Israel Prize laureate and renowned scholar Zeev Sternhell fears the collapse of Israeli democracy, and compares the current atmosphere with that of 1940s’ France. The time we have left to reverse this frightening trend is running out, he warns.
At 1 A.M. on a day in September 2008, Prof. Zeev Sternhell opened the door of his home on Agnon Street in Jerusalem, intending to enter an inner courtyard. As he turned the handle, a thunderous explosion rocked the building. Sternhell, who a few months earlier had received the Israel Prize in political science, was lightly wounded by a bomb hidden in a potted plant.
A year later, the police apprehended the perpetrator of the attack: Yaakov (Jack) Teitel, a resident of a West Bank settlement. At one time, Teitel was an informer for the Jewish Department of the Shin Bet security service. In his interrogation, it turned out that his crimes included the murder of two Palestinians.
“I chose Sternhell as a target because he is held in high regard, he’s a left-wing professor,” Teitel told the interrogators. “I didn’t want to kill him, because that would turn him into a martyr. I wanted to make a statement.” Teitel was sentenced to two life terms. After the assault, Sternhell said in the hospital that “the act in itself reveals the fragility of Israeli democracy.”
I asked Sternhell now whether he thinks that very soon, we will no longer be able to claim that we are the only democracy in the Middle East.
“Indeed, we will no longer be able to say that,” he replied, adding, “There is no doubt that the main state authorities do not act with the same determination against the right and against the left, or on the eastern side of the Green Line and on the western side. All in all, these bodies view themselves as much closer to the settlement project’s aims than to the goal of Israel having a Jewish majority and a democracy that grants equality to everyone. The danger is that in good periods, when everything is ostensibly normal, the situation is glossed over. But in a crisis, like we have now, anyone critical of the ‘normal’ order is absolutely afraid to go out in the street.”
Zeev Sternhell was born in Poland in 1935. His father died during World War II; his mother and sister were murdered by the Nazis. Sternhell hid in the home of relatives in the ghetto who, to protect themselves, adopted a new identity as Catholics thanks to false identity papers. He maintained his assumed identity in the postwar period, and was baptized. In 1946, he reached France on a Red Cross train from Poland. He learned French quickly and steeped himself in the republic’s culture and history, but still felt like an outsider. In 1951, at age 16, he decided to immigrate to the fledgling Jewish state completely on his own.
Sternhell did his army service in the Golani infantry brigade and fought as an officer in the 1956 Sinai War. As an Armored Corps officer in the reserves, he also saw action in the 1967 Six-Day War, the 1973 Yom Kippur War and the first Lebanon war, in 1982. In the meantime, his international academic career took off. Sternhell studied the collapse of the 20th century’s modern liberal democratic order, and also reconceptualized fascism, viewing the phenomenon not as a random accident that occurred after World War I, but as an ideological approach originating in the 19th century.
In 1983, his book “Neither Right Nor Left: Fascist Ideology in France” (published originally in French) stirred a furor in France. Sternhell’s thesis was that the Vichy regime, which helped hunt down Jews, was not forced upon the French, but sprang from an ideological stream that reflected the hidden wishes of the masses. Fascism, he argued, was actually born in France, not Italy. His book, since revised and expanded, continues to be controversial in France and elsewhere.
In 1977, with the ascent of Menachem Begin and the Likud to power in Israel, Sternhell joined a circle of intellectuals who sought to persuade the rival Labor Party to adopt a dovish stance. For years he has been outspokenly critical of the settlement project and an advocate of the urgent need for the establishment of a Palestinian state. Those views, uttered by a public figure of his prominence, led Teitel to single him out in an act that would “make a statement.”
Have you seen signs of a budding fascism in Israel in the past month or two?
“First, let me say that there are worse things than fascism, and that not everything that is bad is fascist. In Italy under Mussolini, which is the prototype of fascism, probably no more than a few dozen people were murdered by the regime. There were no concentration camps. Art and culture flourished. Before the war, life was highly tolerable, including the life of the Jews, until the promulgation of the race laws in 1938. The percentage of Jews in the Fascist Party was higher than their percentage in the population. And the Italians were not actually responsible for the downturn that occurred afterward in the life of the Jews – not like in France, where the fate of the Jews is totally the historic responsibility of the French, even if they decline to acknowledge it.
“As I say, there are worse things than fascism. You don’t need that exact definition. For example, people say that if there isn’t a one-party regime, it’s not fascism. That’s nonsense. A party is a means for achieving power, not a means of rule in itself. What needs to be examined in this context is the resilience of the democracy – and Israeli democracy has become increasingly eroded, until it reached a new nadir in the current war. The indicators [of fascism] you asked about definitely exist here.”
