Why Isaac Herzog is Talking About Fascism

Gershom Gorenberg

My new column is up at the American Prospect:

Israeli Welfare Minister Isaac Herzog is normally a soporific politician. Dressed up in a suit, he looks and sounds more like a boy about to celebrate his bar mitzvah than like a Cabinet member. Asked for a sound bite on a controversial issue, he’s likely to answer with a tangle of equivocation. Herzog owes his senior status in the Labor Party to legacy — his father’s career in Labor concluded with 10 years as Israel’s figurehead president, his grandfather was Israel’s first chief rabbi — and to his proven willingness to support whoever’s in charge in the party. A key example: Last year he backed party leader Ehud Barak’s decision to join Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, over the objections of Knesset colleagues who recalled that Labor once had principles.

Herzog, therefore, is not a guy you’d expect to use the f-word when describing the country’s direction under that same government. But he did last weekend. “Fascism,” he said, “is licking at the edges of the camp, and we’re not paying attention to it. We’re on a slippery and very dangerous slope.” When Isaac Herzog talks about fascism, something serious has to be wrong.

The immediate cause of Herzog’s warning was a bill that received the Cabinet’s backing Sunday morning, on its way to Knesset approval. An amendment to Israel’s citizenship law, it would change the requirement for naturalization from simply declaring loyalty to Israel — to affirming loyalty to Israel as “a Jewish and democratic state.”

Let me parse that. First, the amendment doesn’t apply to people coming to Israel under the Law of Return, which grants automatic citizenship to Jews or people with Jewish fathers or grandfathers. (The definition of being Jewish, in the law as in traditional Judaism, is having a Jewish mother.) That is, only people with no ethnic connection to being Jewish will have to affirm loyalty to Israel as a “Jewish state.”

Second, the bill requires new citizens to declare fealty to a political stance and is doubly flawed because the meaning of that stance is unclear.

Read the rest here.

13 thoughts on “Why Isaac Herzog is Talking About Fascism”

  1. I don’t like that loyalty pledge either, but “fascist”? Come on. That’s just hysterical name-calling, like “Islamo-fascism”. If the word “fascist” means anything other than “something I really dislike”, this stuff is not fascist. Using curse words like that just degrades the public discourse even further. And if you disagree with me, you’re a self-hating Jew, so there.

    I’d also have a problem affirming Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. As I’ve argued here ad nauseum, Israel is (to quote Ahmed Tibi) a democracy for the Jews and a Jewish state for the Arabs. I think the main function of these loyalty oaths is to bring in the votes to Yisra’el Beitenu. In my case it had the opposite effect: I voted for them back when Lieberman was talking demographics, but not when he started talking about loyalty oaths.

    I can’t for the life of me see how this “gives the lie” to Netanyahu’s support for a Palestinian state. Lieberman’s platform, last time I checked, included, “Israel is our home; Palestine is theirs.” His whole point is to have two uninational states – in political, not strictly demographic terms – instead of one uninational state (Palestine) and one binational state or state of all its citizens (Israel). Of course the demographics would ideally follow this, and that’s where the border-drawing plan (endorsed by Henry Kissinger) comes in. It seems to me that this would lead to a more, not less, stable two-state solution. The alternative proposed by the Zionist left is an irredentist state of Palestine next to a half-heartedly Jewish nation-state of Israel with a large Arab electorate. Whatever the justness of such a vision, in practice it’s a recipe for further conflict. But hey, I’m just a fascist, what do I know.

  2. The right of refuge and return was won through economic struggle, war, and, at times, isolation. I can think of no other State which has implemented such a right, gathering people throughout the world. The United States’ sporadic pro-immigration stance is essentially passive (and more open ended, when extant). The right of refuge (I think that a better label than “return,” as it avoids an religious justification) is unique, truly developed over centuries of hostility and destruction. I do not think it has to be lost. The logic of that right could apply, in reduced form, to those Palestinians losing that which indeed grounded that right, the Israeli War of Independence. Simply, by extending that right/logic in incremental ways to such of Arab descent you preserve that right as it now exists for Jews worldwide, core to the “Jewish character” of the nation-state.

    Where the extension would go I cannot say. But if you want to preserve this hard won miracle of history, what better way than to implement it where it hurts yet is consistent with return/refuge to the homeland? Could belief in the right of refuge trump growing apartheid?

