Ehud Sprinzak, The Ascendance of Israel’s Radical Right (Oxford, 1991).
Most of the sociopolitical and historical research on Israel to date has oddly concentrated on the so-called left-wing sections of this polity. Even when recently some researchers (like Shapiro, Heller or Shavit) deal with the “right,” they concentrate on this or that portion of it. Ehud Sprinzak’s volume, even though it expressly concerns the “radical right,” shifts the question under analysis to the “right” as a sociopolitical phenomenon. From this point of view it is an important contribution to the study of Israeli political culture.
Empirically, Sprinzak focuses on the ideology and structure of groups such as Gush Emunim and its settler movement in the West Bank and Gaza; Meir Kahane’s group; political parties such as Tehiya, Tzomet and Moledet; and the “Jewish underground.” The author precedes this with an analytical discussion of the term “radical right” and of what Sprinzak labels the “historically marginalized Zionist right” — Jabotinsky’s Betar movement and its radical wings, such as Brith Habiryonin of Aba Achimeir and Uri Zvi Greenberg; Canaanites such as Ratosh; later underground leaders (Stern, Raziel and Begin); and finally the messianism of Rav Kook.
The most interesting and central part of the book deals with 1967-1973, a period of incubation of the radical right. This period also marks a general swing of the Israeli polity from what may be called a civic society to a new political culture that combines the traditional chauvinistic right with Jewish messianism, a phenomenon which might be called the cult of “security.” The book includes a detailed description of events and “stories,” most of them already well known. Overall, the volume provides a coherent history of most of the contemporary Israeli political system.
Sprinzak’s most important conclusion is that, despite the relative small scope of the Israeli “radical right” in terms of membership and active supporters, its political power far exceeds its size. This power stems from its high mobilization capabilities, its political sophistication and its skills based on the socioeconomic infrastructure of the settler-society developed in the Occupied Territories. Institutionally, this infrastructure is expressed by Gush Emunim’s “Amana” movement and the local and regional councils of the settlements. These are arranged in powerful parliamentary and extra-parliamentary bloc and veto groups, which can squeeze almost to zero the ability of any government (Likud or Labor) to make political concessions.
Sprinzak omits any comparison of this domestic power with any “external” counter-pressures or constraints, presenting an image of the Israeli state as a “closed system.” He raises the question of the radical right’s relation to Israeli democracy. Here he makes a not-so-clear-cut division between the secular right and the religious right, whose aim is to found a Jewish theocracy and who see democracy as a part of Western “non-Jewish” civilization which must be terminated, in principle, through the redemption process. The secular radical right is partially committed to a conditional “democracy,” in so far as it does not contradict the raison d’etat of Greater Israel. Both perceive the idea of “transfer” (mass expulsion) of Palestinians as politically and morally correct. The secular right sees the idea of “transfer” as deeply (even while not always explicitly) rooted in “legitimate” mainstream Zionist thinking and practice in the past.
Sprinzak’s main explanation for the rebirth, spread and reformulation of the different streams of the radical right, and the right in general, is “psycho-political.” During the anxious days of waiting prior to the 1967 war, all the “existential fears,” traumas and symbols (“a second Holocaust”) gave way to great relief as a result of the quick victory, which even secular Jews defined as divine intervention in history, preparing Israeli Jewish society for the swing toward the right. This ad hoc approach lacks any theoretical or conceptual framework. It simplifies the complexity of Israeli society, state-building logic and imperatives of Zionist ideology, as Sprinzak himself presented them. The lack of a theoretical framework and comprehensive perception of the Israeli sociopolitical system is the major weakness of this study and limits its conclusions. Lacking analytical tools, he fails to explain the most central phenomena of the Israeli polity. Early in his study, Sprinzak asserts that “while the European radical right [i.e., fascism] was in the 1930s a major contender for the ideological hegemony of Western civilization, both intellectually and politically, American right-wing extremism has always been a local and marginal phenomenon.” Sprinzak later concludes that the American model is more appropriate than the European to analysis of the Israeli radical right. Almost every page proves the contrary. But despite its flaws and misinterpretations, it is a very welcome and impressive contribution to the study of Israeli politics.