For the Israeli Right, the New Government Represents a Return to Its Fascist Roots

With the inauguration of Israel’s new far-right government, Zionism has finally embraced the fascist ideology that inspired major sections of the movement during its formative years a century ago.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on January 3, 2023. (Atef Safadi / Pool / AFP via Getty Images)

Last month, Israel inaugurated what is, in effect, the first fascist government in its history.

The State of Israel was the product of the Jewish nationalist movement that originated in the mass antisemitic violence of Tsarist Russia of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Much of the world, including European Jewish communities, stood by helplessly as organized Cossack militias and other pogromists rampaged through Ukrainian Jewish shtetls raping, pillaging, and murdering tens of thousands of helpless Jews.

An idealistic Hungarian journalist developed a plan to save endangered Eastern European Jewry. Theodore Herzl envisioned the Jewish homeland would become a thriving nation for these millions, who were otherwise destined for penury, privation and death. Rather than wait for the tsar and his henchmen to seal these Jews’ fate, Herzl foresaw a mass Jewish exodus from these lands of affliction to a vibrant new state awaiting them.

Initially, Herzl saw this state as a haven for Eastern European Jews facing the gravest threat. But later Zionist leaders developed a far more sweeping vision of the future, in which all Jews would either choose or be forced by systemic violence to seek refuge and build a state in Palestine.

Zionism, in effect, negated the entire existence of a Jewish Diaspora by claiming Jews were doomed to destruction in the face of overwhelming hatred from “gentiles.” This principle came to be known in Zionist ideology as “negation of exile.” Its corollary was a “return to history,” meaning that Zionism represented a return of the Jewish people to their rightful physical and spiritual place in the biblical land of Israel. It also signified a normalization of Jews, so that instead of being weak, hopeless, and on the margins of diasporic societies, they could be at the center and in control of their fate. That project would soon become successful — so successful that, in many ways, it would come to resemble fascism.

Zionism and Socialism

Almost from its inception, the Jewish national movement offered a response to the question of governing the new Jewish polity. The approach that dominated the first eight decades of the movement reflected the socialist model, which had been prevalent in post-tsarist Russia and much of Eastern Europe.

The revolutionary ferment that preceded the 1917 Bolshevik revolution had a profound impact on Jews who joined the Zionist movement. They embraced socialist values and sought to incorporate them into the new Hebrew colony: namely, the overarching value of work and the worker; or, in the terminology of the day, “Hebrew labor.” Perhaps the foremost example of this was the agricultural collectivist kibbutz movement. They also called for the formation of state enterprises and nationalization of the economy, including major industries.

The opposite of socialist Zionism was Revisionism. Its founder, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, advocated a form of militant Jewish nationalism. Like the socialists, Jabotinsky was a child of Eastern European Jewry. But he rejected the tenets of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Instead, he took as his model the rising populist, fascist movements in Italy and Germany. Benito Mussolini was especially to his liking: he didn’t espouse explicitly antisemitic ideas, as Adolf Hitler clearly did. Like his Italian idol, Jabotinsky projected Jewish power and a united Jewish nation intent on achieving it.

He understood that the “Palestinian Arabs,” as they were called, wanted no part in the new Jewish colony. He acknowledged that the Jews were colonizers and that it would be necessary to use force to quell their opposition. Nothing could, to his mind, stand in the way of the Jewish national project.

In “The Iron Wall” (1923), he expresses his disdain for the indigenous inhabitants:

Culturally they [Palestinian Arabs] are five hundred years behind us, they have neither our endurance nor our determination; but they are just as good psychologists as we are. . . . We may tell them whatever we like about the innocence of our aims, watering them down and sweetening them with honeyed words to make them palatable. But they know what we want, as well as we know what they do not want. They feel at least the same instinctive jealous love of Palestine, as the old Aztecs felt for ancient Mexico, and the Sioux for their rolling Prairies.

