Yilmaz, Ihsan & Morieson, Nicholas. (2022). “Nationalism, Religion, and Archaeology: The Civilizational Populism of Benjamin Netanyahu and Likud.” Populism & Politics. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). October 10, 2022. https://doi.org/10.55271/pp0015
This paper examines civilizational populism in Israel and focuses on the largest and most powerful party in Israel since the 1980s, National Liberal Movement (Likud), and its most significant leader of the past twenty years, the populist politician Benjamin Netanyahu. We show how Netanyahu incorporates ‘civilizationism’ into his populist discourses by, first, using the notion that Jewish civilization predates all others in the region to establish the legitimacy of the state of Israel, the hegemony of Jewish culture within Israel, and at times his own political decisions. Second, through his portrayal of the Arab-Muslim world as an antisemitic and barbaric bloc that, far from being a civilization, threatens Western civilization through its barbarism. Equally, this paper shows how Netanyahu argues that Israel is akin to protective wall that protects Western Civilization from the Islamist barbarians who wish to destroy it, and therefore on this basis calls for Europeans and North Americans to support Israel in its battle for civilization and against “the forces of barbarism.”
By Ihsan Yilmaz & Nicholas Morieson
This paper examines civilizational populism in Israel and focuses on the country’s largest and most powerful party since the 1980s, the National Liberal Movement (Likud), and its most significant leader of the past twenty years, Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu is widely regarded as a populist and, since becoming party chairman in 1993, to have moved Likud toward right-wing populism. This move toward right-wing populism has proven electorally successful for Likud, although it has proven deleterious for many Israelis and Palestinians.
Civilizationism posits that the peoples of the world can be divided into ‘civilizations.’ When civilizationism is mixed with populism, the result is a set of ideas that defines the self and other not primarily in national terms but in civilizational terms (Brubaker, 2017). Civilizational populism—a growing force in domestic and international politics the world over (Kaya, 2019; Brubaker, 2017; Barton, Yilmaz & Morieson, 2021; Blackburn, 2021; Kaya & Tecman, 2019; Yilmaz & Morieson, 2022a; Shakil & Yilmaz, 2021; Yilmaz, Demir & Morieson, 2021; Kaya)—might therefore be understood “as a group of ideas that together considers that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people, and society to be ultimately separated into two homogenous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite’ who collaborate with the dangerous others belonging to other civilizations that are hostile and present a clear and present danger to the civilization and way of life of the pure people” (Yilmaz & Morieson, 2022).
Civilizational populism defines populism’s key signifiers (‘the people,’ ‘elites,’ and ‘dangerous others’) first by categorizing all people via civilizational identity. Secondly, civilizational populism describes ‘the people’ as authentic and morally good insofar as the civilization to which they belong is superior and the product of superior moral values — derived chiefly from religion. Civilizational populism describes ‘others’ within the same society as inauthentic and morally ‘bad’ because they belong to a foreign civilization with inferior values, and which is the product of an inferior religion. Equally, civilizationism mixed with populism permits populists to describe ‘elites’ as morally bad actors who have betrayed and abandoned the values and culture of their own civilization.
This paper shows how Netanyahu incorporates civilizationism into his populist discourses by, first, using the notion that Jewish civilization predates all others in the region to establish the legitimacy of the state of Israel, the hegemony of Jewish culture within Israel, and, at times, his own political decisions. He also mixes civilizationism and populism through his portrayal of the Arab-Muslim world as an antisemitic and barbaric bloc that, far from being a civilization, threatens Western civilization through its barbarism. This paper shows how Netanyahu argues that Israel is akin to protective wall that protects Western Civilization from the Islamist barbarians and calls for Europeans and North Americans to support Israel in its battle for civilization and against the forces of barbarism. This idea is discussed by Slabodsky (2014: 153-56) who analyses the text of Old Land/New Land and shows how Jews are traditionally positioned as a civilizing force or ‘buffer’ between the West and oriental subjects of the East. According to Slabodsky (2014), this core belief –of Orientals as symbols of barbarianism– has been retained and has only been reframed and reintroduced in the post 9/11 context.
These narratives assist Netanyahu in his populist division of Israeli society into three antagonistic groups: ‘the people,’ the ‘elite,’ and ‘others.’ These ‘others’ are non-civilized Arab-Muslims who desire the destruction of both the Jewish people and Western civilization; ‘elites’ are left-wing parties and liberal Jews who Netanyahu portrays as abandoning Jewish culture and helping Arabs destroy civilization; ‘the people’ are all the Jewish people, who are authentic and morally good: authentic because their ancestors were the first people of the land, and morally good because they are civilized Jews. The paper begins with an overview of Israel’s history, which is followed by a discussion on civilizationism in Israel and, following this, an examination of the use of civilizationism within the populist rhetoric of Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu.
Civilizationism in Israel
Does Israel belong to Western civilization? Samuel P. Huntington (1996) was uncharacteristically silent about Israel and did not identify a specific Jewish civilization among the world civilizations he described in The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. In his critique of Huntington’s book, realist scholar of international relations, Stephen Walt, remarked that it is difficult to place, from Huntington’s civilizational approach, Israel within ‘Western civilization.’ According to Walt (1997: 186), “Israel is not a member of the West (at least not by Huntington’s criteria) and is probably becoming less ‘Western’ as religious fundamentalism becomes more salient and as the Sephardic population becomes more influential. A ‘civilizational’ approach to US foreign policy can justify close ties with Europeans (as the common descendants of Western Christendom) but not Israelis.” This has not prevented political actors from classifying Israel and the Jewish people as Western. Many European and North American civilizational populist parties appear to claim if not the Jewish people, then at least the Jewish scriptures to be part of ‘Judeo-Christian civilization’ (Yilmaz & Morieson, 2021; Yilmaz & Morieson, 2022; Brubaker, 2017).
The Trump Administration, for example, emphasized America’s closeness to Israel, and appeared to regard the country as part of a broader Judeo-Christian civilization which required defending from Islam (Haynes, 2021). The notion that Western civilization encompasses Israel is at times, reflected in the words of Israel’s leaders. Following the 2015 murder of four Jews in a Paris kosher supermarket, and the mass murder of Charlie Hebdo cartoonists by an Islamist group, Netanyahu called upon Europeans to “wake up” and act to defend “our common civilization” (The New York Times, 2015). Linking the murder of cartoonists in France with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Netanyahu said, “Israel stands with Europe; Europe must stand with Israel” (The New York Times, 2015). Netanyahu’s claims that Israel is part of the West make sense insofar as Israel was partly a creation of the Western powers and populated largely by European Jews. One cannot be conclusive about where a civilization begins and ends. In the case of Israel, the nation is at once a product of Western civilization but also the product of the Nazi Holocaust, a genocide perpetrated by Europeans who believed Jews threatened Aryan civilization. Some ambiguity about Israel’s civilizational classification is thus unavoidable, although it is arguably foolish if not dangerous to classify nations in this manner.
There are considerable links between the state of Israel and conceptions of Jewish civilization, both ancient and modern. According to Israeli politician and academic Yossi Shain (2019; Ferziger, 2020) “Since its establishment in 1948, the State of Israel has gradually situated itself as the most important factor in all areas of worldwide Jewish life… The nation of Israel and Jewish civilization are defined today more than ever through the political, military, and cultural power of the sovereign Jewish state.” At the same time, Israel’s legitimacy lies, in part, on its claim to be the modern manifestation of the ancient Jewish civilization that existed — and indeed pre-dates– the coming of Arabs and Islam to the Land of Israel. While Israel was founded as a modern, European-style secular nationalist nation-state, its leaders also sought to connect Jewish people –who spoke many different languages– with their ancient past by making Modern Hebrew the official language of Israel and teaching it to all schoolchildren (Nevo & Verbov, 2011). In addition to Hebrew, another cultural feature that has been part of Israeli civilizationism is the preference given to the Jewish calendar over the Gregorian calendar. Israel’s Declaration of Independence (1948) was composed by Jews who had spent most of their life in Europe and living under the Gregorian calendar, yet the document shows clear indications of favouring the use of the Jewish calendar as a marker of identity politics (Saleem, 2022 forthcoming).
