Since moving to Israel during the 1977 election period, I have always claimed that this country is not, in fact, a democracy, but a benevolent dictatorship whereby we elect our dictator every four years. I’m not even sure whether or not I say that in jest, especially after, having called MKs many years ago in order to share my thoughts on an issue that was before the Knesset at that time, some emphatically stated that they were loyal to their party and not to citizens who may or may not have voted for them. To my great surprise, other MKs called me back personally wanting to discuss the subject with me in more depth. I came to the conclusion that democracy versus dictatorship in Israel, given our electoral system, is a matter of the personalities of politicians in office and we essentially have to hope for the best.

Then a few days ago, I opened Facebook to find a link placed by a respected friend leading to an article that warns that Israel is precipitously close to turning into a fascist state. On August 13, 2014, the English translation of an interview Gidi Weitz conducted with Zeev Sternhell appeared in Haaretz. To me, the word fascist is ominous and brings up images of violence and oppression – something like what we are seeing in videos that ISIS people put out so proudly for the rest of the world to see what we have coming if we don’t wake up. What can that have to do with Israel’s form of government?

In the interview, Sternhell makes it clear that fascism is not necessarily violent and, while bad and not something Israel would want to emulate, it is not necessarily the worst political system around. Moreover, he claims that one cannot define a government as fascist because of overt characteristics but, rather, by ideology. Fascism is, according to him, an ideology that denies human rights to a certain segment of the population for the purposes of creating a unified and potentially homogenized citizenry that rules over the entirety. It accomplishes this, in part, by suppressing opposing views and enforcing censorship on the media and academic institutions. This, he says, is what makes it undemocratic and not the fact of whether or not elections are held. This, he says, is where Israel is headed and the signs are apparent.

Zeev Sternhell Photo

Professor Sternhell says Israel is becoming fascist. Are we?

Sternhell claims that the current crisis with Hamas has brought out the seriousness of the erosion of Israel’s democracy. As opposed to quiet times, when life appears normal, he says, and it is easy to avoid looking at what is happening to us, “in a crisis, like we have now”, censorship becomes obvious and “anyone critical of the ‘normal’ order is absolutely afraid to go out in the street”. Really? We did have one legal and one illegal demonstration in Tel Aviv protesting the continuation of this war while missiles were still being launched at us and a large one Saturday night, two days before the current ceasefire expires. Furthermore, every Friday, Women in Black continue to protest the ‘occupation’ on street corners in several places around the country and Haaretz continues to publish some decidedly anti-establishment articles and op eds. Where is the censorship and suppression of ideas?

I do agree that there were unfortunate wicked responses to anyone who tried to express grief at the loss of civilian life in Gaza. Sternhell mentions the Dean of Law at Bar Ilan University who censured a colleague for publicly expressing sorrow for the loss of life on both sides of the conflict, as if to “grieve for the loss of life on both sides is already a subversive act, treason.” Let me add to this example the harsh and unwarranted hate that was heaped upon performing artists who dared to express sympathy with Gazan civilians.

The problem is, in my opinion, that they expressed these feelings at an inappropriate time. A huge part of our country was compelled to run for cover without more than a moment’s warning at all times of the day. We were still getting news of fresh Israeli casualties, our beautiful young men who risked their lives to protect us and at the same time endangered themselves further in order to minimize civilian Gazan casualties, while we were simultaneously being accused by the UN and others of genocide and purposefully killing babies. We were still reeling from the revelation of the extent of the terror tunnels and the scheduled apocalyptic annihilative use for which they were intended in the near future.

In addition, the news coming from Europe and then North America showed volcanic eruptions of vile and violent anti-Semitic demonstrations. And we were trying to find solid ground upon which to stand after the carpet was pulled out from under us in view of the sudden exposure of the horrors of the true genocide in Syria and Iraq, not so far from our doorstep, documented in videos that unabashedly showed mass murder by gunshot, hangings, decapitations and crucifixions. We were in shock, suffering from confusion, a sense that the world was coming to an end – and perhaps a little hysterical. That was not the right time to talk about sorrow for the casualties on the other side.

