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One of the great strengths of fascism is its ability to persuade a society to simply invite it in.

So what sound does fascism make when it tries to get you to open the door?

Sometimes it sounds like a headline. A drumbeat of shrewd fear-mongering, a little something to set the stage.

"Thousands of African immigrants illegally entering Israel," a banner topping the Jerusalem Post's front page announced last week. "Our neighborhoods have been conquered by infiltrators," the subtitle quoted Eilat's mayor as saying.

The piece went on to warn of unspecified crime, violence and alcohol use among Africans who fled Sudan, Somalia and other nations, risking their lives in crossing the Sinai desert and stealing into Israel.

What the article did not mention, was that the blast at African refugees coincided not only with the launch of a mass round-up campaign against asylum seekers lacking permits to stay in Israel, but also with the re-emergence of one of the most monstrously worded of bills ever submitted to the Knesset.

The Prevention of Infiltration Bill is proof that fascism can be made to sound every bit as dull and dusty and proper and necessary as the law of the land. Fascism can be as quiet, ordinary, and cosmetically democratic as the sound of 59 hands being raised at once.

Last month the bill, with its Orwell-worthy name, sailed through its first Knesset plenum reading by an astounding 59-1 vote. The legislation ran to 24 pages of microbial font print - verbose enough to persuade overwhelmed legislators to vote for it rather than read it.

Many of the 59 discovered only afterward, to their horror, what the bill actually says:

Refugees, among them families which fled genocide in the Sudan and murderous border police in Egypt en route to Israel, may be sentenced to up to seven years in prison for crossing the border illegally. And if the Bedouin coyote who led the refugee through the Sinai happened to be carrying a knife, the refugee's sentence could be 20 years.

In a country founded as a shelter for victims of violent persecution, this would certainly seem injustice enough [See Israel's own version of Holocaust denial ].

But the moral red line that borders fascism is crossed later on, in a short clause marked "Assistance to Infiltration."

"The punishment of one who aids the person who commits a crime according to this law, in order to ease his infiltration or his illegal stay in Israel, will be as the punishment designated for the principal commission of the crime."

In other words, if doctors or nurses abide by their professional oaths and administer medical treatment to a refugee lacking permits to stay in Israel, their prison sentence could be the same as that of the refugee - five, seven, even 20 years.

This is the way fascism begins, not with a bang, but with a Knesset vote.

Like policemen or prison guards who come to resemble the criminals they are meant to battle, the bill, ostensibly aimed at preserving the integrity of Israeli society, has for 15 months been quietly infiltrating its way toward passage, and, in the process, threatening to undo the most basic of the moral underpinnings of the Jewish state.

Fascism takes root where decent people have given up. Fascism gains a foothold when moral, caring people have fought far too many necessary battles in their lives, and, facing the crossing of a crucial red line, have no more fight left in them.

Fascism thrives on legality, it lawyers up every chance it gets, the better to use any institution of democracy to quietly and methodically corrupt and demolish every institution of democracy.

At root, fascism feeds on apathy and despair, the sense that a society so fundamentally dysfunctional, so paralytically broken, cannot be set right.Can anything be done now? In fact, now is precisely the time to act. At present, the bill is in committee, awaiting revisions ahead of the next plenum vote, which will decide on final passage.

Now is the time to write to the two men who, more than any other, will determine the fate of the bill, Ehud Barak, [e-mail: ehudb@knesset.gov.il], whose Defense Ministry has overseen the measure from its introduction in April, 2008, and Benjamin Netanyahu , whose coalition must approve it before it becomes law.

The issue is one which extends far beyond our borders. The responsibility to respond should as well.

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