Israel is a product of the 19th century Zionist movement, which removed itself somewhat from Orthodox Judaism and, influenced by European nationalism, sought to create a nation for the Jewish people. Zionism –and by extension Israel– has always possessed a “Romantic nationalist culture with a strong expressivist dimension; that is, a strong emphasis on self-expression and notions such as authenticity,” at least compared to Orthodox Judaism where “the Torah and God’s commandments are imposed externally on the Jew” (Fischern, 2014). Jewish nationalism in its Zionist and neo-Zionist forms has often been a powerful political force in Israel, especially in the shape of right-wing populist discourse (Pinson, 2021; Rogenhofer & Ayala Panievsky, 2020). The Declaration of Independence of 1948 serves as evidence for the presence of civilizational elements in Zionism. Saleem (2022, forthcoming) notes that “The references to the Jewish religion can be found all over the document. The word ‘Jews’ has been mentioned five times while the word ‘Jewish’ has been mentioned nineteen times in the one-page declaration. Israel is used twenty-seven times and the combination ‘Eretz-Israel’ twelve times.” Thus, while the Israeli state might appear rooted in the modern principles of the nation-state, its core is surprisingly religious. Agbaria (2021: 360), for example, argues that “Israeli policies, as evident in the Nation-State Law, are driven by a lure of religious imagery that obscures the boundaries between the State of Israel, as a recognized political entity, and the Land of Israel, as a religious ideal that awaits materialization.”
Furthermore, because the legitimacy of Israel rests on the history of Jewish people in the land, political groups have instrumentalized archaeology to ‘prove’ that Jewish civilization in the region predates all others. For example, Israeli archaeologist Raphael Greenberg claims that “in order to answer the continuing demands of mainly politics actors,” Israeli “archaeologists have given up many of their best practices” (Reuters, 2010). Greenberg claims that the Ir David foundation, which encourages Jewish settlement in Palestinian territories, is funding archaeological digs intended to find ‘evidence’ of prior Jewish settlement and thus to define those areas as belonging to the state of Israel (Reuters, 2010). The desire to ‘prove’ that Jewish civilization predates Arab civilization in Israel, and thus legitimize the Jewish state via a connection between modern Israel and ancient Jewish civilization, is so important to Netanyahu that he gleefully tweeted to his followers the results of Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) tests which he claims prove that the Palestinians are relative newcomers to the region compared with Jews (Jerusalem Post, 2019).
National Liberal Movement (Likud)’s Civilizational Populism
Populism has long been present in Israel but has been part of mainstream politics since the 1990s (Ben-Porat et al., 2021: 6). The mainstreaming of populism is largely the product of the right-wing populist Likud party’s rise to power — and in particular of its leader and former Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Likud was formed in 1973 by Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon. The party drew support from several other right-wing parties and eventually formed a coalition which pushed the once dominant Labor Party from government and into opposition in 1977 (Porat & Filc, 2022). According to Porat and Filc (2022), Likud was initially a nationalist — though not illiberal — party that sought greater inclusion of the Mizrahim within Israeli society, a group marginalized by Labor. The support of Mizrahi Jews enabled Likud to defeat the once hegemonic Labor and to establish themselves as the new ruling party (Porat & Filc, 2022).
Over time, Likud transformed into a right-wing populist party which, far from calling for equal rights for Arabs and non-Jews, sought their exclusion from society. This change was crystalized by the election of Benjamin Netanyahu as party chairman in 1993. Under Netanyahu’s leadership, the Likud-led, right-wing coalition gained traction with voters through its conservative nationalist rhetoric and policies and through its promotion of economic neo-liberalism supported by a ‘strong man image’ perpetuated through political authoritarianism (ECPS, 2020; Filc, 2009). In 1996, Netanyahu became Prime Minister by using populist right-wing “rhetoric dominated by ethnic nationalism, xenophobia, and anti-elite sentiment against the academia, the media, and the country’s left-wing parties” (ECPS, 2020; also see Rogenhofer & Panievsky, 2020; Bagaini, 2019: 6). His religious nationalism marked a break from the secularism of the Labor period in Israeli politics.
During its terms in power in the 2000s and 2010s, Likud has often relied on populist nationalism, the party has attempted to divide society between ‘the people’ — Jews who were historically persecuted and who must now defend their homeland –and ‘others’– intruders in the land of the Jews, and who are often responsible for terrorist attacks and other forms of anti-Jewish violence (ECPS, 2020; Prota & Filc, 2020). By 2015, the idea that ‘Netanyahu is good for the Jews’ had become a powerful re-election tool for Likud, and the notion that Muslim Arabs — who were portrayed by Likud as ‘infiltrators’ and a ‘Trojan Horse’ — might be expelled became mainstream (Ghanem & Khatib, 2017). Likud’s discourse encouraged the growth of nativism in Israeli society and, correspondingly, their own populist discourse became more nativist.
