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Menachem Mautner Israel’s Recent Sliding to Authoritarianism and its Causes

Liberals all over the world have been asking themselves in recent years the same question: “Where did we go wrong?” One may come up with two kinds of responses: a general answer having to do with some traits of liberalism that make it vulnerable; local explanations that focus on the unique conditions of different countries. In my effort to understand the malaises of Israel’ liberalism, I shall employ both strategies. On the general plane, I shall argue that as a system of meaning, negative rights/autonomy liberalism suffers from severe deficit compared to both religion and nationalism in terms of its ability to provide people with meaning. As a result, people tend to endorse both religion and nationalism, at the expense of their commitment to liberalism. On the particular plane of the Israeli context, I shall argue that since the inception of the State of Israel its liberalism has been functioning (in fact, “squeezed”) in-between two big systems of meaning, that mutually support each other (synergy), and whose core values stand in contrast to liberalism’s core values: Jewish religion and Jewish nationalism. In recent years, Israel has been persistently sliding toward an authoritarian regime. The essence of this process is the presentation of those who oppose governmental policies as enemies of the State. The question that arises is: What is the explanation of this recent development given the fact that Israel’s liberalism has been functioning in-between religion and liberalism from day one. My answer is twofold. First, in recent years it became clear that Israel’s right-wing governments prefer the continuation and perpetuation of the occupation and the settlement project to the national goal of achieving peace with the Palestinian people and with the Arab world in general. This, in turn, initiated a series of activities meant to expose the conduct of Israel in the occupied territories. The government’s reaction was a series of measures aimed at limiting the freedom of speech, the freedom of action, and the freedom of artistic expression of those opposing the government’s policies and conduct in the territories. Second, since 2008, Israel was involved in no less than three wars in Gaza. These wars resulted in terrible losses in human lives of Palestinian civilians, and in widespread demolition of houses and infrastructures. This, in turn, drew widespread protests of human rights organizations, Israeli Arab politicians, and artists. As in the case of protests activities against the occupation, in this case as well the government reacted by way of restricting freedom of speech, freedom of action and freedom of artistic expression. Hence, Israel’s sliding to authoritarianism.

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