Friday, February 6, 2009

The Growing Trend Toward Fascism

The chilling article below, from this weekend's (February 6th, 2009) Haaretz, appears at first to be disturbing simply for what it says about a growing segment of Israel's next generation of voters—an open, even proud, racism and an attraction to fascism, in the form of support for Avigdor Lieberman, chairman of the Israel Beitenu party, which is poised to become Israel's third largest party in Tuesday's election. The key selling point of the party in this election is a "loyalty oath" that would be a prerequisite for citizenship rights, clearly directed at Israel's Palestinian Israeli citizens.

But the article illuminates (or darkens) far more. Such as the horrifying prospect of highschoolers campaigning for Lieberman by screaming "Death to the Arabs!" in the streets and consciously explaining that this helps them prepare to enter the army. As the article quotes:

"Sergei Leibliyanich, a senior, draws a connection between the preparation for military service in school and student support for the right: "It gives us motivation against the Arabs. You want to enlist in the army so you can stick it to them. The preparation gives you the motivation to stick it to the Arabs and we want to elect someone who'll do that. I like Lieberman's thinking about the Arabs. Bibi [Benjamin Netanyahu] doesn't want to go as far."

The further you read, the clearer it is that this a phenomena that draws strength from so many of the issues facing Israeli society: not just virulent Anti-Arab racism, but a reliance on violence, the emphasis on militaristic values, the broken education system, and the crumbling of democratic principles. But perhaps, at root, the problem, as the article indicates, is this:

"The Israeli reality can no longer hide what it has kept hidden up to now - that today no sentient mother can honestly say to her child: 'Next year things will be better here.' The young people are replacing hope for a better future with a myth of a heroic end. For a heroic end, Lieberman fits the bill…. In a reality in which you can't honestly tell your children, 'Tomorrow will be better,' in which the realization has finally sunk in that no deal or accord is about to happen, not now or 10 years from now - they react in a hysterical, survivalist fashion. In such a situation, the commitment to humanist values can be viewed as a luxury that we as a society cannot afford."

--Rebecca Vilkomerson

By Yotam Feldman

The Yisrael Beiteinu youths gather for a final consultation as dozens of elderly party supporters slowly make their way into the white tent where the movement's conference is being held, behind the Plaza Hotel in Upper Nazareth.

The youths, ages 16-18, many of them good friends from school, had stood for a long time before the event began at the intersection near the hotel, waving Israeli flags and shouting "Death to the Arabs" and "No loyalty, no citizenship" at passing cars.

In the tent, they deliberate over what to shout when Lieberman enters: Calling out "The next prime minister" may sound a bit presumptuous with regard to the leader of what's likely to be the third-largest party in the next Knesset. But during a week when Yisrael Beiteinu won the highest level of support in mock high-school polls - the sky's the limit.

Not even the investigation of several close Lieberman aides, announced by the state prosecutor that very morning, could dampen their enthusiasm. To the sounds of kitschy Russian music, the party's candidates take their places behind a long table. The young people gather right in front of the stage and lovingly greet the new heroes of the right. Even Lieberman's rather colorless deputy, MK Uzi Landau, evokes strong, passionate cheers. But these pale in comparison to the reaction when the party chairman makes his entrance.

Now the youths are beaming, holding their flags aloft and shouting so loudly it makes them hoarse: "Here comes the next prime minister!" If not in the upcoming election, then maybe in the one after that, when these young people will vote for the first time.

The conference concluded with the singing of the national anthem, which the young attendees sang aggressively in the style of Beitar Jerusalem fans. On the bus back to the center of Upper Nazareth, one of the youths offers this explanation for his excitement about the party:

"This country has needed a dictatorship for a long time already. But I'm not talking about an extreme dictatorship. We need someone who can put things in order. Lieberman is the only one who speaks the truth." Adds Edan Ivanov, an 18 year old who describes himself as being "up on current events":

"We've had enough here with the 'leftist democracy' - and I put that term in quotes, don't get me wrong. People have put the dictator label on Lieberman because of the things he says. But the truth is that in Israel there can't be a full democracy when there are Arabs here who oppose it.

"All Lieberman's really saying is that anyone who isn't prepared to sign an oath of loyalty to the state, because of his personal views, cannot receive equal rights; he can't vote for the executive authority. People here are gradually coming to understand what needs to be done concerning a person who is not loyal."

Do these ideas fit with what you're learning in civics lessons?

Ivanov: "In my opinion, school doesn't tell it like it is. In school, you want to get a matriculation certificate, you need the grades, but you don't learn the truth there. The truth you learn from the neighborhood, from the street. I don't mean the street in a negative sense - I mean that you learn the truth from what's happening here."

