|Hitler and Mussolini – is fascism possible in Israel? Photo: Reuters|
Fascism in Jewish state?
Ynetnews special: Experts divided on whether nationalistic trends in Israel tantamount to fascism
On October 10th, 2010 Israel's government decided to obligate non-Jewish naturalized citizens to pledge allegiance to a Jewish, democratic state. The debate was not fierce, with 22 ministers endorsing the proposal and only eight voting against it.
It's difficult to rule whether the decision, in and of itself, is fateful. Many Israelis supported it or remained indifferent to it, while many of its critics felt that it's mostly foolish. The law's power mostly had to do with the disturbing sense that for the first time it entrenched, in an official manner, potent forces that have been flooding our public and political discourse in the past year.
Over the years, leftist demonstrators here would chant the slogan "Fascism won't pass!" yet the Left keeps on declining, while fascism is increasingly gaining a foothold here. Significant parts of the Jewish public endorse blatant nationalistic and fascist principles, as shown by the Yedioth Ahronoth and Dr. Mina Tzemach poll published last week, including limited freedom of expression and association as well as limiting voting rights to Jews only.
These findings are prompting us to wonder out loud: Did fascism officially make Aliyah to the Jewish state?
The very question prompts a sense of unease. Fascism emerged in Europe, spread worldwide, and is considered the most prominent historical innovation of the 20th Century and the phenomenon that affected it more than anything else. Many nations suffered terribly because of it, yet no people was more gravely hurt than the Jews. The notion that genuine fascism is possibly in Israel is supposed to be incomprehensible.
"I dedicated dozens of years of my life to studying fascism; more than I would like to recall," Hebrew University Professor Zeev Sternhell says. "I quickly reached the conclusion that no society or culture is immune to these phenomena; however, I of course never thought we would be facing this problem ourselves."
"I'm not sure the government decision (on the loyalty oath) is a dramatic turning point. However, it is important, because it legitimized a new norm: Legislation that discriminates against different population groups in an open, official manner. This certainly does not make the democratic system healthier."
Sternhell says he is concerned by the cumulative effect of recent trends taking shape within Israeli society: The campaign against leftist professors, changes to the curriculum, attacks on academic freedom of expression, and so on. "At times, it is reminiscent of the atmosphere in the Weimar Republic or the 1930s in France. It creates a difficult atmosphere," he says.
On the other hand, other scholars are warning against using the term "fascism" too lightly. "The question is whether a threat on democracy exists," says Tel Aviv University Professor Yossi Shain. "Fascism annuls democracy and condemns the democratic discourse. It seemingly speaks out honestly on behalf of the authentic will of the people, which is being trampled by minority parties and groups. It's hard to say that these phenomena are powerful in Israel."
Two weeks ago, several hundred youth group members held several rallies across the nation, slamming the government's loyalty oath decision as racist and anti-democratic. Earlier, actors and authors protested the move in Tel Aviv, read out the Declaration of Independence, and published a new document entitled "Declaration of Independence from Fascism."
One of the move's initiators, author and journalist Sefi Rachlevsky, declared that "this successful and miserable people, which experienced persecution and a Holocaust, deserves independence, democracy, and a life free of fascism. The real struggle today is not between leftists and rightists, but rather, between democrats and fascists.
However, there is no argument that a fascist regime is not in power in Israel at this time. The more important question is whether, and to what extent, do we see fascistic winds blowing here. Yet one of the basic problems with fascism is its elusiveness. It's very hard to define it.
Protest against loyalty oath (Photo: Mati Elmaliach)
Yisrael Beiteinu's Kneset Member David Rotem says he is upset at the unbearable ease of using the term.
"Every time I take the Knesset podium, I face chants calling me a fascist and a racist," says Rotem, who initiated two proposals favoring Israelis who performed military or national service. "It's very ease to shut me up. One can refer to anything as fascism, yet this cheapens the term."
"I admit that I'm proud of my state, I will fight for my state, and I will defend my state," he says. "Does that make me a fascist? If so, then every soldier is a fascist. A fascist is not a person who wishes to safeguard his country, but rather, a person who believes that the state is his supreme value in life. And that's not me."
However, Professor Naomi Hazan says that disturbing fascist tendencies certainly exist in Israel at this time.
"The main manifestation is the absence of open public discourse – the opposite is true: there are forces that keep minimizing it. We're only talking about who is a patriot and who isn't. There is no debate about substance and ideas, but rather, only about loyalty."
