Israel’s crude discourse on local fascism

Left-wing activists stymie debate by throwing around epithets like "fascist" and "anti-democratic."

Pronouncements of doom are especially common in Israel, and warning voices are given prominent platforms to express their woe. To take just a few news items that appeared in one form or another in the Israeli press over the past year:
Sefi Rachlevsky: “Israel’s government is a grave threat to democracy.”
Alon Idan: “the slew of anti-democratic laws legislated by the 18th Knesset is a slippery slope to fascism.”
Bradley Burston: “Israel’s boycott law, the quiet sound of going fascist.”
And the list goes on. Haaretz’s Gideon Levy called Likud Party MK Danny Dannon “the new Mcarthy,” while Aluf Benn wrote that “Israel’s affirmative action law is reminiscent of Hungary’s anti-Jewish laws.” Other writers have liberally used phrases like “anti-democratic” and “fascist hell.” To Yitzhak Laor, “Israel is effectively a one party state,” the loyalty oath reminds an unnamed Israeli academic of the Nuremberg Laws, and former Meretz MK Yossi Sarid feels that “fascism is already here.” There are many, many more examples.
Why are there so many canaries in Israel’s coal mine? Is the Israeli intellectual elite’s obsession with the supposed march towards fascism based in reality, or does it reflect a sense of immaturity, radicalism, marginality and a deeper soul searching?
Those who speak about fascism in Israel are not only primarily on the political extreme Left, but are also almost exclusively from one demographic group; veteran (Israeli-born), secular Ashkenazi Jews. They often claim attribute that Israeli “fascism” is caused by other distinct groups, such as religious settlers, Russian or Sephardic immigrants.
Is their imagined community of antifascist freedom fighters partly a long-term result of the Holocaust?
FASCISM HAS always been part of the rude discourse in Israel. In the 1930s and 1950s the ancestors of today’s labor party often heaped scorn on the “fascist” tendencies of Israel’s right-wing Revisionist and Herut parties.
Menachem Begin’s military parades were “fascist” while the uniformed communist Palmachniks (who had equal love for their military parade grounds) were just good socialist patriots. Later, cries of fascism became part and parcel of the academic discourse, with Israel’s leading philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowtiz referring to some Israeli Jews as “Judeo-nazis.”
The fear of fascism in Israel should be viewed as an invented Israeli identity, like international studies professor Benedict Anderson’s notion of the imagined community.
Those who oppose fascism view themselves as part of a minority vanguard, lone voices in the prophetic tradition, a unique element that is warning the world. The central element of the imagined community’s belief is that no such community exists.
Even if every professor in a department at a university is telling students to beware of the anti-democratic slide of the state, each will say: “I’m one of the only people who dares to speak the truth.” Even if every column on the opinion page of a newspaper shouts “we are now a fascist state,” each author will claim she or he alone sees the light.
This kind of group-think brings to mind a George Patton quote: “If everyone is thinking alike, someone isn’t thinking.”
There is, of course, another view; namely, that the country really is sliding towards fascism.
The Spanish Republican government of the 1930s, while it was busy murdering priests and beating up “capitalists,” always feared a right-wing reactionary coup. Eventually the coup came and the Republicans were thrown out of Spain, proving that even paranoids have enemies. Cato the Elder, a Roman statesman who lived in the 2nd century BCE, warned his people about the evils of “sensual allurements” and their threat to the vibrancy of empire (although there was no emperor in his time).
He was right: Rome became lazy and opulent and was destroyed, albeit 500 years later.
The central problem with denoting what constitutes “fascism” in Israel is that it is primarily in the eye of the beholder. A loyalty oath carried out by Avigdor Lieberman is considered “fascism,” but the same loyalty oath forced upon Israeli-Arabs in the 1950s by the Ben-Gurion government is not.
In Israel the resort to the rhetoric of “fascism” more clearly represents a childish view of the world that divides it into Manichean absolutes. In this sense it is an “othering” of the Right and centrist politicians that shuts down discussion and represents inability to engage with the subject at hand. If every bill passed by the Knesset is simply “fascist” then there can be no discussion of the inner workings of the legislation. Similarly when American tea-partiers describe health care reform as “socialist” they scuttle any debate of the reform itself. The view of the enemy as “fascist” is a nice throwback to the leftist rhetoric of the 1930s, but actually only represents the inability of some people on the Left to adapt.
Israel may be being harmed by its current government, but it is equally harmed by the inability of too many of its academics, intellectuals, writers, artists and journalists to properly engage the issues of the day. There is a saying that “evil thrives when good people do nothing,” but good people do not rise to the challenge simply by shouting “I see evil.”
The writer has a PhD from Hebrew University, and is a fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies.