'One People, One Nation': A Visual Representation of the Ignorance That Threatens to Consume Israel

If an ordinary picture is worth a thousand words, this picture might just be worth a thousand op-eds warning about the dangerous decline of Israeli democracy.

Asher Schechter
Asher Schechter
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Asher Schechter
Asher Schechter

Israel’s 68th Independence Day festivities kicked off on Wednesday, with the official ceremony at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem that traditionally marks the transition from the solemn mourning of Israel’s Memorial Day to the celebratory mood of Yom Ha’atzmaut (Independence Day). The ceremony, whose theme this year was “civic heroism,” had all the traditional characteristics: fireworks, speeches, a torch-lighting ceremony celebrating the achievements of Israelis who made significant contributions to society, and flag-bearing color guards forming symbols of Israel’s national identity.

As the soldiers transitioned from formations depicting one time-honored symbol to another - a peace dove, a Star of David - they suddenly formed a phrase that should have inspired discomfort in anyone with even the slightest historical knowledge: “one people, one nation.”

Israeli soldiers form words 'One people, one nation' during Israel’s 68th Independence Day festivities at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem. May, 11 2016. Credit: Screengrab / Channel 2

It’s a phrase that, if you repeat it in German, in Germany, it is more than likely that you’ll be arrested for incitement. The reason? It is more than a little reminiscent of a leading slogan belonging to a certain German regime from the 1930s. In fact, it’s an almost-complete translation. The difference is that when the Germans originally uttered that phrase, it had the words “one Führer” at the end.

To be clear, Israel is nothing like Nazi Germany, in any way, shape or form. The people responsible for planting the troubling phrase during Israel’s national celebration likely did it by mistake, without any knowledge of the previous usage.

Nevertheless, it’s difficult to imagine a more fitting visual representation of the dangerous processes that are taking place in Israeli society—the same processes that the IDF’s Deputy Chief of Staff Yair Golan warned about last week—and the historical ignorance that in many ways fuel them, than inadvertently evoking a Nazi slogan during Israel’s Independence Day celebrations.

Deputy chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Yair Golan, during a Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony, May 5, 2016.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

While utterly rejecting any similarity between the phrase and the Nazi slogan, Culture Minister Miri Regev (who was responsible for the ceremony) somehow managed to make things worse: “The phrase ‘one people, one nation’ is an expression of the just aspiration of the Zionist movement since its inception: to establish a Jewish state.” The similarities, nonetheless, are there, plain as the eyes can see. What Regev did was what the right-wing always does: curb criticism of its actions by conflating it with antisemitism. This feat is a bit harder to accomplish when you’re defending your use of a Nazi slogan, instead of simply owning up to your mistake.

Even without uncomfortable historical allusions, the phrase “one people, one nation” is plenty disturbing. One people? 20 percent of Israel’s citizens are Palestinians. If Israel includes only “one people,” what happens to the ethnic group that comprises a fifth of its citizenry? And while we’re on the subject, what happens to its other ethnic minorities, like the Druze and the Bedouins? What role do they have in this “one nation”?

The phrase “one people, one nation” is the latest in Israel’s ongoing effort to deny the existence of its Arab citizens. Two years ago, when Israel’s Population, Immigration and Borders Authority (PIBA) published its annual list of Israel’s most-popular baby names, the top results were the Jewish names Yosef, Daniel and Uri, even though it was later reported that the most popular baby name in Israel is actually Mohammad (a name that, like every other Arab name, didn’t even make the top ten).

Last month, a poll conducted by the Israeli paper Israel Hayom showed that 48 percent of Jewish Israeli teenagers believe Israeli Arabs should not be allowed to run for office. A month earlier, a Pew Research Center poll showed that 48 percent of Jewish Israelis think Arab-Israelis should be “transferred” or “expelled.”

“One people, one nation,” then, can be seen as a statement of purpose, of sorts. Israel’s Arab Knesset memers are already fighting bills meant to disenfranchise Israeli Arabs, like the “suspension bill” that allows lawmakers to suspend other lawmakers from the Knesset by a majority vote of 90 members. The bill passed its first reading in March.

The exclusion and persecution of Israeli Arabs were once the underbelly of Israel’s legal and political systems. Things that existed, but were denied. “One people, one state” brings them to light in the bluntest way imaginable: celebrating them along with national symbols like the menorah and the peace dove.

But the historical allusion, inadvertent as it was, should also not be disregarded. Its timing, a week after Golan was lambasted for “cheapening” the holocaust because he likened certain societal trends in Israel 2016 to the “revolting processes” that occurred in Germany decades ago, could not be any more prescient. When Golan warned about the dangers of societal trends like “intolerance, violence, self-destruction and moral deterioration,” trends that are often associated with the rise of Nazism in Germany, this is the sort of thing he was likely talking about.

This is not the first time Israel’s anti-democratic stampede has inadvertently mimicked the words of prominent anti-Semites. Last year, Benjamin Netanyahu was able to win reelection by warning Likud voters that “Arabs are rushing to the polls in droves.” As Gilad Halpern reported in +972 this week, it turns out the exact same words were said of Jews in early 20th century Poland.

Benjamin Netanyahu is an avid student of Jewish history, but it is entirely possible that he did not know of this rather obscure quote, found by Prof. Yaacov Shavit of Tel Aviv University in the writings of Ze’ev Jabotinsky. The people who placed the phrase “one people, one nation” in the middle of Israel’s Independence Day ceremony most likely didn’t know any better, either.

And that may be the most terrifying thing about all this. After all, societies don’t just make a rational, informed choice to become anti-democratic. Many times, this drive is greatly assisted by historical ignorance.

Israelis are taught a great deal at school about the Holocaust. As adults, they are surrounded by reminders of it. But most of these focus on the victimization of Jews, on a narrative that places the horrors of Nazism deep within anti-Semitic traditions. While that is true, what is missing is the intolerance, the violence, the nationalist extremism and the moral deterioration that enabled these traditions to manifest themselves in unspeakable ways. It wasn’t just “Juden raus!” It was also “ein volk, ein reich, ein führer.”

Those who do not know the past, goes the old adage, are doomed to repeat it. While there is no danger that Israel will ever look like Nazi Germany, it is going through something deeply troubling. Don’t believe it? Just look at the picture above. There is now photographic evidence.

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