Robert Scheer SI Podcast

Israel Fascist?

Israel’s sharp turn to the extreme right has startled American Jews.
Palestine Street Art. Photo credit: wanderlasss via Flickr

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Richard Silverstein, author and journalist who wrote extensively about Israeli private intelligence tech firms, returns to “Scheer Intelligence” with host Robert Scheer to discuss his latest piece in Jacobin, “For the Israeli Right, the New Government Represents a Return to Its Fascist Roots.”

The word “fascism” is being thrown around much more frequently now when the topic is Israel and its new government. The appointments of people like Itamar Ben-Gvir as the Minister of National Security and Bezalel Smotrich as a minister in charge of “civil responsibility” confirm the already far-right-leaning direction of the latest Netanyahu government, according to Silverstein.

Silverstein provides essential context on what Israel could look like under this new government, how it is likely to evolve and the waning support from American Jews for this fascistic force. Silverstein explains, “the political agenda of this new government is what argues for it being fascist…they’re going to separate women in the public sphere, not allow them on public buses… Ministers want to stop the gay pride parades that happen in three cities in Israel. They want to allow doctors to refuse medical care to gay people.”

This direction is a direct contradiction to the original idea of Israel, argues Silverstein. “Israel has become a state that is more dangerous for Jews than the diaspora. In Israel, you are more likely to be killed as a Jew or as an Israeli than you are outside of Israel. And it’s because of Israel being a garrison state, being in a state of perpetual war with its neighbors.”


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Credits

Host:

Robert Scheer

Producer:

Joshua Scheer

Transcript

Robert Scheer:

Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from my guest. In this case, someone I’ve had before, Richard Silverstein, who was described in a profile, he lives in Seattle, and he was described in a profile in the Seattle Times after he broke a big story about Israeli security documents and a spying organization and so forth, made a lot of news. And The Seattle Times profiled him as a and described him, he is a sharp elbowed journalist writing about Israeli security issues that inflame the left and the right. You’re a blogger. Tikun Olam. And the reason I wanted to talk to you now is a lot of confusion in the American Jewish community and in the journalistic community about how to regard the new Netanyahu government. You wrote a very powerful article for a very interesting magazine, Jacobin, and in which you… The headline was “The Rise of the Israeli Fascist State.” Now, I’m perfectly willing to criticize Israel, when it’s required. But, boy, that headline, you know, the rise of the Israeli fascist state. First of all, fascism took so many Jewish lives and its German variation. But I always thought fascism is most accurately described as a kind of a corporate state alliance, which then uses genocidal stereotyping and so forth to divide people. Why the title? Did you bring it up? And why don’t you just tell us why you think this is an accurate, if alarming description of what’s happening in Israel? 

Richard Silverstein:

