Blog of the International Journal of Constitutional Law

Symposium–Part 3 of 7: The Triumph of Israeli Populism

[Editor’s Note: This is the third of 7 parts in our I-CONnect/ICON-S-IL symposium on the subject of “Constitutional Capture in Israel?” The introduction to the symposium is available here.]

Alon Harel, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Populism is a very popular word these days. Journalistic writing attributes populism to leaders such as Erdogan the President of Turkey, Orban the Prime Minister of Hungary as well as President Trump in the US, President Chavez (former President of Venezuela), the party Syriza in Greece and the referendum concerning Brexit in Great Britain. Each one of these officials and/or events has its own special characteristics and the question facing political theorists is what if anything is common to all of these.

In his book entitled What is Populism Jan-Werner Muller argues that what distinguishes between liberalism and populism is the treatment of pluralism. In his view, the populist view regards the political community as a community which shares particularistic characteristics, in particular shared views and ideologies. A person who does not share these views is at best an elitist and at worst corrupt or a traitor and therefore is not ‘really’ part of the political community.

In this short essay, I will examine the tools that are used to weaken the pluralism that characterized Israeli society.

The distinction which is at the foundation of my analysis is based on two concepts of citizenship: the traditional formal concept of citizenship that rests on the place of birth, residence or citizenship of the parents and the essentialist concept of citizenship that is based on loyalty and shared ideology. In Israel, populism rests on the essentialist characterization of citizenship – a characterization that classifies people as citizens who are partners of the political community on the basis of their political and social views or their ideological commitments.

In his book Jan-Werner Mueller argues:

Populists claim that they, and they alone, represent the people…The claim to exclusive representation is not an empirical one; it is always distinctly moral. When running for office, populists …refuse to recognize any opposition as legitimate. The populist logic also implies that whoever does not support populist parties might not be a proper part of the people—always defined as righteous and morally pure.[1]

The liberal tradition preserves pluralism by using a formalistic view of citizenship; membership in the political community is based on pure formalistic criteria. The legal right to hold a passport or an identity card defines who the citizen is and it generates automatically civil rights including the right to elect and to be elected. Hence the views of the citizen, her commitments, her moral values are not a pre-condition for citizenship or a pre-condition to benefit from all civil rights including the right to political participation. Membership in the political community is not a byproduct of the political views, intellectual dispositions, class membership, religious or ethnic membership, etc. Liberal pluralism is a byproduct of the formalistic or proceduralist characterization of citizenship; the person is first a citizen and only later, he is a member of a party, supporter of an ideology or a member of a religious community. In contrast to this tradition, populists adopt an essentialist view of citizenship. To paraphrase Simone De Beauvoir: a citizen is not born a citizen; he grows up to be a citizen.

Under the populist view, the political community is homogenous only because citizens are defined as people who are similar to others, i.e., who fit into the privileged ideological framework and share an ideological view. The holders of a passport or an identity card who dispute the dominant ideology are citizens only in a formal sense; as a matter of fact, they are elites, corrupt and, in contemporary Israel, are labelled as moles (‘shtulim’). Israeli political discourse is currently overflowing with political classifications that distinguish between citizens who have earned their citizenship in social, cultural or legal loyalty tests and members of the political community who are denounced as traitors. In recent days, for example and against the backdrop of the Temple Mount crisis, Israeli Arab citizens have again been labeled Trojan horses. But the anti-pluralistic nature of the political demand for loyalty crystallized more than a decade ago, with the mainstreaminization of Israel’s extreme political right. This essentialist conception of citizenship was articulated by using the slogan: ‘without loyalty there is no citizenship.’ Although this slogan appeared at first in the political platform of Israel Beiteinu (a rightwing party which now forms part of the coalition). Bibi Netanyahu as well as other rightwing leaders adopted this view and tried to translate this slogan to legal terms.

