No Arabs, no problem – no leftists, no terror – no loyalty, no citizenship: A brief history of the far-right in Israel
A piece I wrote for the 2011 issue of No Quarter magazine, the publication of Anti-Fascist Action.
To many liberals and some leftists, the creation of the “Jewish state” of Israel was a justified reaction to centuries of ebbs and flows of European anti-Semitism, culminating in the Nazi genocide against Europe’s Jewish population. Others on the left routinely refer in hyperbolic terms to the “fascist state of Israel”, in an understandable knee-jerk reaction to Israeli state atrocities without, it seems, a clear definition of what fascism actually is.
Objectively, however, there can be no argument that Israel is a racist and apartheid state, and has been thus since its foundation in 1948 on the back of the forced expulsion of over 750,000 indigenous Palestinians. Zionism, the ideological backbone of the Israeli state, in both theory and practice is a racist and colonialist venture in the grand tradition of European settler-colonialism. This fact was recognised by the United Nations between 1975 and 1991. UNGA Resolution 3379 – which declared that “Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination” – was rescinded as an Israeli precondition for entering the Madrid peace talks, and only after the US exerted its imperial influence at the UN.
Therefore, it is not surprising that the Israeli polity is made up primarily of parties and organisations of the centre-, hard- and far-right. Even some ostensibly ‘left-wing’ Israeli groups can be considered racist as they subscribe to the basic tenets of Zionism – the creation of an “ethnically Jewish” state in some or all of historic Palestine, where Palestinians, if they exist at all, live as second class citizens or “residents”. Indeed, it was the Labor-Zionist movement that dominated the apartheid state until the late 1970s, when the hard-right Revisionist-Zionist movement represented by Likud made a serious breakthrough. Today, however, the once mighty Israeli Labour Party (the traditional party of Israeli capitalism) is a moribund force, having only 8 members of the Israel’s 120-person Knesset (parliament), while the Zionist right in its various ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ incarnations can count almost 100 members of the Israeli parliament (MKs).
Agreeing that both Labor and Likud – as the traditional ‘main strands’ within Zionism – differ only minorly on economic issues, and tactically on the praxis of Zionism, this article intends to look at the growth of movements to the right of Likud in modern Israel – from the beginnings of the Kahanist and Gush Emunim movements through to the present day where Israel can boast a Minister of Foreign Affairs who has openly called for the execution of Palestinian MKs and drowning of political prisoners, and who views anti-occupation Israeli NGOs as “terror organisations”.
As an aside, it would be remiss to ignore the documented links with – and admiration of – European fascism by some sections of the early Revisionist-Zionist movement. For example, in 1941 the Palestine-based Zionist terror organisation Irgun (“National Military Organisation”) sent a communiqué to the Third Reich stating that it was “closely related to the totalitarian movements of Europe in its ideology and structure”, and that “cooperation between [Fascist] Germany and a renewed folkish-national Hebraium would be possible”. It further proposed the “establishment of the historic Jewish state on a national and totalitarian basis, bound by a treaty with the German Reich”, and that if this were forthcoming the Irgun would “actively lake part in the war on Germany’s side”. These issues are fully explored in Lenni Brenner’s two books Zionism in the Age of Dictators and 51 Documents: Zionist Collaboration with the Nazis. It should therefore come as no shock that the house of Zionism has always harboured a quasi-fascist element.
Religious terror – Rabbi Kahane, the JDL and Kach
Modern militant, racist religious Zionism began to gain prominence in the early 1970s after the emigration of Rabbi Meir Kahane from the US to Israel. Before leaving, Kahane had established the Jewish Defence League, a right-wing Jewish-nationalist terrorist group that was behind attacks on Soviet interests in the US for two decades, and also carried out attacks on, and murders of, Arabs and Muslims around the world. Most recently, the French JDL chapter have been implicated in the 2010 murder of Said Bourarach, a Muslim security guard in the town of Bobigny.