The point of the essay I wrote for Jacobin was to not just talk about the current fascist government, which I’d be happy to go into with you. It’s really to talk about fascism as an ideology that started, that joined together with the beginnings of the Zionist movement, where you had two essential factions that struggled against each other. One was the revisionist faction under Jabotinsky, which flirted with fascism. Jabotinsky was a fan of Mussolini and the revisionists created their own militia which assassinated British officials during the mandate period. But the fascist element of Zionism sort of receded once the state was created in 1948. And that’s when the sort of working class, socialist, democratic socialist element of Zionism came to the fore under Ben-Gurion. And from ’48 until 1977, the Labor Party was almost a single party state. But in 1977, the Likud came to power for the first time, and their predecessor, their legacy was from the revisionists. And 1977, for the next 50 years, Likud basically ruled Israel, and it still rules. But in the last decade or so, as Benjamin Netanyahu was the prime minister for the last 15 or 20 years, the state has become increasingly more right wing, more extreme, more fascist, more theocratic in terms of a Jewish law predominating in a lot of the politics. And so now the new government that’s just come to power contains ministers who are outright fascists, whose sort of ideological forebears are Meir Kahane, who himself was probably a prophet of the current government as a sort of mentor for many of the ministers who are now in the government, names like Itamar Ben-Gvir, who’s the police minister, and Bezalel Smotrich, who’s the new minister, who’s going to control everything that’s happening in the settlements and on the West Bank. And the political agenda of this new government is what argues for it being fascist, and that is they’re going to separate women in the public sphere, not allow them on public buses. They’re trying to stop women from serving in the army, which they’ve done for several decades. They’re going to… There’s a homophobic element as well. Ministers want to stop the gay pride parades that happen in three cities in Israel. They want to allow doctors to refuse medical care to gay people. And they also, there’s a Palestinian element here as well. The minister I mentioned, Ben-Gvir, who is the police minister and a disciple of Meir Kahane, decided that he was going to go to the Temple Mount, which is the third holiest site in Islam. And he was going to pray for the rebuilding of the third temple. And that would mean they would have to destroy the Al-Aqsa mosque. As I said, the third holiest site in Islam. And that would create a kind of an Armageddon sort of situation between Islam and between Jews in Israel. So we have a perfect storm, really, of sort of right wing extremism in many Israelis and journalists are using the term fascism. So I’m not the one who kind of innovated here. And they are the ones who are saying that this is a fascist government. This is the most extreme government in the history of Israel. And so that’s how we got to this place. 

Scheer:

Right. And actually, you know, your podcasting has warned about this for quite some time. I should give some recognition to your background. You were a student, I believe, at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Was that in New York or. 

Silverstein: 

That’s right. I did my undergraduate degree there at Columbia and JTS. 

Scheer:

And you studied Hebrew and you were conversant with the country and so forth. And then you went to U.C. Berkeley. You were doing a doctorate in what? In religious studies?

Silverstein:

In comparative literature, Hebrew was my major. And I also spent two academic years studying in Jerusalem at the Hebrew University. 

Scheer:

Right. And you’ve described yourself as someone who loves Israel. Right? You originally accepted the idea of some sort of Jewish state, but then you broke with it over whether it was including non-Jewish people. Is that a fair summary? 

Silverstein:

When I started writing my blog, I was a liberal Zionist and my first interest in Israel goes back to when I was a teenager in 1967 during the Six-Day War. So I was a liberal Zionist until about 15 years ago. And you know that saying about a neocon as a liberal who’s been mugged by reality and I am a liberal Zionist who was mugged by the Zionist reality and what Israel has turned into. 

Scheer:

Well, you’re not the only one. I mean, Thomas Friedman, who’s been an apologist for Israeli governments during different periods, has spoken very written columns, very harsh about the current [inaudible]. In Haaretz, which is a newspaper I read every morning in English, I don’t read Hebrew, but, you know, sounding an alarm. You have lots of people in Israel sounding an alarm. I don’t want to dwell too long on the word fascist, but I must say my own… You know, I happen to have been a journalist in Israel and I had been in Egypt at the end of the Six-Day War. And I interviewed a lot of the labor Zionist leaders, Dayan and Allon, and I met these people and so forth. And I must say that’s when the conquest of the West Bank and Gaza happened. By the way, the Palestinians are not the people who waged war against Israel. It was Egypt, which is now at peace with Israel and Jordan and Syria and so forth backed by some of the Arab Emirates and others who now have better relations with Israel, but the Palestinians paid the price and they had to hold a conquest. I do want to get to this word fascism, because what is happening now and your article in Jacobin, I heartily recommended, it really says this is different. This is really past the critical warning zone and that a different Israel has been born. This is not just the machinations, political machinations of Netanyahu and so forth. So tell us why this is different and I gather from your article that you think this is defining Israel as the exact opposite of what the labor leaders that I interviewed back at the time, the Six-Day War said they were aiming at. They actually talked about not being a permanent occupation. They talked about, you know, that they got support from non-Jewish, including Muslim and Christian Arabs that were then in Israel. And they had a kind of a very appealing view of the future. And the idea of looking back at that time, of that, you know, a half century ago to talk about a Jewish fascist state. What is it based on? Is it based on an extremist view of the biblical text or what is it? Is it political machination? What do these people really believe? And tell us, as your article does detail who they are and they have a long history. They go back to the shtetls of Eastern Europe and so forth. So teach, teacher. 

