A Little Red Light on Israeli
by Uri Avnery
Perhaps Avigdor Lieberman is only a passing
episode in the annals of the State of Israel. Perhaps the fire
he is trying to ignite will flicker briefly and go out by itself.
Or perhaps the police investigations into the grave corruption
affair of which he is suspected will lead to his removal from
the public sphere.
But the opposite is also possible. Last
week he promised his acolytes that the next elections would bring
him to power.
Perhaps Lieberman will prove to be an
"Israbluff"' (a term he himself likes to use), and be
revealed, behind the frightful façade, as nothing more
than a run of the mill impostor.
Perhaps this Lieberman will indeed disappear,
to be replaced by another, even worse Lieberman.
Either way, we should candidly confront
the phenomenon he represents. If one believes that his utterances
sound fascist, one has to ask oneself: is there a possibility
that a fascist regime might come to power in Israel?
The initial gut-feeling is a resounding
NO. In Israel? In the Jewish State? After the Holocaust which
Nazi fascism brought upon us? Can one even imagine that Israelis
would become something like the Nazis?
When Yeshayahu Leibowitz coined, many
years ago, the term "Judeo-Nazis", the entire country
blew up. Even many of his admirers thought that this time the
turbulent professor had gone too far.
But Lieberman's slogans do justify him
Some would dismiss Lieberman's achievement
in the recent elections. After all, his "Israel is Our Home"
party is not the first one to appear from nowhere and win an impressive
15 seats. Exactly the same number that was won by the Dash party
of General Yigael Yadin in 1977 and the Shinui party of Tommy
Lapid in 2003 - and both disappeared soon after without leaving
But Lieberman's voters are not like those
of Yadin and Lapid, who were ordinary citizens fed up with some
particular aspects of Israeli life. Many of his voters are immigrants
from the former Soviet Union, who look upon their "Ivett",
an immigrant from the ex-Soviet land of Moldova, as a representative
of their "sector". Although many of them brought with
them from their former homeland a right-wing, anti-democratic
and even racist world view, they do not pose by themselves a danger
to Israeli democracy.
But the additional power that turned Lieberman's
party into the third-largest faction in the new Knesset came from
another sort of voter: Israeli-born youngsters, many of whom had
recently taken part in the Gaza War. They voted for him because
they believed that he would kick the Arab citizens out of Israel,
and the Palestinians out of the entire historical country.
These are not marginal people, fanatical
or underprivileged, but normal youngsters who finished high-school
and served in the army, who dance in the discotheques and intend
to found families. If such people are voting en masse for a declared
racist with a pungent fascist odor, the phenomenon cannot be ignored.
Fifty years ago I wrote a book called
"The Swastika", in which I described how the Nazis took
over Germany. I was helped by my childhood memories. I was 9 years
old when the Nazis came to power. I witnessed the agonies of German
democracy and the first steps of the new regime before my parents,
in their infinite wisdom, decided to escape and settle in Palestine.
I wrote the book on the eve of the trial
of Adolf Eichmann, after realizing that the young generation in
Israel knew a lot about the Holocaust but next to nothing about
the people who brought it about. What occupied me more than anything
else was the question: how could such a monstrous party succeed
in coming to power democratically in one of the most civilized
countries in the world?
The last chapter of my book was called
"It Can Happen Here". That was a paraphrase of the
title of a book by the American writer Sinclair Lewis, "It
Can't Happen Here", in which he described precisely how it
could happen in the United States.
I argued in the book that Nazism was not
a specifically German disease, that in certain circumstances any
country in the world could be infected by this virus - including
our own state. In order to avoid this danger, one had to understand
the underlying causes for the development of the disease.
To the assertion that I am "obsessed"
by this matter, that I see this danger lurking in every corner,
I answer: not true. For years I have avoided dealing with this
subject. But it is true that I carry in my head a little red light
that comes on when I sense the danger.
This light is now blinking.
What caused the Nazi disease to break
out in the past? Why did it break out at a certain time and not
at another? Why in Germany and not in another country suffering
from similar problems?
The answer is that fascism is a special
phenomenon, unlike any other. It is not an "extreme Right",
an extension of "nationalist" or "conservative"
attitudes. Fascism is the opposite of conservatism in many ways,
even though it may appear in a conservative disguise. Also, it
is not a radicalization of ordinary, normal nationalism, which
exists in every nation.
Fascism is a unique phenomenon and has
unique traits: the notion of being a "superior nation",
the denial of the humanity of other nations and national minorities,
a cult of the leader, a cult of violence, disdain for democracy,
an adoration of war, contempt for accepted morality. All these
attributes together create the phenomenon, which has no agreed
How did this happen?
Hundreds of books have been written about
it, dozens of theories have been put forward, and none of them
is satisfying. In all humility I propose a theory of my own, without
claiming more validity than any of the others.
According to my perception, a fascist
revolution breaks out when a very special personality meets with
a very special national situation. __ON THE personality of Adolf
Hitler, too, innumerable books have been written. Every phase
in his life has been examined under the microscope, each of his
actions has been debated relentlessly. There are no secrets about
Hitler, yet Hitler has remained an enigma.
One of his most obvious traits was his
pathological anti-Semitism, which went far beyond any logic. It
remained with him to the very last hour of his life, when he dictated
his testament and committed suicide. At the most desperate moments
of his war, when his soldiers at the front were crying out for
reinforcements and supplies, precious trains were diverted to
transport Jews to the death camps. When the Wehrmacht was suffering
from a grievous lack of practically everything, Jewish workers
were taken from essential factories to be sent to their death.
Many explanations for this pathological
anti-Semitism have been suggested, and all of them have been debunked.
