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Silence of the Sheep in Israel

The March of the Orange Shirts

by URI AVNERY

For some weeks now, a red light has been flickering in my mind, illuminating a word in large Gothic letters: Weimar.

As a 9-year old I saw with my own eyes the collapse of the German republic that came into being after World War I. It was generally referred to as the Weimar Republic, because its constitution was written in the town of the two towering figures of German Kultur, Goethe and Schiller. Some months after its breakdown, we fled Germany and thus our lives were saved.

Since then, the sights and sounds of the collapse of the republic are engraved in my mind. I have read hundreds of books about this event. The big question that has been haunting me ever since and which has remained unanswered to this day is: How could such a thing happen? How could a gang of thugs with an inhuman ideology take over a state that, in its time, was perhaps the most cultured country in the world?

On the eve of the Eichmann trial, in 1960, I wrote a book on this, concluding with the question: Can it happen here?

Today, there is no escape from the terrible answer: Yes, it can happen here. If we behave like the people of Weimar, we shall suffer the same fate as the people of Weimar.

In the past I have often hesitated to use this analogy. We have a taboo concerning Nazi Germany. Since nothing in the world can compare with the Holocaust, no comparisons should be made with Germany of that time.

Only rarely has this taboo been broken. David Ben-Gurion once called Menachem Begin "a disciple of Hitler". Begin for his part called Yasser Arafat "the Arab Hitler", and before that, Gamal Abd-el-Nasser was referred to in Israel as "Hitler on the Nile". Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz, in his usual provocative way, spoke about "Judeo-Nazis" and compared the special units of the Israeli army to the SS. But these were exceptions. Generally, the taboo was observed.

Not any more. In their fight against the "rotten" Israeli democracy, the settlers have adopted the Holocaust symbols. They are ostentatiously wearing the Yellow Star that was imposed by the Nazis on the Jews before their extermination, only substituting orange for yellow. They inscribe their forearm with their identity number, like the numbers the Nazis tattooed on the Auschwitz prisoners. They call the government the "Judenrat", after the Jewish councils appointed by the Nazis in the ghettoes, and liken the evacuation of the settlers from Gush Katif to the deportation of the Jews to the death camps. All this live on television.

So, there is no reason anymore for not calling the spade a spade: a large fascist camp is now threatening Israeli democracy.

What happened last week in Israel was not a legitimate "protest", nor a democratic endeavor to influence public opinion in order to change the decisions of the government and the Knesset. It was not even a campaign of civil disobedience by a minority trying to force the reversal of a decision of the majority.

It is much more: the beginning of an attempt to overturn by force the democratic system itself.

Confronting Israeli democracy now is the hard core of the settlers, which practically all the settlers accept as their spokemen. This week we saw tens of thousands of them, and there is no escape from the realization that this is a revolutionary movement with a revolutionary ideology using revolutionary means.

What is this ideology? It was proclaimed loudly, again and again, by the central spokesmen of the movement: God gave us this country. All the land and its fruits belong to us. Anybody who gives away even one square meter of it to foreigners (meaning the Arabs, who have been living here for many generations) is violating the commandments of the Torah. The Torah is binding. All government decisions, Knesset laws and court judgments are null and void if they contravene the word of God, as conveyed to us by the rabbis who stand above the cabinet ministers, the Knesset members, the Supreme Court judges and the army commanders. Like in Khomeini’s fundamentalist Iran.

A large part of this camp openly adheres to the teachings of Meir Kahane, whose face was displayed everywhere by marching settlers on their shirts, flags and posters. Kahane publicly preached what many of the settlers, and perhaps most of them, say in private: that God not only promised us this country, but also commanded us (in the book of Joshua) to eradicate the non-Jewish inhabitants. They have no place here. If they cannot be terrorized into leaving by themselves ("voluntary transfer"), they must be eliminated. In the words of one of the rabbis on TV this week, if they don’t leave, they must "pay the price". This includes, of course, also the million and a quarter Arab citizens of Israel proper.

One of the leaders of the march, Tsviki Bar-Hai, declared on TV: "The struggle is about the character of the state."

Ninety-nine percent of the many thousands seen on TV this week wore kippas, and many of them had beards and peyoth. The women wore long skirts and had their hair covered. All of them are "born-again Jews" or belong to the "national-religious" camp – a nationalist-messianic sect that believes that it is paving the way for "redemption". It must be clearly understood: in Israel, the Jewish religion has undergone a mutation that has completely changed its face.

There is no agreed scientific definition of "fascism". I define it as having the following attributes: the belief in a superior people (master Volk, chosen people, superior race), a complete absence of moral obligations toward others, a totalitarian ideology, the negation of the individual except as a part of the nation, contempt for democracy and a cult of violence. According to this definition, a large proportion of the settlers are fascists.

It has been said about the Weimar Republic that it was not overthrown by the "brown shirts", but collapsed by itself, because at the moment of truth almost no one was prepared to stand up and defend it.

Last week, thousands of "orange shirts" marched towards Gush Katif, in a distant echo of the 1920 "March on Rome" by Benito Mussolini’s "black shirts" that overthrew the Italian democracy. Some 20 thousand soldiers and police were mobilized to stop them. On the face of it, the army and police won, since the orange shirts did not reach the Gaza strip. But for three days, under the blazing sun, the rebels put on public display their determination, unity and discipline.

There was a cacophony of voices. The settler men and women shouted, their brainwashed children screamed, the red-faced, sweating babies cried in their mothers’ arms, the leaders made speeches, army and police officers yelled orders. Only one voice was absent: the voice of the Israeli public.

During these three fateful days, not one of the leading intellectuals, no writer like S. Yishar, Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua or David Grossman, no important professor, no poet or artist raised their voice against the settlers and their allies. The many personalities who had fallen in the past into the trap of "conciliation" with the settlers and "cultural pacts" with the extreme religious right did not dare to extricate themselves now and point out the great danger to the democratic state. One of their excuses was that they did not wish to be seen as supporting Ariel Sharon.

None of the big public organizations – from the Bar Association and the Chambers of Commerce to the Journalists’ Association and the academic bodies – found it necessary to raise their voice in defense of democracy, while the orange militants were flooding all the TV channels, which made no attempt to present other views. The Silence of the Sheep. The silence of Weimar.

I hope that all this will change when the confrontation approaches its climax. I hope that Israeli democracy will find in itself the hidden strength that was so tragically lacking in Weimar. But this will not happen if courageous people do not sound the trumpet, and if the silent majority does not abandon its silence and demonstrate its stand in voice and color.

Otherwise, the "March on Gush Katif" will be only a foretaste of the "March on Jerusalem".

URI AVNERY is an Israeli writer and peace activist with Gush Shalom. He is one of the writers featured in The Other Israel: Voices of Dissent and Refusal. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s book The Politics of Anti-Semitism. He can be reached at: avnery@counterpunch.org.