What's happening here?

"We have a problem: Upper Nazareth is surrounded by minorities. There are lots of incidents with them. Women are scared to walk in the streets, and people are afraid they'll be stabbed. No one knows what to do about it at this point. There are people who live here and during a war they act as a fifth column. It will only be possible to make peace with them after we make war."

Is that why people shout "Death to the Arabs"?

"The people who shout 'Death to the Arabs' - they mean death to those who support terror. There are Druze and Bedouin, too, and we have lots of friends who are minorities and we have no problem with them. By the way, there are also a lot of Arabs who come with us to demonstrations and shout 'Death to the Arabs,' meaning 'death to everyone except me.'"

Also at universities

The young people of Upper Nazareth are not alone. As noted, Yisrael Beiteinu was victorious overall in the mock elections held in 10 high schools across the country, and organized by comedian Shabi Zaraya and Ben Ravsky of Sky Productions.

Granted, these polls weren't based on a representative sample, statistically speaking. The voting in some cases was even held while the fighting was going on in Gaza, which likely affected the results. But the preferences of the 2,877 students polled are at least indicative of a certain mood.

Yisrael Beiteinu came in first with 19.76 percent of the vote, followed closely by Likud with 19.5 percent, Labor with 15.85 percent, Kadima with 14.11 percent and Yisrael Hazaka (Strong Israel) with 9.12 percent. Meretz got the lowest percentage of votes, just 2.9 percent, and not a single vote was cast for an Arab party.

Young people's enthusiasm for Lieberman is also evident in the sample polls conducted at the universities. In one conducted on January 20 at the College of Administration, Lieberman's was the third-largest party, garnering 24 seats, after Likud (34) and Kadima (29). Even at normally left-leaning Tel Aviv University, Yisrael Beiteinu doubled its strength in relation to the sample poll conducted there ahead of the previous election, receiving 12 seats.

The party's leaders are not surprised. "Young people like to hear clear messages," Landau says. "They want a unified message. We state our positions plainly. They're fed up with the other candidates' zigzags."

Alex Miller, who is coordinating the party's activities for young people and was the youngest MK ever elected to the Knesset (at age 28), explains at the conclusion of a panel discussion with students at Ben-Gurion University:

"Loyalty is the most burning issue for the youth. They're about to go in the army and therefore national honor is important to them. They want someone whose word is good, who stands behind his principles. Avigdor Lieberman projects strength."

One group that is not quite as thrilled with Yisrael Beiteinu's meteoric rise is high-school civics teachers, who now find themselves in quite a dilemma: On the one hand, this is a legitimate political party that obtained the approval of the Central Election Committee and has representatives in the Knesset. Presumably, some of the teachers also support the party.

On the other hand, the messages expressed by party representatives in the schools contradict the most basic principles in the civics textbooks that are supposed to be used in the classroom. It's not clear how a teacher would explain to his students that linking citizens' duties with citizens' rights can run counter to democratic principles, and at the same time introduce a party representative who calls for denying civil rights to anyone who does not enlist in military or national service.

Moshe Slansky, a civics teacher at ORT Singalovsky School in Tel Aviv, did not keep quiet when confronting the discrepancy between the principles of democracy that are taught, and the messages of Yisrael Beiteinu representatives.

On "election day" at the school on January 5, MK Miller drew boisterous applause when he gave a fiery speech denouncing anyone who dared to demonstrate against the operation in Gaza, and called for "the people who support those who fight against us" not to be given equal rights.

Slansky requested a chance to speak and addressed the students: "If anyone repeats the undemocratic things said here by Miller on my exams, I will deduct points from his grade." The high-schoolers responded with a hail of boos.

"I told Miller I couldn't grasp what he meant to say, because one of the most important democratic principles that we teach is the limits of authority, and freedom of expression," Slansky said this week.

"After they booed, I realized I didn't have a chance there. It was a very unpleasant feeling, obviously. I understand that there's an issue of election propaganda, but when a candidate speaks this way to students whose critical abilities are lacking, who don't have that broader view - it just shows how much work I have left to do."

Is it upsetting?

"Of course it's upsetting, but what should we do? Just give up? Stop teaching civics? To blame the school for the students being intolerant and non-pluralistic is to make a very dire accusation. It's the society in which we live. I can't be the last one to put on the brakes. I do my best."

Miller claims that the teacher "misunderstood my intention" and that, in any event, he is not concerned by the supposed contradiction between his party's messages and the school curriculum. In fact, Miller expects his party's success to alter the education system's messages.

