Guarding against authoritarianism – opinion

Reality Check: Thankfully, the police criticized the policewoman who asked a demonstrator whether he voted Gantz or Bibi

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives for a speech at his Jerusalem office, regarding the new measures that will be taken to fight the coronavirus, March 14, 2020 (photo credit: REUTERS/GALI TIBBON/POOL)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives for a speech at his Jerusalem office, regarding the new measures that will be taken to fight the coronavirus, March 14, 2020
How Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu must be envying his Hungarian counterpart, Viktor Orban.
Last week the Hungarian leader, who like our prime minister has been in power for a decade or so, assumed the indefinite power to rule by decree. Under what’s been termed as the “omnipotence” law, Orban will be able to take measures without parliamentary approval for as long as he sees fit.
Using the cover of coronavirus to launch a state of emergency, journalists and social media users face up to five years in prison if they are convicted of spreading “fake news,” including reports judged to “agitate or alarm” the public.
This slide into dictatorship is rightly worrying Hungary’s fellow members of the European Union. As yet though, Israel’s Foreign Ministry has failed to comment, despite Hungary’s dismal past under dictatorship during the Holocaust and the destruction in those years of the country’s Jewish population.
But then, Israel’s lack of a response is hardly surprising, given what Orban has described as the “excellent personal ties” between himself and Netanyahu. These excellent ties mean our prime minister on his part has called Orban “a true friend of Israel.”
For a prime minister who’s quick to shout antisemitism whenever Israel is criticized from the Left, it seems he has a blind spot for real antisemitism when it comes from the Right. Netanyahu’s kosher stamp of approval for Orban came even though Hungary’s right-wing populist leader had in the past explicitly praised Miklos Horthy, Hungary’s World War II-era ruler who introduced antisemitic laws and collaborated with the Nazis.
Furthermore, Orban’s last election campaign heavily featured tropes that were antisemitic in tone against Jewish billionaire philanthropist George Soros, saying Hungary’s enemies “do not believe in work, but speculate with money; they have no homeland, but feel that the whole world is theirs.” But then again, Yair Netanyahu has used similar antisemitic imagery featuring Soros when attacking his father’s critics.
What is more shocking, though, is Israel’s failure to condemn Orban’s recent reform of the Hungarian school curriculum, designed to teach students to “be proud of their people’s past.” In the history course, Horthy’s authoritarian rule between 1920 and 1944 is to be portrayed in a positive light, while the anti-Jewish laws he passed and status as one of Hitler’s closest allies will be played down.
In literature, nationalist, antisemitic authors are to become mandatory reading. Imre Kertesz, an Auschwitz survivor and the first Hungarian to win the Nobel Prize in Literature has been removed from the prescribed list of books, to be replaced by Albert Wass and Jozsef Nyrio.
WASS WAS an avowed antisemite and convicted war criminal, while Nyrio was a member of the fascist Arrow Cross Party and an admirer of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. Nyrio called Jews “well-poisoners” who “destroy the Hungarian soul and infect our spirit.”
These are the authors that “true friends” of Israel insist their school children study and learn from with nary a protest from Jerusalem.
Closer to home, an instructive little incident shows how easy it is for a society to slip into authoritarianism. Just over a week ago, on hearing that Blue and White leader Benny Gantz was meeting with Netanyahu to discuss forming a unity government, lawyer and activist Gonen Ben-Izhak sped over to the Prime Minister’s Residence to protest the talks.
Streaming his protest on Facebook Live, Ben-Izhak was approached by a volunteer policewoman who asked him to stop broadcasting, on the grounds that “there are certain things you don’t say live.”
When Ben-Izhak protested that he was perfectly within his rights to demonstrate and film his protest, the policewoman asked him: “Who did you vote for? Gantz or Netanyahu?”
Thankfully, the police later put out a statement affirming Ben-Izhak’s right to demonstrate. More importantly, the statement strongly condemned the policewoman’s question as for whom Ben-Izak voted as “superfluous, tasteless and opposed to all standards of behavior expected of police officers and volunteers.”
Obviously, this was a single incident of a massive misjudgment on the part of one individual. Nevertheless, it indicates a certain authoritarian mindset permeating Israeli society - encouraged by Netanyahu’s demonization of political opponents - that must be guarded against at all costs.
Which makes the reports of the Likud’s Miri Regev receiving the Internal Security Ministry in the next government so troubling. Aside from her crass vulgarity and sycophantic fawning over the Netanyahu family, Regev has shown in her political career a worrying lack of concern for the norms of democratic behavior. As culture minister, she infamously said during the discussions surrounding the creation of the new broadcasting authority and editorial freedom: “What’s the point of this corporation if we don’t control it?”
Let’s not forget, one of the first jobs of the new internal security minister will be to appoint a new head of police. Among the first challenges for that head of police will be deciding on a new set of investigations in Netanyahu’s submarine scandal-related share dealings.
Will that police chief be independent to follow where the leads take him or be under the control of Regev and, by extension, our already-indicted-on-criminal-charges prime minister?
The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.