Zeev Sternhell, the Oracle of Anti-fascism

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Zeev Sternhell participates in a protest march in 2010.

Prof. Zeev Sternhell, an Israel Prize laureate, who died Sunday, dedicated most of his professional life to researching fascism and its injustices. Sternhell was not only one of the most important scholars on fascism worldwide in recent decades; the importance of his warnings about the danger facing Israeli society, which is losing the safeguards that protect it from descending to a situation that recalls the ideologies and regimes that he studied, should not be ignored.

The first component in Israel’s descent into fascism is the war on democracy. It is a war that is not tied to a desire to eliminate the legislative body, which is elected by one method or another. Fascist regimes don’t get rid of their parliaments, even if they are emptied of content over time. The war on democracy, which as Sternhell stressed means making the supremacy of the society and the interest of societal redemption a central value, at the expense of the individual and of equality among the participants in societal activity. Israel has long lacked true equality among those who comprise the collective society: Jews, Israeli Arab citizens, Palestinians in the occupied territories, refugees, asylum seekers and others.

A second important component is the interpretation of history that allows a society to descend into fascism. Jewish history, and Zionist history within it, Sternhell taught, are interpreted by the Israeli nation as a process of ethnic determinism. In other words, Israel is increasingly leaning toward determinist definitions of the ethnic groups comprising it. These definitions are expressed in the belief that not all ethnic groups are equal in their traits, talents and abilities, and therefore need not be equal in their rights.

The third component present in Israel that increases the danger of descent into fascism, as Sternhell taught, is the principle of the deification of the nation. The national Jewish revival, grounded in the desire of the Jews to control their own fate, has largely become over the years a kind of holy war, infused with many religious and messianic components. The desire to control the fate of the nation, which was persecuted by the nations among which it lived, developed into a bloody struggle against anyone who is perceived, justifiably or not, as an enemy of the people. The spirt of the nation – an evasive concept, given to various interpretations – takes on in Israel political and psychological expressions that justify unjust acts and injury to innocent persons.

Sternhell sought to caution Israelis against trends that took hold in Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries. His legacy, then, is the ceaseless struggle to strengthen enlightenment in Israel, to see history in a rational, considered manner and to emphasize the place of the individual and the collective within the state.

The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.

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