Upon arrival in Israel, Kahane founded the Kach (“Thus”) party which sought to “restore the biblical state of Israel” by forcibly expelling the remaining Palestinians from their homeland and instituting Jewish religious law throughout all of historic Palestine. Despite its small size, Kach and its offshoots have been influential amongst the Israeli far-right settler movement. Kach engaged in terrorist attacks on Palestinians, including shootings, stabbings, arson and bombings. Kahane himself – later elected to the Knesset – was once imprisoned for a short time for attempting to commit an unspecified “grave act of provocation” at Jerusalem’s Haram Al-Sharif (“The Noble Sanctuary” – one of Islam’s holiest sites, that is home to the Al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock), while another Kach member Yoel Lerner served time for attempting to blow it up two years later. Kahane was ultimately assassinated by an Egyptian jihadi in New York in 1990 and his party split in two. The breakaway group Kahane Chai (“Kahane Lives”) was led by his son – though both retained the same fundamental philosophy of violent religious-nationalist inspired hate.
Kahanists have carried out many murders, two of the most notorious being the 1995 assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by Yigal Amir (a member of the Kach-linked Eyal), and the 1994 massacre of 29 Palestinians in Hebron’s Ibrahim Mosque carried out by Dr. Baruch Goldstein, Kahane’s former personal election agent. This slaughter, still praised by many in the settler movement who consider Goldstein a “hero”, is regularly cited as the incident which gave rise to the Palestinian tactic of suicide bombing. In any case, it was only with this attack that the Kahanist parties were finally banned under Israeli law.
Yet the Kahanists continue to operate today, mainly out of two settlements where they run yeshivas (religious schools), and continue to plot and execute violent acts against Palestinian civilians. For example, in 2005 Kach member Eden Natan-Zada opened fire on a bus in northern Israel, killing four Palestinians (he was then beaten to death by other passengers). In 2001 Israeli police arrested several Kahanists who were planning to blow up a Palestinian girls’ school (when the 1,500 students were scheduled to arrive) and a large Palestinian hospital. Noam Federman, Kahane Chai’s spokesperson, said of this, “I think the government should put bombs in hospitals but [it doesn’t], so it is up to the people to.”
Respectable colonialism – Gush Emunim
However, the most influential far-right grouping in modern Israel has been the Gush Emunim (“Bloc of the Faithful”) movement, formally founded in 1974, but active since Israel’s 1967 expansionist war against surrounding Arab nations, which saw it occupy the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza Strip, Egyptian Sinai and Syrian Golan Heights. With these conquests, the “settlement movement” was born, with the aim of colonising the remainder of “Greater Israel” and forcing out those Palestinians who refused to submit to “Jewish sovereignty” in the newly-occupied territories. Although some members even advocated the “extermination of Arabs”, Gush Emumin were the ‘respectable’ face of this ‘national-religious’ venture to “sanctify every single acre of land that was promised to Abraham by God”. But secretly, they also had an extremist armed wing called the Jewish Underground which carried out bombings and other terror attacks approved by the Gush’s rabbis – though these tactics were divisive among members, and the Underground collapsed in the face of mass arrests in 1984.
The revelations about the existence of the JU, along with the signing of the Oslo ‘peace’ accords in 1993 ultimately weakened Gush Emunim organisationally and it eventually dissolved, although their influence remains important in Israeli society – not least among the ostensibly ‘secular’ Likud party with which the Gush built close ties throughout the 1970s and 80s. As one commentator put it, “institutions such as the Yesha Council, the Ichud Rabbanim, and the settlements themselves preserve the organization, ideology, and enclave life of [Gush Emunim]”. Indeed, the yeshiva where the Gush originally developed its system of indoctrination and support maintains many educational branches in the realms of post-secondary, elementary and kindergarten schooling.
