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The War on Gaza and Israel’s Fascism Debate

Western critics of Israel's apartheid policies and far-right government are frequently accused of antisemitism, but leftist and left-liberal Israelis have been decrying the country's descent into fascism for years. In this article, Alberto Toscano argues that fascism is embedded in the logic of Israel's colonial project.

Alberto Toscano19 October 2023

The War on Gaza and Israel’s Fascism Debate

Green-lit by Western governments and described by myriad human rights law experts as demonstrating clear ‘genocidal intent’, the State of Israel’s retaliation against Hamas’s Al Aqsa Flood October 7 attack has also elicited talk of fascism in multiple quarters. In a collective statement, the Birzeit University Union of Professors and Employees has spoken of ‘colonial fascism’ and of the ‘pornographic call to death of Arabs by settler Zionist politicians across the political lines’; in their own declaration, the Communist Party of Israel (Maki) and the left-wing coalition Hadash ‘put the full responsibility on the fascist right-wing government for the sharp and dangerous escalation’; meanwhile, Colombia’s president Gustavo Petro described the onslaught on Gaza as the ‘first experiment to deem all of us disposable’ in a ‘global 1933’ marked by climate catastrophe and capitalist entrenchment. Even quoting these lines probably falls foul of the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, which has served as an important instrument in efforts to curtail peaceful international solidarity activism against Israeli apartheid, especially in the guise of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. 

And yet the recognition of an incipient fascism in the latest Netanyahu government and even Israeli society at large seems, if not mainstream, certainly prominent in public discourse in Israel itself, not least in the wake of protests against the recent judicial reforms aimed at eviscerating the vaunted autonomy of Israel’s Supreme Court. Four days before the Hamas attack, the newspaper Ha’aretz published an editorial under the heading ‘Israeli Neo-Fascism Threatens Israelis and Palestinians Alike’. One month earlier 200 Israeli high school students declared their refusal to be conscripted thus: ‘We decided that we cannot, in good faith, serve a bunch of fascist settlers that are in control of the government right now.’ In May, a Ha’aretz editorial opined that the ‘sixth Netanyahu government is beginning to look like a totalitarian caricature. There is almost no move associated with totalitarianism that has not been proposed by one of its extremist members and adopted by the rest of the incompetents it comprises, in their competition to see who can be more fully full fascist,’ while one of its editorialists described an ‘Israeli fascist revolution’ ticking off all items in the checklist, from virulent racism to a contempt for weakness, from a lust for violence to anti-intellectualism. 

These recent polemics and prognoses were anticipated by prominent intellectuals like the renowned historian of the far Right Ze’ev Sternhell, who wrote of ‘growing fascism and a racism akin to early Nazism’ in contemporary Israel, or the journalist and peace activist Uri Avnery, who escaped Nazi Germany at age ten, and who, not long before his death in 2018, declared that 


the discrimination against the Palestinians in practically all spheres of life can be compared to the treatment of the Jews in the first phase of Nazi Germany. (The oppression of the Palestinians in the occupied territories resembles more the treatment of the Czechs in the “protectorate” after the Munich betrayal.) The rain of racist Bills in the Knesset, those already adopted and those in the works, strongly resembles the laws adopted by the Reichstag in the early days of the Nazi regime. Some rabbis call for a boycott of Arab shops. Like then. The call ‘Death to the Arabs’ (‘Judah verrecke’?) is regularly heard at soccer matches.


There is nothing new in the analogy, of course. The likes of Hannah Arendt and Albert Einstein signed a letter to the New York Times in the wake of the Deir Yassin massacre in 1948 decrying Herut (the predecessor to  Netanyahu’s Likud party) as ‘akin in its organization, methods, political philosophy and social appeal to the Nazi and Fascist parties’.

Avnery also singled out the current Minister of Finance, Bezalel Smotrich, as a ‘bona fide Jewish fascist. Smotrich, who has happily referred to himself as a ‘fascist homophobe,’ has laid out the theological bases for his own genocidal intent to ‘abort’ any Palestinian hopes for nationhood, and repeat the Nakba. In an interview, he declared: 


When Joshua ben Nun [the biblical prophet] entered the land, he sent three messages to its inhabitants: those who want to accept [our rule] will accept; those who want to leave, will leave; those who want to fight, will fight. The basis of his strategy was: We are here, we have come, this is ours. Now too, three doors will be open, there is no fourth door. Those who want to leave – and there will be those who leave – I will help them. When they have no hope and no vision, they will go. As they did in 1948. […] Those who do not go will either accept the rule of the Jewish state, in which case they can remain, and as for those who do not, we will fight them and defeat them. […] Either I will shoot him or I will jail him or I will expel him. 