Rogenhofer and Panievsky (2020), who explored the authoritarian populism of Netanyahu, Modi, and Erdogan in a comparative analysis, observe that “Netanyahu’s emphasis on Israel’s Jewishness all point to a conflation of religion with the national vision” (Rogenhofer & Panievsky, 2020: 1395). As a result, “religious language and symbols accentuate fears and shape demands for action, to protect the nation and its borders…consequently, more and more leaders, not only in the Likud, adopt religious tropes and symbols to demonstrate loyalty and garner support” (Porat & Filc, 2022: 74). At the same time, opposition parties and critics of Likud and Netanyahu were portrayed by the party “as detached elites not committed to Jewish nationality and to the Jewish State” (Porat & Filc, 2022).
Levi and Agmon (2021) note that during the peak of Netanyahu’s tenure ‘otherization’ of Jewish parities or individuals who did not agree with the ruling government was severe. Left-wing parties have been ‘othered’ by Likud and transformed into enemies of the state and Jewish faith (Levi & Agmon, 2021). For example, during the 2015 election campaign, Netanyahu accused the center-left political opposition of picking a “list of radical left, anti-Zionist candidates” (Lis, 2015). Likud’s official Spokesperson, Erez Tadmor, went a step further and labelled left-wing opposition as “pampered, thankless spoilt kids who were born to the right families in the right neighborhoods […] don’t have ‘infiltrators’ [migrants] in their neighborhoods, no one throws stones or Molotov cocktails at them. Their children don’t serve in Golani or Givati [IDF military brigades] … They milk the state in every way possible and appoint one another to all key positions” (Levi & Agmon, 2021: 299).
Levi and Agmon (2021) also note that this otherisation went beyond politics and muffled critical media groups. Newspapers that were critical of the regime were labelled as ‘Auto-antisemitic’ or self-haters accused of spreading hatred towards Judaism. Bennette (2017) observed that a news outlet was bullied by a state minister for being critical of the regime using this very framework: “In 2017, Secretary of Education Naftali Bennett (The Jewish Home) accused Haaretz, Israel’s leading left-wing newspaper, of pathological self-hatred. ‘Auto-antisemitism’, explained Bennett, ‘is a socio-psychological phenomenon in which a Jew develops obsessive hostility and disdain for the Jewish tradition’.” In a sense, Likud has carried out “the monopolisation of patriotism” (Levi and Agmon, 2021) where another party is aggressively ‘otherized’ as it can never work for the good of the country’s people.
In 2018, Netanyahu made certain that ethnoreligious nationalism would dominate Israeli politics through the Nation State Law. The Nation State Law effectively destroyed the secular state envisioned by early Zionism and made Israel a “Jewish Nation State of the Jewish people” (Halbfinger & Kershner, 2018). It mandated that Jerusalem be recognized as the “complete and united…capital of Israel” and claims the “development of Jewish settlement” is of great “national value,” language that led to escalating violence between Palestinians and Israelis(BBC News, 2018). The passage of the bill also contradicted the spirit of the state’s foundation, which promised equality for all, by downgrading Arabic from an official language to a language with “special status” and leaving Hebrew as the only official language of Israel (Halbfinger & Kershner, 2018). Combined, these measures emphasize how Likud has often relied on religion to define Israeli identity and the identity of Israel’s enemies.
Israel’s school system also perpetuates civilizationism. Traditionally, there were four types of schooling systems, which ranged from secular to religious schools of Jewish and non-Jewish community members. Under former Minister of Education Naftali Bennett, major changes were made to add elements of “Jewish culture” to the curriculum of secular schools (Silberberga & Agbaria, 2021). Silberberga and Agbaria (2021: 321) note this development, “shows that the escalating efforts to advance a particularistic hyper-ethnonationalist ideology in the Israeli education system, and a complete segregation between Jews and Palestinians in the school system, have eroded liberal and democratic sensibilities among Jewish youth.” This new emphasis on ‘cultural’ education is visible in increased funding spent on ‘cultural’ programs: “19.2% of the ministry’s annual budget to fund external education programmes, was spent in favor of Jewish culture education programmes. This is in sharp contrast to the NIS 10 million (1.1% of the budget) spent on science and technology programmes, or the mere NIS 1.5 million (0.15% of the budget) for democracy and shared society programmes” (Silberberga & Agbaria, 2021: 325).