Of all the phenomena you’ve encountered here, which do you find ugliest?
“What we’ve seen here in the past few weeks is absolute conformism on the part of most of Israel’s intellectuals. They’ve just followed the herd. By intellectuals I mean professors and journalists. The intellectual bankruptcy of the mass media in this war is total. It’s not easy to go against the herd, you can easily be trampled. But the role of the intellectual and the journalist is not to applaud the government. Democracy crumbles when the intellectuals, the educated classes, toe the line of the thugs or look at them with a smile. People here say, ‘It’s not so terrible, it’s nothing like fascism – we have free elections and parties and a parliament.’ Yet, we reached a crisis in this war, in which, without anyone asking them to do so, all kinds of university bodies are suddenly demanding that the entire academic community roll back its criticism.”
Do you think it’s due to fear?
“Fear of the authorities, fear of possible budgetary sanctions and fear of pressure from the street. The personification of shame and disgrace occurred when the dean of the law faculty of Bar-Ilan University threatened sanctions against one of his colleagues because the latter added a couple of sentences to an announcement about exam dates in which he expressed sorrow at the killing and loss of life on both sides. To grieve for the loss of life on both sides is already a subversive act, treason. We are arriving at a situation of purely formal democracy, which keeps sinking to ever lower levels.”
When will we cross the line in which democracy implodes?
“Democracy rarely falls in a revolution. Not in Italy, not in Germany and not in France with the Vichy regime – which is a crucial thing, because France was a democratic country that fell into the hands of the right wing with the support of the vast majority of the population. It was not the fall of France that generated this ideology. It was the result of a gradual process in which an extreme nationalist ideology took shape, a radical approach that perceives the nation as an organic body. Like a tree on which human individuals are the leaves and the branches – in other words, people exist only thanks to the tree. The nation is a living body.
“In Israel, the religious factor strengthens the national singularity. It’s not a matter of belief, but of identity; religion bolsters your distinctive identity. It’s essential to understand that without this radical nationalism there is no fascism. I also distinguish between fascism and Nazism, because fascism does not necessarily carry a race doctrine. Let me put it in no uncertain terms: Fascism is a war against enlightenment and against universal values; Nazism was a war against the human race.”
Do you see a negation of universal values in Israel and a war against enlightenment in recent years?
“It cries out to heaven. Israel is an extraordinary laboratory in which one sees the gradual erosion of enlightenment values, namely the universal values I mentioned. You see the negation, which always existed on the fringes, slowly impinging, until one day it dominates the center.”
The case of France
“Consider the nationhood law submitted by [Likud MK] Zeev Elkin [which would define Israel as the state of the Jewish people only]; the campaign against the Supreme Court, a body based on the idea that there are norms that transcend governmental power; the [proposed] law against the left-wing NGOs, which is a brutal and violent erosion of freedom of speech; and the various manifestations of a witch hunt here, when a journalist like [Haaretz’s] Gideon Levy needs a bodyguard.
“Consider Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s demand that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas recognize Israel as the Jewish state. That is to force the Palestinians to acknowledge that they are historically inferior, as though to say: ‘You lost the country in 1948-49, it’s not yours. You live here because we are not expelling you, but this is a Jewish state.’ The Arabs are citizens, but it’s not their country. In other words, a distinction is made between nationhood and citizenship. Anyone can be a citizen, but we are the masters.
“Why is the case of France so interesting? Because that’s what was done to the Jews there in 1940, even though some had lived there for hundreds of years. They were told: ‘You received an ID card and a passport; now I am revoking them. I cannot annul the Frenchness of a Frenchman, but you are not French, and the citizenship category is artificial.’ That was done to an uncle of mine who immigrated to France in 1929, together with my aunt, in order to study medicine. It was the same in Germany.
“This is exactly what we are saying to the Arabs today. The potential for the annulment of citizenship exists here, too. Why throw the Jewish state like mud in the face of these Israeli citizens? In fact, their behavior has been perfectly fine, considering the problems they face, with families in the West Bank and Gaza, and the pressures they are under. For my part, I don’t know of any Israeli-Arab spy ring. It’s true that they don’t sing the national anthem and don’t fly the flag and aren’t members of the World Zionist Organization, but as citizens they are fulfilling their obligations.”
What is your horror scenario for the end of Israeli democracy?