"This process is a slippery slope. People are so bothered by daily affairs that they don't notice what's happening under their noses," she says. "This country is undergoing a fundamental change and nobody is paying attention, because it's gradual…the slope is becoming more slippery, and when things deteriorate nobody is able to stop them."
"Fascism is a historical term, which is associated with a very unique era featuring very unique problems. One cannot bring such term forward 80 years" says Dr. Oded Heilbronner, who specializes in German history. "In Israel's history we already had moments where the danger of fascism was at the door, yet nothing happened…the question is whether what we see now is escalation, or yet another false alarm."
"One of the questions here is who sets the definition. Mussolini, Franco and Peron defined themselves as fascists. In Israel, it is usually the Left that characterizes some elements as fascistic. Instead of fascism, it is perhaps more appropriate to talk about Jewish nationalism or racism, which continues a tradition lasting thousands of years."
But why is this nationalism and racism afflicting us, and why now?
"Ben-Gurionism was pragmatic. Establishing a state was a pragmatic deed. Ben-Gurion never sought to fully explain what he meant on the ideological front. These leaders wanted results, and cared less about being right," says former Education Minister Professor Yuli Tamir. "This leadership had been replaced by a generation of people who do not aspire to build, but rather, to provoke. They want credit for the statements, not for their actions, so the statements become sharper. In media-based politics, there is a tendency to radicalize one's positions in order to gain prominence."
Tel Aviv University Professor Raanan Rein, a historian specializing in South American populism and European fascism, says that "while we are witnessing dangerous phenomenon of nationalism, xenophobia, and McCarthyism within Israeli society, characterizing this as fascism would be improper. In research and academic terms it would be wrong first and foremost because of the religious dimension, which is completely absent in European fascism."
Yet others are not as restrained. "I'm not sure that all elements associated with fascism are present here, but one element that is emerging – and should perhaps concern us more than anything else – is racism," says Professor Galia Golan, who heads the School of Government at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. "I'm talking about ethnic or national intolerance entrenched through racist legislation. The definition of 'loyalty' is being linked to ethnicity, religion, or creed. None of it is supposed to be valid within a democracy, yet it is certainly vital for the various versions of fascism, and above all to Nazi fascism, of course."
"The second element is radical nationalism, which started to grow in1967, mostly within the religious-Zionist camp. Toady, the forces of this radical nationalism are at the helm, and the combination of racism and nationalism is present in our political culture," she says.
So do we or don't we have fascism around here? The disagreement and confusion may attest to a complex reality. "Israeli society is contending with two trends simultaneously – increased tendencies of fascism, but also liberalization," says Professor Yagil Levy, a sociologist. "Let's take academia for example. The demand to exclude lecturers and texts that do not accept Israel's Zionist character would not have emerged without the liberal winds that enabled the 'post-Zionist' camp to flourish."
"Similarly, the demand for a pledge of allegiance would not have developed without the buds of civil uprising on the part of Israel's Arabs," he says.
"The term 'fascism' is used in Israel to label de-legitimization," Professor Shain says. "I don't think we have in Israel the kind of xenophobia we see in Europe. Hatred for Arabs exists in many circles, yet we cannot ignore the effort of an Arab minority to undermine the existence of the Jewish nation in the country. This is where the issue of Lieberman's Right comes in, but to call this fascism? The questions about the nature of the state, national identity and national honor are major questions being asked across Europe. Discussing them is legitimate."
Danger of fascism? Lieberman (Photo: AP)
Lieberman is not mentioned here coincidently. Last week's poll found that no less than 60% of respondents said that he contributes to growing radical, nationalistic tendencies in the country, to the point of fascism.
"Zionism was always wise enough to reinforce itself through the deliberate blurring of boundaries in respect to our fundamental principles, because it knew that stretching these boundaries beyond their logical limit would lead to disaster," Yuli Tamir says. "The ability to reach equivocal, vague compromises guaranteed Zionism's future. Lieberman takes Zionistic principles to the limit, thereby eliminating Zionism."
Some religious figures are also losing sleep over the latest trends.
"We saw the emergence of a new Jew in Israel; this does not include Lieberman alone, but rather, anyone who voted for the (loyalty oath) law, including religious parties," says Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman. "This Jew is no longer interested in religion or in Jewish values, but rather, uses his Jewishness to produce hatred and nationalism."
"The discourse around the loyalty oath gives rise to a corrupt situation: Instead of Judaism being used to criticize nationalism, similarly to what is written in the Book Prophets, it turns into a means that leads to fascism."
"Israel should be as Jewish as democracy allows for, rather than as democratic as Judaism allows for. If Zionism means giving up democracy, I choose to give up democracy," he says.
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