Understanding the genocidal drift of Israeli society

February 22, 2024
Protesting Israel's genocidal war on Gaza in Queensland, Australia. Photo: Susan Price

The methodical extermination of the Palestinian people, which the Israeli army has been successfully carrying out for the past four months, does not fall from the sky, and would not be possible without the active and even enthusiastic approval of Israeli society. But neither would the current exterminatory fervour of Israeli society be possible if it were not the product and outcome of the internal logic of the founding project of the Hebrew state, the Zionist project.

This allowed the lucid and perceptive old anti-Zionist activist Michel Warschawski to warn back in 2014 that Israel is "a country sliding towards fascism". And a year later, he noted that "we have gone from a colonial society to a barbaric society. A potentially genocidal society that should be banned from the concert of civilized nations".

But Warschawski went further, and after noting that "Israel has become the Wild West, with its bloodthirsty sheriff, [Benjamin] Netanyahu", he reminded us that "the only way forward, for Israelis who reject the barbarism into which we are sinking, is to immediately arrest the sheriff and his henchmen. Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators should take to the streets”. And in despair, he exclaimed: "But where are they? Do they live hidden in the shadow of barbarity — certainly, their hands aren't covered in blood, but they're busy looking the other way".

This is echoed now by the very courageous and very honest writer, Haaretz contributor and anti-occupation activist Gideon Levy, who laments that "many of my friends on the left have changed during this war, even them. That's how you become lonelier and lonelier. It's unprecedented…”

Warschawski's lines could have been written today, the only difference being that the "potentially genocidal" Israeli society of 2015 is now genocidal in the full sense of the word.

So, how did we get here? How did we get to the point where 72% of Israelis say they oppose "the entry of humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip until Israeli prisoners are released"? And that hundreds of other Israelis, massed at the entrances to Gaza and brandishing Israeli flags, have repeatedly stopped the trucks delivering humanitarian aid to this double and triple refugee Palestinian population, decimated, starving and dying?

In short, how did it come about that the vast majority of Israeli citizens support and even applaud what is the very definition of genocide, the extermination of the Palestinian people?

Israelis are no different from the French, Belgians, English and Americans, nor from the Greeks, Serbs, Turks, Japanese, Russians, Rwandans and so many other peoples whose history is dotted with the massacres or even genocides of other peoples.

This is why the answers given by a great (Jewish) thinker of the last century, Ernest Mandel, to the question "What made the Holocaust of the Jewish people possible?" can help us to understand the current genocidal drift of Israeli citizens.

According to Mandel, "What made the Holocaust possible — a unique event in history so far — was first of all a biological variant of an ultraracist ideology, an extreme form of Social Darwinism. According to this doctrine there existed ‘subhuman races’ (Untermenschen), whose extermination was justified and even essential. For those who upheld this ideology, Jews were ‘vermin to be wiped out’, Blacks are ‘apes’, ‘the only good Indian is a dead Indian’, and so forth."

This is why an eminent member of the current Israeli government, such as Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, declares that "Palestinians are human animals". Netanyahu’s wife Sara seems to disagree, writing that comparing Palestinians to animals ... "is an insult to animals".

According to Mandel, dehumanising the enemy is the ideological precondition for treating "particular human groups in such an inhuman way that the need for an ideological justification — an ideology of dehumanisation — and for a ‘neutralisation’ of the perpetrators’ guilty consciences and feelings of individual guilt".

Mandel adds: "The Nazis’ systematic dehumanization of the Jews is not an isolated phenomenon in history. Comparable phenomena arose in respect to slaves in Antiquity, midwives (‘witches’) during the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries, the American Indians, Blacks sold into slavery, and so forth."

In short, no human society is "vaccinated" against such barbaric and inhuman aberrations.

This being said, who better than the racists and pure-blooded fascists of Israel's current government, its ministers Gvir and Smotrich, to embody this drift towards genocidal hell? Their meteoric rise to power in the space of a decade is representative of the metamorphosis undergone by Israeli society.

The last bastion of the old liberal and "left-wing" Zionism fell on February 16 when the chairperson of the kibbutz movement Nir Meir declared that "the kibbutzes must break with the left because it's the settlers who are right". It also brings to mind other "metamorphoses" and "dazzling rises to power", for example, in interwar Germany.

What has led marginal and unpresentable politicians like Gvir and Smotrich — imprisoned for extremist and terrorist activities in 2005 and 2006, and presented as recently as 10 months ago by the Israeli establishment as "a danger to the State of Israel" (Jerusalem Post) — to dictate their country's policy today, and express and materialise the deepest wishes of the vast majority of their compatriots?

According to Mandel: "In order for such individuals to get a response from millions of people, a deep social crisis is necessary (as Marxists we would say: a deep socio-economic crisis, a deep crisis of the mode of production, and a deep crisis of the power structures). In order for such individuals to have a short-term chance of gaining power, still more for them actually to take power, there must be a correlation of social forces that makes this possible: weakening of the traditional workers’ movement (and to a lesser extent of traditional bourgeois liberalism); strengthening of the most aggressive layers of the wealthy classes; despair among the middle classes; considerable increase in the number of declassed people, and so on."

Many, if not all, of these preconditions are present in today's Israel.

But Ernest Mandel did not stop there. Wanting to generalise and deepen the lessons of Nazi barbarism, he goes further and sees the Holocaust "as the ultimate expression so far of the destructive tendencies existing in bourgeois society, tendencies whose roots lie deep in colonialism and imperialism".

For Mandel, those tendencies include, "The doctrine of biological racism ... in a much broader context: the rise of anti-humanist, anti-progressive, anti-egalitarian, anti emancipatory doctrines, which openly celebrated the most extreme and systematic violence against whole human groups (‘the enemy’) and spread widely towards the end of the nineteenth century.”

So, it's perfectly "normal" for the genocidal Smotrich to call himself a "homophobic fascist", while his friend Ben Gvir, along with other Israeli political and religious leaders, shine with their racist, misogynist, homophobic, anti-socialist, climate-skeptic and violent obscurantist declarations.

This rising “Brown International” to which they belong, currently represents a direct and mortal threat to humanity and what remains of its democratic freedoms.

To conclude with Mandel: "[T]his interpretation of the Holocaust also has a subjective function. It is also useful and necessary from the point of view of the interests of the human race. It enables us to avoid the intellectual and mora! risks inherent in the contrary thesis, according to which the Holocaust is beyond all rational explanation and is incomprehensible.

“This obscurantist standpoint is to a large extent a posthumous triumph for Nazi doctrine. For if a patch of history is irrational and totally incomprehensible, that means that humanity itself is also irrational and incomprehensible.

“Then the evil empire is ’in all of us’. That is a scarcely indirect if not hypocritical way of saying that the fault is not Hitler’s, nor the Nazis’, nor that of those who allowed them to conquer and wield power, but everybody’s, which means nobody’s in particular."

And Mandel concludes with these prescient words: "Our interpretation of the Holocaust also has a practical, political function. It allows us to escape from practical impotence, and from the feeling of powerlessness in the face of the risks of the phenomenon’s recurring.

“We say deliberately that the Holocaust has been the apogee [culmination] of crimes against humanity so far. But there is no guarantee that this apogee will not be equalled or even surpassed in the future. To deny this a priori strikes us as irrational and politically irresponsible. As Bertolt Brecht said, ‘The womb from which this monster emerged is still fertile.’”

[Yorgos Mitralias is a journalist and founder of the Greek Committee Against the Debt.]

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