Opinion |

Indifference to Netanyahu’s Sinister Designs on Democracy Echoes 'It Can’t Happen Here'

Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 dystopian novel is a blast from the past that warns Israelis, to paraphrase Herzl’s famous words: 'If you will it, it is no hallucination'

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a remembrance ceremony, March 14, 2019.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a remembrance ceremony, March 14, 2019.Credit: Emil Salman
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

Huey Long was a populist demagogue who served as governor of Louisiana in the late 1920s. He ruled his state by means of coercion and corruption, leading some historians to describe Long’s Louisiana as the closest thing in U.S. history to a full-fledged dictatorship. After he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1932 - without relinquishing his powers as governor - against the backdrop of the Great Depression, Long’s quasi-Communist call for a redistribution of wealth was enthusiastically embraced by millions of desperate and destitute Americans.

Long’s presidential ambitions, which were perceived as a direct threat to President Franklin Roosevelt’s chances of being reelected for a second term, inspired two of America’s most renowned political novels. The second one, chronologically, was better known, at least until recently: Robert Penn Warren’s “All the King’s Men,” published in 1949 but originally written in the mid-30s, which drew its title from Long’s popular election slogan “Every Man a King” and his self-conceived nickname “Kingfish.”

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The first, by Nobel Prize winner Sinclair Lewis, was published in 1935 against the backdrop of the rise of totalitarian dictators in Europe, such as Stalin, Hitler and Mussolini. Lewis sought to sound the alarm on the dangerous complacency of liberal America in the face of what he perceived as the concrete threat of a president elected by virtue of democracy, who upon assuming office immediately starts to take it apart. The title of the book, “It Can’t Happen Here,” was, of course, intended as irony.

The book became a best-seller despite the fact - or possibly because of it - that Long, who collaborated with the greatest anti-Semites of his generation, was assassinated less than a month before its publication by Jewish doctor Carl Weiss. The general view of the assassination is that Weiss was seeking revenge for Long’s efforts to oust his uncle, who was a state-appointed judge. Weiss’s descendants, however, still maintain that Weiss was an innocent bystander who was gunned down on the spot by Long’s bodyguards and implicated in the murder to cover up their own involvement in the crime.

Long’s removal, however, did not deter Americans from lapping up Lewis’ portrayal of a president who seizes control of the media, relegates Congress to serve as an advisory board, sends his political opponents to concentration camps, instills terror through his private militia and - in a message echoed and embraced in essence by Israeli Justice Minister’s Ayelet Shaked on Monday - deprives the U.S. Supreme Court of any authority to rescind decisions made by the president, his aides and even his congressional “advisers.” Eighty years after its first publication, “It Can’t Happen Here” returned to the public spotlight in the wake of Donald Trump's election, jumping back from obscurity all the way to the top of the national best seller lists.

The apparent indifference of Benjamin Netanyahu’s opponents to the momentousness of the decision awaiting Israel in the April 9 elections is reminiscent of Lewis’ “It Can’t Happen Here” syndrome. The apathy relies on the conventional and calming wisdom that holds that “Netanyahu will be forced to resign anyway within a few months” because of the criminal indictments awaiting him. It ignores the plain fact that Netanyahu’s current mission in life is to avert such a fate, with any and all means at his disposal.

If he’s given the power, to cite a staple slogan of the late racist Rabbi Meir Kahane, he’ll handle “them,” which, in Netanyahu’s world, means the leftist Arab-loving saboteurs who are manipulating the long arm of the law in order to topple Netanyahu from power. If the elections give Netanyahu a solid blocking majority, he will try to set up a right wing government even more extreme than the current one. He will make his potential partners a deal with the devil they will find hard to refuse. They can realize their life-long dream of destroying whatever is left of the checks and balances of Israel’s democracy in exchange for legislating an escape route for Netanyahu by means of a law that would render him immune to prosecution, euphemistically and misleadingly known as “the French Law.”

Such a move or anything similar will thrust a dagger directly into the heart of Israel’s democracy. It will eradicate any lingering inhibitions or sense of shame that hitherto restrained Netanyahu’s coalition colleague from going for broke. Netanyahu’s way to stifle dissent, neuter the media, destroy the rule of law and equate leftism with treason will be left wide open.

Like the urban legend about the frog in boiling water, the gradual acceptance of Netanyahu’s anti-democratic tilt over the past four years - and of the deceitful, no-holds-barred campaign he has waged in recent weeks - will continue to paralyze his critics, even when their house is actually on fire.

In a worst-case scenario, with which Lewis ends his novel, the regime’s repression ultimately and belatedly sparks militant resistance, which is met by a forceful and violent response that destroys the last remnants of democracy. This, in turn, prepares the ground for all-out civil war. From his grave, Lewis is warning Israelis: to paraphrase Theodor Herzl, “If you will it, it is no hallucination.”

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