Fascism on the March: “Flag Day” in Jerusalem, May 29

by Jeff Klein

JERUSALEM — I arrived in East Jerusalem by airport shuttle in the early afternoon of Sunday May 29. Preparations for the Flag March were already in full swing, with a massive Israeli security presence around and inside the Old City. My airport shuttle was not allowed to approach the Damascus Gate, inside of which was the hotel where I  usually stay in Jerusalem, so I had to walk quite a distance with my bags and negotiate my way through several security cordons to reach the Old City. I was only able to pass the skeptical Israeli police by showing my US passport. From the roof garden of my hotel, which looks out over the Muslim Quarter and the Al Aqsa compound, I could already hear the noise and shouts of the militant Zionist youth gathering for the parade on a neighboring street down below.

“Flag Day” is an annual march through the old City the commemorating the capture of East Jerusalem during the June 1967 war. (Because Israeli holidays are celebrated according to the Jewish religious calendar, it took place this year on May 29.) This is an intentionally provocative Israeli flag-waving demonstration winding through the narrow streets of the Muslim Quarter from the Damascus gate to the plaza before the Western Wall, sacred to observant Jews and Zionist nationalists alike, below the Al Aqsa mosque compound in what is called the Jewish Quarter of the Old City. The message to Palestinians is blunt and implicitly violent: This city, in its entirety belongs to us, the Zionist masters, and there is no safe place for you, the indigenous people. The march was cancelled last year in the face of resistance from the Palestinians in the city, along with the tense situation of Hamas rockets from the Gaza strip and the Israeli bombing attacks there. This year, the march was resumed with gusto and full support from the Rightist-dominated new Israeli coalition government.

The Muslim Quarter was largely shut down for the march, with only a few Palestinian youth gathered here and there among the shuttered shops. They were kept away from the marchers by an intense police presence throughout the Muslim Quarter. In theory the security forces were supposed o keep the Zionist marchers to the approved route down Al Wad Street, but the cordon was pretty porous for Zionist youth and some families to assert, with police protection, their presence through the adjoining streets and alleys of the Muslim Quarter. I was permitted to approach the marchers again because of my US passport and my obvious non-Palestinian identity in shorts and a T-shirt.  I took many photos, of which the one I share below is typical.

The boisterous Zionist crowd was overwhelmingly young and male, typically in groups from Jewish religious nationalist schools. They mostly wore white shirts as a kind of collective uniform and waved Israeli flags attached to hefty broom sticks – and some, menacingly with sticks alone – to intimidate the Palestinian population.

Long-time Israeli leftist Jeff Halper called the march a “pogrom,” which it certainly was, but it was also imbued with the menacing spirit of menacing, violent football hooliganism as seen in places around Europe. The Jerusalem football team Beitar is famously racist and its flags were also present among the marchers as they jumped in unison and shouted slogans like “Death to the Arabs,” “Burn Their Villages” along with insulting chants about the Muslim religion.  This year many of the marchers also expressed their satisfaction at the recent killing of the US-Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, whose funeral had been violently attacked by Israeli security forces only a few days before the march.

All the “tribes” of the contemporary Israeli rightwing were present, though the tendency represented by Naftali Bennet’s religious (mostly Ashkenazi) nationalists, identified by their tiny religious head coverings (kippot) were predominant. There were also groups of settler youth and families identified by their ear locks and large knitted head coverings together with women in elaborate settler headgear invariably wheeling infants in strollers and accompanied by their husbands and numerous children following along. Some in the march carried banners with the picture of disgraced former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is hoping to make a political comeback. As well, there was a sprinkling of more traditional religious participants in dark suits and traditional head coverings that we know in the US as “yarmulkes” and the occasional more secular-looking rightists and Zionist tourists, mostly it seemed from the US. The most threatening and aggressive groups in the crowd were the knots of Kahanist youth, followers of the US-born rabbi who advocated terrorism against Palestinians. His party was so extreme and such an embarrassment to the Zionist establishment that it had been banned in Israel, though lately its ideology has been rehabilitated and legitimized, even participating in the government.

The movement represented by the flag marchers has been called “ultranationalist,” pro-Apartheid and rightwing Zionist, but make no mistake, it is more than that. This is outright fascism. 

We are sometimes confused about the nature of fascism. On the Left the term is often used as an epithet of contempt for any rightwing movement, or it is narrowly identified with Nazism of the 1930s. But extreme and exclusive ethnic nationalism, violently racist against perceived “others” at home and militarily aggressive domestically and abroad is a phenomenon not limited to one time and place.

 The Nazis had their brown shirted SA enforcers in Germany, the Italians (who invented the term fascism) had their “Black shirts” and its imitators abroad, including in the UK and pre-state Israel; the Franco dictatorship in Spain was a fascism closely linked to the Catholic church hierarchy. Contemporary examples of fascism, with or without state power, exist around the world today. The leftist, pro-Palestinian journalist Amira Haas has aptly called the Israeli fascist youth “The White Shirts.”

It may be premature to label the Israeli state as literally fascist, but the trend is clear. The major rightwing parties here are heavily fascist inflected, and increasingly bound to the security apparatus, not just in their relationship with the settler movement in the occupied territories but increasingly throughout Israeli society.  On Flag Day, the security forces were actively protecting the marchers and even participating themselves. They were cheered and hugged by the extremist youth in the crowd.