Fascist Bumfight in Israel

This is what happens when you run a state based on religious fundamentalism and ethnonationalism.

A racist screed by one of Israel’s infamous Taliban-type, tabernacle-thumping chief rabbis has gone viral. In it Yitzhak Yosef accuses Israel’s Soviet Jewish immigrants of not being real Jews but godless gentiles and communists — a fifth column that was brought into the country in a conspiracy to degrade the true faith and undermine the political power of ultra-religious Jews in the Holy Land.

“Tens or hundreds of thousands of gentiles came to the country because of the law determining who's Jewish," said Rabbi Yosef. “There are many, many gentiles here, some are communists, hostile to religion, haters of religion. They’re not even Jewish, they're gentiles.”

…Yosef also accused the state of deliberately inviting immigrants from the former Soviet Union to the country in an effort to weaken the political power of the ultra-Orthodox public. “They brought them here as leverage against the ultra-Orthodox,” the chief rabbi said. “They brought these complete gentiles to weaken the ultra-Orthodox vote during elections. Unfortunately, we see the fruits of their incitement.”

The rabbi’s speech caused a bit of a political scandal in Israel. Around the world, too, a lot of Jews have been shocked and scandalized by his racist remarks. I mean, it’s true, the guy does sound like a classic antisemite serving up the ol’ Judeo-Bolshevik conspiracy theory — but one that’s been remixed for a retrograde and theocratic ultra-Orthodox crowd worried about preserving their racial Jewish purity and religious culture against a degenerate invasion of fake Jew commies.

It’s gross. But there’s a complicating wrinkle to this racist rabbi story — one that makes it hard for me to sympathize with my fellow Soviet immigrants. Truth is, it’s all part of a larger Jewish fascist vs Jewish fascist squabble.

See, the rabbi’s political incorrectness is connected to a fight that’s being waged against the ultra-Orthodox by Avigdor Lieberman and his “Our Israel” — a political party that’s very popular with Soviet and Russian immigrants.

Our Israel isn’t some leftwing or even progressive force that stands for religious and ethnic tolerance. It’s a racist, ethnonatioanlist party that represents the extreme right of Israel politics. And in Israel, being on the right of a political spectrum that’s already skewed waaaaay right means you’re pretty much, well, proudly fascist.

Lieberman, born in Moldova, calls for dropping a nuke on Gaza. "No Palestinians no problem.”

Aside from its bloodlust for Palestinians and Starship Troopers levels of military worship, Our Israel also has a thing for the ultra-Orthodox.

Hardcore religious Jews have a huge amount of power over secular life in Israel and get all sorts of perks from the state — including being exempted from having to serve in the military. So Lieberman’s made going after the beards a central plank of his politics. Not surprisingly, that’s been a very popular position among Soviet and post-Soviet Jews.

They came to Israel with nothing, got almost no help from the state, and had to scramble up on their own. Many of them still struggle financially. They see the ultra-Orthodox as degenerate and privileged moochers who never have to pull their own weight but force everyone else to live according to their ridiculous religious laws — including deciding who is and isn’t a Jew and who can marry.

Lieberman’s party has tapped into that hatred and channeled it into his own political rise. And that’s why chief rabbi Yitzhak Yosef — that’s the guy at the top with the funny black jelly bean hat — is so pissed and why he believes that Soviet Jews are an impostor virus infecting the Jewish nation.

But like I said, it’s hard for me to feel any sympathy for the Soviet immigrants in this fight.

In one corner, you have racist secular immigrants of the Our Israel type. In the other, you have racist theocratic fundamentalists from the ultra-Orthodox parties. One of them wants to have a Jewish state only for “Jews” based on a mix of secularism and ethnonationlism. The other one also wants to have a Jewish state only for “Jews” but one that’s based on ethnonationalism and an extremist interpretation of biblical law. They might disagree on the finer points of what defines someone as a “Jew” or what laws should underpin Israeli society. But they all agree on the basics: Juden Uber Alles. Apartheid. Death to Arabs. Death to Palestinians.

It would be great if Soviet immigrants had a popular anti-racist party or movement to countervail the ethnonationalist ideology that underpins Israeli society. But that would mean abandoning support for Israel as a Jewish-only state. And that’s not gonna happen. Soviet immigrants — which flock to far-right parties like Our Israel — aren’t exactly known for their tolerant views.

The racist rabbi’s spat with Soviet immigrants is a good reminder that in Israel sectarian and religious hatred isn’t just directed as Palestinians. It’s a multidimensional cultural pastime with its own rules and hierarchies and plenty Jew-on-Jew loathing: Ashkenazi Jews against Sephardic Jews. Sephardic Jews against Ashkenazi Jews. Non-Soviet Jews against Soviet Jews. Ashkenazi Jews and Sephardic Jews and Soviet Jews against Ethiopian and Yemeni Jews. And All Jews against the Palestinians.

But this is what happens when you run a state based on religious fundamentalism and ethnonationalism. What other kind of politics can you possibly expect?

—Yasha Levine

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New Year in Los Angeles

Kinda weird for a Soviet immigrant like me to realize that you fled one failing society only to end up in a society that was also entering an accelerated phase of decline and degradation.