Silverstein:

Well, one thing that’s important to note in terms of the agenda of the current government is they want to basically dismantle the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court has acted as a brake upon the worst excesses of the Israeli Supreme Court. Right. Yeah. And you’ll probably go back to remembering Aharon Barak, who was the chief justice, who was a very strong proponent of human rights and who opposed the use of torture by the Shin Bet against Palestinian security detainees and the Supreme Court, that Supreme Court, it no longer exists, and now it’s very conservative. But even that disturbs the current far right government. They want to dismantle the Supreme Court by passing a law called the override law. And it basically says that the Supreme Court no longer has the right to to say that laws are forbidden or laws violate the the basic laws which are the constitution of Israel and the only thing that the legislature, the Knesset, would have to do is by a majority vote, overrule the Supreme Court and then enact whatever law they wanted to enact so they could do anything, basically. So, you know, in the U.S., we have three branches of government, executive, judicial and legislative. In Israel, the prime minister is sort of the executive. You have the Knesset as the legislature and the Supreme Court. There will be no Supreme Court. I mean, it will exist. I like to say that the only thing it will be able to do is judge traffic tickets. It won’t have any substantive ability to stop the worst kinds of laws. For example, the nation state law that was passed about three years ago. It eliminated any Palestinian or Arab coexistence with Jewish, with Hebrew as a language, with the Israeli flag and the religion of Islam, which was co-equal with Judaism under the former law. So that is one of the sort of initial building blocks of what became this fascist state. And about a week or two ago, I wrote a blog post comparing the law, the Nuremberg Laws, with the proposals of Meir Kahane. And if you compare them, they match almost completely. And Kahane himself was like Ze’ev Jabotinsky, he had a romance with fascism, he didn’t believe in democracy. And we should note also that he founded the political party, called Kach when the FBI was on its tail and is going to arrest him for engaging in terrorism in the U.S. He founded Kach, which was a far right party in 1988. It was criminalized as a terrorist party. And the Treasury Department in the U.S. also labeled it a terrorist entity. And the Biden administration just removed that before Kahane came to power, unfortunately. So those are some of the elements of fascism that I think fit quite well with the current situation. 

Scheer:

Yeah and they aimed also at Jewish leaders they didn’t agree with. I mean, after all the killing of Yitzhak Rabin, who was a hero of the Six-Day War and a leader and his death… But it’s interesting you referred to Shin Bet, which is the internal organization that controls the West Bank and Israel. There’s a very good documentary that was made in Israel called “The Gatekeepers” that interviewed, I think five or six of these former leaders of Shin Bet and they were very candid in saying that the occupation breeds the mechanism of fascism and whether they use that word or not. They were very concerned about that, and they were the people actually administering the policy. So I want to ask you, how is this, why is this going over in Israel? There are certainly still a lot of enlightened Jewish people in Israel that would recoil at the idea of a fascist state in the state you’re describing. Where are they? Where is the opposition? 

Silverstein:

Well, as I said before, the Labor Party really has declined into oblivion. The Labor Party was sort of stalwart and as I said, a one party state until 1977, and gradually over time they became politically irrelevant. And so all of the figures that we respected and admired, you may remember Shulamit Aloni, who was a left wing Zionist leader of the party called Meretz, and that Meretz didn’t even get into the Knesset in the last election. The Labor Party just barely got in by the skin of its teeth. It used to have, you know, 40 or 50 seats in the Knesset, and now it has four. For some reason, the left has been discredited. Partly it has to do with the history of the last few decades of relations with the Palestinians and acts of terrorism that happened both from the Palestinian side against Israelis and also the Palestinians, viewing the Israeli army as engaging in terrorism against them. So many Israelis have become very right wing, very rejectionist in their view about and their unwillingness to compromise with the Palestinians. So, you know, and I think Netanyahu has helped that along. You’ll remember in the Obama administration, a number of very intensive efforts were made to get the Palestinians and Netanyahu to agree to a compromise, to agree to a two-state solution. But Israel has refused and rejected two states despite the negotiations that happened at Camp David a long time ago. There’s no possibility for the last ten years, the Israelis and the Palestinians haven’t even talked to each other, let alone reached a compromise. So that’s how we got to this place, this terrible place we are in now. And that’s how the Likud has parlayed that into this new fascist government. 

