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Shlomo Sand: Israel Isn’t Fascist, but It Still Needs the World to Save It From Itself

In an editorial published in Haaretz last weekend, Shlomo Sand writes:

In recent months we’ve witnessed a cascade of articles and calls for help by all sorts of learned people on the liberal left crying out that fascism is threatening Israel. Some of them claim that it’s already here; others warn that it’s about to arrive [...]

I must reiterate: Analogy is the mother of all human wisdom. Analogy is also the parent of all human folly. There is no science without analogy; no politics of the masses without simplistic, and mostly inflammatory, analogies.

The problem is that all sorts of researchers in political science, sociology and history indulge in baseless historical analogies with scientific certainty. Fascism in Italy was a one-time phenomenon — like many other events in history — even if many people in European countries tried to imitate it without success.

In democratic countries that underwent successful social and national revolutions and the principle of the people’s sovereignty was stable, the fascist option has remained marginal and ridiculous. In France, Britain and the United States, fascist movements have failed completely; these countries had no need for them (the anti-Semitic Vichy regime wasn’t fascist). Even in Spain, Francisco Franco trampled the fascist Falange without any problem.

True, only in one place did a movement arise that reminds us in many respects of Italian fascism. National Socialism maybe never saw itself as fascism, but the left between the wars insisted on defining it is this way and bequeathed this terminology to the next generations.

Similar aspects between the two movements and regimes stand out that can’t be ignored: the forced solution they established in capital-labor relations, the aestheticization of politics, the crude imperialism, the lack of inhibitions. And so the German left, with all its branches, treated Nazism as a local version of fascism.

Yet if nationalism was the most important fuel that fed both fascism and Nazism, the difference between the two phenomena was decisive. Fascist nationalism may have been aggressive and violent, but it was inclusive, political and similar in many ways to French Jacobinism.

From the outset, Nazi nationalism was ethnocentric and exclusive. The difference was not just ideological but was translated into a very different practicum. The mass extermination of Jews, Gypsies, Slavs and the mentally ill was planted at the very heart of the unique ethnocentric project. If German Nazism had been identical to Italian fascism from the nationalist aspect, or similar to it, it wouldn’t have become a symbol of evil in modern history.

No, the Germans were not more evil, or better, than other peoples. Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil is a brilliant distinction that was formulated back in the 18th century by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, even if he used different words. Just as there is banality of evil, there is banality of good. The two are dependent on the historical circumstances, and Arendt knew this very well.

She may not have always been systematic in her distinctions, but she was one of the few who studied in depth the 20th century’s ideologies on a historical basis, not on the basis of anthropological essentialism. Very few in her generation linked with such sharp intuition modern imperialism, totalitarianism and nationalism.

The banality of evil characterizes the atomization and alienation of the modern world, but it is realized in specific circumstances. To understand this we don’t need to learn about Belgian colonialism; it’s enough to read Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.” There is no need to specialize in the history of the Soviet Union; it’s enough to read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. You don’t need to be an expert on Nazism, it’s enough to read Primo Levi.

Even if sociologist Norbert Elias understood very well that the state’s monopoly on violence moderates individual relations, he wasn’t aware enough that the state drains and channels this violence outward toward foreign collectives – residents of colonies, enemies of the revolution, or those who belong to another nationality or “race.”

Is Israel deteriorating into fascism or beginning to resemble an evil state? This question isn’t serious; it’s even ridiculous. Even if damage to the freedom of expression can be seen here and there, and even if Jewish ethnocentrism is revealed to be more crude and disgusting every day, it’s not fascism and Israel isn’t any more an evil state than in the past.

Were there fewer attacks on innocent non-Jews during the 1948 war than today? Did the horrible murder of 47 residents of Kafr Qasem in 1956 take place under a right-wing government? Are the positions of the communities that don’t accept Arabs so different from those of the kibbutzim that since the beginning of Zionist settlement have refused to accept a single Arab?

Did the Zionist left that established the country and was forced by a UN decision to grant equal citizenship to the conquered Arabs in 1948 not impose a military government on them for 18 years that canceled civic equality? Can one seriously compare the attacks on liberal pluralism today to the limited space of pluralism and tolerance under David Ben-Gurion in the 1950s?

Is the left-wing Zionist settlement on the Golan Heights different in principle from the right-wing settlement in the West Bank? Is Sgt. Elor Azaria, who killed an already wounded assailant lying on the ground, really different from Avraham Shalom, the Mapai head of the Shin Bet security service who gave the order to kill in cold blood two wounded and subdued Palestinians in the 1984 Bus 300 affair?

Read more in Haaretz