunchly opposed to adopting a constitution on both pragmatic and theoretical grounds. “I knew that the state of Israel would arise in special historical circumstances and that it had particular tasks that nearly no other nation has,” he said in a July 1949 speech delivered to the Knesset. “Consequently, I also came to the conclusion that in the matter of the constitution and laws we cannot act according to conventional practice.”

The only constitution Ben-Gurion would support was one limited to detailing the procedural elements of the state (“how the representatives of the nation are selected, what are their powers, how the government is chosen, how the government is assembled,” and so on). He stridently opposed the liberal-democratic constitutional model, which lays out fundamental rights and legal protections that cannot be overturned via ordinary majoritarian rule. He likewise rejected the idea that a supreme judicial authority had the prerogative to exercise judicial review, writing that “there’s no logical reason that we should . . . delegate to the court the authority to invalidate laws if these laws oppose the constitution.” Finally, he alluded to legal equality only to dismiss it: “the French constitution speaks of equality and fraternity, but without any sanctions. If one man is not equal to the second in reality, a statement to that effect means nothing. It’s only a beautiful slogan.” Ben-Gurion knew and understood that constitutional provisions regarding equality before the law were not the same as actual equality, but his rhetorical slippage was effective. If liberal democracies could not guarantee the latter, why bother with the former?

Ben-Gurion never directly referenced the war for Palestine—which was waged in varied forms from November 1947 until the spring of 1949 and resulted not just in the establishment of Israel but also the expulsion of approximately 750,000 Palestinians—nor the 150,000 Palestinians who remained inside the boundaries of the new state after the armistice. But it does not stretch the imagination to see how these factors drove his rejection of liberal constitutional models.

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In the fall of 1948, a German-born Zionist named Leo Kohn, who had earlier published a study of the constitution adopted by the Irish Free State, was putting the finishing touches on one such option. His draft constitution would establish equal protection under the law; ban discrimination on the basis of race, religion, language, or sex; institute equal civic and political rights in employment and political office; and forbid the expropriation of land or property “except for public purposes” subject to full compensation. In short, it was a liberal-democratic constitution—the precise thing that Ben-Gurion rejected.

But in December of that year, the Israeli government enacted the Emergency Regulations on Property of Absentees, creating a legal mechanism to justify Palestinian dispossession. Designating as “absentee” any non-Jewish person who had left their home and entered enemy territory (which included much of Mandate Palestine) between November 29, 1947 and September 1, 1948, the regulation expropriated homes and properties at a massive scale—“more than 10,000 shops, 25,000 buildings (housing 57,000 family dwellings), and nearly 60 percent of all fertile land in the country,” according to historian Shira Robinson. This came on the heels of Operation Hiram, a military campaign to conquer the central and northern Galilee, which involved another round of expulsions aided by roughly a dozen massacres in Palestinian villages. The Arab inhabitants who managed to remain in situ were soon subjected to martial law—a condition that would last until 1966.

How could a state located on confiscated Palestinian lands enshrine the right to property? How could a state that viewed its Arab minority as the enemy, and that subjected them to a strict system of martial law, provide for equal protection under the law? These circles could never be squared within a settler state that privileged nationalism over democracy. Ben-Gurion made this point plainly: “I choose to be under the rule of bad Jews rather than under the good rule of refined non-Jews in a popular democracy or another kind of democracy.”

For the first several decades of its existence, Israel’s democratic deficit could be brushed off as circumstantial. The Jewish state, the story went, lived in a violent neighborhood and had to deal with problems that other democracies did not. According to this logic, human rights violations like administrative detention and house demolitions were necessitated by a permanent state of emergency. But this justification began to wear thin as Israel signed peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, launched negotiations with Syria, and earned recognition from the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Moreover, the Begin government’s disastrous invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and the outbreak of the First Intifada in 1987 served to galvanize liberal groups like Peace Now and spur intellectual discussions about whether it was time to retire Zionist ideology and embrace social and legal equity. After the series of negotiations with the PLO that culminated in the Oslo Accords, there were abundant hopes that Israel might finally escape the state of emergency and become the liberal democracy Kohn envisioned decades prior.