Scheer:

Well, you were pretty early in your criticism of this tendency, what was happening. You’ve been critical, as you say, for some 15 years now. But where is the American Jewish community? You yourself, I believe, were associated with one of the great liberal or progressive temples, right, Leo Baeck and Rabbi Beerman, the late Rabbi Beerman, one of the great figures. If you were to come to Los Angeles now or while you’re in Seattle, what does it mean? To me, it was generally that polling would always show the Jewish community was open to Palestinian rights. It felt there should be a room for different people who considered themselves liberal in a traditional tolerance. What’s going on now? And will the American Jewish community continue to support an Israel that you feel is lurching so sharply to what, a fascist right? That’s worse than Trump!

Silverstein:

The American Jewish community if they’re polling on their views. Political views on Israel are very left wing, moderate, left-wing, liberal I would say. They’re opposed to the occupation. They’re certainly opposed to the government, the current government. They’re opposed to Netanyahu. All polling shows strong support for Palestinian rights, support for a two-state solution. However, the Jewish community, mainstream, is not what dictates the way in which the political system works in the United States. You have the Israel lobby, which basically dominates the Congress and dominates the presidential approach to Middle East relations and relations between the U.S. and Israel. And the Israel lobby is very heavily influenced by whatever the Israeli government sort of interest is. And so all of the major weapons sales that happen are engineered by the Israel lobby. And that’s the reason that there’s no serious criticism offered by Democrat mostly Democratic politicians, including most Democratic presidents, they’re very, very leery of saying anything that is too explicitly, explicitly critical of Israel. 

Scheer:

But isn’t that changing now? Isn’t even the Biden administration being a bit more critical? I may be wrong. 

Silverstein:

Not really. If you look… 

Scheer: 

Let me just interrupt you for a second. I did a podcast with Tom Dine, who used to work with Senator Ted Kennedy. I knew him for a long time and he was head of AIPAC. Now he broke…he left the organization. But, you know, this was a thoroughly enlightened liberal human being. You know? You’re describing people who would now go along with this new Israeli government that would support it. I mean, what’s going on? And particularly if a majority of Jews and I agree with what you said about the polling data. I remember I helped run a couple of polls at the Los Angeles Times when I worked there back in the ’90s, ’80s, and I was really startled. The Jewish community was the most tolerant, enlightened community on the question of the Palestinian rights and so forth. It was actually stunning. So what’s going on? This is not a, you know, an easily cowed community. What’s happened to the American Jewish community? 

Silverstein:

