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We’re Israelis who study fascism. This week, our country took a terrifying step toward the abyss

A newly proposed bill aiming to quash political dissent at universities is straight out of the illiberal playbook

Countless words have been written in recent months on Israel’s rapid devolvement into an anti-liberal state. And this week, the country took a big step toward full-fledged fascism. 

The National Union of Israeli Students on Tuesday proposed a new law that would require universities to fire all academics who express dissent, including tenured professors. “Academic institutions will be obliged to immediately fire a lecturer, a teacher or researcher who expresses or acts in a manner that includes denial of the existence of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, incitement to racism, violence or terrorism and/or support for an armed struggle or an act of terrorism against Israel,” the bill reads. 

Institutions that fail to comply would lose their state funding.  

With even the proposal of this law — which reportedly enjoys the support of a Knesset majority — Israel is hurtling toward fascism at breakneck speed. We should know; we are historians of authoritarian regimes, specializing, respectively, in Mussolini’s Italy and Iran after 1979. Explaining state repression is our bread and butter. 

And we are Israeli. We both grew up there, attended Israeli universities, and talk daily to our families who are still living there. When we warn that Israel is on a slippery slope to authoritarianism, we are not self-hating Jews calling for the destruction of the only Jewish state, as is often claimed by right-wing pundits. We speak out because we see Israel marching toward an abyss, and we care.

If passed, this law will legitimize and intensify the already rampant persecution of educators who have dared to criticize the war or the government. 

High school teacher Meir Baruchin was fired, arrested and imprisoned for mourning dead Palestinian children on Facebook. Arab Israeli Hebrew University professor Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian was arrested and interrogated after discussing the horrors in Gaza — as well as those of Oct. 7 — on a podcast. 

Regev Nathansohn, of Sapir College, was placed on unpaid leave for signing a letter — which we initiated — calling on U.S. President Joe Biden to stop the delivery of American arms to Israel. Professor Anat Matar was denounced publicly by Tel Aviv University, where she works; Sabreen Msarwi lost her job teaching Arabic at a middle school after commemorating the Nakba; the list goes on.

One of fascism’s hallmarks is that it cannot tolerate any opposition. It brands dissenters as enemies, and persecutes them. The proposed law does exactly that. By using elastic terms like “incitement,” “racism,” and “violence,” the law would make it theoretically possible to fire academics simply for questioning Israel’s war on Gaza, not to mention calling it genocide or supporting a weapons embargo.

In a sad irony, Israeli academia itself has played a part in the deterioration of norms and public discourse. Some universities, like the Hebrew University and Ben-Gurion University, began in 2020 to award academic credit to students for volunteering with the organization Im Tirtzu, which has been harassing left-wing academics for two decades, and which an Israeli court has described as having fascist characteristics. Other universities have devoted resources to promoting hasbara, Israel’s official propaganda: Reichman University in Herzliya runs a program, Act IL, which trains students to become online warriors working to shield the state from criticism.

But those institutions have also been absolutely critical to building Israel into a state in which a diversity of perspectives have, historically, been able to flourish‚ like that of the late Yeshayahu Liebowitz, who contributed to the intellectual vocabulary with which most scholars today analyze the occupation. Critical thinkers, Palestinian and Jewish, continue to work in Israeli universities, foremost among them members of the organization Academia for Equality, whose very credo is to advance equality and justice.

Targeting higher education is a tried and tested tactic for illiberal and authoritarian regimes. Fascist Italy murdered and imprisoned academics who dared oppose Mussolini. After the ’79 revolution, Iran shut down universities for years on end. And Nazi Germany, in addition to persecuting Jewish academics, brutally persecuted writers and artists who didn’t conform to Nazi ideology.

Millions of Palestinians in Gaza and the occupied West Bank have lived without democracy for years. But as a functional political system, it has lent a thin veneer of equality and liberty to life in Israel proper. Now, that facade is coming apart at the seams.

The noose is tightening around the government’s perceived enemies, with ripple effects that target ever-growing swaths of society. Palestinian citizens of Israel continue to face the worst of it, such as the senior physician who was fired from his hospital position for posting the Shahada — the Islamic profession of faith — or the Galilee-based owner of a beauty parlor, who was arrested, handcuffed and blindfolded after posting a meme mourning recent violent deaths of civilians in Rafah.

But the reach of this violence is increasing, now also drawing in anti-war protesters, who face unprecedented levels of police brutality. Even the families of the hostages, many of whom call for an immediate ceasefire and swap deal that would allow their dear ones to return, have sometimes been dubbed collaborators against Israel.

As attacks on Gaza continue to shock the world, and as settlers and soldiers terrorize West Bank Palestinians with impunity, let there be no mistake: Israel is also turning on its own citizens. These events are connected. Our studies have taught us that, in illiberal states, the oppression of one group easily meshes into the persecution of another, until nobody is safe, recalling Martin Niemoller’s famous Holocaust-era poem, “First They Came.” 

A society doesn’t need to look like 1930s Italy or 1940s Germany to be fascist. It needs no club-wielding Blackshirts, no masses raising their hands in Nazi salutes. Fascism is a system of extreme nationalism which legitimizes violence and crushes dissent. Israel is becoming just that. 

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