"In every generation a man is to consider himself as if he personally experienced the Exodus from Egypt." That is the central message of the Haggadah, of the seder night and indeed of Passover itself - the Festival of Freedom.

The message isn't necessarily confined to the experience of the Hebrew slaves, who were delivered from bondage. The entire epic of the Exodus is meaningful. Our generation, in particular, the generation of renaissance and occupation, might do well to consider the narrative from the Egyptian perspective.

In other words, how does a society professing the noblest values toward the Other - "In the best of the land bring your father and your brothers to live," Pharaoh urges Joseph (Genesis 47:6); "the foundations of freedom, justice and peace," Israel's Declaration of Independence proclaims - how does such a society come to adopt policies of discrimination, persecution and endless conflict? "Let's double-cross them," the new pharaoh, the one who "knew not Joseph," says of his Jewish minority. "Or else they'll grow demographically, and when war comes, they'll side with the enemy ..." Sound familiar?

How, then, does a society morph in this way? The answer seems to be, inadvertently. Since last Passover, over the first year of Benjamin Netanyahu's prime ministership, Israel has slid almost inadvertently a long way down the slope that leads to McCarthyism and racism.

Inadvertently. That must be the explanation. Otherwise, how to explain the dismal fact that during this year a heinous travesty was perpetrated against Naomi Chazan - and the streets of our cities weren't seething with mass demonstrations? Major crossroads around the country were adorned with a literally Sturmer-like cartoon portraying this hitherto respected and distinguished woman, until recently a deputy speaker of the Knesset, who heads a fund that pours millions of philanthropic dollars into educational and civil, social projects in Israel - and thousands of decent people were not out there shouting, 'Fascism shall not pass!' One needn't like all of the organizations that Chazan's New Israel Fund supports to be outraged and disgusted and frightened by the style of the campaign that was mounted against her. (Full disclosure: I've lectured on occasion for the New Israel Fund.)

What's so depressing about the Chazan affair is not so much the crude brutishness of her adversaries as the limp impotence of the many people who tut-tutted - and did nothing. When this form of inadvertence descends on an enlightened society, it numbs and paralyzes. That, perhaps, is how to understand a recent academic discussion broadcast on Army Radio about the "Nakba Law." A noted jurist explained that a bill submitted by a group of MKs, slapping a three-year jail term on anyone mourning the Nakba ["the catastrophe," as the Palestinians see 1948 and after] on Independence Day was unlikely to get through the Knesset. Even if it did, she went on, it would probably be struck down by the High Court of Justice. The criminal code, she explained, was not the appropriate means to deal with "the problem." However, she added, completely matter-of-fact, a bill cutting off state funding from any local authority marking the Nakba on Independence Day would probably get through. Its curtailment of freedom of speech could be deemed proportionate. (A bill in this vein has since passed its first reading.) Not a word of reservation from this jurist or her interviewer, who himself is an academic lawyer. No value judgment. Just dry academic analysis.

Without making any ghastly comparisons, listening to this radio program, one found oneself thinking that in other countries where the regime steadily transformed from democratic to non-democratic, there must have been liberal-minded, gently spoken academics who provided meticulous, legalistic analysis of malevolent laws enacted against minorities.

As history, both ancient and more recent, teaches us, there is another vital component in the inculcation of a whole society with xenophobia. It's the big lie, repeated over and over until ordinary people inadvertently come to regard it as truth. "Go and worship your God," Pharaoh pretended to Moses, time after time. His own people no doubt believed him.

In our own case, this past year, Netanyahu has incessantly repeated his mantra that he's merely doing in Jerusalem "what all my predecessors have done for 43 years." The purpose of this pretense is to erase from the public mind, at home and abroad, the fact that two of his predecessors negotiated with the Palestinians and the Americans over dividing the city. The purpose, too, is deliberately to blur the hugely significant difference between building in the Jewish neighborhoods that have been developed over decades and forcibly inserting Jewish settlers into all-Arab neighborhoods like Sheikh Jarrah. The purpose, basically, is to obliterate any chance of implementing the "Clinton parameters" - Jewish areas to Israel, Arab areas to Palestine, Holy Basin to God [or an international consortium representing Him] and thus reaching a fair compromise on Jerusalem.

The demonstrations taking place on Fridays at Sheikh Jarrah offer some smidgen of hope that not everyone has been duped and silenced. The Naomi Chazan front was abandoned. The "Nakba Law" front was lost without a fight. The battle line in Israel's war of survival as a Jewish and democratic state now runs through the Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem. There, alongside the few brave Israelis out demonstrating, the president of the United States has planted his pennant, too. Is that the line, at last, where Israel's decline will be halted?