Silberberga and Agabaria, (2021: 326) noted that the mandatory Social Studies for grade one to six, “lack any direct reference to the existence of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, and students are not exposed to any alternative or multi-layered narrative about Israel’s holy sites. Moreover, the religious approach to the Third Temple disregards the existence of the State of Israel and instead uses the biblical term ‘the Land of Israel’.” Silberberga and Agbaria (2021: 326) describe the “emphasis on religious ideals in populist politics of education” as “a strategic move towards enclosing the national identity of the Jewish majority within what are purely religious boundaries,” and therefore as an attack on religious pluralism and secularism in Israel.
Netanyahu and Likud lost control of the government following the 2021 legislative election, and the new government was a coalition between right-wing and centrist parties (including the secularist Yesh Atid party and conservative nationalist Yamina) and which established a rotation government. Thus, while Netanyahu was no longer Prime Minister, Israel remained government by largely right-wing forces which continued Netanyahu’s demonization of Arabs and Muslims. For example, Naftali Bennett, leader of the Yamina coalition who served as Prime Minister between 13 June 2021 and 30 June 2022, is regarded as more right-wing and nationalist than Netanyahu, and has stated the establishment of a Palestinian state would be a “terrible mistake” (Jerusalem Post, 2021).
Civilizationism in Netanyahu’s Populist Discourse and Policies
Netanyahu’s civilizational populism has two major components. First, he uses the notion that Jewish civilization predates all others in the region to establish the legitimacy of the state of Israel, the hegemony of Jewish culture within Israel, and, at times, his own political decisions. Second, he describes the Arab-Muslim world as an antisemitic and barbaric bloc that, far from being a civilization, threatens Western civilization. Israel, he argues, is a protective wall that defends Western civilization from Muslim barbarians who wish to destroy it; on this basis, Netanyahu calls for Europeans and North Americans to support Israel in its battle for civilization and against the forces of barbarism. Combined, these narratives assist Netanyahu in his populist division of Israeli society into three antagonistic groups: ‘the people,’ the ‘elite,’ and ‘others.’
In Netanyahu’s discourse, ‘others’ are non-civilized Arab-Muslims who wish to destroy the Jewish people and Western civilization; ‘elites’ are left-wing parties and liberal Jews who Netanyahu portrays as abandoning Jewish culture and helping Arabs destroy civilization; ‘the People’ are all Jewish people, who are authentic and morally good — authentic because their ancestors were the first people of the land, and morally good because they are civilized Jews.
Archaeology has long been an instrument through which Israeli political actors have sought to legitimize the nation and, in some cases, Jewish settlement in Palestinian territories (Greenberg, 2007; 2009; 2021; Desjarlais, 2013). Desjarlais, for example, argues that “archaeological practice in Palestine/Israel is part of a spatial and temporal project that serves to produce a continuous link between the ancient Israelite past and the modern Israeli nation-state, justifying the creation of the Israeli state by reference to the past and through familiar frontier myths.” Saleem (2022, forthcoming) notes that Jews have not been a majority in the region since 70 CE when the Second Temple was destroyed. He adds that even before Muslims populated the region of present-day Israel, many other civilizations — such as the Byzantines, Roma, and Persians–left their mark before the Muslims conquered the lands in seventh century. The last rulers in the area were the Ottomans, who lost the territories following their defeat in the First World War. Before the Zionist nationalist movement took power, the territory was under British control; this period is called the Mandate period. This snapshot of history suggests that the region has been home to various cultures over the centuries.
Archaeological practice in Israel, then, brings together two key civilizational narratives: first, that the Jewish people uniquely and solely belong to the Land of Israel due to an ancestral and cultural connection to ancient Jewish civilization; and second, the frontier narrative that asserts that Jewish people brought civilization to Israel, which was in a state of barbarism before their arrival. Desjarlais (2013) describes the case of Silwan (Wadi Hilwe), which was gradually transformed into an archaeology park, the ‘City of David,’ with multiple sites declared archaeologically significant. Under the guise of archaeology, villagers from the Wadi Hilwe and Bustan neighborhoods were forcefully evacuated and harassed; children were even arrested (Desjarlais, 2013). The gradual influx of tourists after the conversion to an archaeological park led authorities to use the Kidron Valley of Silwan as a dump for waste. This region was declared unclean and filthy and was largely populated by Palestinians. Using this as a pretext, Israeli authorities have justified the land-grabbing practices: “The irony of the imagery this neglect, and waste dumping create–that of an unhygienic town strewn with trash heaps–is that Israel uses the very wasteland it creates to justify its land acquisition.”