In the essay, he suggests there are only two ways to create the state he envisions: either imposition by colonial powers like the British, who promulgated the Balfour Declaration, calling for creation of a “Jewish homeland,” or by the Zionists themselves through force, in the form of a Jewish army. He further argues that it is futile to attempt to come to terms with the Palestinians. No compromise, no understanding, is possible. This has been the policy of Israel’s right-wing Likud governments of the past fifty years.

Jabotinsky went on:

Zionist colonization must either stop or else proceed regardless of the native population. Which means that it can proceed and develop only under the protection of a power that is independent of the native population — behind an iron wall, which the native population cannot breach. . . .

We cannot offer any adequate compensation to the Palestinian Arabs in return for Palestine. And therefore, there is no likelihood of any voluntary agreement being reached. So that all those who regard such an agreement as a condition sine qua non for Zionism may as well say “No” and withdraw from Zionism. . . .

In this matter there is no difference between our “militarists” and our “vegetarians.” Except that the first prefer that the iron wall should consist of Jewish soldiers, and the others are content that they should be British.

By 1939, two months after World War II broke out, Jabotinsky envisioned a chaotic postwar order in which millions would be uprooted from their centuries-old homes and forced to live in ethnic states. He — along with David Ben-Gurion, who wrote a 1937 letter to his son advocating population transfer (i.e., ethnic cleansing) — argued, “They [Palestinian Arabs] will have to make room for the [surviving] Jews and leave, perhaps to Saudi Arabia with the support of an international loan.”

Less than a year after Jabotinsky’s death in 1940, the Revisionist armed militia that had been created as part of his movement splintered. The more violent and radical branch founded Lehi, or the National Military Organization of Israel (NMO), which proposed a deal with the Nazis in which Palestinian Jewry would become a German ally. In return, Germany would recognize an independent state in Palestine.

Lehi’s Ankara Document envisioned an alliance between the new state and the Nazis predicated on the latter’s victory in the war:

The NMO, which is well-acquainted with the good will of the German Reich government and its authorities toward Zionist activity inside Germany and toward Zionist emigration plans, is of the opinion that:

  1. Common interests could exist between the establishment of a new order in Europe in conformity with the German concept, and the true national aspirations of the Jewish people as they are embodied by the NMO.
  2. Cooperation between the new Germany and a renewed folkish-national Hebraium would be possible and,
  3. The establishment of the historic Jewish state on a national and totalitarian basis, bound by a treaty with the German Reich, would be in the interest of a maintained and strengthened future German position of power in the Near East.

Proceeding from these considerations, the NMO in Palestine, under the condition [that] the abovementioned national aspirations of the Israeli freedom movement are recognized on the side of the German Reich, offers to actively take part in the war on Germany’s side.

The italicized term above in the original German, völkisch-nationalen Hebräertum, has been translated as popular-national Hebrewness. But I suggest that the Lehi authors of this proposal sought to align their own national vision with Nazi Germany and that one could translate the phrase as a Hebrew national socialism. Though unstated, this new militantly nationalist state would treat the indigenous Palestinian population in a similar fashion to the Nazi treatment of German Jewry before the explicit policy of genocide was promulgated.

The Germans failed to pursue the offer. But that did not dent Lehi’s ambition to strike against its imperial enemy. In 1943, future prime minister Yitzhak Shamir directed a plot leading to the assassination of Britain’s leading diplomat in Cairo, Lord Moyne.

As opposed to European partisans (including Eastern European Jews) who were killing German soldiers, the Revisionists saw their only enemy as the British. The Nazis, as far as they were concerned, were a way to end the mandate and gain national independence.

But as they saw the war shift in the Allies’ favor, Lehi turned increasingly toward another totalitarian state: Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union. In fact, the Judeo-militants began using the phrase “Hebrew national Bolshevism” (a reverse echo of völkisch-nationalen Hebräertum) to describe their own vision for the future Zionist state. This strand of Revisionism had no absolute allegiance to either ideology. It embraced whichever one appeared likely to emerge victorious in the postwar era: the winner would be the one that could best advance Revisionism’s aim to establish a state.

