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Let's stop using the terms 'fascism' and 'democracy' from now on

The debate over the state of Israeli democracy (or the rise of fascism) is code designed for lefty Zionists. Others don’t get it, and it may even do more harm than good. Some thoughts following Haaretz’s interview with Prof. Ze’ev Sternhell.

Protest against the boycott Law, Tel Aviv, June 12 2011 (photo: Oren Ziv/activestills)

Tel Aviv protest against the anti-boycott law(Archive photo: Oren Ziv / Activestills)

There has been growing discussion over the last few weeks regarding the risk of fascism in Israel and the dangers to Israeli democracy, most recently in an extensive interview by Prof. Ze’ev Sternhell in Haaretz. I hold Sternhell in high regard, and his book, The Birth of Fascist Ideology, is among the few required readings in my undergraduate degree I actually remember in some detail. But while this terminology may be of use to foreign observers trying to make sense of what is happening in Israel against the backdrop of their own historic experience, I have serious issues with the incessant talk about “fascism” and “democracy” in the current Israeli moment.

In fact, I think we should stop using the word “fascism” altogether. I know that the warnings about fascists and fascism sound very grave, but my feeling is that the word does not mean that much to anyone here. At best, it’s a sonorous warning against something general and obscure; more commonly, it’s simply isn’t scary enough.

It’s also a lousy base for political organization. Israel does not have a tradition of anti-fascism, like Greece or Germany. Maybe some of the Russian-speaking Israelis have anti-fascist consciousness, but if they do, it doesn’t seem the recent cries impress them overmuch. I just think that outside a very small circle, “fascism” is simply a code word used by one political camp. When it cries “fascism,” the Left just wants to say “help, I’m getting beaten up.” This is a legitimate statement, but there is no need to hide it behind generic terminology cribbed from an introductory political science class.

On a personal level, whenever I hear the word “fascism,” I see the European middle class – a kind of conservative bourgeoisie that goes berserk. This is why using this term to dub Israeli followers of Rabbi Meir Kahane – religious, messianic, hardly middle class – seems contrived. If anyone in Israel here reminds me of actual fascism it is the new political aristocracy with their European posturing and their nationalism: Gideon Sa’ar, Yair Lapid, Gilad Erdan.

There are many words that have a tighter link to Israeli political culture and to the Israeli experience which we should be using when we want to communicate political messages, even negative ones. For instance, Kahanism – a genuine political current in Israel; anyone over the age of 40 can recall the debates surrounding the movement, as well as the mass protests it provoked and violence that accompanied it. Of course we should be speaking about discrimination, violence, racism. But the interesting thing about these concepts is that they cannot be reduced to an attack exclusively against the political Right; they carry a broader political and social significance than that. (Perhaps this is precisely why people prefer to shout “fascists,” as it suggests that the target is right wing.)

Our liberal use of the word “democracy” has also devalued that concept. I used to write quite a lot about democracy and the threats to it. Now I try not to use the word unless I have to. Democracy is a very abstract word. Like “fascism,” it is little more than a code word for a specific political tribe and its allies abroad, and meaningless for everybody else. The result then is that we shout about “democracy,” and most people don’t understand what we want from them. (The lie about “Jewish & democratic” merits a separate discussion.)

The word “democracy” is problematic in yet another way. The call to “defend democracy” assumes there is something to defend, and that this something is in danger. This observation is entirely unique to the Zionist Left. The Palestinians in the occupied territories can hardly be expected to feel that there is a democracy worth defending here. Palestinians citizens might have their doubts too. (As MK Ahmed Tibi memorably put it: “Israel is Jewish and democratic. Democratic for the Jews and Jewish for everyone else.”)

On the Right, among the settlers or the veterans of the Revisionist movement, the situation actually feels more democratic than at any other point in Israeli history, during which they were the ones being suppressed, excluded and marginalized. In the 1950’s my grandmother could not work in education because everyone knew she used to be in the Irgun (a pre-state right-wing Zionist militia). For people like her, Israel became a lot more democratic over the past few decades.