Or maybe it was the right time. Because I think many of us were horrified at the hate that came pouring out at those who expressed sympathy for Gazans. I know it shook me up. It helped me make the distinction between Hamas and the Gazan civilians more clearly in my own mind before I might have otherwise done. I didn’t know how I could contain the heartbreaking tragedy of destroyed homes and families together with the growing knowledge of how much so much of the world wants me and my own family dead. I felt my heart and soul shatter and, while not a religious woman, I found myself starting to think about the prophesied End of Days.

I found the same thing happening to others with whom I discussed and debated the issues (minus the End of Days part). During those most shock-inducing weeks, it was hard, at first, to keep the lines clear between Hamas and other Islamist organizations and the Gazan population that was oppressed and terrorized by Hamas. It was no less important to be able to hang onto the line between feeling deep sorrow for Gazan casualties and maintaining the determination required to keep the battle going until we could ensure our own safe future. I am proud of our ability to hold in our hearts sorrow for innocent civilians together with our determination not to fall victim to that very sorrow. I think that is a significant accomplishment and I do not agree that our lapses in this regard at the height of the horrors we faced constitute a sign of impending fascism. In fact, I find it patronizing and patently unfair for Sternhell to use our oh-so-human responses at that time as fodder for his own old theories of fascism.

In his interview, Sternhell argues that the ugliest thing he has seen during this war is “absolute conformism” on the part of academics and journalists. Is it not possible that the great majority of academics and journalists actually agreed with the waging of this war? Does he find it inconceivable that so many Israeli intellectuals, who are usually left-leaning, disagree with his contention that this was a war of choice? Is this the basis of his opinion that we are treacherously close to fascism? The left, which usually cries out against war, seems to be largely in agreement with this one. Rather than rejoice in the independence of thought demonstrated by a left that refuses to be confined by a label, he sees the fruits of their independent thought through the filter of his own rigid belief system that is tied up with a view that we are occupiers with unreasonable expectations of the Palestinians.

Sternhell says: “I think we should talk with everyone.” Right! I’d like to see him talk with the Islamists who are busy taking the heads off of men and burying women up to the neck in the sand. Sternhell claims that “Hamas is Gaza; Hamas is no longer only a terrorist organization. . . . It’s true that Hamas is an extreme fundamentalist organization, a murderous organization of shahids – but we are going to have to live with those people.” Make up your mind, Sternhell – extremist murderous shahids or no longer a terrorist organization?

Yes, we had our own terrorists, notably Menachem Begin, who turned politician and statesman after independence. Do you think, Prof. Sternhell, that there is someone in the Hamas leadership who can become another Begin? Begin never claimed to want to kill off all the Arabs, and Hamas has the distinct goal of wanting to exterminate all the Jews, only beginning with those living in Israel. What carrot can we give them, as Sternhell insists we should, that would satisfy them, aside from our heads on a stick?

Sternhell says there is “no need to demand that Hamas raise the white flag”, and no need to force the Palestinians to “recognize Israel as the Jewish state”, with the claim that that would force them “to acknowledge that they are historically inferior” as if to say ‘You lost the country in 1948-49’ “. Excuse me? They lost a war, not a country. They had no country before 1948.

Moreover, wars have been won and lost throughout history. You start a war, you risk losing it; you lose the war, accept the loss like a man (pardon me feminists)! So sorry for the humiliation (that you brought on yourself). What Sternhell is saying is that we should hunch our backs a bit and not stand so erectly, so as not to insult the tender sensitivities of the Palestinian ego. I’m getting tired of Jewish apologetics and our need for everyone to love us. Enough! Time to respect ourselves, stand up straight and say we are here and it’s about time you got used to it.