This proposal consisted in a proposal to change the citizenship law and include a loyalty oath that was drafted in 2007. For reasons elaborated below the bill did not pass but the bill was only a first attempt to express legally populist sentiments under which citizenship is not a right that is automatically granted to whoever satisfies certain formal criteria but is a privilege granted to people who ‘deserve’ it or, in reality, to people who are sufficiently similar in their ideology to the lawmakers. Hence, the anti-pluralism which characterizes populism.

Additional examples of the manipulative use of the term loyalty can be found in the propaganda of the extreme rightwing group called Im Tirzu. Im Tirzu identifies its political opponents as supporters of terror. In a movie it distributed in December 2015 it declared: “they are Israelis. They live with us and they are moles: when we fight terrorism they fight us.” The campaigns which classified artists and academics as moles or foreign agents benefitting from ‘European money’ was designed to clarify the boundaries of the legitimate political community. Similarly, a very blatant expression of these sentiments can be found in an article written by a former extreme rightwing member of Parliament Moshe Feiglin in 2006. In his article written after Israel withdrew from the Gaza strip Feiglin criticized harshly a proposal made by eminent leaders of the Labor party and argued:

And as a matter of fact you cannot really betray precisely as a mistress cannot. But in Israel there is a culture of treason…You cannot complain about the alleged treason of Sne, Beilin and others [former prominent members of the Labor party]… The concept of treason is irrelevant in Israel, because there is no essence that you can be loyal to. The culture of treason destroys us and it must be replaced by the culture of loyalty. We have no choice. The leaders must return the state to the Jewish nation.[2]

One of the main characteristics of essentialist citizenship is its vagueness. It is not an accident that the efforts to translate the language of loyalty to a legal language failed. It is precisely this failure which gives essentialist citizenship the flexibility necessary in contemporary Israeli politics. The rhetorical power of loyalty as a precondition of citizenship or as a precondition for benefiting from state benefits or even as a precondition for being a public official rests on its vagueness. The content of the essentialist citizenship changes in accordance with the erratic sentiments of the speaker. Some believe that supporting the movement Breaking the Silence is a form of disloyalty; others believe that willingness to compromise over Jerusalem is a form of disloyalty.[3] Needless to say that members of center and left Zionist parties like Meretz and the Labor party are classified as traitors. Even President Rivlin and other eminent members of the Likud right-wing party are classified as traitors.

Underneath all these characteristics the concept of loyalty has become a political tool which is so vague that it can be used by any speaker to de-legitimate any view the speaker dislikes. To be a citizen in contemporary Israel a person has to be loyal and the content of this loyalty changes in accordance with the principle of equity and equity famously depends on the Lord Chancellor’s (or the speaker’s) foot.

Suggested Citation: Alon Harel, The Triumph of Israeli Populism, Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, Aug. 22, 2017, at:

[1] Jan Werner Mueller, What is Populism? (2016) at 3.

[2] Moshe Feiglin, From Leadership of Treason to Leadership of Loyalty:



3 responses to “Symposium–Part 3 of 7: The Triumph of Israeli Populism”

  1. Avraham Keslinger Avatar
    Avraham Keslinger

    Elitists claim that they alone should rule. Anyone not a member of the elite as defined by itself is at best a fool. At worst a dangerous extremist – as we see in Harel’s effort to demonize Moshe Feiglin Im Tirtzu. Moreover, Harel forgets that even liberal polities, including the US, have outed those deemed disloyal to the liberal idea of polity.

  2. alon harel Avatar
    alon harel

    This is a very simplistic and not a generous interpretation of what is being said in the paper. If a person supports the intervention of elites it does not imply that he supports his own elites. The elites even under the most elitist contemporary theories are elected democratically.

    Do you subject yourself sometimes to the advice of a broker? a medical doctor? so do we when we subject ourselves to the decision of judges with respect to constitutionality of statutes or to the President of the national bank with respect to the interest rate.

    I hope you understand it better now

  3. […] moral and ideological position of populism is that it rests on an essentialist concept of citizenship, which classifies people as citizens who are members of the political community on the basis of […]

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