Did Hitler want to take revenge on a Jew who was suspected of
being his real grandfather? Did he hate the Jewish doctor who
treated his beloved mother before she died? Was it a punishment
for the Jewish director of the Art school who failed to recognize
his genius? Did he hate the poor Jews he came across when he was
homeless in Vienna? All of this has been examined and found lacking.
The enigma remains.
The same is true for his other personal
views and attributes. How did he attain the power to hypnotize
the masses? What did he have that made so many people, from all
walks of life, identify with him? Whence sprang his unbridled
lust for power?
We don't know. There is no full and satisfying
explanation. We only know that from among the millions of Germans
and Austrians who were living at that time, and the thousands
who grew up in similar circumstances, there was (as far as we
know) only one Hitler, a unique person. To borrow a term from
biology: he was a one-time mutation.
But the unique Hitler would not have become
a historic personality if he had not met with Germany in unique
circumstances.__GERMANY AT the end of the Weimar republic has
also been the subject of many books. What made the German people
adopt Nazism? Historical causes, rooted in the terrible catastrophe
of the Thirty-year War or even earlier events? The sense of humiliation
after the defeat in World War I? The anger at the victors, who
ground Germany into the dust and imposed huge indemnities? The
terrible inflation of 1923, which wiped out the savings of entire
classes? The Great Depression of 1929, which threw millions of
decent and diligent Germans into the street?
This question, too, has found no satisfying
answer. Other people have also been humiliated. Other people have
lost wars. The Great Depression hit dozens of countries. In the
US and the UK, too, millions were laid off. Why did fascism not
seize power in those countries (except in Italy, of course)?
In my opinion, the fatal spark was ignited
at a fateful moment when a people ready for fascism met the man
with the attributes of a fascist leader.
What would have happened if Adolf Hitler
had been killed in a road accident in the autumn of 1932? Perhaps
another Nazi leader would have come to power - but the Holocaust
would not have happened, and neither, probably, World War II.
His likely replacements - Gregor Strasser, who was No. 2, or Hermann
Goering, the flying ace with a morphine addiction - were indeed
Nazis, but neither of them was a second Hitler. They lacked his
And what would have happened if Germany
had not fallen into the depth of despair? The Western powers could
have sensed the danger in time and helped in the reconstruction
of the German economy and the reduction of unemployment. They
could have abrogated the infamous Versailles Treaty, imposed by
the victors after World War I, and allowed Germans to regain their
self-respect. The German republic could have been saved, the moral
leaders, of which Germany had aplenty, could have regained their
What would have happened then? Adolf Hitler,
whom the widely adored President of the Reich, a Field Marshall,
had contemptuously called "the Bohemian lance-corporal",
would have remained a little demagogue on the lunatic fringe.
The 20th century would have looked quite different. Tens of millions
of casualties of war and six million Jews would have remained
alive, without ever knowing what could have happened.
But Hitler did not die early and the German
people were not saved from their fate. At the crucial moment they
met, and a spark was struck, lighting the fuse that led to the
Such a fateful meeting is not, of course,
limited to fascism. It has occurred in history in other circumstances
and to other persons.
Winston Churchill, for example. His statues
dot the British landscape, and he is considered one of the greatest
British leaders of all times.
Yet until the late 1930s, Churchill was
a political failure. Few admired him, and even fewer liked him.
Many of his colleagues detested him with all their hearts. He
was considered an egomaniac, an arrogant demagogue, an erratic
drunk. But in a moment of existential danger, Britons found in
him their mouthpiece and the leader who took their destiny in
his hands. It seemed as if during all the first 65 years of his
life, Churchill had been preparing for this one moment, and as
if Britain had been waiting for precisely this one man.
Would history have looked different if
Churchill had died the previous year of coronary thrombosis, lung
cancer or cirrhosis of the liver, and Neville Chamberlain had
remained in power? We now know that he and his colleagues, including
the influential foreign minister, Lord Halifax, seriously considered
accepting Hitler's 1940 peace offer, based on the partition of
the world between the German and the British empires.
Or Lenin. If the imperial German general
staff had not provided the famous sealed train to take him from
Zurich to Sweden, from where he proceeded St. Petersburg, would
the Bolshevik revolution, which changed the face of the 20th century,
have taken place at all? True, Trotsky was in town before him,
and so was Stalin. But neither of the two was a Lenin, and without
Lenin it would quite possibly not have happened, and certainly
not the way it did.
Perhaps one could add to this list Barack
Obama. A very special person, of unique origin and character,
who had a fateful meeting with the American people at an important
moment of their destiny, when they were suffering from two crises
at once - the economic and the political one - which cast their
shadow on the entire world.
Back to us. Is the State of Israel approaching
an existential crisis - moral, political, economic - that could
leave it an endangered nation? Can Lieberman, or someone who could
take his place, turn out to be a demonic personality like Hitler,
or at least Mussolini?
In our present situation there are some
dangerous indications. The last war showed a further decline in
our moral standards. The hatred towards Israel's Arab minority
is on the rise, and so is the hatred towards the occupied Palestinian
people who are suffering a slow strangulation. In some circles,
the cult of brute force is gaining strength. The democratic regime
is in a never-ending crisis. The economic situation may descend
into chaos, so that the masses will long for a "strongman".
And the belief that we are a "chosen people" is already
These indications may not necessarily
lead to disaster. Absolutely not. History is full of nations in
crisis that recovered and returned to normalcy. Besides the real
Hitler, who rose to historic heights, there were probably hundreds
of other Hitlers, no less crazy and no less talented, who ended
their life as bank tellers or frustrated writers, because they
did not meet a historic opportunity.
I have a strong faith in the resilience
of Israeli society and Israeli democracy. I believe that we have
hidden strengths that will come to the fore in an hour of need.
Nothing "must" happen. But anything
"can" happen. And the little red light won't stop blinking.