    I am an outside, as others on this blog have pointed out. Still, I do not want to see the struggle of Israel to end, either. Nor do I want to see its Arab citizens made performing good little boys and girls. That leads to apartheid and rebellion. I venture the guess that the right of refuge can be a way out of the impass. As always in nonviolent political advance, both Jew and Arab (both Israeli) would have to risk and fear and struggle. Not complete return; there are ways to limit the effect, at first at any rate. The core principle of Zionism warns against coming apartheid and its ultimate collapse. I see nothing else.

    But then, I am an outsider.

  3. Aaron – if you take a look at the Wikipedia entry on fascism, there are quite a few parts of it that resonate with how things are moving in Israel.

    And on Greg’s comments about refuge, I think of the word “spin”, that I define as how a thing is presented.

    In the 1940’s the spin on Israel came overpoweringly from the Holocaust. You could almost say there was a ticket marked “Holocaust” that allowed the bearer to claim territory wherever desired. The word refuge, the phrase “crime against humanity” all brought the desirability of Israel to mind. But that ticket had a “use by” date and an expiration date that is fast approaching if it hasn’t already passed.

    For a couple of decades it seemed that two wrongs actually could result in a right. The founders of Israel knew this – they were true spin-masters.

    The spin on Israel now is of oppression, defiance, arrogance. Refugees? When I look at the Nefesh B’Nefesh website showing pictures of new Israelis from abroad, It looks more like college kids who have been promised 5 years of unlimited beer to move to Israel. Not to say they aren’t sincere, but refugees they are not.

    The Internet has made the directives of the Israeli government plain for all to see in the many videos coming out of the occupied territories. It’s a PR nightmare that can’t be un-spun.

    The whole idea of an indigenous people being kicked out while a brand new group has set up in their place is glaringly evident – the settlements only broadcast that this has been the process all along.

    Most important, the Palestinians are speaking out – in English – revealed as real impoverished refugees in their own land. The injustice of the situation screams to us while the well-to-do members of the Israeli government pronounce on further methods of disenfranchisement for Arabs.

    Chaim Waizmann is supposed to have said, “there are ten times more Arabs than us, but we are ten times more intelligent then they are”. The proof that isn’t true is that Netanyahu and friends so blindly proceed in a manner offensive to every thinking citizen of the world. If what’s going on now isn’t fascism, it sure is marching with determination toward it.

    Greg – I’m an outsider too, but damn it, if my money is going for weapons and financial support for such an odious group of far-right fanatics as lead Israel right now, you bet I’m going to shout my head off.

  4. Well, three listings of my name in the “recent comments column.” A bit much, even for me.


    I am not trying to spin anything. I believe that change must be internal, regardless of what external pressures are applied, so I have been trying to think of how one could make a case for change, within the span of Israeli political doctrine. I think, as I believe do you, that apartheid is essentially present in what is now defacto Greater Israel. I think, as perhaps do you, that ultimately apartheid is unsustainable. I think that the Jewish/democratic tension has a solution, and I have tried to sketch that in my comments on right to refuge. (It is not true that all Jewish immigrants now do not need refuge, but that is beside the point.) Political struggle for change must come from within Israel as well as without. If I always condemn that polity and its history I see nothing but a longer period of apartheid, loss, death.

    You see, I think that the right of refuge requires attempt at an internal solution for Arab Israelis; and I think there can be no general solution without the plight of Israeli Arabs addressed.

    My money does not go for weapons or financial support of Israel; I am below the Federal tax line. Perhaps that shows my words are useless. I can say I admire your site


    and your tenacity; you yourself dedicate your site to Israeli human rights organizations. I am just trying to articulate a way of thinking which does not invariably bash all things Israeli. I do not think disclaiming the founding of Israel will help at all; at the time of its founding there were waves of true refugees, and recall that Arab states intervened in 48 for their own territorial ends.

    Every wrong should be shouted. Human rights tear us from our trapped discourses of the past. But we must nonetheless use the past to move forward, once human rights violations are identified. I have been as angry and disgusted with Israeli State policy as you, indeed, for decades. In my remaining time I am just trying to leave words which might bridge fears, for I think many who will not deny their State of birth are indeed unhappy. They will make the change, not I.

    I really do recommend Clif’s site. He is relentless, but that is necessary, and he collects a wealth of hurt in one internet published place.

    Unfortunately, oh blog hosts, I have one other post on yours to write, for I woud like to start a dialogue with Dave on a different thread.