"What they're learning is what there is right now," he says. "As we've said, one of the key issues for us is to regulate loyalty, and I hope that as soon as legislation is enacted, they'll study it as a basis, as law."

Why do youths accept messages that contradict what they learn in school?

Miller: "They have a home, they have a family, they have access to the media and they hear things. If there's something they don't like, they can talk about it with the teachers. There's nothing wrong with asking a teacher why she's teaching a subject like this and not like that."

The polling results at the ORT Singalovsky School show that the students were not very impressed with Slansky's remarks: Yisrael Beiteinu came in second with 34.5 percent of the vote, trailing Likud which earned 35 percent. Kadima was a distant third with just 9 percent of the student votes.

Independent thinking

A relatively calm political discussion took place this week at the Tchernichovsky School in Netanya. While party representatives, seated behind a table covered with an ugly purple tablecloth, laid out their worldviews, the female students fixed each other's hair and the male students passed notes to one another.

The Yisrael Beiteinu representative, Yitzhak Aharonovitch, did receive some cries of support when he presented his positions, most notably concerning the connection between loyalty and citizenship. When the votes were counted, civics teacher Haim Wolloch heaved a sigh of relief.

Wolloch, a short fellow wearing glasses with thick purple plastic frames, happily announced that Yisrael Beitenu had won just 16 percent of the vote, which is pretty close to its standing in national polls. On the other hand, the comments students are making don't necessarily indicate that there has been much success in inculcating democratic principles.

"Israeli Arabs don't support the state and yet they receive money and a seat in the Knesset," says 11th-grader Nicole Parnasa. "Serious measures need to be taken to make them aware of what they're doing. Someone who doesn't declare his loyalty to the state, who has no patriotism, should have his citizenship taken away. Anyone who's against the operation in Gaza, for example - that's a kind of disloyalty. Anyone who burns the flag, that's disloyalty. The military operation was for the sake of the country, after we kept quiet for eight years, so now they don't support it?"

"There was a demonstration by Israeli Arabs during Operation Cast Lead," complains Daniela Nisani, another 11th-grader. "It's such chutzpah: You live in this country and you don't support it? Let them go to Hamas."

Sergei Leibliyanich, a senior, draws a connection between the preparation for military service in school and student support for the right: "It gives us motivation against the Arabs. You want to enlist in the army so you can stick it to them. The preparation gives you the motivation to stick it to the Arabs and we want to elect someone who'll do that. I like Lieberman's thinking about the Arabs. Bibi [Benjamin Netanyahu] doesn't want to go as far."

Wolloch, the civics teacher, isn't fazed: "The children think independently and we can't limit their thinking. Yisrael Beitenu is a protest movement definitely challenging the way the country is run."

Does this challenge conform to the democratic principles you're seeking to inculcate?

Wolloch: "A lot of kids speak in slogans without really understanding their implication. We advocate loyalty to the country, and then if someone says that they're not loyal, the students react in accordance with their age. The school conveys democratic messages and each person takes whatever he takes from that. But they also take things from their homes and from other places. You can't say that we are solely responsible for shaping their outlook. We try to teach tolerance."

Miriam Darmoni-Sharvit, a former civics teacher who is overseeing the implementation of the Kremnitzer Commission's recommendations concerning democracy education (which were drawn up in 1995 and stressed the goals of the civics curriculum), believes there is a fundamental problem with the educational system: The values of some of the teachers themselves are somewhat shaky.

Darmoni-Sharvit: "In Israel, teaching democracy is not a priority for anyone, and it's clear that there's a problem with teachers' democratic values. When we teach about human rights, we teach that duties and rights are not to be linked - that a citizen has certain rights regardless of any duty he did or did not fulfill.

"Many people, including school officials, have a very firmly entrenched view, based on years of experience, that a right is dependent upon fulfillment of a duty. That someone who doesn't serve in the army, who doesn't declare loyalty to the state, shouldn't receive rights. There are teachers who may go by the book, but it doesn't convince the students, and some teachers feel the same way."

She goes on to note that part of the problem in democracy education stems from the substantial gap between the students' knowledge of the subject, as expressed in exams and in classroom discussion - and the application of these values in their everyday lives.

"On the first level, of conveying the basic principles of democracy, the teachers are quite successful ... On other levels, such as inculcating democracy as a worldview and translating these values to the classroom, we see other things. You can have discussions in civics class and study entire texts, and then suddenly a boy says to a girl, 'Shut up, you slut,' and the teacher doesn't stop everything right then and there. When that happens you lose the connection between what's being taught and what's happening. In my daughter's class, the kids told a joke that went something like: 'How long does it take an Arab woman to get rid of the trash? Nine months,' and the teacher didn't stop or say anything to them about it."