Sternhell says we “should have taken advantage of the formation of the joint Fatah-Hamas government and given it an incentive, something it could work with.” Yes, like the Hamas-Fatah government that was voted in in Gaza in 2006, followed by a killing off, literally, of the Fatah opposition in 2007. They kill their own countrymen who express an ideology different from their own and these are people you think we can talk with?

He says “we gave them nothing”. Why is it that our own leftist intellectuals so conveniently forget that when we took every last Jew out of Gaza in 2005, we left greenhouses and an agricultural infrastructure that the Gazans knew how to operate, and that the borders were open? Why do they forget that we also dismantled four West Bank settlements at the same time? Does that not count for anything? Does that still qualify us as occupiers who are only looking to grab more land? Why was that carrot not good enough for them? Why, instead of using their newfound Judenrein condition to build a productive society, was their response terror attacks and the amassing and launching of missiles?

Why does our own left not remember that the borders were closed because of this and not the other way around? And why does our own left not recognize the amazing fact that, in spite of the terror and missile attacks and during the worst of the current hostilities, tons of food and other essentials were crossing the border from Israel into Gaza even as they bombed the crossing points? We were supplying the enemy that wanted us dead with the resources for life even as they proudly proclaimed to the world that they value death as we value life.

Sternhell says “we are rubbing salt into their wounds by making more and more demands and creating an intolerable situation in the territories. We are cultivating their hostility.” (Of course we are to blame for their hostility.) But then later in the article he notes that “already in the 1920s it was understood that the Arabs don’t want us . . . We arrived at a state of war, we won the war and that was the end of that chapter and the start of a new one.” However, the Arabs did not let it be the start of a new chapter. Our territorial gains in 1967 were because of another war the Arabs started. If we had acted in ways similar to other countries, we might have expelled all the Arabs living on the West Bank and in Gaza and annexed the land as we annexed the Golan and that would have been the end of it. We did not, and perhaps that was our fatal error. I’m not saying that that is what we should have done; I don’t know; I am just wondering about it.

We are quite a remarkable people in that we are willing to consider setting up a Palestinian state for a Palestinian nation that did not exist before the 80s (and which some Arabs deny exists even today).
Our tragic fault is that we try too hard to be fair, sometimes to our own disadvantage. And I would not want it any other way. We have a left and a far-left, a right and a far-right and everything in-between. We are an active open society where people voice their opinions, sometimes irritatingly so. We are a young modern state and have much to correct, but I don’t think that a descent into fascism is on our horizon. The “fragility of the Israeli democracy” that Sternhell claims was exposed by the bomb that was set to maim him as he entered his home in 2008 was no more and no less than a Jewish act of terrorism, similar to the killing of Emil Grunzweig, Prime Minister Rabin, and the attacks on Arabs by Baruch Goldstein and Ami Popper. The ideologies that lie behind such acts of terror need to be uprooted from within us, but these acts do not imply that our democracy is fragile or on the verge of collapse any more than the assassination of Lincoln foretold the decline of democracy in the USA.

It feels to me that Sternhell’s fear mongering, such as proclaiming that we are becoming fascist, is a cynical attempt to convince the moral and caring citizens of Israel that his way of thinking is the correct way of thinking, and that the voices on the right are not legitimate as they shout out their disagreement with the left and sometimes become violent. This violence is never acceptable, but is not his name-calling (fascist) a similar attempt to silence the center and right sides of the political spectrum?

I prefer the plurality of opinions (even those I disagree with, as long as they do not call out for the death of me or anyone else) in our mosaic society which serve as counterpoints for each other because I believe that it is through debate that we sharpen our senses and deepen our understanding of the issues of concern. It is through debate that we will eventually work out how to be a mature and responsible nation. I just hope we figure out how to do that before we capitulate too much to those who want to destroy us or before we destroy ourselves.
And by calling us fascists-in-the-making, Sternhell forecloses on productive debate and nation-building.