Of all the world’s democracies that should have a natural immunity to such dismal developments, Israel’s government-in-waiting is now offering a sickening but fascinating lesson in the inseparability of criminality and fascism. A central innovation of “totalitarianism,” as Hannah Arendt noted over seventy years ago, is to have committed “crimes that men can neither forgive nor punish.” Fascism nevertheless appeals to conservatives and middle-class people as a backstop against disorder and the perceived threat from the Left, as Robert O. Paxton writes in his 2004 book The Anatomy of Fascism, because the crimes are supposed to be committed against “enemies of the state” while allowing those nice normal folks to continue with their white-picket-fence lives (almost) as normal. Nevertheless, as Paxton says, the fascists are never strong and popular enough to attain power on their own; they must have the active help or passive collusion of the conservative elites. Mussolini was invited to form a government by Italian King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy and Hitler had Franz von Papen. Trump had Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan, at least for a while.
Israel’s Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich have Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, although the latter has been trying for several years now the same maneuver that worked for Britain’s Boris Johnson for a while, playing the role of the center-right politician of a traditional elite background who co-opts fascist (or “nationalist/populist”) energies. The role of the frightened conservative middle classes is nicely filled in Israel by ordinary Israeli Jews who have been traumatized most recently by the internal Arab-Jewish riots that accompanied the Gaza flareup of May 2021, at the end of Netanyahu’s most recent term as prime minister. In case anyone imagines the Palestinians are wholly innocent victims in all this, the riots saw fatalities on both sides, and the Palestinian-Israeli rioters burned down ten synagogues as well as hundreds of Jewish homes, acts sure to trigger deep-seated rage and fear among Israeli Jews with very recent historical memories of the Holocaust and the pogroms across the Arab world in the 1940s and 50s. The entire Arab Muslim world, as I have noted previously in this space, has been in the grip of a devil’s brew of religious fundamentalism and secular fascism in varying combinations for most of a century now.
For the moment, Bibi is the ringmaster, but the performing lions are threatening to devour him at any time. For example, he has awarded Ben Gvir the title of Minister of National Security, placing him in charge of the Israeli police who have been investigating his criminal activity for his entire adult life, starting when he was nineteen years old and ripped the hood ornament off then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s official limousine on national TV, boasting that “we’ll get him, too” just weeks before Rabin’s assassination, and continuing through years of violent incitement against Palestinian-Israelis and Palestinians in the occupied territories. Ben Gvir’s big cause is to unleash cops and soldiers against “the Arabs” after what he charges have been decades of having their hands tied by soft-on-terrorism politicians such as, er, Bibi Netanyahu (prime minister 1996-99 and 2009-2021).
Bibi has also put the virulently anti-gay and fundamentalist Jewish provocateur Avi Maoz in charge of Israel’s Jewish identity, with a budget of tens of millions of dollars to influence Israel’s education system. Maoz has announced, just in time for Hanukkah’s Festival of Lights, that he intends to “expel the darkness” of all liberal forms of Judaism such as the Reform and Conservative movements from Israel. And then there’s Smotrich, another hard right fundamentalist who wants expanded settlements and is to be Minister of Defense, and more traditional ultra-Orthodox politicians such as Aryeh Deri, who was convicted of corruption from his previous stint in government in the 1990s and requires a change in the law that is already being passed to become a cabinet minister yet again.
Bibi worked hard to buy this bag of wildcats, and he now definitively owns it. It was he who godfathered the fusion ticket of far-right settler representative Smotrich and further right Meir Kahane acolyte Ben Gvir so that there would be no “wasted” far right votes. He may now think, to switch metaphors, that it is better to have these fascisti inside the tent pissing out rather than the other way round, in LBJ’s pungent phrase. It is thus Bibi’s misfortune, but democratic Israel’s good fortune, that Meir Kahane of “Jewish Defense League” and “Kach” infamy himself is long dead, and the small Israeli fascist movement is riven between competing would-be Duces who are already competing with each other in staging outrages to antagonize the vast majority of Diaspora Jewry, the United States, Israel’s newfound Arab friends, and ultimately the bulk of the Israeli Jewish electorate as well.