Democracy in America and Israel

When former democracies descend into fascism, can they come back? In the case of Germany and Italy, both of which had only weak democratic institutions, it took a catastrophic loss of war and occupation.

This chilling question haunts me as I reflect on two important elections in two increasingly repressed democracies: Israel and the United States.

Tom Friedman, who often misunderstands globalization but is an astute analyst of the Middle East, began his latest article: general, Michael Flynn as secretary of defense, Steve Bannon as secretary of commerce, evangelical leader James Dobson as secretary of education, ex-Proud Boys leader Enrique Tario as homeland security chief, and Marjorie Taylor Greene as White House spokesperson.

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This, Friedman continues, is what happened in Israel. Benjamin Netanyahu, who presided over relatively shifting coalitions and often endless elections between 2009 and 2021, finally managed to secure a stable governing majority. And he achieved this by associating with people far to his right, notably Itamar Ben-Gvir, who speaks and acts like a total fascist.

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This coalition will attempt to destroy what remains of Israel as a liberal democracy, including its independent courts and press; and if he has four years in power, he can succeed. At the same time, the voting base of ultra-nationalists, anti-Arab racists, religious fanatics and settlers determined to destroy what remains of the Palestinian West Bank may grow at the expense of the kind of liberal secular Jews who founded the state of Israel.

The US bears a heavy responsibility for the current realities of Israel in several ways. Washington protects Israel with billions of dollars in aid, but the settler/apartheid state that Israel has become can only take root because Washington did not challenge the first settlements in the 1968 occupied territories or their steady expansion.

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Although the Israeli far right consists of many groups, the main element is ultra-Orthodox and ultra-nationalist immigrants from the United States. Ben-Gvir is one of the followers of Meir Kahane.

It is also the case that AIPAC and its associated donor groups have refused to criticize the Israeli government, no matter how appalling its actions, and have tried to brand critics as anti-Semitic. This in turn benefited the American far right, which began to argue that Christian fundamentalists are more philosophical than American Jews, as if slavish support for Israel equates to religious tolerance. This is nothing more than the flip side of the charge of dual loyalty, a favorite weapon of true anti-Semites. And AIPAC’s policies and associated political spending continue to corrupt the Democratic Party.

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The Biden administration is showing signs of distancing itself from the extremism of the incoming Netanyahu government. But it will be harder to do if mainstream Jewish organizations don’t break their habit of rightly or wrongly defending Israel.

Both the USA and Israel have qualified as promised lands. The deeper problem in both countries is that if fascists gain control of governing institutions, and if we lose support for democracy in the hearts of the majority of the people, it will take something close to a miracle to get it back.

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