GREETINGS from Israel, where I find myself working for the seventh time, albeit after a gap of some six years. It is a country at once familiar to me, yet changed. In both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem construction is everywhere – if the number of cranes on the skyline is a sign of growth and prosperity, Israel’s economy is booming.

But it is the mood of the place that has most changed. The air is thick with anxiety. Israel has never been at peace with its neighbours: now, it feels barely at peace with itself.

This is not just because of the recent wave of fresh Arab terrorism. In three lethal attacks in the last fortnight, 11 Israelis have been killed, including an Arab-Israeli policeman. The killing here is as indiscriminate as it senseless. Everywhere, colleagues warn me to be careful. The security forces in Israel are as helpless as they are anywhere else against lone wolf attacks. Tel Aviv’s iron dome may shield the city from Hamas’ missiles – but an individual with a knife or a gun is an altogether more slippery prospect.

The signs of security are everywhere. Armed police patrol the beach. Shopping malls are protected by airport-style metal detectors and X-ray scanners, as are train and bus stations. Everyone you meet has spent years in training in the army – three years’ compulsory national service for men, two years’ for women. Israel is a country surrounded by enemies who would rather it simply did not exist. Visible, armed security for Israelis is a matter of ordinary daily life.

None of that is new – since the state was founded in 1948 this has been Israel’s lived reality. What is new is the gloom my friends here feel – and speak about – as regards their country’s future. For Israel is changing, and the forces driving that change are coming from within.

Back home we have grown so used to Israel being critiqued and condemned by the modern Left that it is easy to forget that, 80 years ago, it was the political Left who championed its creation. Zionist was not always a dirty word for progressives. The first newspaper in Britain to call for the state of Israel to be founded was the Guardian (and not just because, as the Manchester Guardian, it was read by large numbers of Jews).

In its early days, Israel’s ruling class was formed by enlightened (and often deeply learned) Ashkenazy Jews who had fled from the ghettos of middle- and eastern-European cities. They spoke Yiddish and German; they read Hebrew, English and French; and they founded their state as a parliamentary democracy committed to the rule of law, with frequent elections, representative government, and an independent judiciary.

Throughout the country, from Galilee in the north to the coast south of Jaffa, kibbutz after kibbutz would spring up, farm the land, educate its young, and run as collectives for the equal good of their whole communities. It was socialism in action, and the Left loved it.

Since the 1980s, however, this founding image of Israel has so faded that it has become almost entirely forgotten, wiped out and replaced by an altogether more hostile perception of Israel, in which to be a Zionist is anathema, with Israel seen always as the aggressor, defiantly occupying Palestinian land and oppressing both Gaza (from which Israel has completely withdrawn) and the West Bank (which it continues to govern, under the international law of belligerent occupation).

Of late, Israel’s friends in the West have become so scarce – when Obama was in the White House even the Americans could not be relied on – that its leaders have sought to build links elsewhere, notably with Russia (a significant minority of Israel’s population are Jews who have settled here from Russia). This is just one of the reasons why, right now, Israel’s government believes it can play a role, alongside Turkey perhaps, in seeking to broker peace between Russia and Ukraine. Its links with Kyiv are strong, too, not least because of the 250,000 Jews who were living in Ukraine before Russia invaded.

What we in the West generally fail to see, however, is that it is not just the international portrayal of Israel that has changed: it is Israel’s perception of itself. That liberal Ashkenazy ruling elite long since lost its grip on power in the Knesset. Benjamin Netanyahu’s long tenure in office underscored that this was the age of the populist strong-man, and that the era of liberal democracy had passed. As such, the Knesset has passed law after law chipping away at the legacy Israel’s founders had sought to build.

Resistance is found mainly in the courts – and in the law schools such as the one in which I am here to teach. But, like all countries faced with a rising tide of populism (as in Hungary, as in Turkey, as elsewhere), the courts are under attack. The populists in the Knesset, impatient with the constraints liberal democracy imposes on its rulers, may choose to wait until they can appoint to the courts judges more sympathetic to their style of politics. Or they may seek to push through legislation that undermines the courts’ powers.

Either way, my friends in Israel’s law schools are glum. The Israel their grandparents had sought to build is being replaced, just as the construction all over Tel Aviv and Jerusalem is transforming these cities at breakneck pace.

All is not yet lost. Netanyahu faces trial on charges of corruption and he is, in any event, an old man. The courts continue to adhere to the values of their precedents and their case law. And Israel is as vibrant as ever, arguing with itself with a zeal and a passion that is as exhilarating as it can be exhausting. But underneath there lurks a fear. Not only the immediate fear of a fresh wave of terror. But a deeper fear, that the country is changing decisively, and not for the better.

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