To make a long story short, the Right feels Israel is more democratic, the Palestinians never felt it was democratic and the only ones crying about democracy going to the dogs is the Zionist Left. And it is doing it not because of its universalism, but because for once, it is the Zionist Left that’s on the run. This is obviously something to worry about, and I’m as concerned about this assault as anyone else, but let’s not claim to speak in the name of “democracy.” Let’s talk about persecution, about silencing and censorship, about nationalism, about community, about mutual responsibility, about “thou shalt not do unto others,” about rivalry or even about civil war.

I think the truly irritating thing about these two words is that they often hide a private or a collective interest behind something ostensibly universal and global. What’s more, the string of incidents held up as proof for the advancing-or-already-established “fascism” is light years from that grand and terrible word: a fired teacher, a suspended broadcaster, and so on. (Professor Sternhell is actually the only leftist voice in nearly two decades to be the victim of an assassination attempt, so as previously stated, I have no bone to pick with him.)

Each one of those incidents is ugly, and one can speak of a general phenomenon. But if you want to talk fascism, why talk about these unpleasant but relatively mild incidents, and not, say, October 2000, when police gunned down Palestinian citizens of Israel during demonstrations. Or why not discuss 17 Palestinian protesters that the IDF killed in the West Bank this past month alone? And how can we even begin to speak of democracy in a state where a huge chunk – nearly half – of the population under its effective sovereignty is administered by military rule? Why are we only waking up now?

At the end of the day, I think the two terms, fascism and democracy, are intended only for a tiny part of the Left. They are part of an internal language of mutual encouragement and reinforcement. This is an important survival tool for a persecuted minority, but on a larger scale they won’t do any good – and might actually make things worse.

You can watch me debate Prof. Sternhell  and Prof. Tamar Herman on those issues on Channel 10 here [Hebrew], our part starts at min 23:00. This post was originally published in Hebrew on Local Call; I thank Dimi Reider for translating it.

The night it became dangerous to demonstrate in Tel Aviv
On the Adam Verete affair and anti-democratic trends: Three notes
Who gets to vote in Israel’s democracy?

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    1. BR

      Eh, not sure about this article. I’ve been using these two words precisely how they are mentioned in the closing paragraphs. It also doesn’t seem to offer any good alternatives to these words – nobody outside of Israel knows that “Kahanism” is.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Adam

      Agreed although I use it. Israel is an ethnic nationalist state. That’s what it is. Like Poland or Ukraine a century ago. They were democracies too but they weren’t models worth adhering too and were also very perscutorial towards ethnic groups. No one would ever hold them up as a standard of civilized democracy.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Michael


      I think Noam’s point is that these words are used for an internal Israeli discourse, among the Left, and to appeal to outsiders who only have their own historical experiences to measure the Israeli experience against. ie. Europeans wondering what caused the police to sit by as anti-war demonstrators were assaulted in Israel or Americans supporting Israel because it is a ‘democracy.’

      If I understand Noam’s points correctly, he’s saying that Israeli political culture has unique code words tied to Israeli experiences’.

      In my mind, no longer trying to analyze Noam’s points, the difficultly in explaining Israel to an outsider is that most don’t understand Israeli experiences nor it’s discourse. Fascism has some resonance for people in Israel because it’s tied to the acts of the Nazi’s in Europe but would a Mizrahi Jew really understand fascism in the same way as an Ashkenazi Jew? Does the word sound the same to an American liberal Jew who probably grew up with the discourse of the 1960s in the their home? To a Palestinian in the territories? I think you’d get four different answers to this question.

      “Kahanism” may not be a good word for outsiders but for Israeli’s it has meaning and resonance.

      Call it as you see it.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Aaron Gross

      I agree! Both “democracy” and “fascism” have long ago become meaningless in Israeli discourse.

      I regularly get called a fascist here at +972, by commenters and by one or two contributors. I’m in favor of a two-state solution (two states for two peoples), I’m against building new settlements, I’m in favor of civil liberties, I’m in favor of Israel’s coming to terms with its guilt in the Nakbah and in the Zionist project – all of which puts me squarely in the “fascist” camp at +972. (Right-wingers call me “Nazi” and “anti-Semite” for the same views that left-wingers call me “fascist” for.)

