Opinion

This Is What Happens When You Stay Silent as the Far Right Rises to Power

Germany once greeted the extreme right with apathy and scorn. We’ve accepted ours with apathy and silence – a troublesome silence that makes a statement

Otzma Yehudit chairman Michael Ben Ari seated next to his party member, Itamar Ben-Gvir, March 6, 2019
Olivier Fitoussi

A reminder: In the May 1928 elections, an extreme right-wing party got 12 out of 600 seats in the German parliament. Five years later, with 288 seats, that same party was already in control of Germany.

Another reminder: In two or three months we will have an extreme right-wing party in the government, in the Knesset, and on the Judicial Appointments Committee.

Yes, I know. Enough already. Times have changed and lessons have been learned. Enough of these disgusting and disturbing comparisons that come up whenever history insists on reminding the victim that he resembles his persecutor. Germany at the time greeted the extreme right with apathy and scorn. We’ve accepted ours with apathy and silence – a troublesome silence that makes a statement. And the statement is that it’s better for this right-wing to be with us than against us.

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No one has risen to protest. Lawyers didn’t argue, lecturers didn’t strike and students didn’t demonstrate. Both the old and new elites kept their mouths shut. Even Facebook has been somnambulant. Everyone agreed that the conversation between Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is more interesting, important and fateful than the prospect of Otzma Yehudit’s Itamar Ben-Gvir serving on the Judicial Appointments Committee. Everyone was so busy with Netanyahu that they didn’t see how he exploited the chaos and got them in through the back door.

It’s always through the back door; always through perfectly democratic elections, always on tip toe, accompanied by some baseless expectation that they’ll straighten out, behave. The assumption that they’ll barely exceed the electoral threshold is reassuring. The painful encounter between Jews and the extreme right has been forgotten. Maybe U.S. Jews are worried, but we’re not.

We’re just ignoring it. No has gotten up and said, wait a second, if they’re there, then I’m not. No one has demanded to stop the democratic (for argument’s sake) electoral process. We know who won’t join a coalition with Netanyahu and who won’t sit with the Arabs, but who won’t sit with the racists? No one has said that Ben-Gvir on the Judicial Appointments Committee is more dangerous that the text messages sent by Bezeq’s Shaul Elovitch or Hamas’ incendiary balloons. No one has said that if the National Union’s Bezalel Smotrich becomes education minister they won’t send their kids to school and would encourage others to do the same.

We swallow, digest and stay silent. The silence attests to the fact that small, timid racists are hiding beneath the cloaks, under the suits and behind the polite words. The process by which racism is turned from acceptable to offensive by means of education, prohibitions and laws was stopped before it was finished. Racism was silenced but did not disappear.

The evolution has been slow. Only after 70 years did references about blacks in Hebrew children’s works like “Little Alikama” begin to make children and their parents uncomfortable. Only 60 years ago, blacks in the United States still couldn’t use white people’s toilets; only 90 years ago, laws were passed in whose names our grandparents and great-grandparents were killed.

Historical processes repeat themselves to the point of boredom. Once again, a violent minority is exploiting a democratic election to seize control of the majority. Once again it infiltrates the ranks, hiding behind the national flag. Once again people understand far too late that an ultra-nationalist right is xenophobic and racist.

What? Are we a racist and violent society? Come now! What a generalization! But generalizations don’t scare us when we’re talking about other people. We’ve already catalogued the German people as a nation of murderers – all of them, without exception, even those who objected, who abstained, or who remained silent. So what about us? We are all to blame for the smooth, silent, comfortable, entrance of racists into the Knesset and the government.

This collective responsibility rests also on the few good people. Last Saturday night, for example, some 300 religious Zionists demonstrated against racism. Does that mean religious Zionism opposes racism? Its voters, its leaders, its intellectuals and its halakhic arbiters support it. Three hundred people demonstrated? And where were the rest? Wait, even if the whole group has sinned, you’re going to yell at the few dissenters? Yes – even at them. We’re all partners; we’re all certain it will never happen to us.

In his work “Defying Hitler: A Memoir,” Sebastian Haffner wrote that after the Nazis took power, many of his contemporaries thought the government was no cause for alarm.

“How could things turn out so completely different?” he writes. “Perhaps it was just because we were all so certain they could not do so – and relied on that with far too much confidence. So we neglected to consider that if worst came to worst, it might be necessary to prevent the disaster from happening.”