|Demonstrations against crippling Israel's Supreme Court|
In 1975, Dr. Ralph Coury wrote an article entitled, "Why Can't They Be Like Us?" Published in the first issue of the Review of Middle Eastern Studies, edited by Talal Asad and Roger Owen, Coury offered a critique of the Orientalist view that, for the peoples of the MENA region to "modernize," they needed to accept the culture and values of the West. Thankfully, this perspective, propounded by classic Orientalist texts and the modernization theory of the late 1950s and 1960s, has been thoroughly debunked.
What then is happening to traditional forms of religion which encourage the ideas of brotherhood/sisterhood, tolerance, respect for cultural, religious and ethnic diversity, and an emphasis on social justice? Perhaps we can find some answers by comparing recent political developments in Israel and the United States. Israel’s Crisis Has a Distinctly American Flavor
Let's begin by recognizing that neither Israel nor the United States is comprised of a majority of citizens who accept religious nationalism. The problem is that sizable numbers of Israelis and Americans do reject civic nationalism (or what they call secular nationalism).
All too often viewed through the eye of religion, this form of nationalism constitutes a political commitment more than a religious one. In fact, it really has little to do with religious belief. Rather, politicized religion is a cover for reconstituting society along far right-wing lines.
What are the religious nationalists' goals in their respective societies? First and foremost, they seek to eliminate the constitutional rules of the game which constrain their ability to impose a new system of governance. This means undermining or eliminating those institutions which stand in the way of their goals. Hence, Netanyahu's far-right government's attack on Israel's Supreme Court and the MAGA effort to subvert the US Constitution through the attack on the US Capitol on January 6, 2021 to deny Joe Biden from being sworn in as presidento
Second, it's critical for far right religious nationalists to develop their hegemonic project by claiming that what they doing is to implement the Word of God. Using interpretations based on fear and anxiety, they seek to take control of the public sphere. Secular schools need to be closed and replaced by religious academies. Socializing a new generation of youth according to their view is critical.
Third, the far right seeks to suppress what they consider to be non-traditional understandings of the family and sexual identity. The idea of same sex marriage is rejected as is rights afforded to the LGBTQ+ community. Laws legitimizing same sex marriage and offering protections to non-heterosexuals are thus targeted for elimination.
Fourth, both forms of religious nationalism situate women as second class citizens. There are no female rabbis in the far right religious nationalist movement in Israel nor female pastors in far right evangelical churches in the United States. Even in the more traditional, but not evangelical, Southern Baptist Convention, women were recently forbidden to hold positions of authority in the church, much less remain, as some have, as pastors.
Finally, liberal democratic governance is rejected. In its place, authoritarianism becomes the new norm. Far right religious nationalists won't admit that this is true. Indeed, they argue the opposite. "We the People," who are divinely chosen, are the majority and thus democracy is being practiced on a daily basis as we implement God's Will. Appeals are thus made to a majoritarian form of rule which the privileged majority imposes.
This political ideology constitutes a form of religiously based populism. It legitimizes what it claims to be a form of democratic governance by arguing that it is following God's laws. As such, religious nationalism can;t be challenged because its mission stems from a higher power.
Religious nationalism has been able to make greater inroads in Israel because it is favored by demographic change. The ultra-orthodox community which provides the special base for the religious nationalism has been growing much faster than Israel's secular center right and center left. Educated in religious schools, ultra-orthodox youth are taught that God has given the Land of Israel to the Jews, including the West Bank of the River Jordan where Palestinians seek to establish an independent state.
While demographics favor the far right religious nationalists in Israel, the opposite is true in the United States. The Caucasian population is declining as is church attendance. Many youth, both in religiously observant and secular families, refuse to accept the dictates and sociocultural constraints of religious nationalism. Thus, the future of the movement is much mores in doubt in the United States than in Israel.
The problem with each of these movements is their ethereal approach to social, economic and political reality. Far right religious nationalist may want to build a "Torah state" in Israel. However, such a state doesn't address the sharp rise in income inequality in Israel. Neither does it address the discontent of secular Israeli society which rejects the idea of a pseudo-religious polity.
