By Professor Lawrence Davidson
Zeev Sternhell is an Israeli historian and a recognized expert on Fascism. He is also an occasional contributor to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. On 14 January 2011 he published a piece originally titled "The Right To Resist." One never knows about the titles of newspaper pieces, whether they are penned by the author or a copy editor, but in this case the title did capture the flavor of the writer’s intent. However, by 15 January the title’s connotations proved too much for someone at Haaretz and the piece has now been renamed, "Gov’t Protects the People, Not the Other Way Around."
However you want to title it, Sternhell’s message is clear. He is very concerned about Israel’s right wing government. He thinks the present regime is controlled by dangerous people such as Avigdor Lieberman (the present Foreign Minister) and a Knesset full of folks who believe that the Israeli "left" are traitors. The present rulers are also the patrons of Israel’s settler movement which Sternhell has always strongly opposed (his house was bombed by these fanatics back in 2008). In other words, as an expert on Fascism, he knows it when he sees it, and what he presently sees in Jerusalem at least has intimations of that sort of authoritarianism. The latest intimation is the desire of the Knesset, seconded by Lieberman, to intimidate human rights organizations such as B’Tselem into silence by investigating their sources of foreign income. The suggestion here is that these organizations are linked to a foreign cabal seeking the "delegitimization" of Israel and you can allegedly demonstrate this by following the money trail.
Other Israelis are also upset about this anti-democratic move on the part of their present government. Gideon Levy, one of Haaretz’s regular columnists, has criticized Liebowitz for his part in this affair. But it is Sternhell who has suggested that "not every Knesset decision is legitimate" and when the government acts in a way that undermines democracy, the citizen has "a duty to resist." Interestingly, he includes in the present sins of the Knesset not only the intimidation of human rights organizations, but also "legislation that would prevent non-Jewish Israeli citizens from living in Jewish communities."
Sternhell’s position is right out of 17th century British philosopher John Locke’s social contract theory. The bond between citizen and government is contractual. The government’s obligation under the contract is to protect the citizens life, liberty and property. It is the liberty part that Sternhell is suggesting the Knesset is undermining (he makes no mention of the stolen property of Arab-Israelis and Palestinians in the Occupied Territories). According to Locke, and Sternhell too, when the government breaks the social contract,the citizen has the right to resist.
Sternhell is not suggesting open rebellion. He has not gone any further than calling for the Knesset’s investigation of human rights organizations to be "ignored." When the promised investigatory committee is set up, people should "refuse to appear before it." Actually, this is all well and good. But then what? As an expert on Fascism, Sternhell does no really believe that such actions will stop the process he so fears, and he surely does know what is happening to his country. In fact he divines its fate, "Just as was true in the past, Lieberman-ism [the name he gives to the drift toward Fascism in Israel] will most likely destroy the last vestiges of the liberal right." I take it the last two words really refer to "liberal rights."
A real problem for Sternhell is that Avigdor Lieberman and his Knesset proteges are more representative of Israel than either he or liberal journalist Gideon Levy. Indeed, not just the traditional "left," but those who fancy themselves as "liberals," are just about done for in Israel. Some of them know it and are packing their bags to leave. This process has been building for a long time and it makes perfect sense. You see, Zionism really is racism.
This being the case, what is now manifesting itself in Israel is a kind of historical determinism. Let us follow this out step by step:
1. Zionism is a political ideology dedicated to the creation of a state for one select group (A).
2. Most early Zionists were inserted in Palestine after World War I with the help of imperial Britain. Palestine was then a land full of other, non select, people (B).
3. You have the predictable resistence of B to A. Simultaneously, the discriminatory bias inherent in A’s Zionist ideology becomes manifest in the group’s state building, economic and other institutional activities.
4. On going resistence only intensifies A’s ideologically driven desire to get rid of all of B. This is rationalized by various references to "self-defense" and, of course, the Holocaust.
5. In order to carry out this long term goal the lives of the Bs are made ever more harsh.
6. After 1967 you can throw into this noxious mix A’s growing religious fanaticism and territorial expansion.
7. At some point a relatively small number of the A group start to object to the morally corrosive consequences of the nation’s behavior. They blame the post 1967 expansion.
8. But the majority of the A group will not hear of this second guessing. They turn on the sceptics and begin to label them traitors.
There is a certain logic to this process and it is hard to see how such a project as Zionism could have played itself out differently. The truth is that the process toward an Israeli style Fascism did not begin (as Sternhell believes) with1967 and the taking of the Occupied Territories. It did not even begin in 1917 and the Balfour Declaration. It began with the very inception of Zionism. You just cannot conceive a state for one religiously or racially defined group, and implement it amidst a population of "others," and not end up with an authoritarian discriminatory society. You can, of course, kill or chase away all the others and then, in your homogeneous solitude, act like you are a democracy. However, in the post World War II, post Holocaust world, this strategy is totally anachronistic and it will fool almost no one on the outside. And, it can only be carried forward by a band of fanatics who don’t care what the rest of the world thinks of them. If you are one of the few on the inside who decides to criticize the process, the fanatics will turn on you with a vengeance. After all, there is nothing worse than a traitor to the sacred cause. This is exactly the present situation in today’s Israel.
Lawrence Davidson is a Professor of Middle East History at West Chester University in West ChesterPennsylvania.He is the author of America’s Palestine: Popular and Official Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood (University Press of Florida, 2001), Islamic Fundamentalism (Greenwood Press, 2003), and, co-author with Arthur Goldschmidt of the Concise History of the Middle East, 8th and 9th Editions (Westview Press, 2006 and 2009). His latest book is entitled Foreign Policy, Inc.: Privatizing American National Interest (University of Kentucky Press, 2009). Professor Davidson travels often and widely in the Middle East. He also has taken on the role of public intellectual in order to explain to American audiences the impact of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.
Davidson is a regular contributor to Opinion Maker.