But this aspiration spurred a reactionary mobilization. By the mid-1990s Israeli society was split into two broad political camps: those who found the status quo untenable, and who supported not only the Oslo process but Israel’s “constitutional revolution”—a pair of 1992 Basic Laws that used the judiciary to strengthen individual rights and protections—and those who, following an ascendant Netanyahu, doubled down on nationalism, settlement, and permanent inequality as the essence of the Jewish state.

The liberal-democratic camp came to be closely identified with the jurisprudence of Aharon Barak, who served on the Supreme Court from 1978 to 2006 and was chief justice from 1995 onward. Barak argued that Israel’s Basic Laws—fourteen key provisions that detailed state procedures and guaranteed certain individual rights, some of which can only be overturned with a supermajority—should be regarded as a de facto constitution. In the wake of the 1992 Basic Laws, Barak argued that the Supreme Court had the right to practice judicial review and strike down laws that violated the principle of equality.

For instance, in Ka’adan v. Israel Land Authority (2000), the court held that it was illegal for the state to discriminate between Jewish and Arab citizens in the allocation of state land. Appealing repeatedly to the principle of equality, Justice Barak cited Brown v. Board of Education to assert “that a ‘separate but equal policy’ is ‘inherently unequal.’” In practice, the Court has served as a rather weak restraint on state power, but high-profile cases like Kaadan contributed to the right’s depiction of the court as the enemy of the Jewish people.

In 2015 Hazony wrote that the aim of the constitutional revolution “was to obscure, attenuate or displace the traditional concept of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people in order to bring the country into conformity with the theory of the universal constitution.” In his telling, the roots of this split were already forming in the 1970s when “prominent Israeli academics and jurists” began to argue there was a contradiction between Jewish nationalism and democracy. “Such arguments began making headway among Israeli political leaders—some of whom, like former Education Minister Shulamit Aloni, were willing explicitly to argue that the idea of Israel as the state of the Jewish people is ‘anti-democratic, if not racist.’”

Seen from this perspective, the 1992 Basic Laws represented a rupture in the Zionist political tradition: “A Supreme Court ruling stating explicitly that equality (and not also security, liberty, the well-being of the Jewish people, and other values) is the general purpose of Israeli law, and explicitly invoking American cases such as Brown vs. Board of Education to rule inequality illegal in Israel, is an announcement of a new constitutional order.” If taken seriously as a constitutional provision, he noted, the ruling would invalidate a whole host of laws—from Israel’s segregated school system to the Law of Return and “security policies aimed at protecting Jews around the world.”

Powered by the claim that the courts were undermining the work of the IDF and other security forces during the Second Intifada, assaults on the judiciary accelerated in 2007, when former Minister of Justice Daniel Friedmann launched several initiatives to curb the court’s power. Key to this effort has been transforming the nature of court appointees—most of whom have come from the state’s secular Ashkenazi elite—through careful vetting of the sort that will be familiar to Federalist Society watchers. In 2019 former Minister of Justice Ayelet Shaked—who appointed four conservative justices to the Supreme Court during her tenure—boasted of how screening practices had led to a “conservative revolution” on both the upper and lower courts (today, commentators debate the exact number of liberals justices on the Supreme Court but agree it ranges from five to seven of the fifteen total). Far from representing a Hungarian import, the 2023 judicial “reform” package was the culmination of this decades-long struggle against Israel’s stillborn liberal democracy.

The Orbán–Netanyahu mutual admiration society began in 2005, when the two met for the first time in Jerusalem. Orbán, then the opposition leader in Hungary, and Netanyahu, in the role of finance minister, bonded over their shared antipathy toward their left and liberal critics. Orbán reportedly viewed the defiant Netanyahu not only as an ideological partner but an example. In the words of Andras Dezso, “When Orbán and Netanyahu lost the 2006 parliamentary elections, Fidesz and Likud were already seen as sister parties.”