This lasting influence of Gush-style thinking was evident in 1998 when, in direct contravention of the Oslo accords, then-Likud Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon called on the settler movement to “grab more hills, expand the territory. Everything that’s grabbed will be in our hands. Everything we don’t grab will be in [Palestinian] hands.” This gave birth to the modern phenomenon of “hilltop youths”, a particularly violent and virulent wing of the national-religious movement who reject secular law in its entirety and frequently attack and murder Palestinians, while establishing more settlement outposts and basking in the protection of the Israeli military. It is important to note however, that the settlement movement has always enjoyed state blessing – indeed it could not exist without its political, financial and military support – and if anything, it should be considered an armed state-militia movement.
No loyalty, no citizenship – Yisrael Beiteinu
While the Kahanists may be the most infamous and well-known Israeli far-right movement and Gush Emunim the most influential in terms of territorial expansionism (today there are almost 500,000 illegal settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem – though many are ‘economic’ rather than ‘ideological’ settlers, as settlement housing is state-subsidised), there has always been a proliferation of such extreme-minded groups in the Israeli polity – and they do not only come from the most religious sections of society. At present, there are almost 40 MKs in the Knesset (48%) from numerous different small far-right (religious, nationalist and national-religious) parties, and a gaggle of smaller unrepresented groupings.
Amongst many Israeli leftists and liberal Zionists, the most feared of these is the Yisrael Beiteinu (“Israel, Our Home”) party, founded in 1999 by Moldovan immigrant Avigdor Lieberman. With 15 Knesset seats, it is now the third largest party in Israeli politics, and its members hold six Ministerial positions – including the posts of Deputy Prime Minister, Minister for Foreign Affairs (both held by Lieberman) and Minister for Internal Security.
Lieberman is routinely referred to in Israeli media and political discourse as a “fascist” by his enemies, on both the right and left. And indeed, there is something to be said for this analysis. For example, he was the prime mover behind the implementation of a loyalty oath to the “Jewish and democratic state” for new citizens of Israel. An editorial in The Guardian described this as requiring “future citizens to declare their loyalty not just to a state but an ideology, one specifically designed to exclude one fifth of its citizens who see themselves as Palestinian”. And while at present this pledge applies only to non-Jews seeking citizenship (e.g. West Bank Palestinians wishing to marry Palestinian citizens of Israel), there is no reason to believe that such a policy will not be extended in the future to all non-Jewish citizens. After all “no loyalty, no citizenship” was Lieberman’s campaign platform, along with the “transferral” of Palestinian towns and villages in Israel to Palestinian Authority ‘control’ (where they would be subject to Israeli military law), the annexation of Israeli settlements, and expulsion of those Palestinians who refuse to pledge allegiance to the apartheid state. With the growth in support for his party and its ideas, it is probable that he will again attempt to implement this plan once in a position of increased strength.
Lieberman’s political life is interesting, inasmuch as it reflects the interconnectedness of the Israeli right. His family moved to Israel from the USSR in the 1970s, at university he was briefly a member of the Kach, and took part in violent confrontations with Palestinian students as part of Likud’s youth wing. He then became a Likud full-timer, moving up its ranks to become Director-General of the Prime Minister’s office under Benjamin Netanyahu. Subsequently, sensing the support potential from the masses of newly arrived immigrants from the former-USSR, he founded Yisrael Beiteinu and presided over its steady increase in support and power. He has lived in an illegal West Bank settlement since 1988 and draws much of his support from both ideological settlers and immigrants from the former USSR. While he has ostensibly embraced the Zionist mainstream in declaring that he now “supports” a two-state solution, it is as hard to take this at face value as it was when Ariel Sharon declared himself a “centrist” after the formation of Kadima (“Forward”), or indeed to believe that any Zionist party supports a genuine two-state solution. This, after all, is a man who considers leftist and anti-occupation NGOs to be “terror organisations” and who has advocated the execution of Palestinian MKs, the drowning of Palestinian political prisoners in the Dead Sea, a nuclear strike on Gaza and the bombing of “all [Palestinian] places of business in Ramallah” if militant Palestinian resistance did not cease.