Evgenia and I took a trip to LA from New York earlier this month.

When we left our cheap rent controlled apartment in Santa Monica in 2015 to go east, it was the very end of the Obama Era. Hyper-gentrification had majorly kicked in, tech companies were moving in, the real estate bubble had been reinflated, and everyone pretended like the biggest financial crash since the Great Depression had never really happened. Being back now, nothing’s really changed — except that LA feels even more like Elysium but without the space station: richer, more inflated, and a lot more wrecked.

You probably read the headlines about LA catastrophic homeless problem. Well, it’s bad. Really bad.

Right before I left LA four years ago, I wrote a story and made a short doc with Rowan Wernham about the brutal way homeless people are treated here in LA — focusing on Google’s innovative New Economy strategy of hiring aggressive private security guards to physically attack and drive away homeless people living in tents near its brand new campus in Venice Beach, down the street from where I lived. All over LA, things have only gotten worse.

Echo Park Lake, which is a few blocks from where we’re temporarily staying, looks like a refugee camp. Most of the flat lawn space is packed with tents. There was a leisurely outdoor yoga class there this weekend held in front of a row of tents — soggy and rank after a few nights of rainstorms. Just across the 101, the infamous MacArthur Park looks like a refugee camp that itself had been destroyed in a hurricane. There’s debris and trash and human waste spread around everywhere. Walking on Sunset Boulevard last night, it seemed like five out of four people on were homeless — wandering around in a haze, begging, sleeping on the sidewalks.

It’s sad and brutal. There are camps everywhere. Under underpasses, onramps, off-ramps, sidewalks, and unclaimed suburban corners. There’s a small camp down the street from our place set against an earthen slope abutting an underpass — which you can partially see in the photo above. It was washed out by the rain and infested with rats and surrounded by rotting furniture, trash, and clothes. Wherever Evgenia and I go in this city, we see people reduced to a subcaste — while people around us just scurry by and pretend not to notice.

Everyone here agrees it’s bad and everyone is embarrassed by it. But nothing’s really being done. LA’s been throwing hundreds of millions of dollars at the problem, only to see homelessness grow by something like 15 or 20 percent a year here. Donald Trump’s people have been talking up his plans to resettle California’s homeless into camps far outside of Los Angeles. He wants deal with the issue by criminalizing rockbottom poverty and hiding it. My guess is that his plan will be received warmly here in liberal, anti-Trump California — even if people will be too embarrassed to admit it. Even the “progressive” cities like Berkeley have been out front in waging a legal war to push homelessness out of sight.

It’s a sick joke and an indictment California’s happy progressive neoliberalism: the idea that you can outsource all your politics to private, corporate power and let these forces run society in any way they see fit and then hope to soften the destruction they leave behind with a few superficial social programs. It never really worked. Now it’s just obvious. Homelessness here in LA shows what this liberal way of life really looks like: it’s Lynch’s Mulholland Drive behind-the-dumpster monster smeared in shit, giving people heart attacks.

Walking around LA and looking at how fucked things are this holiday season got me thinking…and I realized that this year — 2020 — will mark the 30th anniversary of my family coming to America from the Soviet Union.

We welcomed 1990 with a few other families over some snacks in a trailer inside our refugee camp in Ostia, Italy. That March we came to New York and a few months later we made our way to San Francisco, where my dad got a job working as a Japanese translator. San Francisco was a rundown, real city. There wasn’t a tech boom yet and coastal California hadn’t yet been denuded by wealth and real estate development and speculation.

Looking around, I gotta say that these decades have not been kind to the America Way of Life. In the time that we’ve been here, just about everything’s gotten worse — more billionaires, more pollution and environmental collapse, more inequality, more wage theft, more energy consumption, more garbage production, more wars, more privatization, more school shootings, more poverty, and of course much much more homelessness. With every year the pitch of the decline has gotten steeper and steeper and it feels like we’re now in free fall. There’s systemic failure and stagnation on every level, papered-over with lies and self-deception. Hell, even basic things like recycling turned out to be a failure and a petro-industry consumerist scam.

It’s strange for a Soviet immigrant like me to realize how rotten everything is around here. My Cold War immigrant story should have been about a bright young man being saved from a grim fate under Soviet authoritarianism, living out his life in a dynamic and prosperous free society. There should have been a classic Hollywood ending. But the script is different under late stage American neoliberalism. Turns out that my family fled one failed society only to once again end up in a society that was just beginning to enter an accelerated phase of stagnation and collapse. We had escaped the tail end of one disaster only to be caught up in the start of an even bigger unfolding catastrophe. And this time, there’s nowhere to run. The American Way of Life has conquered the world.

Happy New Year!

—Yasha Levine

PS: Speaking of homelessness, it’s kinda fitting that I played a homeless man being exploited by a documentary filmmaker in Evgenia’s brilliant mockumentary, Changemaker.

Immigrants as a Weapon is a new investigative newsletter that looks at the weaponization of nationalism and immigrant communities. Check out this introductory post and sign up to get subscriber-only stuff in your inbox!

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