“Democracy is not defined by the right to vote every few years. It is tested every day in terms of human rights. All the rest is secondary, because you can easily, by casting a ballot, establish a dictatorial regime here, or vote to kick the Arabs out of the Knesset. You have to remember that democracy ceased to exist in the territories long ago. The Palestinians there have no human rights, you rule them by force, and after three [Jewish] boys are murdered you can make the life of the population hell, because you can do as you please. That has been the case for decades, and it corrupts.
“Those norms are already here, inside the Green Line, because our children and grandchildren spend most of their army service in the territories. There’s a colonial police force there, in the form of the Kfir Brigade and the Border Police, but that’s not enough. Kfir and the Border Police weren’t even sent into Gaza, because they no longer know how to engage in combat. They are no longer soldiers. The Paratroops were brought from training on the Golan Heights to search for the three kidnapped boys – not to search, actually, because it was already known that they weren’t alive, but to make the lives of the local population miserable and show them who’s boss. What goes on there constantly leaks into Israel. Democracies don’t collapse suddenly, they encounter a serious crisis. We could find ourselves in a serious crisis in which the whole shebang will go up in smoke.”
To be followed by the rise of a dictator?
“Not necessarily, not at all. The government will continue to rule, resting on the Knesset majority by force of edicts and creation of clear segregation between Jews and non-Jews, imposing censorship, intimidating dissidents, the media, the universities – all supposedly autonomous bodies.”
But you say it’s already happening now.
“Of course it’s happening now, but it could reach a boiling point. The water is already very hot. It hasn’t yet boiled, but it could do so tomorrow morning. It’s on the brink of boiling over.”
Do you agree that Operation Protective Edge was a war of no choice?
“It was a war of complete choice, chaotic and sloppy, and that too will be investigated. Something should have been done as soon as they [Hamas] started shooting. First of all, there was no need to humiliate the population and arrest the 500 people who were released in the Shalit deal … Hamas also took advantage of the opportunity to demonstrate that it is the only fighting force and that Abbas is a ‘collaborator.’ The rockets had to be responded to. Could that have been done without the massive use of the air force? I don’t know, I don’t have enough information. But this war, entry of ground forces, was a war of choice.”
What about the threat of the attack tunnels?
“No one mentioned that beforehand, that was not the aim of the war. The aim was to achieve quiet in return for quiet. The government didn’t want the ground entry. It was already a rolling operation. There was right-wing pressure on the government. Maybe if Bibi hadn’t gone in, his status as prime minister would have been weakened immensely. Any reasonable person would now exploit the gap in ability between us and them to launch a process toward a comprehensive solution of the conflict.”
‘Carrot and stick’
But how can you reach a situation of negotiating with a fundamentalist, religiously extremist organization?
“In principle, I think we should talk with everyone, if it can lead to results. I think Israel should have taken advantage of the formation of the joint Fatah-Hamas government and given it an incentive, something it could work with. We gave them nothing, only the demand to recognize Israel as the Jewish state.
“Hamas is Gaza; Hamas is no longer only a terrorist organization. It established a province, a region under its rule. It invested all its efforts in the war against Israel, but one has to be fair about this whole story. I try to be as objective as possible. It’s true that Hamas is an extreme fundamentalist organization, a murderous organization of shahids [martyrs] – but we are going to have to live with those people. We need the carrot-and-stick method. We used the stick plentifully, but I didn’t see the carrot. Abbas is dying for us to give him something. Maybe we can reach a settlement now, as part of Gaza’s rehabilitation. There’s no need to demand that Hamas raise the white flag. We need a long-range perspective that will include an element of generosity toward the Palestinians. Could it be the policy of blockade and creating intolerable conditions that nourishes Hamas? We need to do something concrete in our relations with the Palestinians and with the Arabs as a whole.”
Such as what?
“The first thing is to stop deepening the Jewish presence in the territories. Then to show them that we genuinely aspire to two states. And as a means of demonstrating our seriousness, to lift the blockade of Gaza, with supervision, with Abbas’ people at the transit points, and to let the population breathe. And also to forge relations in which the people there are treated as human beings on an equal footing with us.”
Will a government that’s not capable of removing three mobile homes in the West Bank be able to remove whole settlements?
“The settlements are a cancer. If our society is unable to muster sufficient strength, political power and mental fortitude to remove some of the settlements, that will signal that the Israeli story is finished, that the story of Zionism as we understand it, as I understand it, is over.”
How long do we have until the end of the story?
