The German name Sternhell means "bright as the stars." The name fits: the positions of Professor Ze’ev Sternhell indeed stand out sharply against the darkness of the sky. He warns against Israeli fascism. This week, Israeli fascists laid a pipe bomb at the entrance of his apartment, and he was lightly injured.
The choice of victim seems surprising at first. But the perpetrators knew what they were doing.
They did not attack the activists who demonstrate every week against the Separation Wall in Bil’in and Na’alin. They did not attack the leftists who mobilize every year this year, too to help the Palestinians pick their olives near the most dangerous settlements. They did not attack the "Women in Black" who demonstrate every Friday, or the women of "Machsom Watch," who keep an eye on events at the army checkpoints. They attacked a person whose entire activity is in the academic field.
The struggles on the ground are essential. But their main purpose is to influence public opinion. That is the main battlefield, and there the man of letters has an important part to play.
On this battlefield, two visions confront each other, two visions that are as far apart as the West is from the East. On the one side: An enlightened Israel, modern, secular, liberal, and democratic, living in peace and partnership with Palestine as an integral part of the region. On the other side: a fanatical Israel, religious, fascist, cut off from the region and civilized humanity, a people that "dwells alone and shall not be reckoned among the nations" (Numbers 23:9), where "the sword will devour forever" (2 Samuel 2:26).
Ze’ev Sternhell is one of the outstanding guides of the enlightened vision. His positions are bright as the stars, resolute and incisive. Not a surprising target for the neo-Nazi pipe-dreamers and pipe-bombers.
The field of Sternhell’s academic expertise is the origins of fascism, a subject that has occupied me all my life. The reasons for our interest are similar: Nazism left an indelible stamp on our childhood and fate. As a child, I witnessed the rise of Nazism in Germany. As a child, Sternhell saw it in Poland, when, after the death of his father, he lost his mother and sister in the Holocaust.
"He who has been scalded by boiling water is cautious even with cold water," a Hebrew adage goes. Those who experienced fascism bursting into their lives in childhood are sensitive to the slightest symptom of the outbreak of this disease. In 1961 I wrote a book called The Swastika (which exists only in Hebrew), in which I tried to crack the code of the roots of Nazism. At the end of the book I posed the question: Can it happen here? My unequivocal answer was: Yes, indeed.
Because of this, I am sensitive to every warning sign in our society. As a journalist and magazine editor, I shone the searchlight on all such signs. As a political activist, I fought against them in the Knesset and in the street.
Sternhell, on his part, after a military career, is a pure academic. He uses the instruments of academia: research, teaching, and publication. He strives for exact definitions, without seeking popularity or avoiding provocation. In one of his articles years ago he asserted that the violent response of the Palestinians to the settlements is quite natural. By this he attracted the lasting wrath of the settlers and the extreme Right, which made an effort to prevent him from receiving the Israel Prize, Israel’s highest distinction.
Now the pipe bombs are speaking.
Who laid the bomb? A lone individual? A group? A new underground? The terrorists from the settlements? That’s for the police and the Shin Bet to find out.
From the public point of view, the matter is much more simple: it is quite clear in which flower bed these poisonous weeds grow, which ideology serves as fertilizer, and who is spreading it.
Israeli fascism is alive and kicking. It is growing in the flower bed that produced the various religious-nationalist underground groups of the past: the group that tried to bomb the Muslim shrines on the Temple Mount, the underground that tried to assassinate the Palestinian mayors, the "Kach" gang, the perpetrator of the Hebron massacre Baruch Goldstein, the murderer of peace activist Emil Gruenzweig, the murderer of Yitzhak Rabin, and all the underground groups that were uncovered at an early stage before their deeds could bring them to public notice.
These acts cannot simply be attributed to individuals or "rogue groups." There exists a definite fascist fringe at the margin of Israel’s political society. Its ideology is religious-nationalist, and its spiritual leaders are mostly "rabbis," who formulate its worldview and the practical application. These Jewish idolaters do not work in secret. On the contrary, they offer their wares on the open market.
This sector is concentrated in the "ideological" settlements. That does not mean that all settlers are fascists. But most fascists are settlers. They are concentrated in certain well-known settlements. By accident or not by accident, all these settlements are located in the heart of the West Bank, beyond the Separation Wall. The first of these, in the Hebron area, were installed with the help of "leftist" leader Yigal Allon, and in the Nablus area by "leftist" leader Shimon Peres.
During the last months, there has been a marked increase in the number of incidents in which settlers attack Palestinians, soldiers, policemen, and "leftists."
These acts are committed openly, in order to terrorize and deter. Settlers riot in the Palestinian villages whose lands they covet, or for revenge. These are "pogroms" in the classical sense of the term: riots by an armed mob intoxicated with hatred against helpless people, while the police and the army look on. The Pogromchiks destroy, injure, and kill. These days it is happening more and more frequently.
