Opinion |

My Sister Voted for Israel's Fascists. I Still Love Her

I still care for my sister, West Bank settler and supporter of Israel's most dangerous, tribalistic and virulent racists and fascists. Just hating the monster won't make it go away

Arnon Grunberg
Arnon Grunberg
West Bank settlers demonstrating outside the prime minister's residence in Jerusalem. 13 December 2018
West Bank settlers demonstrating outside the prime minister's residence in Jerusalem. 13 December 2018Credit: Emil Salman
Arnon Grunberg
Arnon Grunberg

The day after the Israeli elections, I texted my sister in Israel, who lives in a religious settlement on the West Bank: "Whom did you vote for?"

I haven’t been really close to her since she left our hometown, Amsterdam, for Israel in 1982, but I felt that the elections were a good opportunity to act brotherly. Besides, I was really curious to know her answer.

She texted back: "Guess."

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I answered: "Likud." Although I suspected that Likud was too "left" for her and Netanyahu himself too tainted and too worldly to be worthy of her vote.

She answered: "I voted for Habayit Hayehudi."

This right-wing party, popular among settlers, united to form the Union of Right-Wing Parties a few weeks before the election with the Otzma Yehudit party that consists of followers of the late rabbi Meir Kahane.

His Kach party was banned in 1988 from participating in the Israeli elections, because Kahane wanted to "throw out" all Arabs from "Greater Israel" i.e. Israel, the Gaza strip and the West Bank.

Meir Kahane could be called a fascist, if that word wouldn’t have lost all its meaning. After all, it was another right-wing-party, The New Right, headed by then-justice minister Ayelet Shaked and then-housing minster Naftali Bennett that aired a few weeks before the elections a rather ingenious political ad, in which fascism appears to be nothing more than a perfume that, according to Mrs. Shaked, "smells like democracy."

My sister voted for a party that has closely aligned itself with the offspring of the dangerous and racist ideology of Meir Kahane.

Merchandise glorifying Meir Kahane on sale at a rally in Jerusalem. Israel outlawed the political party founded by the racist American-born rabbi, who was assassinated in 1990 Credit: Lior Mizrachi

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to me, I’ve known my sister for almost 48 years and her convictions, her tribalism and her deep conviction that the world can be divided in an "us" and a "them" have only grown stronger.

If by voting for a party that, to put it mildly, feels comfortable among fascists makes her a fascist herself, I have to add that she is a benign, warmhearted, humorous and - to a certain degree – even a lovely fascist.

The enemy has much more in common with us than we want to believe, it is effective but false propaganda that wants us to believe that the enemy is fundamentally different from us.

What still surprises me is that her convictions, which a couple of decades ago could only be found on the fringes of society, have become so mainstream.

Netanyahu is not Meir Kahane, but he is inching in that direction, and he won’t hesitate to form a government with the help of Kahane’s political heirs - a rabbi whose movement was once classified by the Israeli government as an illegal terrorist organization.

Leaders of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party: Michal Ben Ari (banned from running in the elections for racist incitement), Itamar Ben Gvir, Baruch Marzel and Bentzvi Gopstein. Bat Yam, April 4, 2019Credit: David Bachar

Recently, I read letters from Israel written by the Dutch poet and playwright Judith Herzberg from the1980's, who lived her life alternatively in Israel and the Netherlands.

The Peace Now movement was very much alive back then. Peace may have been a fragile concept, but it was a genuine desire shared by many, not only by a few people who are considered lunatics or radicals by the mainstream. Leftist Zionism was not dead yet, or to be more precise, it had not become an oxymoron yet.

But it’s not only Israel that changed: the West changed as well.

Interest in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict faded away after 9/11. The left, or whatever remained of it, slowly lost interest in the suffering of the Palestinians, which once seemed to be the most urgent fight after the end of apartheid. Somewhere in the 90’s my brother-in-law would proudly declare, in the midst of intifadas and peace processes: "Look at all the journalists coming to Israel, we are the center of the world."

Not anymore.

World War II is not any longer the defining moment in the history of Europe, and the taboos connected to that war –from ultra-nationalism to fascism - and the destruction of European Jewry are broken on a daily level by comedians, rock stars and politicians.

Now, breaking taboos has even become a highly successful strategy for politicians and Ayelet Shaked’s political ad illustrates that fewer and fewer taboos are beyond the pale of acceptability. In Israel, as much as elsewhere.

Screen capture from campaign ad by Hayamin Hehadash party

The West's involvement is selective, thanks to its cavalier relationship with history and disinterest in its historical responsibility for anti-Semitism and its consequences, both before and after WWII, which Zionism sought to address. And now the West hasturned the Palestinians into less than an afterthought. If the hard right in Europe has one thing in common it is that they want to forget historical guilt and all obligations that come with it.

No wonder also that the European extreme right loves "King Bibi" and his particular brand of Zionism: a 19th century idea of a more or less homogenous nation state combined with 21st century propaganda tools and brutality.

The extreme right in Europe are all Zionists, but they haven’t found their Zion yet. All they know is that they long for this more or less invented 19th century ethnic utopia and they believe, with a vengeance, that there is no alternative for tribalism.

And my sister, the supporter of racists and fascists? Well, she believes that the world is a hostile place for Jews, and history proves her right. But all tribalism can only end in feeding an untrammeled fear that the other will destroy us - and that therefore we must destroy him first. Or at least, deport or expel him.

But I still care for my sister. After all, this is love in a time of paranoia, and other contagious fears. Just hating the monster won't make it go away. Reducing supporters of fascism and racism to their political and ideological views will never change their minds.

Arnon Grunberg is the author of the recent novels "Good Men" and "Birthmarks." He was born in Amsterdam and lives and works in New York. Twitter: @arnonyy

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