  5. Sure, there are things about this whole loyalty pledge that “resonate” with fascism. There are things about radical Islam or Islamism or whatever you call it that “resonate” with fascism too. Much of the nationalist rhetoric on the Zionist left (“territorial withdrawal is needed to preserve Israel as the state of the Jewish people [Volk]”) also “resonates” with fascism, as the anti-Zionist left is quick to point out. And all of these things “resonate” with other, non-fascist ideologies as well. “Resonance” does not justify name-calling. These name-callers that Mr. Gorenberg celebrates are further degrading an already degraded public discourse.

  6. As the old saying goes, even paranoids have enemies. Are some of Lieberman’s ideas extreme in the context of traditional liberal/democratic ideals? Sure. Are their implications troubling? Without a doubt.

    At the same time, the concerns these bills are trying to deal with are very real. The Israeli Arab community is rife with anti-Zionism. They are opposed to the existence of Israel as a Jewish state (forget democratic for just a moment). These anti-Zionist elements are supported by millions of their ethnic and religious brethren in the region and millions of others in Europe. This is a real existential threat to the Zionist enterprise.

    If Lieberman (or other Israelis) want to defend Israel as a Jewish state they must take this threat seriously. What, exactly, should be done? Ignoring a real threat is arguably more dangerous than these rather limited gestures toward insisting on loyalty from citizens.

  7. I agree with Simi’s comment of course, except that I don’t agree that Lieberman’s ideas on Israeli Arabs are “extreme in the context of traditional liberal/democratic ideals”. In fact, they fit in quite well with traditional views of liberalism and democracy.

    There was a famous long-running debate between the 19th-century liberals Lord Acton and John Stuart Mill on national homogeneity. Lord Acton argued that multinational states were more conducive to the cause of freedom, and Mill argued that they were less. John Stuart Mill would presumably approve of drawing state borders to conform to national demographics.

    Democracy, until the 20th century, was never considered universal. Restrictions weren’t necessarily national, as Lieberman’s are, but there was always a restriction. The 19th-century concept of a nation-state – which all Zionists, from Gershom Gorenberg to Avigdor LIeberman essentially endorse – was traditionally associated with liberalism and democracy, in opposition to autocratic, imperial rule. As a matter of historical contingency if nothing else, liberals and democrats were often against the multinationalism of empire.

    None of this is to say that Lieberman’s proposals are good. I happen to like the idea of drawing borders to fit demographics. I’ve got nothing against loyalty pledges in principle, but this proposal is counterproductive and amazingly imprudent. But these ideas are consistent with traditional views of liberty and democracy.

  8. Colonial Independence is in no way similar to removing natural born Israeli (Arab) citizens from the country of their birth by redrawing boundaries. It would violate the letter of the Israeli Declaration of Independence. Nor can the logic of single ethnic democracy be compatible with the Settler Movement.

    The Knesset made a promise to Arabs declared Israeli citizens. Is pure parlimentary democracy capable of honouring its past? Pure majoritarian democracy may fail rights protection when race is the divide.

  9. Aaron probably knows more about this stuff than I do, but I think the possibility he gestures at—that liberals were on the side of ethnic homogeneity simply because of historical contingency—is right. That it was a matter of historical contingency can be seen from the fact that liberals took the opposite position when the circumstances were different: Support for Catholic emancipation in Ireland, for instance.

    In fact, after making the point about democracy demanding restriction that Aaron mentions above, Carl Schmitt argues that this proves democracy’s incompatibility with universalizing liberalism. Schmitt was writing in 1923, so if this is a 20th century conception of liberalism, it’s an early one.

  10. Framing (or forcing, depending on your political convictions) the Israeli Declaration of Independence as constitutional law:

    Below I provide excerpts from eight Israeli Court of Justice cases (7 sitting as the High Court of Justice) which either implicitly or rather explicitly (cases 5 and 6) treat the Declaration of Independence as a constitutional document (the quote from case 8 implies that Knesset legislation is derivative from that empowerment). Material below each case citation is a direct quote; I have added nothing.

    The further back one goes, the more caveats one finds in the use of the Declaration. So, if I had wanted to argue that the Declaration is NOT a protective document checking acts of State and Knesset, I would have presented early cases. In the United States, it is well know that segregation of the races was affirmed law of the land in Plessy v Ferguson (1896), the dissent of John Harlan in that case finally becoming constitutional law some 60 years later.

