Haaretz talked to Israel Prize laureate and renowned scholar Zeev Sternhell about his fears for the collapse of Israeli democracy.
Of all the phenomena you’ve encountered here, which do you find ugliest?
“What we’ve seen here in the past few weeks is absolute conformism on the part of most of Israel’s intellectuals. They’ve just followed the herd. By intellectuals I mean professors and journalists. The intellectual bankruptcy of the mass media in this war is total. It’s not easy to go against the herd, you can easily be trampled. But the role of the intellectual and the journalist is not to applaud the government. Democracy crumbles when the intellectuals, the educated classes, toe the line of the thugs or look at them with a smile. People here say, ‘It’s not so terrible, it’s nothing like fascism – we have free elections and parties and a parliament.’ Yet, we reached a crisis in this war, in which, without anyone asking them to do so, all kinds of university bodies are suddenly demanding that the entire academic community roll back its criticism.”
Do you think it’s due to fear?
“Fear of the authorities, fear of possible budgetary sanctions and fear of pressure from the street. The personification of shame and disgrace occurred when the dean of the law faculty of Bar-Ilan University threatened sanctions against one of his colleagues because the latter added a couple of sentences to an announcement about exam dates in which he expressed sorrow at the killing and loss of life on both sides. To grieve for the loss of life on both sides is already a subversive act, treason. We are arriving at a situation of purely formal democracy, which keeps sinking to ever lower levels.”
When will we cross the line in which democracy implodes?
“Democracy rarely falls in a revolution. Not in Italy, not in Germany and not in France with the Vichy regime – which is a crucial thing, because France was a democratic country that fell into the hands of the right wing with the support of the vast majority of the population. It was not the fall of France that generated this ideology. It was the result of a gradual process in which an extreme nationalist ideology took shape, a radical approach that perceives the nation as an organic body. Like a tree on which human individuals are the leaves and the branches – in other words, people exist only thanks to the tree. The nation is a living body.
“In Israel, the religious factor strengthens the national singularity. It’s not a matter of belief, but of identity; religion bolsters your distinctive identity. It’s essential to understand that without this radical nationalism there is no fascism. I also distinguish between fascism and Nazism, because fascism does not necessarily carry a race doctrine. Let me put it in no uncertain terms: Fascism is a war against enlightenment and against universal values; Nazism was a war against the human race.”
Do you see a negation of universal values in Israel and a war against enlightenment in recent years?
“It cries out to heaven. Israel is an extraordinary laboratory in which one sees the gradual erosion of enlightenment values, namely the universal values I mentioned. You see the negation, which always existed on the fringes, slowly impinging, until one day it dominates the center.”