      Calling Israel a democracy at all is ridiculous, if it’s meant to mean a democracy for the entire population. It’s a “democracy” where a substantial ethnic minority has never even recognized the legitimacy of the “democratic” regime that rules them. I’ve often quoted Ahmed Tibi’s formulation as well, the one Noam quoted above; it’s the most concise I’ve seen.

      “Democracy” has become nothing more than a god-word, and “fascism” nothing more than a devil-word. As Noam pointed out, they’re not even effective in those functions. So, absolutely, stop using those terms, except in very specific contexts.

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      • David

        Gimme a break, Aaron, no one at +972 calls you a fascist because of anything you listed: (1) “in favor of a two-state solution”, (2) “against building new settlements”, (3) “in favor of civil liberties, (4) and “in favor of Israel’s coming to terms with its guilt in the Nakbah and in the Zionist project.”

        Maybe you get called a fascist because of everything you’re not mentioning here. Perhaps dishonesty, extreme hyperbole, and an uncalibrated sense of victim-hood contribute to your problem as well?

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        • Aaron Gross

          David, do you have examples of comments by me showing “dishonesty, extreme hyperbole, and an uncalibrated sense of victim-hood”? Let’s see them. Do you think they’re representative of what I post? I don’t think I’m guilty of any of those things, but I’d like to see cases where I actually was.

          Don’t get me wrong, most contributors and commenters here are (relatively) respectful, which is what I like about this site. You an talk respectfully with people having very different views. I’m talking about a small minority.

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        • Aaron Gross

          Another point: Some (not most) contributors do describe the mainstream, center-right position in Israeli politics as fascist. For instance, support for various military operations. So they’re not just calling commentators fascist, they’re calling most of the Israeli electorate fascist.

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    5. Pedro X

      56% of the Arab minority voted in the 2013 general election. This compares well to the overall participation of 63.9% turnout of all Israelis. This sounds like a substantial portion of the Arab electorate accepts the government which serves them.

      Israel is a living and vibrant democracy reflecting the will of its people as much as Canada or the United States is a living democracy. Very few, usually only political pundits and academics, question whether Canada or the United States are true democracies which would meet Utopian standards. Therefore, as in Israel, the people in Canada or the United States do not debate whether they have a democratic state.

      Reply to Comment
      • Aaron Gross

        Pedro, if democracy means nothing more than the formality of voting in elections and majority rule, then sure, Israel is a democracy. That’s democracy as in, two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner.

        But if democracy means rule by the people, then what does it mean that a fairly large, politically conscious minority actually rejects the legitimacy of the whole regime? Legitimacy isn’t just one thing among others, like tax rates, that citizens can disagree on. It’s the foundation of any regime, “democratic” or otherwise.

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    6. Pedro X

      The franchise is the corner stone of democracy, without which there could be no democracy. Democracies do not end but begin at the ballot box. Democracies operate at many levels, federal, state, provincial, county, municipal, town, city, village, school board, hospital board, community recreation board, charitable boards and non profit organizations.

      Once elected, governments and boards attempt to serve, not rule, its public in accordance with their mandates. In democracies courts have the power to review the decisions and actions of governments and boards.

      Although in Canada the separatists in Quebec do not recognize the legitimacy of Canadian democracy they participate in electing members to the federal and provincial legislatures, and participate on school, hospital and other boards. Moreover, they accept the benefits of the democracy such as free schooling, universal health, subsidized housing, farm marketing boards protecting Quebec producers, employment insurance and other social benefits.

      Israeli Arabs, including those who you say do not recognize the legitimacy of Israel, participate in every day democracy in Israel and accept its benefits. They travel on buses, they go to schools and universities paid for by the Israeli public through their taxes, they drink desalinated water, they use Israeli electricity, they have equal access to health care, they chose to live in Arab or mixed Jewish Arab areas, they chose where to shop, they decide what occupation to pursue in life, and they decide to vote or run for office from the local to the national level.

