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Israel’s Opposition Aids Delegitimizers

avatar by Martin Sherman


Isaac Herzog. Photo: Screenshot.

“We are undergoing a process of fascistization of Israeli politics. These are hard words but they are true. Artists, actors and playwrights are under threat, Supreme Court justices and judges generally are threatened, journalists are fired and are threatened, journalists and newspapers are under threat of being closed by the authorities, and now also academics are under threat and can say nothing.”

— Opposition Leader Isaac Herzog, speech at Holon, June, 24, 2017

Israel’s most implacable enemies were handed a major bonanza last weekend, courtesy of the nominal head of the opposition in Israel, Isaac Herzog.

Speaking at a cultural event in Holon on Saturday, Herzog effectively lent credence to the most libelous vilification of the Jewish state’s detractors, affirming their malicious and mendacious portrayal of it as a fascist entity. In a stroke, Herzog’s injudicious display of partisan political pique inflicted inestimable damage on his country, undoing years of laborious efforts of pro-Israel advocates to present the Jewish state as a lone and valiant defender of democracy in a regional sea of tyrannical darkness.

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“Fascism”: The perennial Pavlovian slur

The electorally-frustrated Left make accusations of “fascism” whenever their right-of-center rivals propose some moderately assertive initiative, which the Left perceives as potentially reducing the arbitrary powers of unelected left-leaning civil society elites — who hold the real reins of power in the state rather than elected officials. (I have pointed this out before. See for example: “Understanding politics in Israel: the Limousine Theory“; “The Limousine Theory (cont): Irrefutable illustrations; egregious examples“; “Israel’s crybullies“.)

Through the Israeli Left’s dominance of these small but disproportionately powerful, unelected elites — chiefly in the legal establishment, the mainstream media and the academe (particularly in the social sciences and the humanities) — it has managed to maintain much of its control over political processes within the country, despite the continual erosion of its electoral appeal.

As it is unable to exercise influence by popular support, the Left is then compelled to do so via small, electorally insignificant, but substantially influential groups, which are in effect the last remnants of left-wing political relevance. Therefore, it is in no way unexpected to find that any attempt — no matter how sound its rationale and equitable its intent — to limit or regulate the inordinate powers of these groups will invariably elicit a visceral response, designed to discredit, delegitimize and demonize such a measure.

Of course, nothing serves this egregious purpose better than the tactic of dubbing such initiatives as “fascist,” even when they are patently nothing of the sort, and in many cases, are precisely the opposite.

This, then, is the reason why this derogatory epithet has become the perennial, almost Pavlovian slur, invoked whenever the electorally-frustrated Left senses that the powers of what in effect are its political agents, are to be curtailed or even scrutinized in the public debate.

Hardly surprising, against this backdrop, is the frantic left-wing alarm whenever it encounters a new initiative aimed at changing the prevailing role of the cultural, legal, media and/or academic establishment. And such initiatives are dubbed partisan because they address and intend to redress situations which are a priori heavily skewed toward left-wing dominance.

The “F” word is predictably brandished whenever any attempt is made to: change the allocation of resources in publicly funded cultural institutions, hitherto almost exclusively monopolized by left-leaning administrators and artists; institute greater transparency in the disclosure of funding of political activity by foreign governments, using radical left-wing NGOs to advance the opposition to the policy of the elected government; inject greater openness into the appointment process of candidates for the judiciary, mired, as it is, in cozy cronyism that virtually bars admission to anyone but the ideologically likeminded; introduce greater plurality in the range of political philosophies students are exposed to in academia.

As head of the opposition, Herzog has shown particular alacrity in casting aspersions on his country’s democratic credentials, especially when the pesky demos (people) has chosen in free and fair elections— confer the kratos (power) on his political rivals.

Invoking the “F” word for political gain

Sadly, Herzog’s derogatory outburst last week was not the first time he invoked the “F” word for political purposes.

When the elected government of Israel introduced a bill to promote greater transparency regarding the funding of Israeli NGOs, who receive the bulk of their financial support from foreign governments, Left-leaning circles howled in protest. They alleged that, somehow, enhanced transparency undermines democracy. Go figure!

Herzog took a leading role in the outcry against greater transparency, talking as if the future of Israeli democracy depended on the unrestricted surreptitious funding of what are in effect foreign agents. As The Guardian reported: “the strongest condemnation came from the Israeli opposition leader, Isaac Herzog, who told reporters before the vote: ‘The NGO law…is indicative, more than anything, of the budding fascism creeping into Israeli society.’”

Quite the opposite is the case. The funding these entities receive from alien sovereign governments off-sets their minuscule public support in Israel, enhancing their domestic impact far beyond their true proportions via foreign-funded well-publicized legal action and high-profile public relations initiatives. In a grave distortion of Israel’s democratic process, foreign governments utilize their taxpayers’ money and domestic Israeli entities to stymie policies the Israeli government was elected to implement, and, at times, compel it to implement measures it was elected to prevent.

To make the point: One can only image the furor that would erupt if the Israeli government poured millions into Spanish NGOs calling for Basque separatism, utilizing Spanish courts and Spanish media to advance the Basque separatists cause. And who would accuse Spain of “fascism” if it took umbrage at such activity, and instituted legislation to curtail it?

