I n Berlin, an exhibition entitled "Hitler and the Germans" has just opened. It examines the factors that caused the German people to bring Adolf Hitler to power and follow him to the very end.
I am too busy with the problems of Israeli democracy to fly to Berlin. Pity. Because since childhood, precisely this question has been troubling me. How did it happen that a civilized nation, which saw itself as the "people of poets and thinkers", followed this man, much as the children of Hamelin followed the pied piper to their doom.
This troubles me not only as a historical phenomenon, but as a warning for the future. If this happened to the Germans, can it happen to any people? Can it happen here?
As a 9-year old boy I was an eye-witness to the collapse of German democracy and the ascent of the Nazis to power. The pictures are engraved in my memory the election campaigns following each other, the uniforms in the street, the debates around the table, the teacher who greeted us for the first time with "Heil Hitler". I resurrected these memories in a book I wrote (in Hebrew) during the Eichmann trial, and which ended with a chapter entitled: "Can it happen here?" I am returning to them these days, as I write my memoirs.
I don't know if the Berlin exhibition tries to answer these questions. Perhaps not. Even now, 77 years later, there is no final answer to the question: Why did the German republic collapse?
This is an all-important question, because now people in Israel are asking, with growing concern: Is the Israeli republic collapsing?
For the first time, this question is being asked in all seriousness. Throughout the years, we were careful not to mention the word Fascism in public discourse. It raises memories which are too monstrous. Now this taboo has been broken.
Yitzhak Herzog, the Minister of Welfare in the Netanyahu government, a member of the Labor party, the grandson of a Chief Rabbi and the son of a President, said a few days ago that "fascism is touching the margins of our society". He was wrong: fascism is not only touching the margins, it is touching the government in which he is serving, and the Knesset, of which he is a member.
Not a day quite literally passes without a group of Knesset members tabling a new racist bill. The country is still divided by the amendment to the law of citizenship, which will compel applicants to swear allegiance to "Israel as a Jewish and democratic state". Now the ministers are discussing whether this will be demanded only of non-Jews (which doesn't sound nice) or of Jews, too as if this would change the racist content one bit.
This week, a new bill was tabled. It would prohibit non-citizens from acting as tourist guides in East Jerusalem. Non-citizens in this case means Arabs. Because, when East Jerusalem was annexed by force to Israel after the 1967 war, its Arab inhabitants were not granted citizenship. They were accorded only the status of "permanent residents", as if they were recent newcomers and not scions of families that have lived in the city for centuries.
The bill is intended to deprive Arab Jerusalemites of the right to serve as tourist guides at their holy places in their city, since they are apt to deviate from the official propaganda line. Shocking? Incredible? Not in the eyes of the proponents, which include members of the Kadima party. A Knesset member of the Meretz party also signed, but retracted, claiming that he was confused.
This proposal comes after dozens of bills of this kind have been tabled recently, and before dozens of others which are already on their way. The Knesset members act like sharks in a feeding frenzy. There is a wild competition between them to see who can devise the most racist bill.
It pays. After each such bill, the initiators are invited to TV studios to "explain" their purpose. Their pictures appear in the papers. For obscure MKs, whose names we have never heard of, that poses an irresistible temptation. The media are collaborating.
This is not a uniquely Israeli phenomenon. All over Europe and America, overt fascists are raising their heads. The purveyors of hate, who until now have been spreading their poison at the margins of the political system, are now arriving at the center.
In almost every country there are demagogues who build their careers on incitement against the weak and helpless, who advocate the expulsion of "foreigners" and the persecution of minorities. In the past they were easy to dismiss, as was Hitler at the beginning of his career. Now they must be taken seriously.
Only a few years ago, the world was shocked when Jörg Haider's party was allowed Into the Austrian government coalition. Haider praised Hitler's achievements. The Israeli government furiously recalled its ambassador to Vienna. Now the new Dutch government is dependent on the support of a declared racist, and fascist parties achieve impressive election gains in many countries. The "Tea Party" movement, which is blooming in the US, has some clearly fascist aspects. One of its candidates likes to go around wearing the uniform of the murderous Nazi Waffen-SS.