But there was one underlying principle common to both systems: a totalitarian model of state control in the political, economic, and even personal spheres.

Religion and Fascism

Twentieth-century iterations of fascism varied in their approach to religion. Hitler and Mussolini did not especially seek to incorporate it into their own political philosophy. On the other hand, Francisco Franco’s Spain, the Croatian Ustaše, and the Romanian Iron Guard were — and Vladimir Putin’s Russia today is — Christo-ethnic-nationalist states. Similarly, a form of theocratic fundamentalism now reigns in parts of the incoming Israeli government.

Revisionism, like Mussolini’s brand of fascism, was an entirely secular movement. In fact, it, and much of the Zionist movement, rejected Judaism as a relic of the Diaspora and the suffering of the Jewish past. “Hebrew,” as a reference to the New Jewish Man, was meant to replace it.

But after 1967, the Greater Israel movement, inspired by the messianic nationalism of Rabbi Avraham Kook, integrated religious supremacy with secular nationalism. This in turn gave birth to the settler movement, the single most influential political movement since the founding of the state. The two combined became a vastly more powerful phenomenon than they were separately. Thus, the Israeli forces that emerged victorious in the latest election represent a combination of Jewish Talibanism and European fascism.

Zionism and the Holocaust

The claim of early-twentieth-century Zionism, that the Jewish Diaspora was doomed due to the historic antisemitism of the nations, foreshadowed the Holocaust. It was prescient in its warning against relying on the Diaspora as a safe place for Jewish life.

But shockingly, the Yishuv, the prestate governing authority in Palestine, did little to rescue European Jews during this catastrophic period. As opposed to American and British Jewry, the Yishuv focused on building the Palestinian colony and preparing it for independent statehood. Even when the Zionists attempted to save Jews (as in the Haavara Agreement to bring German Jews to Palestine), they did so only when it could directly benefit the Yishuv.

Why were Zionists in Palestine essentially willing to leave European Jewry to its fate? Zionism argued that a nation-state offered the means to end diasporic Jewish suffering and ensure the survival of the Jewish people. But it was more than a means — for Zionists, it was the only means. Jewish life outside that state, they believed, was doomed to annihilation or disappearance via assimilation. The ingathering of the exiles meant, in effect, the withering away of all Jewry outside it.

Such a rigid ideological construct was, in itself, a form of Israel supremacism and diaspora denialism — a dictation from the center of the Jewish world that it was the only path to survival. All others were at best a distraction from the Jewish sovereignty and at worst an impediment and thus a danger to it.

Zionists made an exception to this principle. They saw one key benefit to maintaining a relationship with the diaspora. Leaders like founding prime minister Ben-Gurion relied on wealthy countries like the United States to fund costly military projects such as the nuclear weapons program. They also understood the need for powerful allies to arm them and offer political support in the face of their Arab enemies. The founding of the Israel lobby with the incorporation of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in 1953 was another critical development for Israel-Diaspora relations.

Nevertheless, Israel has never seen the Jewish Diaspora as a full partner. Rather the diaspora has always been a stepchild, a sideshow of Jewish peoplehood. This foundational conflict between the two key factions of world Jewry was, for decades, papered over by protestations of love and loyalty to the Zionist enterprise by many Diaspora Jews.

But over time, it has become a growing and perhaps irreparable rift, as Israel turns away from the liberal democratic values of much of world Jewry and embraces Judeo-supremacy, a version of Judaism advocating naked power and triumphalism over the values of the biblical prophets.

Despite foreseeing the cataclysm that befell European Jewry, Zionism did get one thing very wrong: the Diaspora was not a dead end.

Despite the murder of six million Jews, the Diaspora not only survived but thrived. And it survived not by suppressing Jewish identity in order to assimilate with the non-Jewish world but by embedding itself, its traditions, and its values within (non-Jewish) society and popular culture.

