A protest against home demolitions in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem
A protest against home demolitions in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem. Photo by Daniel Bar-On
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SHEIKH JARRAH, East Jerusalem - No one knows fascism better than Israelis. They are schooled, drilled in the history, the mechanics, the horrendous potential of fascist regimes. Israelis know fascism when they see it. In others.

They might well have expected that when fascism began taking root here, it would arise at a time of a national leadership of galvanizing charisma and sweeping, powerfully orchestrated modes of action.

But that would have been much too obvious to deny. And it would take denial, inertia, selective memory, a sense that things – bad as they are - can go on like this indefinitely, for fascism to be able gain its foothold in a country founded in its very blood trail.

In fact, it has taken the most dysfunctional, the most rudderless government Israel has ever known, to make moderates uncomfortably aware of the countless but largely cosmetized ways in which the right in Israel and its supporters abroad have come to plant and nurture the seeds of fascism.

Wrote Boaz Okun, the mass-circulation Yedioth Ahronot's legal affairs commentator and a retired Israeli judge, of Israel's ban on Noam Chomsky: "The decision to shut up Professor Chomsky is a decision to shut down freedom in the state of Israel.

"I'm not speaking of the stupidity of supplying ammunition to those who claim that Israel is fascist," Okun wrote, "rather, of our fear that we may actually be turning that way."

At the weekend, Israeli police riot troops waded into a thoroughly non-violent sit-in near the entrance to this East Jerusalem settlement zone, where Palestinian residents were expelled by Israeli court order, to allow their homes to be taken over by Jews.

What was curious here was not the neck-wrenching brutality of the Yasam riot police in their gunmetal gray uniforms, bristling with assault rifles, clubs, tear gas and helmets, arrayed against the demonstrators, most of of them Israeli Jews, some of them well past retirement age.

What was surprising was not the fact that several burly officers, seeing a young Reshet Bet (Israel State Radio news) reporter interviewing one of the seated demonstrators, his microphone clearly and unmistakably marked,  jumped him and dragged him away in a headlock to a police custody van.

In the end, what was peculiar was that the police seemed so entirely bewildered, so completely lacking in clear orders, left on their own to decide how to proceed in an arena of hair-trigger sensitivity. Fascism with a confused face.

Why should we be concerned by any of this? Perhaps because we have made our peace with a number of factors that can turn a society toward fascism as a solution.

1. Losing a War.

We've lost two in the space of less than three years. Our targets, Hezbollah and Hamas, are better armed and entrenched than ever. Our strategic and diplomatic standing is in decline. Iran and Syria are ascendant. And there is abundant reason to suspect that the Gaza War, a major factor in the loss of our international standing, may have been altogether avoidable, the huge civilian death toll indefensible and unconscionable. This has, in turn, led to

2. International quarantine, a sense of being scapegoated, and a search for an internal fifth column.

3. A radical redefinition of positive values.

Look no further than the name of Jerusalem's obscene Museum of Tolerance project.

4. Olfactory fatigue

We have grown desensitized to the consequences of actively denying basic staples and construction supplies to 1.5 million people in Gaza, many of them still waiting to rebuild homes we destroyed.

We have grown inured to the appropriation of Palestinian-owned West Bank land, to abusive treatment of law-abiding Palestinians at checkpoints, to the ill-treatment and summary expulsion of foreign workers, to racist, anti-democratic and, yes, fascistic rulings by extreme rightist rabbis, especially some of those holding official positions in the West Bank.

5. Fascism by rubber stamp.

"There are a million reasons why someone would be denied entry into Israel,” Interior Ministry spokeswoman Sabine Hadad said Monday, when asked about the ministry’s border policies in the wake of the Chomsky ban.


“There may be a million reasons, but try to find a single criterion for entry refusal and you’ll hit a blank wall,” said Association for Civil Rights in Israel attorney Oded Feller. "The Interior Ministry simply doesn’t publish them, despite a court ruling that ordered them to do so.”

6. The sense that despite everything, all is well.

There will be those who argue that the fact that I, or my Haaretz colleagues, are allowed to publish what we do, is proof that there is no fascism here, nor evidence of a police state.

The fact is that were we not Israeli Jews, and part of an establishment institution, any of us could find ourselves tossed out on the same pavement, and with the same lack of due process and due explanation, as Noam Chomsky.

7. The sense that there is a war on now, when there isn't.

8. Selective enforcement of court rulings. Routine defiance of same, in particular by radical settlers

9. The 180-degree untruth that officials allow Israeli and Jerusalem Arabs to do what they want, while cracking down on their Jewish neighbors.

10. Equating criticism of the government with favoring the destruction of Israel.

This has become increasingly felt beyond Israel's borders. In San Francisco, the canary in the coal mine of free discourse within the Jewish community, the Jewish Federation [JCF] recently revised and tightened the terms under which it agrees to grant funds to organizations.

"The JCF does not fund organizations that through their mission, activities or partnerships … advocate for, or endorse, undermining the legitimacy of Israel as a secure independent, democratic Jewish state, including through participation in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, in whole or in part."

The guidelines go on to state that "Presentations by organizations or individuals that are critical of particular Israeli government policies but are supportive of Israel’s right to exist as a secure independent Jewish democratic state" are "generally in accord with the policy statement," but "early JCRC [Jewish Community Relations Council] consultation is strongly encouraged and the programming should be presented within an overall program strategy that is consistent with JCF’s core values."

In another troubling sign, Rabbi Michael Lerner of Berkeley, long a vocal supporter of a two-state solution, became the object of death threats and vandalism of his house in Berkeley, California. Rabbi Lerner was also targeted in the press by Alan Dershowitz, who described him as the worst of the "rabbis of Hamas."

Can all this have spread this far, this fast? Because of Israel, have Bay Area Jews who do not believe in a specifically Jewish state, now forfeited their right to be part of the Jewish community? Have Jews who love Israel but are seen as too critical, or who support a boycott to make their criticisms manifest, been effectively excommunicated?

It's a free country, I guess.