Fear at the fringes

A big part of the problem, says Darmoni-Sharvit, is the teachers' fear of addressing political issues. Fear that makes learning technical and formal, for the most part.

"They're all afraid of it, but you see it mostly at the fringes," she says. "Religious teachers and teachers in settlements think the Education Ministry's program is very leftist, so they teach it in a very technical way, just so the kids can pass the matriculation exam. There are circles that have essentially disengaged from the state and its democratic values, and the kids are definitely hearing this in school. With the Arabs it's even more complicated: They're very careful to avoid discussions because of the fear that nationalist positions will come out, which will reach the ministry inspector or the principal and endanger their jobs. So they teach the subject in an even more technical fashion than the religious Jewish teachers."

Do schools also teach messages that contradict democratic education?

"In the school system there's a discrepancy between the official curriculum and the 'unofficial' curriculum [including what's known as Shelach], Land of Israel studies that have a nationalist bent, and preparatory workshops for the army and the Gadna pre-military youth corps. The [Holocaust-related] trips to Poland could have been an occasion to teach broader humanistic understanding, but they end up being all about 'Then we were weak and now we are strong - We won't give them another chance to kill us.'

"When I talk in civics class about the Arab minority, and about its uniqueness in being a majority that became a minority, my students argue and say it's not true that they were a majority. When I go to the history teacher and ask her why the students don't know that in 1947 there was a certain number of Arabs here, and in 1948 there was a different number, she becomes evasive and says it's not part of the material."

The failure of the school system is evident not just in student's opinions, but sometimes in their actions, too. There have been a number of disturbing incidents: On the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day last year, dozens of Jewish youths attacked two Arab youths after seeing a message on ICQ urging them "to put an end to all the Arabs walking around the Pisga [Pisgat Ze'ev]"; youths took part in the violence against Arabs in Acre last October; and just this week, Jewish youths from Tiberias went after a young Arab with clubs as he was walking on the city's boardwalk.

Interviewed by phone this week, Education Minister Yuli Tamir acknowledged that she herself is skeptical about the ministry's success in instilling democratic values:

"Lieberman's growing strength indicates that there is deep confusion about everything related to democratic values, and this obligates the system to conduct a profound reckoning regarding its ability to instill these values. Civics studies are very technical, the children are not internalizing the profound values because, in the Israeli context, these values are perceived as leftist. If you go on the ministry's Web sites that deal with citizenship, you'll find all of these principles, but the teachers are afraid to talk about it, because there's a labeling that occurs when one makes statements about equality or civil rights."

The schools seem to be speaking in two voices. Is there a gap between democratic education and patriotic education?

Tamir: "Israeli society is speaking in two voices: We see ourselves as a democratic society, yet we often neglect things that are very basic to democracy. These things are not at the top of the Israeli agenda. If the students see the Knesset disqualifying Arab parties, a move that I've adamantly opposed, how can we expect them to absorb democratic values?"

Prof. Ilan Gur-Ze'ev, whose specialty is the philosophy of education, argues that the political positions of Israeli youths derive in part from historical ignorance:

"It's not that they don't know what Lieberman says. It's that they don't understand the implications of what Lieberman says. They may know how to quote phrases like 'What we need is an iron fist in a silk glove.' If you think about such a metaphor - are they able to really appreciate what such a phrase means, are they aware of its connection to the fascist tradition? Are they capable of linking this phrase to the tradition in which it was originally used? They know slogans. They don't know history."

Gur-Ze'ev also offers an original explanation for young people's tendency to support Lieberman:

"The Israeli reality can no longer hide what it has kept hidden up to now - that today no sentient mother can honestly say to her child: 'Next year things will be better here.' The young people are replacing hope for a better future with a myth of a heroic end. For a heroic end, Lieberman fits the bill.

"Outwardly they may say that Lieberman will bring about a better future," the professor adds, "but have them talk with a psychologist or with a philosopher and these mantras will implode. In a reality in which you can't honestly tell your children, 'Tomorrow will be better,' in which the realization has finally sunk in that no deal or accord is about to happen, not now or 10 years from now - they react in a hysterical, survivalist fashion. In such a situation, the commitment to humanist values can be viewed as a luxury that we as a society cannot afford."

Jewish Peace News editors:
Joel Beinin
Racheli Gai
Rela Mazali
Sarah Anne Minkin
Judith Norman
Lincoln Shlensky
Rebecca Vilkomerson
Alistair Welchman
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