Before he died, the Jewish writer Primo Levi, a Holocaust survivor, was disturbed by Israeli society’s turn to the right. When he said “the oppressors of those days are human beings like us,” and therefore the oppressed can become an oppressor – he feared that of all places, in the homeland of the survivors this lesson would be forgotten.
I thought about this when, on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day, I read the tweet by the Bezalel Smotrich addressed to Ahmad Tibi. While Smotrich addresses Tibi by his first name, he continues to define him in a generalized way as a “true Muslim,” and makes clear that “Ahmad” is a generic term for all Arabs who live here, like that guy from the song by Ehud Banai who mixed the plaster. It’s nothing personal, Ahmad.
Smotrich knew how his words would be understood when he addressed Tibi publicly and wrote that “the Land of Israel belongs to the Jewish people.” He understood that he was actually threatening ethnic cleansing, with everything that means, and was aware of the historical echoes he brought up when he promised Tibi he would make sure that Arabs who don’t recognize that the Land of Israel belongs to the Jews will be expelled. And in fact, initially it sounds like brutal insolence, but immediately thereafter it turns out to be even more terrible than a momentary, unaware slide into the despicable thinking and language of fascism. This was done with complete equanimity, and for petty political reasons.
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That is precisely what is meant by the expression coined by Hannah Arendt in her book about the Eichmann trial – “the banality of evil.” All Smotrich wanted was to quiet the Likudniks who are trying to blame his party, Religious Zionism, for destroying the chance to form a right-wing government. Right after his first tweet, he added the following: “Oh Ahmad, with God’s help I’ll be a minister and it won’t be by relying on supporters of terror and champions of terrorists like you and your friends in the United Arab List.”
This is all Smotrich wanted to achieve, while you were being shocked: He wanted to show that from his point of view, all the Ahmads, even those whose name is actually Mansour, are equally unacceptable. He aimed to explain that the whip of Abbas’ and Tibi’s expulsion must be wielded by Jewish hands. He sought to remind everyone that he is true to his values. And if, on the way, one must threaten ethnic cleansing to meet the banal needs of coalition negotiations – so be it.
Who is more dangerous, Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir or Benjamin Netanyahu? That is apparently the question facing the bloc to replace Netanyahu, which has deluded itself into believing that the division into right and left is no longer relevant. Should a coalition be established with right-wingers like Gideon Sa’ar, who under certain circumstances would join a coalition with Smotrich, and Naftali Bennett, who has already been in a coalition with him? Should they surrender to Bennett’s demand to serve first as prime minister in a rotation agreement, and give significant power to the right in such a government, merely to extricate the country from Netanyahu’s chokehold?
The center-left’s disappointment with Sa’ar, who chose not to recommend anyone to the president to form a government, and with Bennett, who recommended himself, is shameful. The banal political truth behind Smotrich’s detestable statements is that Netanyahu does not have and will not have a way forward to establish a coalition, and therefore Sa’ar’s and Bennett’s decisions were a calculated move. When Netanyahu fails and the mandate to form a coalition falls to Yair Lapid, they both can say to their voters: “The main thing is we kept our promise.”
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Indeed, Sa’ar will avoid a fifth election and not join a coalition under Lapid for the first two years, and Bennett does not give in to temptations and promises. An end will certainly come to the Netanyahu era, but what new dawn will rise after it? Horror over Smotrich’s statements must remain in the front of our minds. It must remind us that what begins as an effort to remove Netanyahu might end in a new era of wall-to-wall right-wing governments, after which Smotrich and his ilk will be the mainstream.