Well, in terms of politics, money talks, and as you know, and what AIPAC has done has created these political action committees that have actually funneled $30 million in the last year into Democratic primaries. And they identified now that $30 million didn’t come from Democratic donors, it came from Jewish Republican donors. The money was all funneled into Democratic primaries where AIPAC identified bad Democrats who were too progressive on Israel, too critical of Israel and Jewish candidates, by the way, and one Muslim American candidate. And with the exception of one or two of the candidates, they were all defeated. The progressive candidates were defeated, and in turn they elected pro-Israel, more conservative Democrats. So this is how AIPAC has taken control of the political discourse in this country. So it doesn’t really matter what you or I think, or what even the majority of American Jews think, because the powerful Bernie Marcus, Paul Singer, these are all people who are Wall Street hedge managers or corporate CEOs. They’re the ones that are giving tens of millions of dollars. And that money talks and that money dominates the Biden administration policy, the Obama administration policy on Israel, which has refused to engage in any kind of restraint of Israel. And one perfect example is this new Israeli government. What’s the response been of the State Department and Biden? Almost total silence. The only word that they use is “we express concern,” you know, in quotes. They have said that instead of dealing with individual personalities, we’re going to deal with policies. And that refuses to recognize that an appointment of a fascist as a police minister is a policy. And so they are basically saying, we won’t deal with Itamar Ben-Gvir, we won’t deal with Bezalel Smotrich. Instead, we’ll deal with Netanyahu. He’s the reasonable, mature adult of the bunch. But that’s really a total illusion, delusion on their part that they think they will have any impact on Israel by mollycoddling. Another issue that came up recently was an American-Palestinian journalist named Shireen Abu Akleh was covering unrest in the West Bank and an Israeli IDF sniper murdered her. And the U.S. at first didn’t want to have anything to do with it, even though she’s a U.S. citizen. Then they finally announced, yes, we will have the FBI do an independent investigation. That was three months ago, we haven’t heard a word since. So that is the kind of thing that the U.S. government has basically given up, given control to Israel of the narrative. 

Scheer:

But let me push this a little further. You know, you and I have lived in the American Jewish community, and these are people of character, strength. They tell you what they think. They’re not easily cowed and that includes even a number of wealthier Jewish people traditionally that have spoken out. And, you know, Bernie Sanders, one of the few candidates that actually did well, the only one that really raised any questions. He’s much more typical of the American Jewish community than these people, you’re describing at AIPAC Why aren’t they speaking up? How do you explain this acquiescence to AIPAC as your spokesman? This is a question you would ask if you know, you do ask people when the Christian right speaks for all Christians, Christians speak up and say “No, that’s not our view of Christianity.” So certainly most American Jews would not think a fascistic view of the other and exploitation is what the Jewish tradition is all about. Why isn’t there more ferment and opposition and criticism, critical thinking? 

Silverstein:

Well, there’s a Pew poll, Pew Research poll that came out about five or ten years ago, and it polled American Jews about the list of their priorities, their political priorities in terms of American Jewish politics and society. And Israel was a ninth of 20 priorities. So you can see that for Americans, especially as Israel turns more and more right wing, American Jews are turning against Israel, and when they turn against Israel, they’re not becoming firebrands like you or I. They’re really becoming indifferent to Israel or negative about Israel. If you look at the younger generation, that’s even more so. They’re even more alienated from Israel. So the approach that they take is not to roll up their sleeves and get involved and join a left wing organizations like Jewish Voice for Peace, which is the prominent, most left wing, critical of Israel in the U.S. right now, it’s just to walk away and say we have better issues, we have more important issues to deal with. And that’s the problem of what happens with Israel when politics becomes so right wing and so conservative and there’s so much alienation here. People just don’t want to get involved. It’s too complicated. It’s too painful. If you’re an American Jew and you look at pictures in the news and you see Palestinian children arrested and put in prison and you see, you know, bombing in Gaza and 2,300 Palestinians murdered in Gaza as happened in 2014, you’re disgusted and you don’t think you can do anything to change it. That’s the problem. 

Scheer:

But that is the most negative description of Jewish life in a way. Because, I mean, one thing that I would not think you could criticize Jewish people for is being silent. The whole idea is to speak up. You know, why didn’t they? Why didn’t people speak up during the Nazi pogroms and the Tsar’s pogrom and everything, you know. And the irony here in your article, which is really well researched and interesting, you point out these people wanted the Jewish state because they were afraid Jews would disappear, not because of oppression, but because of assimilation. Right. Was a big factor. The irony here is you’re describing really a kind of assimilation pressure of alienation of American Jews because of Israel. This is the exact opposite of what the Labor Party believed, there would be a strong, positive society extolling human freedom would be attractive. You have your birthright visit, you’d go to Israel, you would redefine Judaism as, you know, a positive, pro-human rights, enlightened form of life. You’re now describing an embittered, narrow state that is going to alienate American Jews, among other people. Is that your prediction? 

