Last week, an Israeli artist erected a life-sized golden statue of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square. Reminiscent of the golden calf with its connection to forbidden idolatry, artist Itay Zalait said he was making a statement about freedom of speech in Israel and what he sees as a type of idolatry growing around the man sometimes called King Bibi.
Citizens gathered around the statue, arguing about its meaning and various interpretations. Because the installation was erected without a permit, city officials ordered it removed but, before the artist could do so, it was toppled by a bystander and left laying on its side like the figure of a deposed despot.
In addition to the prime minister’s office, Netanyahu occupies the portfolios of foreign minister, economy minister, minister of regional cooperation and communications minister.
In this latter role, Netanyahu has appointed figures to oversight positions that have allowed them to put a finger on the scale in support of media outlets that are sympathetic to the government. Similarly, American casino magnate Sheldon Adelson bankrolls the newspaper Israel HaYom, which is widely seen as a propaganda machine for Netanyahu.
The Netanyahu government is also seen as threatening the broadcast news sector, having undertaken an effort to replace the state-run broadcaster with a more complimentary version, only to reverse course when it appeared the new agency would also be insufficiently uncritical. Like other politicians in democratic countries, Netanyahu has found some popularity among his supporters by picking fights with the media, including individual reporters who report things unfavorable to the prime minister.
While discourse in Israel remains legendarily vibrant, evidence that the government may be attempting to influence or control aspects of journalistic freedom are rightly drawing deep concern. And this concern is exacerbated by evidence of other tendencies within Israeli society that seem to reflect authoritarian, anti-democratic and discriminatory inclinations.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett is having “ethical rules” drawn up for what university lecturers can and cannot say about politics. Culture Minister Miri Regev has promoted a bill to retroactively cut funding to cultural institutions that do not meet the government’s standard of “loyalty” to the state of Israel.
On a different, but similarly ham-fisted front, there is the attempt to legislate the public broadcast of the muezzin, the five-times-a-day call to Muslim prayer, which begins before dawn. Granted, not everyone is keen to have daily pre-dawn loudspeaker broadcasts, whatever the purpose, but such a move against a religious minority already experiencing myriad forms of discrimination calls into question fundamental issues of multiculturalism and respect for religious freedom and pluralism that need to be addressed.
The rabbinate has also weighed in on a few issues that have outraged progressive and feminist Israelis.
Crediting a 15th-century scholar, the Sephardi chief rabbi Yitzhak Yosef declared that women and yeshivah scholars are forbidden from serving in the Israel Defence Forces or performing national volunteer service. He claimed that women had been permitted to go to war at times in Jewish history, but only to cook and clean. The comments come at a time when Israel has seen a four-fold increase in the number of women combat soldiers and as some segments of the political spectrum and civil society are speaking up against what they see as the unsustainable tradition of military exemptions for the ultra-Orthodox.
Then there is Eyal Karim, who was recently sworn in as chief rabbi of the IDF. During his confirmation hearings, Karim was forced to explain earlier comments that seemed to justify the rape of non-Jewish women during wartime. He apologized, saying that his comments were a theoretical consideration of biblical permissions and prohibitions. Karim has also stated that women should not serve in the IDF, or sing at army events.
These and other developments have combined with the Netanyahu government’s warm reaction to Donald Trump’s election to raise alarm among some that Israel is on a path similar to the populist, authoritarian phenomenon seen in the United States and much of Europe. In so many ways, Israel’s body politic is sui generis, utterly unlike any other democracy on earth. Yet it should not surprise that what emerges among its closest allies should also find a place among Israelis.
Trump, tweeting from his gold-embossed chambers in Manhattan, is exhibiting plenty of monarchical characteristics. European political upstarts are glorifying strongmen of the past and, in some cases, of the present, in the form of the Russian leader Vladimir Putin. When these sorts of autocratic inclinations arise in Israel, they should be opposed there, just as they should be everywhere.