The ‘City of David’ site is run by the Ir David Foundation, known as Elad in Hebrew, which also finances archaeological excavations across the Old City of Jerusalem. Elad wishes to uncover proof of ancient Jewish civilization in Jerusalem through projects, including the disputed ‘City of David’ archaeological park and the Temple Mount Sifting Project (The Times of Israel, 2017; The Palestinian Chronicle, 2016). The purpose of these project is to establish the Temple Mount area as a historically Jewish area and to deny any connection between Palestinians and the Old City of Jerusalem. The identification of the Silwan (Wadi Hilwe) site as the ‘City of David’ appears to be politically motivated. Greenberg (2009: 37), for example, observes that ‘City of David’ was “rarely employed in the literature; excavators generally preferred ‘Ophel,’ another biblical term that appears to refer to the northernmost part of the spur.” Rather, there has been, according to Greenberg (2009: 38), a deliberate sanctification of the site, a “secular and political sanctification, and as such its character and content are open to reinterpretation to a far greater extent than is the case with holy places proper, where the authority for the validation of historical claims is embedded in a chain of command that resists academic scrutiny.” It is interesting to note that Ir David’s website insists that “when David Be’eri (David’le) first visited the City of David in the mid-1980’s, the city was in such a state of disrepair and neglect that the former excavations that had once been conducted were once again concealed beneath garbage and waste” (Ir David, n.d.). […] Ir David spins a narrative of the redemption of the uncultivated frontier as justification for the confiscation of Palestinian land and the expansion of Jewish settlements” (Desjarlais, 2013: 13).
It is not merely the Israeli right but also Christian Zionists who have developed an interest in Biblical archaeology. Indeed, the two have worked together to ‘uncover’ historical sites which ‘prove’ the continuous and ancient occupation of Israel by Judeo-Christian peoples. Scholz (2022), for example, describes how the Tel Shiloh site has been a contested ground for right-wing Christian and Jewish archaeology– who believe the site is the first capital of Israel and proof of the inerrant truth of the Bible and resident Palestinian. In 2017, a team of right-wing evangelical Christian archaeologists from the United States also took part in the excavations; these archaeologists have questionable educational qualifications and clearly lack objectivity (Scholz, 2022: 129). Despite the excavations, the group has not published any findings, yet they are content to endorse Israel’s position that Jewish settlement occurred prior to all others in the region: “I can say with 100 percent certainty that there were Israelites in Shiloh because of the many indicators we have,” Dr. Stripling told Breaking Israel News (Scholz, 2022: 132). “The pottery shows that they were there when the Bible says they were there” (Scholz, 2022: 132). Scholz (2022) suggests that excavations such as these are designed to legitimize Israeli occupation and writes that “Stripling’s apologetic Christian-Zionist convictions have direct geopolitical and religious implications in the militarily occupied West Bank because they align smoothly with the interests of the settler community of Shiloh.” Scholz (2022: 134) explains that this is a mutually beneficial archaeological union. While Israel finds grounds to solidify its civilizational convictions and agendas in the region, the right-wing Christian conservatives, “could not have found more fertile ground than at Tel Shiloh, although another settler-managed site in East Jerusalem, the City of David, seems also to receive considerable Christian tourism support. Whenever the goal is to prove the literal historicity of the Hebrew Bible with archaeology and historical fervor, the Christian right is already there.”
One of the Ir David Foundations projects involves sifting soil on the sensitive Temple Mount area sacred to all three Abrahamic faiths. According to the Temple Mount Sifting Project website, the project “is under the auspices of Bar-Ilan University and is funded by private donors through the Israel Archaeology Foundation. The sifting activity operated during the years 2005-2017 at the Emek Tzurim national park with the cooperation and funding of the Ir-David foundation. In June 2019 the sifting facility moved to the Masu’ot Lookout with generous support from American Friends of Beit Orot” (Temple Mount Sifting Project, 2022). While the project may do good work in uncovering the ancient and medieval history of the area, the involvement of the Ir David Foundation is a sign that the project may be used to create an impression of continuous Jewish presence in the area and portray Palestinians as inauthentic residents.