Herzog was once again eager to employ the “fascist” smear against Education Minister Naftali Bennett’s proposed academic “code of conduct,” formulated by reputable philosopher and Israel Prize laureate Professor Asa Kasher — who hardly fits the role of some radical right-wing extremist.

Herzog railed against the proposed code, saying, “It is a grave act that harms one of the greatest powers among the Jewish people and the State of Israel – the right to argue and to express a different opinion.”

“When you muzzle poets and authors, artists and actors, judges and journalists and now academics — it is a dangerous step toward [wait for it – MS] fascism,” he added ominously.

This, of course, is a deliberately malicious misrepresentation of the matter. After all, the “code of conduct” was a response to the inhibition and intimidation many students feel when expressing opinions that diverge from those expounded by their radical left-wing lecturers, and to the narrow range of political philosophies students are exposed to in the classroom.

Although I have expressed skepticism about the efficacy of Bennett’s initiative, it’s patently absurd to brand it as “muzzling” academics. The code would not impinge on research, publications, presentations at conferences or extra-mural public activities. Rather than restricting debate, the code would widen it by addressing the virtual stranglehold the Left has on academic discourse.

Should anyone doubt the existence of such exclusive left-wing dominance, I would challenge you to identify a single senior tenured academic (and certainly any junior academic seeking tenure) in any major academic establishment who overtly challenged the Oslo “peace process,” warned of the death and destruction it would wreak on Jew and Arab alike, and urged the Israeli government, publically and persistently, to abandon the perilous path it had embarked upon.

Perfidy as the hallmark of liberal democracy?

A similar brouhaha and dire warnings of “fascism” erupted when controversial Culture Minister Miri Regev introduced the rather injudiciously named “Loyalty in Culture” bill.

However, the existing law already stipulated that the state can in fact withhold funds from institutions, which: incite racism, violence or terrorism; support armed conflict/terrorism against Israel; deny Israel’s existence as a Jewish and democratic state; mark the establishment of the State of Israel/Independence Day as a day of mourning (Nakba); dishonor/deface the Israeli flag or state symbols.

So, in effect, all the bill really did was transfer the existing authority from the Finance Ministry, where such sanctions were not robustly enforced, to the Ministry of Culture, where they may well be.

Moreover, the bill did not mandate any restriction on the freedom of expression; should any cultural institution feel the need to conduct cultural activity that incites racism or violence, or supports armed conflict or terrorism against Israel, it is free to do so.

Institutions should not, however, expect the state to subsidize subversion or to fund its own demise. Judging from the left-leaning opposition’s verbal assault of the bill, it would appear that many of them think Israel should to just that.

The vehement denigration of the term “loyalty” might easily lead us to believe that the Left views a license to be perfidious as a hallmark of a fascist-free liberal democracy.

Difficult to overstate strategic damage

It is difficult to overstate the damage that domestic denigration of Israel’s democratic credentials inflicts on the country.

Israel faces today a grave strategic challenge in the form of an international campaign to delegitimize it, isolate it in the global community and cut it off from its allies by portraying it as unworthy of support. Israel’s most hostile foes seize eagerly on these unfounded characterizations of the country as fascist in their unceasing endeavor to discredit, delegitimize and demonize it.

For example, the Iranian site ParsToday regularly pounces on Herzog’s derogatory diatribes, prominently parading them in various languages as allegedly representing the realities in Israel. One strident headline in its Spanish edition portrayed Israel as a fatally fractured society: “Herzog: Israel is on the verge of a civil war.” They quoted the head of the Opposition’s assessment of the “transparency law” as “symboliz[ing] the fascism that is flourishing in Israeli society.”

ParsToday’s English edition ran a piece with a headline citing Herzog as warning, “Israeli politicians inciting hatred, racism.” In the body of the report it informed its readers: “The 55-year-old chairman of the Labor Party further blamed the administration of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the prevalence of the rising fascist discourse…”

ParsToday was also quick to exploit one of Herzog’s toxic tirades in the Knesset, blaring the next day on its Hebrew-edition site: “Herzog: Israel is afflicted with Ultra-Nationalism and infected with the seeds of Fascism.”

Gee, I wonder what the English word is to describe someone who systematically undermines his country’s strategic interests.

Time for Left to acknowledge “The Other”

The very fact that the left-wing opposition can continuously castigate the current coalition with impunity without any real fear of retribution arguably most resoundingly repudiates the repeated accusations of “fascism.”

What self-respecting fascist regime would tolerate such recalcitrant behavior? The perpetrators would have long been dispatched, post haste, to either prison or the hereafter.

Surely the time has come for the left-wing opposition to realize that their reckless rhetoric inflicts tremendous and unwarranted harm on their country; surely the time has come for them to desist from this egregious tactic for electoral advantage, especially as it has proven so hopelessly ineffectual.

In this regard, perhaps the Left would do well to recall that is has always prided itself on its acceptance of the “The Other.”

So, in its quest for greater success in the democratic process, perhaps it’s time for the representatives of the Israeli Left to come to terms with the existence of “The Other” and reconcile itself with the idea that people who think differently to them are just as legitimate as those who look different to them.

Martin Sherman is the founder and executive director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies.

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