As Szabolcs Panyi has charted in a report published by Hungarian investigative journalism center Direkt36, the partnership is both ideological and strategic, and it has yielded considerable advantages for both parties. Hungary has radically shifted its Middle East policy and become Israel’s staunchest European ally, repeatedly vetoing EU ceasefire resolutions and sanctions (most recently in the case of West Bank settlers). Orbán has also helped strengthen Israel’s ties with the broader Visegrad Group, which includes Poland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic, all of whom have become dependable allies. For his part, Netanyahu has helped Orbán make inroads into the Republican establishment in the United States—he played a role in arranging the Hungarian leader’s 2019 meeting with Donald Trump—and fend off accusations of antisemitism. Likud has also helped the ideologically aligned Chabad-Lubavitch movement establish a foothold in Hungary and serve as a regime-friendly counterweight to the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities (Mazsihisz), which has stridently opposed the Orbán government.

Perhaps most tellingly, Likud officials have materially supported Hungary’s smear campaign against George Soros, whom the Israeli right has long disdained on account of the Open Society Foundations’ funding of left-leaning NGOs like Breaking the Silence, Adalah, and the New Israel Fund. It was notably the Jewish-American conservative political strategists Arthur Finkelstein and George Birnbaum who served as key architects of Hungary’s anti-Soros campaign. Finkelstein had made a name for himself advising Republican presidential candidates before helping to engineer Netanyahu’s first electoral victory in 1996. Birnbaum later became Netanyahu’s chief of staff. In 2008, when Orbán decided to seek reelection, Netanyahu introduced him to Finkelstein, who developed the conspiratorial idea of Soros as the enemy puppet master. When Israel’s ambassador to Hungary criticized that campaign in 2017—a move that seems to have taken Likud by surprise—he was forced to retract his statement.

In 2015 Likud dispatched party activist Tamir Wertzberger to better coordinate between the two countries. In the midst of the refugee crisis stemming from the Syrian civil war and the rise of the Islamic State, shared Islamophobia helped cement the Hungary–Israel bond. In Wertzberger’s telling,

on the one hand, Europeans are finally beginning to understand Israel, how it is for a Western country to live together with Muslims. On the other hand, migration has created a serious debate between Hungary and the European Union. Israel has long been in conflict with the EU, and when the two countries suddenly found themselves on the same page, it became much easier for Hungary to support Israeli positions.

Hungary reportedly even looked to Israel for advice on building a border fence to keep out migrants.

At the heart of the ideological convergence between Hungary and Israel is an obsession with ethnic homogeneity as the basis of the state. As Gadi Taub, a right-wing Israeli commentator and former visiting fellow at Orbán’s pet university, Mathias Corvinus Collegium (MCC), tweeted last year, “today, Eastern Europe bears the real spirit of European culture” because “migration has made Western Europe’s situation irreversible. Mixing populations—Muslim culture and European culture—won’t work.” Such statements carry obvious implications for border policy and migration, but they also strike a blow at the possibility of multi-ethnic states bound together by something other than common blood. Such states are, per nationalism’s contemporary champions, inherently unstable—civic identity being no replacement for belonging to the racialized national unit. Indeed, it is this argument that has made Zionism attractive to reactionaries worldwide—from self-described “white Zionist” Richard Spencer to India’s Hindutva ideologues.

A new crop of institutions has been key to linking the local Israeli story to the global right. These include the Israel Law and Liberty Forum (founded in 2020 by the Tikvah Fund and in cooperation with the Federalist Society), the Kohelet Policy Forum, the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, and of course Hazony’s Edmund Burke Foundation. Such institutions partner regularly on conferences, publications, and lobbying efforts with more established conservative players abroad like the rebooted Heritage Foundation and the Fidesz-funded Danube Institute and MCC, while their staff and fellows engage in a global game of musical chairs.

