They Don't Mind Being Called McCarthyites

Abir Sultan, Pool Photo via AP, File

In this January 18, 2015, file photo, Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett speaks with the media ahead of a weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem. 

In most cases, it turned out he was right,” Ronen Shoval tweeted in Hebrew a few days ago. The “he” in that sentence refers to Joseph McCarthy. Shoval, founder of the attack-dog organization Im Tirtzu, was responding to critics who charge his organization and its allies in government with McCarthyism, as described here in Peter Dreier's article this week.

Shoval's answer was to happily accept the label. He's not alone. Knesset Member Ofir Akunis of Prime Minister's Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party once responded to the same charge on a TV talk show with, “Every word [McCarthy] said was correct.”

Shoval sometimes plays the part of McCarthy so well that one wonders if he knows that the Cold War is over. In an interview with me five years ago, he not only accused the New Israel Fund (NIF) of “aiding Hamas” but also of “serving Communist interests.”

This inspires me to quote Marx, who said that history repeats itself, “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” McCarthy's paranoid delusion was that there were communists everywhere, serving the Soviets. For Shoval and Im Tirtzu, as for Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked of the Jewish Home party and for much of today's Likud, the domestic subversives are human rights activists and especially Breaking the Silence, an organization of combat veterans who publish testimony on serving in occupied territory. The allegedly hostile powers they're accused of serving are European democracies with a record of supporting Israel.

This takes delusion to a whole new level. But if you want to repress political criticism, you need a nefarious enemy orchestrating it.

What proves the Europeans' enmity? They fund democracy-building and human-rights groups (just as the United States does elsewhere in the world). Those groups question government actions. More threatening, they challenge the country's story about itself.

Im Tirtzu reveals the link between silencing opponents and silencing one's own doubts. The organization began on university campuses, where students hear challenges to the Israeli narrative that they learned in school. Shoval and Im Tirtzu responded to dissonance between received ideas and academic debate by trying to silence the debate. They issued a “study” rating political science professors on whether they were Zionist enough; they threatened to organize a donors' boycott of a university unless it remade its politics department. “In a time when people want to slaughter sacred cows, we want to produce them,” Shoval told a Haaretz reporter.

From there the organization moved on to bigger things off-campus. Along the way it won an on-camera endorsement by Netanyahu, in English, apparently aimed at potential overseas donors. (The organization posted the clip on YouTube in 2012, without listing the date it was recorded.)

Right-wing backlash is part of Israeli history. The most egregious example is the fury against the Oslo accords that reached its bitter climax in the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin 20 years ago. The anger today is also backlash, this time against changes in Israeli society that began in the 1990s: Supreme Court decisions that expanded civil rights, the growth of civil society, and academic and artistic challenges to national myths.

What makes this wave of right-winger anger different is that it's being expressed in legislation and executive action. Netanyahu's previous coalition fell in 2014 over his support for the Nation-State Bill, written by Shaked and Likud members of parliament and aimed at constraining the Supreme Court. The changes that would tilt the nation's next civics schoolbook toward being a primer in nationalism began under the previous education minister, Gideon Saar of the Likud and continue under Bennett. Culture Minister Miri Regev (Likud) wants to condition support for the arts on sufficient loyalty to the state.

This isn't a sign that the country as a whole is moving rightward. In the last two elections, the right-wing bloc of parties shrank from 65 seats (out of 120), to 61 seats, to 57. Netanyahu has stayed in power due to the divisions among his opponents.

What has happened is that the right has become more extreme. A generation ago, the Likud included relative moderates who were committed simultaneously to real democracy and to the Whole Land of Israel—meaning permanent Israeli rule over the West Bank and Gaza. Since then, a lot of them recognized the contradiction and left the party or left politics.

Meanwhile, Bennett and Shaked have worked to rebrand Jewish Home, a clericalist party, into the Likud's competitor among hardliners, secular as well as religious.

One of the last Likud politicians to earnestly believe in both liberal democracy and the Whole Land was Reuven Rivlin, who as Knesset Speaker did his best to block anti-democratic legislation. Today Rivlin is president of Israel, a ceremonial post that removes him from the parliamentary battle.

The politicians and activists of today's right still face the contradiction between democracy and occupation. The dissonance doesn't bother them, it seems, because they care less about democracy, even inside Israel. 

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