Is the attempt to bring the Messiah “by means of human hands” – i.e. by members of the right wing Habayit Hayehudi party and their Likud colleagues – flooding Israel with characteristics of fascism as defined by Umberto Eco in his renowned “Ur-Fascism” article in the New York Review of Books in June 1995?
The Italian semioticist and author, who passed away last year, wrote that eternal fascism (“Ur-Fascism”) is present everywhere, always. Sometimes it wears civilian clothing and can return in the most innocent of garbs. In the article, which he wrote to mark the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II – which more than anything symbolized the victory of the human spirit over the darkest regimes – Eco argued that it is our duty to expose fascism and point out any new appearances every day, throughout the entire world.
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He wrote that the fascistic features listed in his article cannot be organized into a system – some contradict one another, while others characterize other forms of despotism and fanaticism. However, the presence of just one of these characteristics is enough to allow fascism to coagulate around it.
Indeed, the Messiah isn’t about to come – but maybe his donkey is wearing fascism. The Messiah doesn’t seem to share the belief of the “Beginning of Redemption” espoused by the followers of Rabbi Kook, who see the establishment of the state, its military victories and the settlement enterprise as signs that He will come in our own times to build the Third Temple and reestablish the Kingdom of David.
I have chosen to present a selection of comments made by Israeli politicians – mostly on social media – alongside seven of the characteristics Eco discussed, in order to examine whether Israel is heading toward a fascist regime, or whether this is nothing more than foam on the waves, which will disappear as the waters break on the shores of strong Israeli democracy.
Cult of tradition
A “cult of tradition,” based on the assumption that the (divine) truth has already been given to us and all that remains is to continue interpreting the message we have received, stands out in the words of three Knesset members. Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev concluded her Knesset speech to mark Bible Day in July 2015 by saying, “It has already been said many times that the Bible is not only a historical story but also a book that always maintains a dimension of current events.” The Likud lawmaker added, “The answers that are found in its pages, as well as questions formulated among its chapters, position it as an ongoing, eternal spiritual and practical guide that instructs us in all times.”
The second MK, Moti Yogev (Habayit Hayehudi), more than anyone else expresses the philosophy of his own party. He does this bluntly and without recourse to smokescreens, which is what party chairman (and education minister) Naftali Bennett does. In August 2015, Yogev wrote a Facebook post condemning the actions of Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, stating: “The Military Rabbinate connects soldiers to Jewish tradition as the roots of the tree giving it the strength to grow and flourish.” And Yogev’s party colleague, Nissan Slomiansky, is devoting his energies to advancing a Knesset bill that would deepen the influence of Jewish religious law (halakha) on contemporary legal rulings.
The rejection of modernism
This “traditionalism” contains a characteristic Eco called “the rejection of modernism.” Adherents to the tradition perceive the modern age as the start of a dangerous process that leads to apostasy. In August 2015, Yogev published a Facebook post protesting the opening of the Yes Planet cinema complex in Jerusalem on Shabbat. “Observing the Sabbath is a matter that determines the character of the Israeli nation,” he wrote, expressing regret that “Tel Aviv is ‘a city that never stops,’ and maybe doesn’t even know what it is missing on the Sabbath.”
In September 2016, Bennett declared at an event honoring the Tali Foundation (which funds Jewish enrichment studies in secular schools): “Studying Judaism and excelling in it is more important to me than studying math and sciences,” and rejected subsequent criticism of his position.
Anti-intellectualism has always been a symptom of fascism. The persecution of liberal intellectuals for their betrayal of traditional values was a guiding light of the fascist elite. Poet Lea Goldberg explained this when she wrote that intellectuals and artists threaten dictatorships and worldviews that deny human liberty, by teaching “humanity to say ‘no’ with bitter mockery when the time demands it.”
In an interview with the newspaper Israel Hayom in September 2015, Regev presented new criteria for defining culture: “Someone who has never been in a theater or cinema and who never read Haim Nahman Bialik can also be cultured,” she declared. “He can be far more cultured than the people who air their fur coats once a month at some theater.” But even these definitions pale when compared with the words of MK David Bitan (Likud), who declared in March: “The last time I read a book was 10 years ago.”
In January 2015, Ayelet Shaked (Habayit Hayehudi, and now the justice minister) posted on Facebook: “Natan Zach supports diplomatic terror against Israel,” referring to the revered Israeli poet, but hastened to remove her post. And in a July 2016 post in response to a Facebook tirade by film critic and radio presenter Gidi Orsher, Regev vowed: “These are the death throes of the old elite, and I will not stop until this racist elite is deprived of its assets and positions of power.”
Fear of difference
Calling any opposition traitorous is another defining characteristic of fascism. In October 2016, Bitan called for revoking the citizenship of the head of the human rights group B’Tselem. This February, his Likud colleague, MK Miki Zohar, wrote on Facebook: “Whenever an extreme leftist organization rises up, it makes sure to proclaim its self-righteous principles, presumably to look good to the rest of the world, even at the price of harming the State of Israel and its security. So one time it is B’Tselem, another time it is Breaking the Silence, and in the case of [the dismantled settlement] Amona, there was Yesh Din [Volunteers for Human Rights]. It is important to note that these organizations are funded by millions of dollars from elements all over the world who are hostile to Israel.”
MK Tzipi Hotovely (Likud, now also deputy foreign minister) wrote this on Facebook in September 2014: “The refusal by officers of Unit 8200 [referring to intelligence reservists who refused to serve in the territories] is a social explosive belt, and reflects the moral bankruptcy of the education system in which they grew up. They are not worthy of serving in the most moral army in the world.”