      Arab Israelis also have access to and serve on Israeli courts at all levels. Arab Israelis can challenge the decisions of governments and their ministries.

      Israel has a democracy as vibrant as Canada’s or the United States’.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Richard Witty

      Incidents are not fascism. (Any more than weather is climate change.)

      Fascism is an ideology of national orientation (often combined with an anti-colonial ideology – ironically), in which non-indigenous are not regarded as equals. There is usually an accompanying overbearing state police, laws allowing for renunciation of habeus corpus (evidence, now), and usually an accompanying self-appointed militia.

      Fascism describes BOTH Palestinian ideology and governance, and Israeli. Both the Israeli state and the PA do acknowledge civil rights in their founding documents and law.

      Democracy is also a relevant term, an extremely relevant term.

      To participate in not using the term, rather than clarifying the terms, is to participate in the movement towards name-calling, rather than clarity.

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      • Whiplash

        I think you miss the mark. Fascism was an ideology of extreme nationalism headed by a dictator and supported by a state police which punished any and all dissent without regard to the rule of law. Fascism was also an ideology of extreme economic control by the state. Under fascism, the state, through official cartels, controlled all aspects of manufacturing, commerce, finance, and agriculture. Planning boards set product lines, production levels, prices, wages, working conditions, and the size of firms. Licensing was ubiquitous; no economic activity could be undertaken without government permission. Fascists tended to seek full employment for the masses and embarked on massive public work projects as a means of doing so.

        In many ways fascism was a rival to and yet very similar to communism. Both systems believed in massive state control over everyone in the country and permitted no dissent.

        Hamas, the PA and Israel do not have fascist government systems. Hamas might seem fascist in its authoritarian and nationalistic nature, but its ideology is driven by extreme religious beliefs that the world can not be put right until all the Jews are killed.
        From an economic view point Hamas is prepared to tax the economy and leave others to manage it.

        Israel has a free market economy and an elected government which gets replaced very often. Because its governments tend to be nationalistic does not make it fascist in any real sense.

        The PA may be authoritarian, suppress rights and liberties, and be nationalistic, but it is not fascist. It does not control all aspects of the economy. It has held elections both at the national level and does so at lower levels. In the past five years it has made attempts at transparency in its government.

        The use of the word fascism is not helpful in discussing the Arab Israeli conflict or the Palestinian territories.

        Reply to Comment
    8. Richard Witty

      I think that the nationalistic emphasis is what determines fascism, not the degree of control, certainly not the factors of economic planning.

      Hungary in the late 20’s was a fascist state, a precursor to fascist Italy and nazi Germany. They did not exert the kind of economic planning that you describe, though did adopt an anti-colonial ideology.

      I do appreciate your comment on the similarity between fascism and communism, though I think the current commonality is in the use of anti-colonial ideology (that is the language of Palestinian resistance.)

      I like “democracy”. I think it is the most important word, and ALWAYS exists in a tension between other ideology (nationalist) and equality of rights.

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    9. Susan

      America is a democracy. During WWII Americans put Japanese Americans in detention camps. Black people in the South could not vote until the Civil Rights Act was passes. Israel is doing a much better job than America did.

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    10. Rob Wolfe

      The words “fascist” and “racist” have two uses for Leftists:
      1. To say “I don’t like you”
      2. To demonize anyone who does not agree with their philosophy, and give themselves an excuse to stop listening and thinking about what the other guy is saying.

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    11. Piotr Berman

      Check Steven Plaut in the Facebook thread above. When the Haifa professor of troll sciences, is in nice mood, he calls leftists “fascist”, and in his more usual acerbic mood he refers to them as “Hitlerjugend”.

      Right wingers love two things: to call other fascists or similar (like “Feminazis”, kapos), and to whine when the label is applied to them.

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    12. David Abbot

      As interesting as this conversation is, I think what matters is the human and civil right violations that are occurring and not which words we use to describe the patterns. Ultimately I just don’t imagine it’s all that terribly detrimental whether someone says fascism or uses some other terminology, as long as their statement is follower or backed up by and real argument that is relevant to what is happening.

      Reply to Comment