To get a sense of how ideas and practices traverse the conservative circuitry, consider the case of Eugene Kontorovich, professor at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia School of Law and Director of International Law for Kohelet Policy Forum. Kontorovich has long campaigned against the International Criminal Court, opposed EU trade restrictions on Israeli goods from the occupied territories, and argued that West Bank settlements do not violate the Geneva Convention. More recently, he has spoken both at MCC and the 2022 CPAC conference in Budapest. In 2023 he filed an amici curiae opinion with the Polish Constitutional Tribunal critical of the Istanbul Convention, a European Council policy intended to counter violence against women and other forms of domestic abuse; he also crafted the legal arguments against the convention in Israel (the Netanyahu government has announced they will not ratify it). Not content to only play on two continents, Kontorovich has helped draft state and federal legislation criminalizing the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement in the United States.

This global web of institutions, politicians, and intellectuals underscores a central irony about twenty-first century nationalists: they are the new internationalists, far outpacing the left in terms of political coordination across borders.

In 2019 Orbán hosted Hazony in Budapest. According to the summary provided by the prime minister’s office, the “world famous conservative author” had shown that “nationalism is a reasonable fundamental principle according to which the best possible form of government for the world is where nations are free to determine their own directions independently, to preserve their traditions and to aspire to the enforcement of their national interests without any external interference.”

Hazony’s work is perhaps best interpreted as a retroactive attempt to construct a respectable theoretical pedigree for practices that were already established by right-wing politicians and governments. His model of conservative democracy, unmistakably lifted from the Israeli context, challenges “the supposed universal reason of judges” and rejects the judgments of international organizations” with “no loyalty to particular national populations that might restrain their spurious theorizing about universal rights.” Israel has long ignored the judgements of international bodies like the United Nations, the European Union, and the International Criminal Court; Hazony endows this defiance with ideological substance by identifying such institutions with imperialist forces trying to undermine the cultures and traditions of nation-states. The problem is no longer that universal human rights are hopelessly abstract (per Edmund Burke’s critique) or practically impotent (per Hannah Arendt’s), but that they have become something far more sinister: the enemy of the people.

Israel’s horrific assault on Gaza has shown that “enemies of the state” is a capacious category, which for many now includes newborn babies, foreign aid workers, and journalists alongside thousands of other victims. Within Israel proper, the Supreme Court upheld a law forbidding demonstrations against the war. “Despite the high status accorded to the right to demonstrate and assemble,” the decision reads, “there is a complex reality in which we find ourselves, which affects the way balances are drawn in this regard.” From Ben-Gurion’s “special historical circumstances” to today’s “complex reality,” Israeli leaders have long argued that the usual rules of democracy do not apply.

October 7 underscored the limits of living within this constant state of emergency—a conclusion not lost on Israeli leftists—but it will take an almost unimaginable political reorientation to realize a genuinely democratic Israel. The liberal-democratic model that was briefly within range hinged on the implementation of a two-state solution, which at this point is more akin to zombie diplomacy than a workable plan for peace. Solidifying the one-state reality via continued settlement and implementation of something like the autonomy plan proposed a half century ago by Menachem Begin—which would provide some mechanism for local self-rule, but neither extend Israeli citizenship to Palestinians nor allow for a sovereign Palestinian state—seems the far more likely outcome at this juncture. Should this innovation in illiberalism come to pass, there is no doubt that the world will be watching—some of us in horror, still others in awe.

Suzanne Schneider is a deputy director and core faculty at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research and a Visiting Fellow at Kellogg College, University of Oxford. She is the author of Mandatory Separation: Religion, Education, and Mass Politics in Palestine and The Apocalypse and the End of History: Modern Jihad and the Crisis of Liberalism.

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