Modern Zionism is characterised by, among other things, an enormous capacity for nationalist chauvinism. The policies of the Israeli government towards the Palestinians are brutal, and totally unjustifiable. Yet, by reducing the words ‘fascist’ or ‘fascism’ to a stock slur aimed at Zionists or Israelis, we obscure the grim reality of authentic fascism and cheapen the meaning of the term itself. This ugly noun should be reserved for its proper use: when describing especially sinister creeds and forms of totalitarianism that actually resemble the movements that made the word notorious.
While Zionism has gained critical prominence among other nationalisms that were birthed in 19th century Europe, this particular example fitted snugly into the imperial designs of the West in the Middle East. As a predictable consequence, because of its ultility, this nationalism has won the sponsorship of successive empires, and, as Edward Said has argued, communities, Jewish and, more recently, Evangelical.
Fascism is a different beast. Of course, there are some parallels, as there are between any two bodies of thought – conservatism and Marxism, liberalism and post-colonialism all shade into each other at certain points – though you may have to cross your eyes slightly to see it in some cases. However, to describe Zionism as fascist hints at a lack of both historical knowledge and political savvy. It’s deplorable, surely, but requires more analysis than that.
For one thing, it’s inaccurate. Fascism is capitalism in decay. We are not talking about any old authoritarianism here. We are discussing an ideology born from human desperation; a new, radical and poisonous thing formed by the exhaustion of total war between imperial powers during WWI, and the resulting collapse of the German economy, in particular. [Most invocations of fascism, in the Israeli context, tend to be in reference to National Socialism, rather than Italian fascism.]
Fascism is nothing if not capital ‘H’ Hate which has been harnessed by an ambitious middling clique and provisioned with modern, mass industry. The traumatised vengefulness which drives fascism contains a deep anti-rationalism and an obsession with power, obedience, submission and extreme martial values marks it out as a product of imploded free markets and, by extension, modernity.
The Nietzsche-flavoured fascist ‘New Man’ may be an idiot – in the classical sense of one who rejects politics, in his case, for willing subordination – but he is a distinctly modern idiot, and a lethal one who will have access to mass-produced arms if his thuggish rulers get their way. There is an identifiable lineage here. Much as you might inherit your own sire’s build or features, fascism is counter-intellectual, ruthless, savage and doctrinally driven like its parent: capitalism.
Given that we face a profound economic crisis today, we must maintain our capacity to identify and challenge authentic fascism when it presents itself. This is the dilemma in conflating the politics which emerge from such crises with post colonial politics in the Middle East. In order to properly confront it in Europe, we must not project it elsewhere.
Further, the tendency to fumblingly conflate fascism, Zionism and Israel – and we should be conscious here of a very real, unimaginably horrific historical background – will see us jumped upon by critics, as we should be. This is the very last area in the geography of contemporary politics in which to oafishly sling around terms like ‘Nazi’. You might not like what the State of Israel does and you might, as I do, find Zionism immoral and insidious, but in the battle of ideas and actions we are waging, it is imperative that we be specific about the kind of selectively democratic, or ethnocratic politics Zionism has been pegged as.
This habit of labelling things-we-don’t-like as ‘fascist’ does more than insult people who might otherwise be sympathetic.This ultra-left and counterfactual wolf-crying diminishes our capacity to see real threats for what they are, as well as appreciate their distinctiveness. As in Greece, right now. Today. At this minute. Yet I hear a lot more people use the term ‘Nazi’ to refer to the Israeli Defence Force than I hear people using it about the actual fascists thugs from the “Golden Dawn” party who are lynching immigrants there, in democracy’s birthplace. That conjuncture, by itself is worthy of consideration, to the exclusion of everything else. Well, not everything. But you get the idea. The symbolism is enormous.
Fascism is also not necessarily about ethnic cleansing. Lots of non-fascist regimes, pre-dating Hitler and Mussolini by centuries, have murdered large numbers on the basis of race. For example, Imperial Britain arguably thinned out local populations like no other country in history. The occupation of Iraq may have seen hundreds of thousands of deaths, and the Belgian Congo millions. The Amritsar massacre in India was no anomalous incident in the Raj period, but the fact that these atrocities were visited upon ethnic “others” oppressed by colonial powers, does not make those who did it fascists. In fact, the perpetrators were most often committed liberals or conservatives of the hawkish, modern kind. Not all mass-killers are fascists, though all fascists arguably have the political gene and disposition for mass killing. We should not mix them up.
Zionism might be abhorrent. However, calling it something it is not doesn’t help anti-imperialists or Palestine. Let’s not give in to inflated language before the lesser demon of Zionism, but rather reject this canard as we would do the outworn image of the ‘Islamo-Fascist’.
Zionism is a key aspect of the imperial architecture of the Middle East – Israel. To counter its assault on Palestinian life, as well as to raise awareness of the issue, we need to make use of cogent analysis, not lazy, anti-intellectual slogans. If we are going to criticise the brutal mistreatment of Palestinians by Israel, a key ethical and political cause of our time, then we should do so with clear-headedness, discernment and moral force, not hyperbole and caricature.
Photographs courtesy of Joel Schalit