That is a triumph that flew in the face of Zionist dogma. It has led to a schizoid relationship: the Diaspora, according to classical Zionism, will eventually disappear. Even if it survived, Israel should be independent of it and stand on its own two feet. Yet the Diaspora thrives and even offers hundreds of billions to Israel via communal philanthropy and US aid.

Meanwhile, Diaspora Jewry has staked out an independent identity, increasingly at odds with Israel, both politically and religiously. The former is largely secular, liberal, and democratic — values that have become anathema in the new fascist Israel. The latter’s new agenda of homophobia, mass violence, and Judeo-supremacy confronts foreign Jewish communities with a troubling dilemma. While communal leaders are chained to their traditional support of Israel, rank-and-file Jews will be driven farther away from a phenomenon that repels and disgusts them.

Israel: Fascism Reascendant

Fascism finds its origins in suffering. Germany was vanquished in World War I and burdened with a treaty of surrender that imposed punitive debt leading to economic collapse. As a result, Germans nurtured a deep grievance against France and the other European powers, who had imposed an unbearable burden on them. The Nazi movement exploited this resentment and offered Germans pride and hope, along with a desire to seek revenge for their national humiliation.

Like Hitler’s early years in the political wilderness filled with imprisonment and obscurity, Revisionism too was reviled by the dominant Zionist socialist faction before 1948. It spent decades thereafter in the shadows, largely viewed as a historical relic. Those slights rankled and nursed a sense of grievance against Labor’s governing elite. However, Revisionism did not die.

The flame of Jabotinskyism remained lit in the hearts of disciples like Benzion Milikovsky, who served as Jabotinsky’s personal secretary in the United States until Jabotinsky’s death in 1940. After, Milikovsky returned to Israel. But Menachem Begin had taken political leadership, and Milikovsky had no role to play. He returned to self-imposed exile in America as an academic, living a life filled with grievance at the thwarting of his ambitions. But his two sons changed the family name to Netanyahu, and a new Hebrew legend was born.

Kahanism in the Israeli Mainstream

The most influential Israeli fascist political figure of the past half-century, however, was Brooklyn-born Rabbi Meir Kahane. He began his political career taking up the cause of the Soviet Jewry movement in the 1960s, which sought to allow persecuted Jews to emigrate. The Jewish Defense League (JDL), which he founded in 1968, became the first Jewish terrorist group in US history. It trafficked in weapons and prepared explosive devices, using extreme violence to dramatize its cause: the JDL conspired to bomb Soviet buildings in the United States and sent a letter bomb to the office of a Jewish impresario who produced events for Russian artists, killing an office worker.

The other major thrust of the JDL was a racist campaign against a group of largely African American and Puerto Rican parents in the Ocean Hill–Brownsville area of Brooklyn that sought “community control” of its local public schools in 1968. The teachers’ union responded by calling a strike. Most of the teachers and union leaders were white and Jewish, which provoked antisemitic attacks from the community. Kahane, though hardly a champion of the labor movement, was determined to go to war, seeking to transform the political battle into the equivalent of a guerilla campaign.

After JDL activists were arrested on weapons charges and the FBI dismantled its criminal network, Kahane fled the United States to Israel. There, the principal target of his racism moved from African Americans to what he called “the Arabs.”

In the 1980s, he founded the political party Kach, whose agenda mirrored many of the Nuremberg Laws. He faced scores of arrests by Israeli police for incitement to terror and was jailed a number of times. After winning a seat in the Knesset, Kahane was expelled, and Kach was outlawed as a terrorist organization in 1988, a status maintained by the US government until this year. Ironically, the United States removed Kach from the blacklist because it hadn’t existed for several decades. But shortly after it did so, the avowedly Kahanist party, Jewish Power, won an astonishing victory in national elections.

Kahane was assassinated by an Egyptian Islamist in New York in 1990. But instead of fading into obscurity, he became a prophet of Israeli fascism. The agenda of the incoming Israeli government closely mirrors Kahane’s political philosophy.