Silverstein:

Pretty much. If you look at the history of Zionism going back to the beginning, it was a response to the pogroms in the Tsarist period, in which thousands or tens of thousands of Jews were massacred in Ukraine by Cossacks. 

Scheer:

Several of my aunts were killed during that period, and it’s one reason my mother came to the United States from Lithuania. 

Silverstein:

Absolutely. It’s why many of our ancestors, great grandparents, came to this country to escape that persecution. And the Zionist movement began as a response to that by saying there is no future for Jews in Europe, especially Eastern Europe and Russia. And we need to set up a Jewish state which will be a haven and a refuge for these people. It will be a place where they can be safe and they can create their own state and have their own sovereignty, and the Jews will be able to control their own destiny. That was the plan. The problem is that Israel has become a state that is more dangerous for Jews than the diaspora. The diaspora is a relatively secure place for Jews in most places and almost all places. In Israel, you are more likely to be killed as a Jew or as an Israeli than you are outside of Israel. And it’s because of Israel being a garrison state, being in a state of perpetual war with its neighbors, not just the major wars of ’67, ’73, and in Lebanon in 1982. But every few years there’s another war in Gaza and thousands of Jews, Israelis have been killed over the past few decades. So Israel is no longer what it was meant to be by the early Zionist movement. And that’s why this increasing alienation between diaspora and Israel. And I’m very critical, by the way, of American Jewish leaders. We mostly talked about the Israel lobby, but the American Jewish leaders have an opportunity to speak out against what Israel is doing and to say that this is against the values of American Judaism, and they very rarely will. AIPAC released a statement which was very supportive of the new government, and they have without, with a few exceptions, a Jewish voice or peace and some other groups, they have not wanted to step foot on this. This is a landmine for them. 

Scheer:

Well, that’s a depressing note on which to end it. But hopefully there’s a Jewish consciousness, a sensibility, a love of justice. That’s one reason why, you know, we care about the preservation of our Jewish values. 

Silverstein:

One last thing I wanted to say, Bob, I’m sorry to interrupt you, is Jewish life isn’t going anywhere in America, Jews are fine in America. We have our important issues that we deal with Black Lives Matter, The LGBT movement. 

Scheer:

No but you cannot be… To define Jewish life and say yes, but we don’t talk about Israel. That’s ridiculous. It’s ridiculous. What? We talk about Black Lives Matter, we talk about gay rights here, but not in Israel. Come on, you can’t have it that way. And it seems to me what you describe in your article in Jacobin, I would recommend that people read it. I’ll link to it. You’re basically talking about a betrayal of this incredibly rich, freedom oriented religion and certainly in its secular manifestations in the diaspora, it was a source of… That’s why it had been such a great contribution to science, to art, to the whole conception of freedom? And if the Jewish community now can look at every other issue and take the moral high ground, but not about Israel, that’s a contradiction. That’s just too, too gross, too extreme. You can’t do it. You can’t have it both ways because the setting up of a Jewish state means that all Jews are, in a real sense, responsible and should be concerned. And that defines whether you like it or not. Let me end on that editorial note. I want to thank you, Richard, and I do recommend the article. I will suggest that you read it. I also want to thank Laura Kondourajian and Christopher Ho at KCRW, the strong NPR station in Santa Monica, for posting and hosting these shows. I want to thank Joshua Scheer, our executive producer, and I want to thank the JKW Foundation in memory of Jean Stein. And on this particular this subject, Jean Stein, who came from an important Jewish family here in L.A. and Hollywood, Jules Stein’s daughter, was one of those Jewish people in this country who stepped forward very early on and said this shouldn’t be done in my name as a Jewish person and she was very supportive of Palestinian rights in her writing, along with Edward Said, who was a very good friend of hers and the leading writer on this subject. So that’s it for this edition of Scheer Intelligence. See you next week. 


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