“Fascism” is “a powerful word, redolent of Mussolini, Hitler and Franco”, and one “that should be used with pinpoint accuracy” argued Guardian readers’ editor Chris Elliott in a 2014 column he wrote to address coverage of the rise of the European far-right.
Elliott also cited the definition of “fascism” provided by the Oxford English Dictionary:
“[a word which] Derives from the Italian totalitarian party of Mussolini (1922 to 1943) and the regimes of the Nazis in Germany and Franco in Spain. Fascism tends to include a belief in the supremacy of one national or ethnic group, a contempt for democracy, an insistence on obedience to a powerful leader, and a strong demagogic approach.”
Though British journalists almost never attach this term to Islamist extremist movements in the region, some within the heard of independent thinkers occasionally give credence to the risible suggestion that the Middle East’s sole progressive democracy is slowly creeping towards this fatal political malady.
A March 1st Guardian article – in the Art and Design section – by Michael Griffiths, titled ‘What’s happening is fascism’: artists respond to Israel’s ‘war on culture’, is the latest attempt to impute this epithet to the Jewish state.
The tendentious and ahistorical political analogies fly off in the first paragraph.
The term “loyalty in culture bill” sounds like something out of Nineteen Eighty-Four. However, last month, Israel’s minister for culture and sport introduced just that to a parliamentary committee, which responded with a mixture of rightwing approval and leftwing condemnation. Many of Israel’s newspapers are now happy to mention Miri Regev in the same breath as Joe McCarthy.
The bill Griffiths is referring to, introduced by Culture Minister Miri Regev doesn’t ban art which advances certain ideas. It permits a small budget reduction to groups receiving government funds who, for instance, reject Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, support terrorism or incite to violence or racist hate crimes – all of which are already illegal under the criminal code. (Later in his article, Griffiths in fact concedes the limited nature of the bill.)
Of course, the political inspiration of George Orwell’s dystopian novel was the tyranical thought control and all-encompassing abnegation of human rights under Soviet totalitarianism – the evocation of which, in the context of the proposed bill, strains credulity. Further, only someone completely unfamiliar with US history would compare Regev to Senator Joe McCarthy – whose witch-hunt for communists during hearings of the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1950s ruined careers and destroyed lives.
Griffiths then introduces the word which inspired the sensationalist Guardian headline – a single quote from an Israeli graphic designer and ‘peace activist’.
“What is happening in Israel now is fascism,” says David Tartakover, a graphic artist famous for designing politically inspired work, including the logo for thePeace Now campaign in 1978. He believes this is the culmination of a slow creep of limitations that began after the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. Over the last year, he says, things have visibly worsened.
However, Tartakover fails to provide any examples of the “slow creep” of fascist-inspired “limitations”. Helpfully, the Guardian writer provides her own evidence (two examples) to buttress the claim:
A snapshot of what Tartakover is referring to would include Naftali Bennett, the minister of education, banning Dorit Rabinyan’s novel Borderlife, about a relationship between a Jewish woman and Palestinian man, from school reading lists because it promoted “assimilation”; and the rightwing extra-paramilitary political group Im Tirtzu denouncing two of Israel’s most internationally recognised writers, Amos Oz and David Grossman, as being “infiltrators inside [Israeli] culture”.
As we’ve noted about the first example, concerning Borderlife, all that transpired was that Dorit Rabinyan’s novel was excluded from the official school curriculum. Teachers in advanced literature classes are still free to use the book, and school libraries can carry it. Whilst the decision, by Israel’s Education Ministry, is debatable, it can’t reasonably be considered an attempt to censor ideas – yet alone anything resembling ‘fascism’.
Griffith continues with more examples of ‘fascism’:
In her short tenure, Regev has threatened to fine theatre groups who refuse to perform in the West Bank, and attempted to vet the army radio station’s playlist to ensure it included more songs by Israeli and Mizrahi artists.
Again, Regev’s ‘threats’ to counter BDS is debatable, as are her efforts to add more diversity to the IDF radio playlist (to include more Israelis and less Westerners, and more Mizrachis and less Ashkenazis). However, to take the example of her radio station playlist proposal, we don’t recall many people questioning France’s committment to democracy because it has laws that require a certain number of French-language songs on the airwaves. (French-speaking Quebec has similar regulations).
Griffith then returns to Regev’s funding limitations proposal, and provides some balance by quoting a defender of the bil, Craig Dershowitz, executive director of New York-based organisation Artists4Israel:
Dershowitz, a street artist who leads educational tours of Israel for other graffiti artists, says: “I applaud a country that wrestles with so much adversity to have any – much more such a robust – cultural concern in government.” He says the international community “sometimes forgets that Israel is a country at war – and, at other times, forgets it is a country that exists outside of that war”.
He adds: “All art exists within society and, as such, is part of a social contract.Art has obligations to society even if that obligation is to be radical, rebellious and fighting against social norms. In Israel, those social contracts have always been quite different to how we imagine them in our privileged western liberal communities.”
Though Griffith concludes by reasonably acknowledging that “Israel’s artists seem split on the question of whether Regev’s bill represents a war on free expression”, the tone of her article seems sympathetic with the claim there’s an Israeli war on culture and freedom more broadly – attacks, the argument goes, which evoke other iconic dark chapters of the 20th century.
No, the Guardian didn’t accuse Israel of drifting into fascism as such.
However, in contextualizing a few isolated pieces of legislation – blown out of proportion by Israel’s critics – within the broad Guardian lens of ‘a country moving dangerously to the right’, and featuring the word ‘fascism’ prominently within this framing, they once again amplified an intellectually unserious smear that doesn’t withstand even the most rudimentary critical scrutiny.