“A few years. Israel is now the last colonial country in the West. How long will that continue? If not for the memory of the Holocaust and the fear of being accused of anti-Semitism, Europe would have long since boycotted the settlements. I would begin by evacuating Ariel University, because it’s easy to do. It’s easier to remove a university than it is to remove three trailers. It’s a symbolic act. That wretched college was made a university in order to demonstrate something.
“Why do I so much want a border between the two countries? To prevent the emergence of one state here, because with one state there will be an apartheid regime. After all, no one here is playing with the idea that there will be civic equality between Nablus and Tel Aviv. There will be a civil war here, in the best case, and in the worst case there will be an apartheid state in which we will rule the Arabs without the dimension of transience that is still attached to the territories – even though it’s obvious to anyone with eyes in his head that the transience has long since vanished and that there is an apartheid situation in the West Bank.”
‘Their tragedy and ours’
You’ve elaborated on our blame for the deterioration. What blame attaches to the Palestinians?
“The editors of an Arab journal recently asked me about the right of return. I told them it’s dead, a destructive illusion. ‘Why not leave the refugees some hope?’ they asked me. I replied, ‘That hope will block any agreement.’ A few years ago, in a meeting with Arab intellectuals in Haifa, we agreed on pretty well everything until we came to the right of return. One of them said, ‘Are you in effect asking me to tell my relative, who once lived on this street and is now a refugee in Sidon, that he can never return here?’ That’s exactly your role, I replied, to tell them that they will never return to Haifa or Ramle or Jaffa. As long as they cling to the notion of the right of return, they are preventing the majority of the Jews in Israel, who want to put an end to all this, from fighting for an agreement. That millstone, which they cannot cast off, is their tragedy and ours.”
But the Palestinians’ attitude sometimes looks like obsessive rejection.
“It’s true that the Palestinians don’t have the strength, the leadership, the necessary elite, the mental fortitude to recognize the fact that 1949 was the end of the process. They don’t have to see it as just, but they need to understand that it’s the end. They don’t have the strength to grasp that, and we are rubbing salt into their wounds by making more and more demands and creating an intolerable situation in the territories. We are cultivating their hostility.”
After the brief episode involving the Labor Party intellectuals, Sternhell and others tried to form a social-democratic party along the lines of Meretz. When their efforts failed, he ended his brief flirtation with Israeli politics for good.
Is there anyone in Israeli politics who scares you?
“The group led by [Naftali] Bennett and [Uri] Ariel scares me – I think they are extremely dangerous. I think that [Avigdor] Lieberman is a little less dangerous, because he lacks religious fervor. But they and the right-wing branch of Likud are truly dangerous people, because they really don’t understand what democracy is, what human rights are, and they truly and deeply hate the Arabs in a way that doesn’t allow for coexistence here. You ask whether there are similarities between Marine Le Pen in France and Bennett – of course there are. In some ways she is a dangerous left-winger compared to him. If Netanyahu really wants to enter the history books, he needs to dismantle the partnership with the right, split Likud and establish a centrist government with the support of the left, and not be ashamed to rely on the Arabs’ votes.”
Is Netanyahu capable of replicating de Gaulle and returning the territories?
“When de Gaulle returned Algeria, he was already out of the history books. Netanyahu hasn’t yet come out of the comic books. It’s a very problematic comparison. But if Netanyahu doesn’t do something on a grand scale, what will he leave behind?”
Do you define yourself as a Zionist?
“I have remained a Zionist, certainly. Maybe foolishly. The aim of Zionism was to create a safe home for the Jews, but for many years we have been living in the most unsafe place in the world for Jews. Zionism aimed to build a safe home for the Jews. But also a home worthy of the name, a decent home that one can be proud of, a home in which you don’t step on anyone’s back or suppress anyone. Already in the 1920s it was understood that the Arabs don’t want us and that the fulfillment of Zionism cannot be dependent on their good will. We arrived at a state of war, we won the war and that was the end of that chapter and the start of a new one.
“To go on with it for decades after the state’s establishment is the ruination of Zionism. What’s happening now in the territories is not Zionism, it’s a nightmare of Zionism. If the result is one state here, between the sea and the Jordan River, there will either be a devastating civil war or an apartheid state. In both cases, the Zionist state as I understand it and as I want it, will not exist. There will be something else here. My consolation is that I will not be around to see it.”
Given the current public atmosphere and your personal experience, aren’t you afraid to speak out like this?
“If I need to be afraid to say what I have said here, and to say it publicly to people’s faces, then our story here is over.”