Israel’s Extreme Right Isn’t Jewish, It’s Totalitarian

Hannah Arendt makes clear the real issue: the hatred of pluralism and an open society – the drive to have a homogeneous society without dissent.

Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger
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Israeli police stop Israeli extreme far-right supporters during a demonstration in downtown Jerusalem, on October 3, 2015.
Israeli police stop Israeli extreme far-right supporters during a demonstration in downtown Jerusalem, on October 3, 2015.Credit: AFP
Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger

My Haaretz colleague Chemi Shalev, certainly one of the most astute commentators on Israel, tends to use measured, balanced rhetoric. So when he writes a piece entitled “Im Tirtzu and the Proto-fascist Plot to Destroy Israeli Democracy,” you better believe something really bad is going on.

Heed his advice and see the Im Tirtzu video against Breaking the Silence. You’ll understand why Shalev warns us not to underestimate the danger of Im Tirtzu with its paranoid, McCarthyist, inflammatory language. Then realize his detailed case: This organization isn’t some fringe phenomenon, it has deep connections with the ruling coalition.

I’d like to reinforce Shalev’s argument by analyzing the ongoing attack on Israel’s democracy. I’ll use the ideas of one of the 20th century’s greatest political thinkers, Hannah Arendt, who died 40 years ago this month.

Born in Königsberg to a Jewish family, Arendt fled Nazi Germany to France in 1933 and then to the United States in 1940, where she taught at the New School and died at the age of 70 in New York. In Jewish circles she was demonized during the ‘60s because of her book “Eichmann in Jerusalem" – only in the ‘90s was her work discussed again in Israel at the conference “Hannah Arendt in Jerusalem.” Her influence on political thought in general and Jewish thought in particular has grown in recent decades.

Her most important contribution was her 1951 book “The Origins of Totalitarianism.” She was among the first to recognize the deep similarities of fascism and communism, even though they had just been on opposing sides during World War II.

In her later work she forged very important ideas on the nature of civilized politics as opposed to totalitarian regimes. She claimed that politics in which free people converse, deliberate and cooperate in a public space is only possible when pluralism, i.e. a variety of opinions and perspectives, exists and is protected.

She thus opposed the totalitarian impulse to homogenize both the political debate and the people. This impulse’s most dangerous expression is the desire to determine who our neighbors are out of a hatred of pluralism. This can result in attempts to homogenize populations physically, as, for example, Slobodan Milosevic tried in his ethnic-cleansing campaign of the ‘90s.

Arendt’s ideas are highly pertinent to understanding the frightening inflaming of Israel's public debate, which has reached scandalous proportions since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu formed the most right-wing government in Israeli history, epitomized in the Im Tirtzu video.

Hannah Arendt: Influential in discrediting testimony of Holocaust survivors.

Of course, enemies of liberal democracy and open societies, whether Netanyahu, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, Culture Minister Miri Regev or Im Tirtzu, don’t claim they want to destroy democracy and stifle criticism. They argue that Israel is under siege and that opinions dissenting from the right-wing mainstream endanger Israel’s security.

With this ploy of manipulating people’s often very real fears, they are no different than other enemies of critical discourse from Franco and Ceausescu to McCarthy and Putin. Time and again Israel’s liberal friends must be reminded that most Israeli security officials disagree with right-wing policies, as Dror Moreh’s poignant documentary “The Gatekeepers” has shown. The self-proclaimed defenders of Israel claim they’re protecting Israel’s security, but that’s just a pretext for something completely different, as the following examples show.

President Reuven Rivlin has always been a proud proponent of right-wing Revisionist Zionism; he has long said Israel should annex the West Bank. But Rivlin is genuinely committed to equality of all citizens, including Palestinians, and a plurality of views. As Haaretz commentator Uzi Baram has rightly pointed out, Rivlin’s only “sin” is that he is a true democrat. This is why he’s loved and esteemed by all Israeli groups – except the political right, to which he officially belongs.

Nevertheless, on social media he has been called everything from traitor to Nazi. And most horrifyingly, we’ve gotten so used to this level of hate speech that these attacks no longer make the headlines. That is, until Channel 20 said Rivlin “spits in the faces of IDF soldiers” because he took part in the recent Haaretz conference in New York, cosponsored by the New Israel Fund, where Breaking the Silence also spoke.

Further examples: Regev and Bennett are trying to silence cultural voices with views other than their own – not because novelists Amoz Oz’s and David Grossman’s views and criticisms are dangerous to Israel, but because they don’t let the right wing control culture.

All this culminates in Im Tirtzu’s pernicious video in which Breaking the Silence is portrayed as a fifth column infiltrated by foreign governments that supports terror attacks. But even the Im Tirtzu people know that Breaking the Silence’s members, while on active duty, fought Israel’s enemies, and that this organization is no danger to Israel’s security, only, at most, to its image abroad. If you don’t take my word for it, read what former Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin thinks about Breaking the Silence.

So if security isn’t the real issue, what is? Arendt gives us the answer: the hatred of pluralism and an open society – the drive to have a homogenous society without dissent. Of course, the self-proclaimed right-wing knights of Zionism declare they want the country to be Jewish, and democracy comes second. But their claim that by smothering pluralism Israel will become a truly Jewish state is ludicrous, to put it mildly.

The views of Bennett, Regev and Im Tirtzu aren’t any more Jewish than those of Marine Le Pen’s National Front or Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, and their tactics resemble Putin’s rather than Maimonides’. Jewish culture, as Simon Schama reminds us in his wonderful “The Story of the Jews,” has always been about argument and endless talk, not about silencing dissent.

If Israel’s right-wing homogenizers reach their goal of clearing Israel of dissent, the result will have nothing in common with Jewish tradition. It will resemble the arid, ugly landscape of totalitarianism that Hannah Arendt, to whose memory this column is dedicated, analyzed so poignantly.

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