In 2016, when funds for the project began to run out, then Prime Minister Netanyahu intervened and used taxpayers’ money to continue the project (Hasson, 2016). When the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) was critical of the project for politicizing the historical record and essentially Judaizing the Temple Mount, Netanyahu used the occasion to defend the project and, in what he called a “crushing response” to the United Nations body’s denial of Jewish history, announced that his government would fund the project to ensure that its work continued (Hasson, 2016). In this way, Netanyahu and his government were using the Ir David Foundation to promote the narrative that the Temple Mount belongs to the Jewish people and that Arabs and others are mere newcomers who have no rights to the area.
An outstanding feature about the Ir David Foundation is its demographical composition. Since the 1960s, all excavation work in the region of Jerusalem has been exclusively carried out by Israeli archaeologists; virtually no Palestinians have been part of these explorations (Greenberg, 2009: 44). This is quite interesting as the most adversely impacted people by these explorations are the Palestinians, who are often displaced as a result of the excavations and are not part of the development projects (Greenberg, 2009). The Foundation’s work is quite pivotal for the populist civilizational agendas of the Israeli right. For example, Amit (2022: 44) observes how “on November 17, 2013, Naftali Bennett, Economic Minister and leader of The Jewish Home Party that represents the religious right-wing and the settlers, gave an interview to CNN. When asked about the settlements in the occupied territories, he waved an ancient coin and told Christiane Amanpour: “this coin, which says ‘Freedom of Zion’ in Hebrew, was used by Jews 2,000 years ago in the state of Israel, in what you call occupied. One cannot occupy his own home’.”
Another means of ‘rediscovering’ Israel’s ‘true’ Jewish past has been linked with renaming places (Desjarlais, 2013). For the first project, many Palestinian villages that were occupied or evacuated over the years have been given Hebrew names (Desjarlais, 2013). This process is claimed to be ‘scientific’ as it returns the ‘original’ names to said places. In addition, the state plants gardens or forested areas to discourage the return of Palestinians who fled their villages during periods of war or turmoil. By introducing a vegetative cover to some of the abandoned villages, it’s impossible for Palestinians to return (Desjarlais, 2013).
Civilizationism is also used to legitimize Netanyahu’s political actions by portraying Islam as a non-civilization bent on destroying the Jewish people and European civilization. This takes the form of a ‘frontier’ narrative, in which Israel is described as a barbarous land which the Jewish people tamed and turned into a paradise. One cannot deny the economic and scientific achievements of the Israeli people. However, the frontier myth denies the existence of Palestinian history in the region and portrays them as an uncivilized people squatting on Jewish land (Desjarlais, 2013). According to Desjarlais (2013), “Like other nationalist movements, the Israeli national narrative seeks to construct a shared history (although only for its Jewish population), develop a myth of origin that traces the roots of the modern nation to noble forbearers, and describe the development of the nation’s history in terms of a ‘golden age’ and a ‘dark age’ when the nation was ruled by foreigners.” Put simply, the national myth of Israel involves claims that the establishment of the State of Israel made the desert bloom (George, 1979).
It is also interesting to contrast Netanyahu’s responses when it comes to endorsing or distancing Israel from the West. In cases where countries or institutions support him, as mentioned above, he describes Israel as part of Western civilization. For example, in a 2016 press conference in Berlin with then German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Netanyahu called Israel “the protective wall of Western civilization” (EFE, 2016). By defending itself from Islamic radicals, Netanyahu suggests, Israel is also defending Western values in a region in which they are threatened by barbarism and primitivism. In another example, the appalling murder of four French Jews in a Kosher supermarket in Paris prompted Netanyahu to first demand that the French and moreover the European Union “wake up” to the threat of Islamist terrorism and act to protect “our common civilization” (The New York Times, 2015). However, at the same time he also, as political economist and commentator Bernard Avishai points out, called on Jews to “self-segregate: affirm, in principle, the liberal values of the West, but deny that they ever worked well enough for diaspora Jews; insist that we fight for our freedoms from our own ground” (The New York Times, 2015).