Far-right extremism – a symptom of Zionism
There is no doubt that Lieberman and his party are a serious danger to what limited democracy currently exists in Israel, and that if he is not now a fascist, he can certainly be classified as a far-right demagogue and leader of a fascist movement in embryo. But to place the blame, as many “outraged” liberal Israelis have, solely on Lieberman is to miss the point. Lieberman does not exist in a vacuum – he is the creation of Zionism, some might say its logical conclusion. Lieberman’s policies – despicable even in their ‘toned down’ form – could not pass without the support of what has been called the “most right-wing and anti-democratic” Knesset in Israeli history. The Knesset itself is merely representative of the rightward and racist trajectory of Jewish Israeli society as a whole. For example, a recent poll of Israeli teenagers showed that 49% felt that Jews and “Arabs” (refusing to call them Palestinians is a form of Israeli historical/cultural denial) should not have equal rights in the state. Other polls over the past few years have shown that 50% of Israeli Jews supported “encouraging” Palestinian “emigration” from Israel (2007), and that 67% would refuse to live in the same building as a Palestinian (2006). Such attitudes are, of course, not unusual in colonial-settler societies – however Israel has always tried to present a façade of liberal tolerance to the outside world, contrasting a self-declared Israeli “civilisation” with Palestinian “barbarism”.
But over the past number of years, the mask has slipped as the Israeli state (not merely individuals or parties) grapples desperately with Palestinian, Jewish and international resistance to its apartheid policies. Just take the most recent example, the criminalisation of Israelis who support the international Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign – free speech for citizens no longer exists. Incidentally, this anti-BDS law is particularly interesting as it has even been criticised by the US-based Anti-Defamation League – which, as scholar Norman Finkelstien once quipped, “specialises in defaming critics of Israel” – although it is questionable whether theirs is a principled or a pragmatic criticism.
Yet this is merely latest in a long line of anti-democratic and disturbing measures emerging at political, legal and societal levels. Examples include the jailing of a Palestinian man for having consensual sex with a Jewish woman (he was convicted of “rape by deception” for not disclosing his ethnicity); the ‘vice and virtue’ patrols that try to prevent Palestinian and Israelis from dating and create hysteria about “Arabs deflowering innocent Jewish girls”; the fact that the B’Sheva (“At Seven”) newspaper, closely linked to the national-religious movement, is the fourth most widely read; religious edicts condoning and/or calling for the murder of non-Jews; secret police harassment, jailings and beatings of anti-occupation activists; provocative marches by the far-right through Palestinian towns in Israel; attempts to ban Palestinian parties from electoral participation; the stripping of MK Haneen Zoabi of her parliamentary privileges and vote, along with widespread calls for her assassination, for taking part in the Gaza Freedom Flotilla; the de facto exiling of Azmi Bishara, leader of the Balad Party, on trumped up charges of treason; the imprisonment of NGO leaders such as Ameer Makhoul and Dr. Omar Saeed on similar nonsensical charges; military censorship of the media and the criminalisation of journalists and whistleblowers who expose dirty state secrets; the jailing of the Islamic Movement leader Sheikh Raed Salah for spitting at a policeman; the ongoing attempts at the ‘Judaizing’ (a.k.a. ethnic cleansing) of Palestinian East Jerusalem; the criminalisation of commemorations of the 1948 Nakba (“Catastrophe”); the proposed loyalty law for film production, and a whole raft of other similar far-right legislation aimed at destroying the last vestiges of ‘democracy’ in Israel. And this does not even take into account the frequent military assaults on the Palestinian people, settler “price-tag” attacks (e.g. physical assaults, mosque and orchard burnings) and violent repression of non-violent protests in the occupied territories, which while ranging in scale, are indicative of the contempt with which Palestinians, as “the subhuman other”, are held.
From Peace Now to the Democratic Camp – The role of the left
The left has attempted to mobilise against the rightward drift in the form of the Democratic Camp – a loose alliance of anti-, non-, left- and liberal-Zionist, and human rights focused, organisations and individuals opposed to the government’s anti-democratic measures. Their first march in January 2011 attracted a somewhat impressive 20,000 people (however, by contrast, one of Israel’s largest ever rallies was held in July 2000 and saw upwards of 250,000 right-wingers demonstrate against the Labor government of Ehud Barak).