Kahane was obsessed with Jewish racial purity and urged strict separation between Jews and “Arabs.” He especially inveighed against “mixed-race” sexual relations. The Nazis too defended the purity of the “Aryan race” by forbidding sexual relations between Germans and Jews. Leaders of some of the most extreme Israeli religious parties similarly inveigh against “Arabs” who, in their telling, lure impressionable Jewish women into sexual relationships in order to convert them and their children to Islam.

In his day, Hitler called for a boycott of Jewish businesses and urged citizens to patronize German stores. Similarly, leading Israeli politicians have called for Jews not to shop at Palestinian businesses nor hire Palestinians to work in their own stores.

Kahane viewed Israeli Palestinians as a fifth column whose goal was the destruction of the “Jewish state.” This parallels the Nazis who, prior to the 1943 Wannsee Conference, supported the emigration of Jews from Europe as a solution to the “Jewish problem.” Kahane too urged mass expulsion of Palestinians from Israel. Itamar Ben Gvir, on the other hand, differentiates himself from his mentor, Kahane, by calling for the expulsion of only “disloyal” Palestinian citizens.

Just as the Nazis used mass violence on their path to power, targeting Jews and other political enemies, Ben Gvir and his settler allies use the same tactics, including arson, desecration of Muslim holy sites, and even murder. Every year, he marches through Palestinian East Jerusalem with tens of thousands of religious extremists chanting “Death to Arabs.”

Before Labor prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s 1995 assassination, Gvir boasted that he and his colleagues could “get to” the prime minister. Only weeks later, Yigal Amir, a far-right extremist who shared many of Ben Gvir’s nationalist ideological views, murdered Rabin.

Kahane denounced Western democracy and said Judaism was incompatible with it. He advocated instead a theocracy based on the supremacy of religious law. Israeli Orthodox parties, most of which will feature in the new Israeli government, prefer a theocratic state governed by religious law (halakha) to democracy. Though they were elected to and will serve in the Knesset, they exploit democracy to maintain the extravagant financial benefits showered on their followers from state coffers. They legislate to impose halakha on the country.

The Nazis transformed Germany into a one-party state with an SS police apparatus that ruthlessly suppressed dissent. It also rooted out “deviant” classes like homosexuals, communists, and Jews and shipped them to concentration camps. Germany’s legal system and judiciary were subservient to Nazism, having lost any semblance of independence.

The new Israeli government plans to approve a new law that will override any Supreme Court ruling it opposes. It will do so with a simple majority vote in the Knesset. This, Israeli political analysts have noted, will destroy the rule of law and in effect dismantle an independent judiciary.

Israel’s legal system enshrines impunity for crimes against Palestinians by state authorities. The state prosecutor routinely refuses to prosecute soldiers and police who execute Palestinians — sometimes militants but often unarmed civilians as well. Nearly all complaints of torture by Palestinians at the hands of police interrogators are dismissed. Palestinian security arrestees are convicted of security crimes in nearly 100 percent of cases.

Similar to the Nazi police state, Israel maintains a draconian system of mass surveillance against occupied Palestine which includes interception of all forms of communication, installation of thousands of CCTV cameras monitoring all towns, and nightly arrests of security suspects, often accompanied by the murder of Palestinians who protest the intrusions by Israeli troops.

Like Hitler’s terrorizing of German Jews with organized pogroms like Kristallnacht, which pillaged Jewish businesses and burned historic synagogues to the ground, Ben Gvir and many in the Israeli settler movement dream of destroying Islam’s third holiest shrine, Jerusalem’s al-Ḥaram al-Sharīf, and replacing it with a rebuilt Third Temple.

In fact, earlier this week, he fulfilled a campaign commitment to his followers, making a “pilgrimage” to what he deemed the Temple Mount. He stayed only thirteen minutes: long enough to film a video boasting of Israeli sovereignty over the holy site. Then, he was whisked away by security forces. In 2000, Ariel Sharon made the same visit, which incited rage among Palestinians. That commenced the Second Intifada, in which six thousand Israelis and Palestinians died.