In a 2022 interview, Netanyahu claimed “there is a constant battle between the forces of modernity and the forces of medievalism. That’s what we face today in the Middle East facing militant Islam. Facing militant Islam is only not only Israel, but many of our Arab neighbors will understand that their future also could be compromised and endangered and crushed by these forces that hark back to a very dark past. So, I would say that you can continue to move the arc forward… if you have the necessary will and power to protect civilization and to nurture it, but it could easily be wiped away by larger forces” (Netanyahu, 2022). In the same interview, he praised Winston Churchill, saying “Churchill’s worldview as I see it, was not simply that he was belonging to the British empire, was a 19th century example of a patriot of the British empire. I think it was more than that. I think… he had a civilizational view,” (Netanyahu, 2022).
The notion that Israel represents civilization in a battle against barbarism is a hallmark, according to Tuastad (2003) and Linklater (2020), of neo-Orientalism and neo-barbarism, discourses which became mainstream in the United States after the 9/11 attacks. Yet the ‘civilizational portrayal’ of Israel as an ‘outpost’ of Western civilization is often “embraced by Israel’s detractors and supporters alike” Slabodsky (2014: 147). For example, Zionism as a project sought to give the Jewish people a homeland but used the European colonial model as the basis of a Jewish state. Thus, nineteenth and early twentieth century style European colonialism in the form of Zionism “was applied in its extreme in the 1940s and since at least the 1970s has reinforced systemic patterns of domination and ultimately naturalized the Jewish state as a Western outpost against barbarism” (Slabodsky, 2014: 146). In constructing their own European-style state, Slabodsky (2014: 157) argues, the Zionists were seeking to overcome their status as barbarians within Western civilization by becoming members of a “civilized nation among civilized nations” like “any other Western people.” In doing so, Slabodsky (2014) suggests, they inadvertently replicated the barbaric-civilized dichotomy within Israel, turning the Palestinians into barbarians and themselves into civilized Westerners. Netanyahu and his party have been effective at using this added layer of hostility to shape the narrative surrounding the role of Jews in civilizing the region as opposed to Arabs who are constantly shown as barbaric and culturally negligent.
Netanyahu’s civilizational populist discourse involves the division of Israel into three categories: ‘the people,’ or the Jewish people who belong to Israel; ‘elites,’ or Labor and the center-left parties who are immoral insofar as they refuse to defend Jewish hegemony in Israel; and ‘dangerous others,’ or the Arab Muslims who are barbaric and hateful and seek to destroy not merely Israel but Western civilization. In order to ‘prove’ that the Jewish people alone belong to Israel and to legitimize their political actions, Netanyahu and Likud politicize archaeology and use questionable archaeological methods to prove that Jewish civilization existed before all others in Israel. By weaponizing archaeology, Likud and Netanyahu have been able to both legitimize Jewish cultural hegemony in Israel but also defend the exclusion of Arab Muslims from society by demonstrating that they are relative newcomers to the region and therefore have no legitimate claim to exist in Israel.
Equally, by portraying the Arab-Muslim world as an antisemitic and barbaric anti-civilization, Netanyahu is able to portray Israel as not merely a successful outpost of Western civilization in a barbaric region but a protective wall which prevents Muslims barbarians from infiltrating the West and destroying civilization. Yet, as we have seen, there are times when Netanyahu does not describe Israel as part of the West but rather as a unique culture and civilization which was rejected by the West and must therefore rely on itself for defense. Either way, Netanyahu always portrays Israel as fighting for civilization and against the barbarism represented by Arab Muslims.
The rise of Likud since the late 1970s and emergence of Netanyahu as the most powerful and influential politician of his generation has had a lasting and powerful effect on Israel and on the Palestinians. Likud has successfully ended the hegemony of the Israeli left and Labor Party and paved the way for an Israel that is increasingly de-secularized and right-wing and which perceives Arabs and Muslims as dangerous enemies of civilization. The manifestation of the ‘clash of civilizations’ in domestic politics has had devastating outcomes. Walt (1999) cautioned that this political outlook is a “self-fulfilling prophecy” which leads to conflict because “the more we believe it and make it the basis for action, the more likely it is to come true.” In Israel’s case, Likud’s use of populist civilizations has helped bind the country to a turbulent and conflict-ridden future.
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