    Recent HCJ cases are clearly compatible with the extension of the Declaration’s power as I have advocated lately on this blog. That continuing this process would overrule prior HCJ decisions is no different that Brown v Board of Education (1954) overruling Plessy, ante. In fact, Plessy was more general in application than Brown, allowing separate but equal in all State action, yet Brown, focusing on schools, overruled Plessy in toto.

    I believe a strong argument can be made that the Israeli Declaration of Independence constitutionally binds the Knesset, and that this argument has been evolving through case law in Israel. Nascently, Israel is NOT a pure parliamentary democracy. This logic would stop growing apartheid, based solely on the foundation of Israel itself.

    I used the Israeli Court of Justice’s search base and was gratified to find so many English language versions of cases. All text beyond this point is direct quote from Israeli case law.

    1. [Center for Jewish Puralism … v Ministery of Education …, HCJ 4805/07, 2008]

    The right to education was guaranteed in the Declaration of Independence, and it is grounded in various international conventions that Israel has ratified or to which it is a party, and in conventional international law (s. 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948)

    2 [Supreme Monitoring Committee … v Prime Minister of Israel, HCJ 11163/03, 2006]

    a. The struggle for dignity and equality is, as we have said, enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, within the framework of establishing the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, and this expression is in addition to the label ‘Jewish.’

    b. It was not by chance that the drafters of the Declaration of Independence chose to base the liberty, justice and peace that would be the foundations of the state on the vision of the prophets of Israel, since they were always the pillar of fire at the forefront of the struggle on behalf of the weak and the different, and for the equality of human beings, in the spirit of the words of the prophet Malachi: ‘Have we not all one Father, has not one God created us…’ (Malachi 2, 10

    3 [Bethlehem Municipality v State of Israel, HCJ 1890/03, 2005]

    The freedom of religion and worship is recognized in our law as one of the basic human rights. This freedom was already mentioned in article 83 of the Palestine Order in Council, 1922, and in the Declaration of Independence. Freedom of religion and worship has been recognized in the case law of this court for a long time

    4 [Hass v IDF Commander in the West Bank, HCJ 10356/02, 2004]

    The freedom of religion is regarded as a branch of freedom of expression in the sphere of religious belief. It was recognized by the legislator already in art. 83 of the Palestine Order in Council, 1922, and in the Declaration of Independence, which states that freedom of religion and conscience will be guaranteed to every citizen of the State. This freedom has been recognized in case law as a constitutional basic human right (HCJ 292/83 Temple Mount Faithful v. Jerusalem District Police Commissioner [28], at p. 454; Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism v. Minister of Religious Affairs [26], at p. 381; HCJ 7128/96 Temple Mount Faithful v. Government of Israel [29], at pp. 522-523; Gur Aryeh v. Second Television and Radio Authority [25], at pp. 276-277). The freedom of religion and worship is granted as a constitutional right to the population living in the territories, both Jews and Arabs. It is regarded as a constitutional right of supreme status that should be realized in so far as possible in view of the conditions prevailing in the territories, while protecting the safety and lives of the worshippers. Increasing the security
    measures for the pedestrians along the worshippers’ route is intended to allow Jewish inhabitants to exercise their constitutional right to pray at a holy site.

    5. [Yaakov Gur Aryeh … v Second Television and Radio Authority …, HCJ 1514/01, 2001]

    Freedom of religion is ‘of the basic liberties which are recognized according to our legal system and constitute a part of it’ (President Meir Shamgar in HCJ 650/88 Movement for Progressive Judaism in Israel v. Minister of Religious Affairs, IsrSC [22] at 381) and it was guaranteed to all citizens of the state in the Declaration of Independence, whose ‘principles every authority in the State must place before itself’ (Justice J. Sussman in HCJ 262/62 Peretz v. Local Council Kfar Shmaryahu, [27] at p. 2116).

