Left-wing Israelis argue that Israel is becoming fascist; they claim to demonstrate how the right attempts to shut down open debate by bullying and trying to close the mouths of the opposition. During the most recent war against Hamas in Gaza, for example, they claimed that the government did not allow anti-war demonstrations during the month-long campaign, even as such demonstrations took place in Haifa and Tel Aviv, at least one even after it was cancelled because the cease-fire was about to expire.
I am horrified when I hear that some of my compatriots scream out Death to Arabs/Death to Leftists and use physical violence to display their extreme dissatisfaction with the messages of people with whom they disagree. Fearing for one’s life, such as during missile attacks against our population, is no excuse for bullying, whether it is physical or verbal bullying. However, to go from the uncivilized behaviours of some on the right to a claim that the country is becoming fascist is a bit extreme.
Yet that is exactly what Professor Sternhell did in his interview published in Haaretz in August 2014. In my blog post about the interview, I described how Sternhell defines Israeli fascism:
. . . 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.
I know, personally, that we can find within the Israeli left those who seek to blot out the voices coming from the right. Placing myself on the right side of the center, I was called a fascist by a friend who kept telling me what I think and why I am wrong without ever really listening to what I was in fact saying, and paying no attention to the way in which I continue to try out ideas until I figure out what I truly believe regarding this most complex reality within which we live.
No longer being able to sustain the relationship in which I was denied the right to voice my opinion, and when active avoidance of any political topic unbearably smothered any good feelings we once had, I quit the friendship. We have both lost out. As do all who do not listen to each other; I believe that it is through open and respectful debate that people get to challenge themselves and find new ways to get along with each other, whether on the level of personal friendships, inter-sectarian relationships or interactions with the neighbours at our borders.
Leftists disparage Naftali Bennett, ironically condemning him for refusing to speak at an event funded by the controversial New Israel Fund (NIF) but then refusing to listen to him when he does speak. Students filed out of his talk at a high school when he raised the issue of lawlessness in outlying areas of Israel, claiming that he was spouting racism because “everyone knows he meant the Arabs are thieves”. Yet, in 2012, Haaretz wrote an article about the rising problem of lawlessness in Taibeh and how one project is tackling the problem, a problem commonly recognized as plaguing Arab towns and for which Arabs have asked for help. Had those students been taught to engage in respectful conversation, they would have stayed and asked Bennett to clarify what he meant instead of “knowing” he meant that Arabs are thieves.
I did not intend to write about what happened between my friend and I, nor about Bennett being walked out on. But while doing research for a different post, I came across a 2011 article that shocked me into putting together this article: Peace Now, a leftist organization, roped a bank into cancelling their support for a project on Zionism because one of the participating NGOs is deemed by Peace Now to be political (rightist). They threatened the bank with closing their organizational account and the personal accounts of all their members if the bank does not desist from this project. Is that not bullying? Is that not suppressing an opposing voice?
If, as Sternhell argued, fascism begins with muffling those who express opposing views, then the left needs to pay attention to its own behaviours before throwing accusations at the right. After all, right, left and center are made up of individuals. Like you and me. And we are complex beings that don’t fit very well into any box unless we are forced to. I would like to have the right to express ideas left of center, right of center, and everything in-between. And I want to listen to the ideas of others. I may debate with verve and I expect you to do the same. We may shout at each other a bit, but that is better than one calling the other “fascist” and foreclosing an otherwise profitable exchange of ideas.