Meanwhile, Shaked complained in September 2014 that “the High Court of Justice trampled on the legislative branch,” after the court rejected an amendment to a law dealing with asylum seekers. And in August 2015, Yogev wrote on Facebook: “Supreme Court Justice Uzi Vogelman, in his ruling today, which delayed the demolition of murderous terrorists’ homes, has put himself on the side of the enemy. He is defending the rights of murderers, and thus prevents punitive measures and endangers lives.”
In a Facebook post in 2015, Bennett called on Israelis to vote for Habayit Hayehudi, on the grounds that “no one else will fight against the legal tyranny of the High Court of Justice, which is mortally harming our state.” And he didn’t hesitate to bring electioneering into the Israel Defense Forces, writing, “For the sake of the Jewish people: Pick up your phones, convince the soldiers in your brigade!” Thus, he encapsulated the harsh comments by his fellow party members concerning the Supreme Court.
All these grave remarks indicate ignorance and a lack of basic understanding of the respective roles of the legislature and judiciary. Their aim is to “mark” as traitors – illegitimate – all those who opposes the spirit of the current government.
Appeal to a frustrated middle class
In this area, Habayit Hayehudi once again leads the way. In March 2015, Bennett declared that “Habayit Hayehudi [which means Jewish Home] is Israel’s social home.” Meanwhile, in a September 2013 Facebook post, MK Eli Ben-Dahan explained that when he visited south Tel Aviv, “I saw some of the effects of leaving the infiltrators [African asylum seekers] in Israel. The inhabitants of south Tel Aviv have been living in fear for a long time. We must rectify this, and I am working to restore the Jewish spirit there.”
Everybody is educated to become a hero
The cult of the hero is directly connected to the cult of death – heroism is the norm in fascism. Statements that express militarism and sacrifice for the sake of the state have many progenitors. In February 2015, Bennett wrote a post directed at opposition leader MK Isaac Herzog: “Religious Zionism is no longer going around with its head down,” he wrote. “We are standing up straight. We are big and strong, influencing and contributing, proud of who we are. The cemeteries are full of heroes, graduates of the pre-military programs and the hesder yeshivas, and graduates of Ezra and Bnei Akiva” – religious Zionist youth movements.
And in October 2015, Yisrael Beiteinu Chairman Avigdor Lieberman (now also defense minister) wrote on Facebook: “I expect that at the end of the cabinet meeting this afternoon, there will be clear decisions and guidelines: No male or female terrorist will emerge alive from any terror attack; and to apply emergency laws and install a military government wherever necessary, in order to eradicate terror. Security is achieved with an iron fist!”
Life is permanent warfare
“Fascism does not fight for life, it lives for the struggle.” This seems to be the belief of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who, hinting at the assassination of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, said in October 2015 at the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee: “These days, there is talk about what would happen if this or that person would have remained. It’s irrelevant. ... I’m asked if we will forever live by the sword – yes.”
In a February 2014 post, Bennett promised soldiers doing guard duty in the rain that it will end some day, but “one day you will be at home with your wife, your children, in the warmth, with a thick, thick blanket, and then the next soldiers will be guarding you.”
Obsession with a plot
At the root of fascist psychology is the obsessive belief that international bodies are conspiring against the state, which is therefore under siege. Consequently, many fascist regimes are characterized by appealing to xenophobia. This serves them well. Netanyahu leads in the number of such comments on his office’s website: “A deep and wide moral abyss separates us from our enemies. They sanctify death while we sanctify life. They sanctify cruelty while we sanctify compassion” (July 2014). “Will we surround the entire State of Israel with a fence and barrier? The answer is yes. In the environment where we live, we must defend ourselves from wild beasts” (2016).
In fascism, “[I]ndividuals as individuals have no rights, and the People is conceived as a quality, a monolithic entity expressing the Common Will. Since no large quantity of human beings can have a common will, the Leader pretends to be their interpreter.” These are the words of MK Bezalel Smotrich (Habayit Hayehudi), in a 2011 article titled “We Deserve More” in the settler publication Sheva. “It is fitting that the state invest larger budgets in religious Zionist education,” he continued. “Why? Because its sons have been tasked with leading the Jewish people.”
When it comes to machismo and oppression of sexual minorities, Smotrich is without doubt the champion. In February 2015, on a high school panel in Givatayim, he said gay people and lesbians are “abnormal.” And his colleague Yogev spoke out against the LGBT community in July 2013, telling Channel 10: “This is a phenomenon worthy of pity, not encouragement. This is not only a halakhic stance, but also a moral position that it is correct to articulate.”
Another feature of fascism, impoverishment of language, can be found in many of the aforementioned lawmakers, but no one comes close to the lows of Culture Minister Regev. All fascist textbooks used a limited vocabulary and the most basic syntax, limiting the tools needed for critical and complex thinking. In a short five-minute speech to an audience of high school students in 2012, Regev stated that MK Stav Shaffir (Zionist Union) was a communist; that former Labor Party leader Shelly Yacimovich voted for Hadash; and declared “Jerusalem forever and ever ... applaud!”
In his article, Eco quoted the words of U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt on November 4, 1938, which are relevant to Israeli democracy today: “I venture the challenging statement that if American democracy ceases to move forward as a living force, seeking day and night by peaceful means to better the lot of our citizens, fascism will grow in strength in our land.”
Eco began his article with a description of his boyhood in Mussolini’s Italy, which was captured by the fascist ideology for more than 20 years. Is it really the case now that, 50 years after the Six-Day War, all these statements by elected Israeli officials are nothing but foam on the water? Is Israeli democracy as strong and sturdy as we used to think?