    6. [Her Majesty the Queen … v Sheldon G. Edelson …, PLA 7092/94, 1997]

    Having established, based on our own legal sources, that customary international law is a source of Israeli law, we have paved the way for its absorption into Israeli Law. We can therefore concur with Acting President S. Z. Cheshin, who held:

    We are obligated to rule that the said principle has become an integral part of the law of the land by virtue of the fact that Israel is a sovereign state, existing in its own right. The Declaration of Independence created an opening for the new state to absorb those international laws and customs, practiced by all states by virtue of their sovereignty, and which have enriched their legal systems with the customary principles of international law

    7. [Alice Miller v Minister of Defense …, HCJ 4541/94, 1995]

    In the State of Israel, as in otherdemocratic states, the rule forbidding discrimination against women becauseof their sex is continually winning ground as a basic legal principle, and the
    legal rhetoric is continually being translated into reality. In the declaration of the establishment of the State of Israel (‘the Declaration of Independence’) it was stated that ‘the State of Israel will uphold complete equality of social and political rights for all its citizens
    irrespective of… sex.’

    8. [El-Al Israel Airlines Ltd v. Jonathan Danielowitz …, HCJ 721/94, 1994]

    the principle of equality is incorporated in Israeli legislation. This began with Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which provides that the State of Israel shall treat its citizens equally ‘irrespective of religion, race or sex’. It continued in legislation that creates equality in specific relationships.

  11. Raghav noticed that I was just cribbing from Carl Schmitt, as usual. Schmitt’s thinking – not just on liberalism and democracy – is excruciatingly relevant to Israel.

    Gregory is right about the injustice of what I called (way too glibly) “drawing borders”. It means breaking the deepest promise that a modern republic makes to its citizens: their citizenship itself. There are a few things that mitigate the injustice, though.

    Most of the citizens involved are not loyal to the State of Israel (obedience is not the same as loyalty). Thus, it’s not a betrayal at the deepest level. Much of their attachment to the State of Israel seems to be monetary (National Insurance, etc.), and that loss can be compensated.

    Citizenship would be transferred to a new state: they will not be left stateless. The new state would be “theirs”, so they would not be foreigners there.

    Most importantly, any peace agreement will entail heavy injustice against both Arabs and Jews. No injustice, no peace. The injustice against some settlers (those who didn’t choose where to live) whose communities are destroyed would be much greater. If a stable peace justifies dismantling settlements, then it justifies transfer of citizenship as well.

  12. Aaron’s comment is honest–very honest. Without such honesty even discourse is impossible. He is correct, in my view, that at the end of all this, if there can be an end, some people are going to be hurt without cause–and that defines injustice. Principles hurt people; perhaps always. We gamble that those we advocate will harm less; sometimes, perhaps more than that, we just say “don’t hurt me.” Perhaps politics is mostly about deflecting hurt to others. So what I say next is what I believe, but I recognize that hurt shall thrive under my view nonetheless.

    Carl Schmitt was, of course, a Nazi. He defended the night of the long knives as a just defense of the German people against, in part, the Jews. He believed the will of a people could and was deposited in a single man–Hitler. Democracy was secondary to the trajectory of its people. For Democracy to work the land must be purged–and it was. Of course, by that time democracy was dead.

    To demand of citizens loyalty measured beyond obedience is a form of thought control. You will be in committees arguing the worth of a man’s words. Failure to condemn will become a measure of foreigness. What begins in racial categories will not stop there; nor did it stop in Germany.

    Citizenship is a yoke on the State, not the citizen. Once citizenship is defined, or bestowed, the State is encumbered; otherwise, as in Stalinist Russia, citizenship is just another weapon to control with fear. The 14th Amendment to the US Constitution bestows citizenship upon birth in territory under US jurisdiction (although this was ignored during the American occupation of the Philippines, I think). Immigrants, once naturalized, become citizens. At times Congress tried to remove citizenship to the naturalized. The Supreme Court turned that back: save for the case of false application, citizenship once conferred enters one into a common pool of protection. To remove Arabs born in Israel of duely granted citizenship is to abjure a State’s primary purpose. If these want to remove to a Palestinian State they can. But to say that that State will offer the same protections as Israel is not true, even if, at present, these protections are mostly future hope. One cannot even say whether a Palestinian State would be allowed an army. How many Israelis would agree to a State without an army?

    Since the assassination of Rabin a fear has grown in me that the Nazis have won. Their proclamation that race drives politics has won. And I fear that Israel is their inheritor. Removing natural born citizenship is a final solution. Your Supreme Court, at least from 2000-6, has been trying to stop this, fighting the Nazis who know not how to die. Politics is about dealing with those around you; not removing them. Perhaps the principle is beyond human capacity. America, too, has yet to live its words. I see in your Supreme Court an attempt to live words. Do not turn on them; behind your back the Nazis stare.

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