In the few cases when the army or the police intervene, they do not turn on the settlers, but on the Israeli peace activists who come to help the beleaguered Palestinian farmers. The spokesmen of the security establishment and the commentators try to sound balanced and speak about "rioters from the Left and the Right." That is a false evenhandedness, which itself belongs to the fascist arsenal of tricks.
The settlers’ pogroms are violent by nature, both in thought and deed, while the peace activists are nonviolent on principle. If there is violence, it comes from the army and the border police, the pretext being that local boys have been throwing stones. What is not mentioned is that the well-protected soldiers and border policemen pursue the Palestinian demonstrators into the alleys of their villages.
The "boldness" of the extreme right-wing thugs or "rightist activists," as the media insist on calling them courteously is increasing by the day. They do whatever they want, knowing full well that no harm will befall them. The police do not interfere, since anyhow the courts will not mete out meaningful punishment.
Anybody who knows the history of Nazism is familiar with the shameful role played by the courts and the other law-enforcement agencies in the German republic vis-à-vis the lawbreakers whose declared purpose was to put an end to the democratic system. The judges imposed ludicrously light penalties on Nazi rioters, whom they considered "misguided patriots," while treating Communist rioters as foreign agents and traitors.
Now we are experiencing this phenomenon here. The lawbreaking settlers get symbolic sentences, while Palestinians who are accused of much lesser offenses get harsh penalties. Nowadays, even a settler who sets his dog on a company commander goes free, as does a settler who breaks the bones of a battalion chief.
The army’s internal justice system can only be called monstrous: the commander who held up a bleeding woman in labor at a checkpoint, causing the death of the child, was punished with two weeks detention. The commander who told a soldier to shoot a handcuffed Palestinian prisoner in the leg was "transferred," meaning that this war criminal can serve in another unit.
Does the increase in the number and severity of such incidents testify to the increasing power of Israeli fascism? At first sight, one might get this impression.
However, on second thought, I think that the opposite is true.
The fanatical settlers know that they have lost the support of public opinion in Israel, and that ordinary people consider them dangerous thugs. Their actions, as seen on television, arouse distaste, even abhorrence. The vision of "All of Eretz-Israel" has not only lost altitude it has crashed on the ground of reality. The Zealots are acting out of weakness and frustration.
Much as the Nazis hated the German republic, these fanatics are starting to hate the state of Israel. And with good reason. They see that they have no place in a national consensus that is solidifying around the concept of "Two States for Two Peoples," whether it is being accepted for negative reasons, such as demographic fears or the burdens of occupation, or for positive reasons, such as the hope for peace and prosperity after the withdrawal from the occupied territories.
The discussion about the borders is still going on, but the majority sees the Separation Wall as the future border. (As we made clear right from the beginning, the wall was not really being constructed in order to keep out Palestinian suicide bombers, as was claimed, but as a future border between the two states.)
The Israeli establishment wants to annex the lands between the wall and the Green Line, and is prepared to give the Palestinians Israeli areas in return. What does this tell the settlers?
Most settlers live in settlements near the Green Line, which according to this concept will be joined to Israel. These are, not by accident, the non-ideological "lifestyle" settlers, those who were looking for cheap apartments and "quality of life" at a short distance from Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. These settlers will, probably, agree in the end to any peace that leaves them in Israel.
The great majority of the extreme settlers, those motivated by a religious-fascist ideology, live in the small settlements east of the wall, which must be dismantled when peace comes. This is a small minority even among the settlers, supported by a radical minority on the extreme Right. That is where violent Israeli fascism is growing.
Once upon a time it seemed that a Red Line ran parallel to the Green Line that nationalist-religious terrorism would hurt "only" Palestinians, not Israelis. Even Rabbi Meir Kahane, a born fascist, said so.
That illusion was shattered with the murder of Yitzhak Rabin. Israeli fascism was found to be like any other classical fascism, which thunders against the "foreign enemy" but directs its terrorism against the "enemy within." The pipe bomb at the entrance of Sternhell’s home must turn on all the red lights, as it joins the murder of Emil Gruenzweig and the threats on the lives of other conspicuous peace activists.
The decisive battle, the battle for Israel, is entering a new phase much more violent, much more dangerous. But more serious than any danger to individuals is the danger to Israeli society as a whole. Especially if it does not mobilize all its resources government, police, security service, the law, the courts, the media, and the educational system for an all-out battle against this danger.
I do not believe that fascism will win in our society. I believe in the strength of Israeli democracy. But if I am pushed into a corner and asked: "Can it happen here?" I am bound to answer: "Yes, it can."