The world has universally condemned Ben Gvir’s provocation. One of Israel’s closest Arab allies, the United Arab Emirates, has demanded a United Nations Security Council meeting to protest the visit. Jordan’s King Abdullah, the custodian of the Jerusalem holy sites, told CNN: “If people want to get into a conflict with us, we’re quite prepared. . . . We have certain red lines. . . . And if people want to push those red lines, then we will deal with that.” Joe Biden’s administration has, unfortunately, seen fit to merely express “concern” for a violation of the religious status quo at the holy site.

Israel’s New Fascist-Theocratic Government

The embers of Israeli fascism have smoldered under Israel for at least seventy years, if not longer. Turn-of-the-twentieth-century antisemitism may have lit a match that spurred the founding of Zionism. But today, Revisionist fascism, which accompanied and underpinned Zionism almost from its inception, has burst into flames with November’s resounding election victory.

Before November’s Israeli election, a gang of settler leaders formed the Jewish Power Party (the phrase “Jewish Power” hearkens back to the founder of Israeli fascism, Kahane) and won six seats in the new Knesset, running on a joint list with the far-right Religious Zionist and Noam parties; the list won fourteen seats total. This provided Benjamin Netanyahu a resounding victory and the votes needed for a majority. But the victory comes at a cost.

The leaders of these extremist parties are virtual political thugs. The Jewish Power Party’s leader, Ben Gvir, is a disciple of Kahane who refers to the late terrorist with the honorific “my rebbe.” Ben Gvir has been convicted of incitement to terrorism fifty times. He is also the leader of the most extreme of settler militias, Hilltop Youth, who have rampaged through Palestinian villages destroying property and even burning a family to death.

His chief partner, Religious Zionist Party leader Bezalel Smotrich, was arrested by the Shin Bet with an explosive device in his car. He intended to perpetrate a terror attack to protest Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza.

Under the coming coalition agreement, Ben Gvir will become police minister, responsible for the very officers who investigated him for his past crimes. He will also command the Israel Border Police, among the most violent forces used to terrorize Palestinians.

Smotrich will be responsible for Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), the military administration for the occupied territories. From his perch, he will manage all Israeli settlements including outposts that, until now, have been illegal. As a Haaretz columnist writes, they are not extremists — they are “political arsonists.”

Another rabbi who is part of the incoming government leads a party whose declared mission is to destroy LGBTQ rights. He specifically calls for canceling the annual gay pride parade. He will lead a new unit of the education ministry responsible for extracurricular activities like science and art programs. He will control access to schools and prohibit civil society NGOs from offering programming he finds objectionable.

The new governing coalition will seek to dispense with as many remaining vestiges of democracy as it can in order to replace them with a theocratic state governed by the Torah rather than secular law. It will fuse religious fundamentalism with naked political power to form the first Judeo-fascist government in the nation’s history.

Fascism and Palestinians

Though the founding of a state as a haven for persecuted Jews may have offered safety to hundreds of thousands of Jews subject to pogroms, early Zionism never reckoned with the indigenous Palestinian inhabitants of the land, which it intended as the Jewish homeland. This refusal led inexorably to conflict between the two peoples and eventually all-out war and the Nakba.

Seven decades of hatred and perpetual bloodletting has in turn soured Israelis on any agreement involving compromise of their country’s territorial ambitions. To the extent that they identified such a willingness to compromise with the Labor Party, they rejected the party and the political agenda it represented. This in turn led to the victory of the Likud in 1977 and its domination of the next four decades of Israeli politics.

During that period, the successors to Jabotinsky turned progressively farther to the right, until today they are almost a pure embodiment of classical fascism. As such, they hearken back to the most violent and totalitarian traditions of Lehi.

Fascism has won in Israel. Now, it will wreak holy havoc both on Israelis — who may not even realize its impact on them — and Palestinians, who are only too aware of that havoc in their flesh and bones.