The left – especially the anti-Zionist left – are very much in the minority in Israel. While there have been some very positive developments over the past number of years – and the state’s anti-democratic crackdown is in part a response to this, a badge of honour for the left in some respects – the left remains isolated and weak, and for the most part its numbers are made up of Palestinian citizens of Israel. For example, the non-Zionist Hadash (“Democratic Front for Peace and Equality”) party, of which Maki (“The Israeli Communist Party”) is the main component, has one Jewish MK (out of four) – but only 20% of its 112,000 voters in 2009 were Jewish. That said, there is a growing number of young Jewish Israelis who are coming to reject not just the occupation, but Zionism itself. These are perhaps best represented by the group Anarchists Against the Wall (AAtW), who believe in genuine Israeli solidarity with the Palestinian struggle and are in the thick of demonstrations in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. What is interesting about this trend is that the activists see themselves as ‘front line auxiliaries’ in the Palestinian struggle, not as ‘back seat commanders’ as was the case with elements of the liberal-Zionist Shalom Achshav (“Peace Now”) movement, which often sought to tell Palestinians how their national liberation struggle should be conducted. The state’s view of such principled activism is clear – by 2007, AAtW had been the subject of over 60 indictments and owed $40,000 in legal debts.
Dark times ahead, but will Israel go fascist?
So, there are rays of hope, certainly, but the forecast remains gloomy. This is the depressing reality of Israel today – and it is not the fault of a few “bad guys”. It is the natural evolution of Zionism, a system that requires ethno-religious national loyalty to endure ideologically, and repressive apartheid policies and frequent large-scale military operations to survive physically. When confronted with popular resistance, its only option is to become more insular and tyrannical. Many on the Israeli left, including the Communist Party, have warned that Israel is going fascist. This remains debatable – a repressive, racist, religious-nationalist state can exist without being fascist, and such arguments about the dangers of Israeli fascism have been around for over 30 years – but this is not to say a slide into fascism is not possible.
What this author fears is that the right are attempting to transform Israel into a kind of “totalitarian-democratic-ethnocracy”, wherein there are “free” elections for approved political parties, but those who exist outside of the prescribed “limits of debate” are considered dangerous political radicals and subject to state harassment and show-trials. The trade union movement will continue to exist in the form of the Histradrut (“General Federation of Laborers in the Land of Israel”), which has always been a Zionist-colonialist institution, while those attempting to build alternatives such as the Workers Advice Centre will not be tolerated. The media will be free to say what it likes, once it does not “endanger” or “delegitimise” the state. “Loyal” citizens will continue to enjoy the comforts of a modern 21st century techno-industrial state; “disloyal” citizens will be stripped of citizenship and expelled. In short, this will be a part-realisation of the dream of a “Jewish and democratic” state. Meanwhile, in the occupied Palestinian territories, life will continue as “normal” – frequent military and settler attacks, further colonisation, the continuation of apartheid laws and brutal repression aimed at breaking the Palestinian spirit of resistance and driving them elsewhere, thus completing the ethnic cleansing of Palestine that began in 1947/8 – in other words, the eventual full-realisation of the Zionist dream.
Of course, it does not really matter what name we apply to all of this. What matters is that it is fought against by those who believe in a just solution to Palestinian/Israeli question. However, those who advocate a solution in which Zionism is considered a “legitimate” political-philosophical outlook are deluding themselves, and condemning the region – in particular the Palestinians – to further turmoil and conflict. As former-Knesset Speaker turned critic of liberal-Zionism, Avraham Burg, has pointed out, “the left cannot go on calling itself Zionist. We should ask ourselves whether Zionist humanism isn’t a contradiction in terms… We should go beyond ethnic democracy and toward a real joint society, in which Jews and [Palestinians] are really equal”. Of course, one state or two states, this it is not for solidarity movements to decide – but what is clear is that if there is to be justice, then Zionism must follow its ideological bedfellow South African Apartheid into the dustbin of history.