Mention of the Book of Joshua is notable as it also served as an ideological reference for the secular David Ben-Gurion in the early years of the State of Israel. The Old Testament paean to destruction echoes disturbingly today: ‘So Joshua smote all the country of the hills, and of the south, and of the vale, and of the springs, and all their kings: he left none remaining, but utterly destroyed all that breathed, as the Lord God of Israel commanded. And Joshua smote them from Kadesh-barnea even unto Gaza’ (Joshua 10:40-41). 

But the fascism ‘godfathered’ by Netanyahu cannot just be reduced to fundamentalist settlers and their stratagems of dispossession (including the deep tendrils into the state of Smotrich’s settler NGO, Regavim, and its lawfare against Palestinian land and property rights); it is also firmly anchored in the business interests and legislative maneuvers of billionaires who, in Israel as in India or the US, are happy to combine national-conservative mobilisations against decadent metropolitan ‘elites’ with the ruthless defense of profit and privilege. In a recent interview, the Israeli Holocaust historian Daniel Blatman observed


Do you know what the biggest threat is to the continued existence of the State of Israel? It’s not Likud. It’s not even the thugs who run wild in the territories. It’s the Kohelet Policy Forum [a reference to a conservative, right-wing think tank supported by wealthy U.S. donors]. […]  They are creating a broad social and political manifesto which, if adopted eventually by Israel, will turn it into a completely different country. You say “fascism” to people and they picture soldiers cruising the streets. No. It won’t look like that. Capitalism will still be extant. People will still be able to go abroad – if they are allowed into other countries. There will be good restaurants. But a person’s ability to feel that there is something protecting him, other than the regime’s good will – because it either will or not protect him, as it sees fit – will no longer be there. Israeli society was ripe to receive the present government. Not because of Likud’s victory, but because the most extreme wing pulled everyone after it. What was once extreme right is today center. Ideas that were once on the fringes have become legitimate. As a historian whose field is the Holocaust and Nazism, it’s hard for me to say this, but there are neo-Nazi ministers in the government today. You don’t see that anywhere else – not in Hungary, not in Poland – ministers who, ideologically, are pure racists.


Its insights notwithstanding, this passage also painfully demonstrates what liberal Israeli polemics against the rise of fascism bracket. Namely, Palestinians. Soldiers do cruise the streets in Israel and occupied Palestine. Millions of people ruled by Israel cannot go abroad. Or indeed return home. The ‘pure’ racism voiced without compunction by the likes of Smotrich and Minister of National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir is a product of the racism that structures and reproduces colonial domination, for bad faith liberals as much as for giddy fascists. 

Long traditions of Black radical and Third World anti-fascism, as well as of Indigenous resistance, have taught us that, as Bill Mullen and Christopher Vials observe: ‘For those racially cast aside outside of liberal democracy’s system of rights, the word “fascism” does not always conjure up a distant and alien social order.’ In settler-colonial and racial fascist regimes – such as South Africa, which George Padmore in the 1930s deemed ‘the world’s classic Fascist State’ – we encounter a version of that ‘dual state’ which the German-Jewish lawyer Ernst Fraenkel anatomised: a ‘normative state’ for the dominant population and a ‘prerogative state’ for the dominated, exercising ‘unlimited arbitrariness and violence unchecked by any legal guarantees’. As Angela Y. Davis showed with reference to what state racial terror presaged for the rest of the US population in the early 1970s, the border between the normative and the prerogative state is porous. 

This is patent in Israel today, as government ministers use the pretext of war to ‘promot[e] regulations that would allow [them] to direct police to arrest civilians, remove them from their homes, or seize their property if [they] believe they have spread information that could harm national morale or served as the basis for enemy propaganda’. As the Moroccan Jewish Marxist Abraham Serfaty analysed decades ago in his prison writings on Palestinian liberation, there is a ‘fascist logic’ at the heart of the Zionist settler-colonial project of dispossession, domination and displacement. While it may be disavowed by liberals, unless its core mechanisms are dismantled for good, it cannot but re-emerge, virulently, at every crisis. As testified by its broadsides against the hypocrisy of those who claim that they want a two-state solution while never intending to bring it about, the governing Israeli far-Right is in many ways saying the quiet part very loudly. At a time when the occupation and its brutalisation of Palestinians has been normalised and treated to all intents and purposes as interminable, the fascistic settler and religious right has come to affirm and celebrate the structuring violence and dehumanisation that marks Israel as a settler-colonial project – one which liberals have thought to mitigate or minimise, but never truly to challenge. In Israel, as in too many other contexts today, the ascendance of fascism might initially appear as a break or an exception, but it is deeply rooted in and enabled by a colonial liberalism that will never countenance true liberation.


Further reading:

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