The mirror-reflected figure staring back at Ze’ev Jabotinsky, as caricatured by “Binyamin” on Page 21 in the May 1, 1933, issue of HaShomer HaTzair, the Hebrew-language magazine of Poland’s Zionist pioneering youth movement rigorously committed to secular values and Marxist determinism, was none other than Adolf Hitler.David Ben-Gurion that year also referred to him as “Vladimir Hitler” and in a booklet issued by the Executive of the World League for Labor Palestine in 1933, The Labor Movement and the Revisionists, Section One was titled “Jabotinsky in the Footsteps of Hitler.”
Of course, this was the era of the pre-state inter-party rivalries, when Betar members sort to break the power of the hegemonic Histadrut Labor Union and cross lockout barriers and when, following the murder of Haim Arlosoroff on a Tel Aviv beach site, members of Betar and the adult Revisionist Movement were violently assaulted during the Palestine Mandate and across Europe and the United States. They also suffered administrative discrimination, notably in the distribution of immigration certificates. But the extreme antagonism continued.
On December 3, 1948, a letter to the editor appeared in The New York Times on the occasion of Menachem Begin’s first trip to the US. The letter, in part, read that his Herut political party is “closely akin in its organization, methods, political philosophy and social appeal to the Nazi and Fascist parties... until recently they openly preached the doctrine of the Fascist state.” That letter was signed by, among 17 others, Hannah Arendt (who had a four-year affair with Martin Heidegger, who later was a member and an enthusiastic supporter of the Nazi party) and Albert Einstein.
According to a July 29, 1949, JTA report, 10 members of the Hashomer Hatzair were arrested for disseminating leaflets in Buenos Aires, which termed Begin who was then visiting the country as a “fascist and murderer.” In 1963, in a letter to poet and journalist Haim Guri, Ben-Gurion wrote that “Begin is a distinct Hitlerist type” and predicted that if he would ever come to power he will replace the army and police headquarters with his goons, and rule as Hitler did in Germany.
The reactions to Israel’s 37th ruling government coalition seem to be competing with each other as to how more extreme, strident and mind-boggling each can appear. In an interview on Channel 13, former Supreme Court president Aharon Barak termed Justice Minister Yariv Levin’s proposals as an invalid act that is “the beginning of the destruction of the Third Commonwealth... a revolution [led by] tanks.” Speaking to Channel 12 News, Barak said: “If these plans will be realized, we’ll have a formal democracy with no balances. We’ll actually have only one branch of government and that’s not a democracy.”
Undermining the current government
On December 27, Zvi Bar’el published “Zionism is Racism” in Haaretz. The Black Flags cohort which seeks to undermine the government’s legitimacy, as is written at their Facebook page, issued the following statement hours before the Tel Aviv rally they called for: “through Levin, [Benjamin Netanyahu] announced a regime coup.” And they added, “all our nightmares may come about and there’s but one way to stop them: to go out to the streets.”
The Standing Together group’s advertisement termed the rally “The March of Anger.” Yet another group, Mehazkim – Fighting for a Progressive Israel, highlighted the slogan, “the government declared war on the public; the public responds with war.”
Arik Carmon, the founder of the Israel Democracy Institute, interviewed in Haaretz on January 6, forthrightly said, “This is comparable to the Weimar atmosphere before Hitler came to power when there was a weak democracy.” He then continued and noted that after the Reichstag fire, the National Security Act was passed and asked, “Does that name not remind you of something?”
The legislation Carmon refers to was the Gesetz zur Behebung der Not von Volk und Reich, which properly translates as “the Act for the Removal of the Distress of the People and the Reich.” Why would he purposely seek to mislead the readers while intimating the Likud-led coalition is analogous to the Hitler-led Nazi dictatorship? A poster of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel displayed Justice Minister Levin under the slogan “the Minister for the Elimination of Democracy.”
SURE ENOUGH, Nazi symbols, such as the S.S. lightning bolts, were seen on protest signs on last Saturday night’s demonstration in Tel Aviv.
Writing in Israel Hayom on January 8, Ariel Kahane suggested, “News that is foolish, twisted, detached from the truth and lacks facts is flooding the media and no one is saying a word.” All this leads to a situation, he thinks, whereby many good people fall for these prophecies of panic.
Is it panic or perhaps a pathos of passion in the face of a real threat to Israel’s societal construct and its democratic character? As Hillel Halkin points out in the Jewish Review of Books on January 5, we’ve heard all these wailings of fascism before, as when in 1977, Menachem Begin and the Likud came to power.
What purpose was there for Aharon Barak, who University of Chicago Law School Professor Richard A. Posner, then a federal appellate judge, called the “Enlightened Despot” in the New Republic magazine, in 2007, to say: “I see myself neither as an activist nor a conservative. I am sorry to be thought of as bringing this mishap. If killing me would be seen as stopping all this churning, I would be willing to stand before a firing squad.”
A conceivable answer is put forward by Eithan Orkibi of Ariel University, which appears in Israel Affairs, Volume 28 Number 6. Dealing with the period of 2015-2019, Orkibi reviews the discourse of Israel’s Left in a rhetorical analysis of its content. His conclusion is that seeking to revive its relevance and failing marginalization as a political force with its ideology in decline, it pursued a message of “the Right is a danger to democracy.”
The idea of peace as a defining character which then presents the Right as the war camp has lost its appeal. The Oslo process failure, the May 2021 pogroms and the lack of law and order in the Negev have all but made the Left irrelevant. Occupation has been reversed with growing numbers of Israelis feeling themselves under an internal occupation of violence and threats to life and property.
A new theme was required and “Democracy under threat” fulfills the need. Orkibi suggests that the Left “restruct[ed] its rhetorical ethos, to rehabilitate its credibility and authority.” Essentially, he writes, it has replaced its self-image.
In my view, feeling threatened, in that the demographics of Israel’s population and the lessening of the pressure to resolve the issue of a Palestinian Arab state were losing them voters, Israel’s Left purposely settled on channeling a polarizing rhetoric. Democracy being eradicated or suppressed also aligned them with the growing influence, financially and politically, of the American progressive liberal elements. An early appearance of this alliance was the V15 campaign, partially funded by the State Department through OneVoice, to unseat Netanyahu in 2015.
Israel is now a country whose two most recent former military chiefs entered politics and have made disturbing statements. Gadi Eizenkot, on December 1, called for a million people to take to the streets against the new government. Benny Gantz, on his Twitter account on the evening of January 9, threatened that Netanyahu would be responsible for civil war in Israeli society. He added that “this is the time go out en masse and to demonstrate, the time to make the country tremble... against the demolition of democracy and this unbridled, destructive move.”
While one could say, “All’s fair in love, war... and politics,” the panic and the pathos Israel’s Left is displaying at the moment in their crusade to save Israel’s democracy,” no matter how just they view themselves as being, may possess more unfortunate results for their ideological coterie, as well as for the country.
The writer is an analyst and opinion commentator on political, cultural and media issues.