Further, the policies of the current far right government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have both infuriated and demoralized many secular Israelis. Already we see some making plans to leave the country. There already is a huge Israeli Diaspora, much of which doesn't want to live under the type of society being constructed by the far right religious nationalists. 28% of Israelis considering leaving the country amid judicial upheaval — poll
Equally ominous, Israel's economy has been adversely affected by the policies of far-right religious nationalists. Considerable portions of Israel's technology sector, a major engine of growth, no longer view Israel as having a favorable investment climate, especially if the Supreme Court loses much of its authority under Netayahu's plan to strip it of many of functions. Investment funds by Israeli entrepreneur's are being moved to other countries. Moody’s warns Israel faces ‘significant risk’ of political and social tensions that will harm its economy, security
What are the domestic challenges facing far-right religious nationalism? A core problem is that the cultural wars of right-wing religious nationalism exclude any focus on the economy. As the current economic crisis in China demonstrates, authoritarianism and a vibrant market economy don't mix. Under the type of religious nationalist state advocated by Netanyahu and his far-right ministers, foreign direct investment (FDI) will decline and young, innovative tech entrepreneurs will be less willing to work in Israel.
In the United States, the need to develop a skilled work force which possesses the technical abilities required of the 21st century isn't a goal of the Christian nationalist right. Christian nationalists focus on limiting the role of the federal government and circumscribing its ability to legislate. We see this process currently playing itself out in the 2023 House of Representatives which has failed to pass any legislation addressing important issues, such as climate change, infrastructure development, health care reform or financially securing entitlements.
The far-right Christian nationalists also pose a threat to the security of Israel and the United States. Apart from appropriating territory from Palestinians living on the West Bank, religious nationalists in Israel show relatively little interest in the rest of the MENA region. Because many ultra-orthodox are exempt from serving in Israel Defense Force, many lack n understanding of serving in the military and respect for what s considered an important part of an Israeli's civic duty.
In the United States, religious nationalists likewise reflect an insular and isolationist world view. Many public opinion polls indicate that religious nationalists oppose military aid to Ukraine and seem to have little concern about Vladimir Putin's illegal invasion and attempt to eliminate it as a sovereign nation-state. In this context, international security and financial alliances fall by the wayside.
Finally, we may look to parallels between Iran and Israel. In Iran, women have been protesting the forced wearing of the hijab (head scarf) by the so-called Islamic regime in Tehran. In Israel, even religious women have expressed criticisms of Netanyahu's attack on Israel's Supreme Court. Many have argues that the rights they have as religious Jews, were curtailed before the Supreme Court intervened to declare the laws null and void. Women Will Be the Biggest Victims of Israel’s Judicial Reforms
Globalization is viewed as posing a threat to traditional norms and customs in many countries. It has been reinforced by neo-liberal state policies which have focused on individual achievement and profits to the detriment of promoting a national civic consciousness.
Those who feel left out by processes of globalization have chosen to rebel. Far-right religious nationalists feel they have been excluded from what they consider an aloof and secular political culture. In some, the response has been the rise of an insular and intolerant form of politics, frequently cloaked in a politicized form of religion.
In summary, the question Ralph Khoury raised decades ago has now become a very different one. Politcal developments in the West parallel, rather than differ from, political developments in the MENA region. Sadiq al-'Azm's article in the journal Khamsin, "Orientalism and Orientalism in Reverse," also from the 1970s, springs true - there is much more in common between the "East" and "West" than many observers are willing to recognize. Authoritarianism comes in many forms - xenophobic religious nationalism is just one of them.
Indeed, it is important to recognize that the far-right Christian nationalist movement in the United States constitutes a strong supporter of Israel. However, there is a major contradiction inherent in this support. Based on the belief that the Return of the Messiah - Jesus Christ - will occur in the Holy Land, only true Christians will survive the Second Coming of Christ.
In both Israel and the United States, the civic and secular center-right and center-left will need to engage in outreach to those who feel left behind by the rapid changes wrought by globalization. Those both in and out of power need to bring clerics and lay people together who reject far right religious nationalism to develop a new form of social democracy in which cultural diversity isn't swept under the carpet but occupies a central focus of national political discourse.
Unless trust can be reestablished in liberal democracy, especially its social democratic variant, where citizens feel a meaningful connection to the polity and those elected to positions of authority, religious nationalism will continue to resonate with significant portions of the populace in Israel, the United States and elsewhere. Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America