McCarthyism - Israeli style

'An evil wave is sweeping over Israel" and the latest act of the Knesset "sends a warning signal: here is darkness."

Before you dash off a letter to denounce the authors of those words as hateful anti-Zionists bent on delegitimising the state of Israel, pause a moment. Because the first quotation comes from the Kadima leader Tzipi Livni and the second from Likud MK Benny Begin. What could have moved such fervent Israeli patriots to speak this way?

The answer lies in a 2-to-1 vote by Israel's parliament earlier this month to investigate the finances and activities of Israeli human-rights groups. The move is the brainchild of foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman who has had enough of troublesome dissenters. Last week, he branded such groups: "collaborators in terror," subversives who aid the delegitimisers - among them, Yesh Din, which monitors the rule of law in the West Bank; Yesh Gvul, which represents Israeli soldiers who refuse to serve in the West Bank; and, last but not least, the Ha'aretz newspaper.

When a senior politician starts accusing newspapers and pressure groups of treason, and uses his muscle to set-up a "house committee" to probe their activities, the memory begins to stir. This, according to Israelis of the left, right and centre - including the many thousands who demonstrated in Tel Aviv last weekend - is McCarthyism plain and simple.

A Film Bill asks that cast and crew swear loyalty to Israel as a Jewish state

What's worse, it is part of what Livni rightly calls a "wave". The immediate author is Lieberman, who, together with his acolytes, is daily injecting a poisonous blend of thuggery and racism into the Israeli body politic. It began with his signature 2009 election promise: to demand that Arab Israelis swear their loyalty to Israel as a Jewish state on pain of losing their citizenship. Since then, Lieberman and his Yisrael Beiteinu party have striven to make good on that ugly promise. MK David Rotem tabled a bill to allow Israeli communities to reject would-be residents who don't fit in - ie Arabs - though not before joking that perhaps every moshav or kibbutz should be allowed to admit just one Arab, to serve as Shabbos goy.

Meanwhile, a party colleague proposed state punishment for any Arab citizen who dares refer to Israel's establishment as the Nakba - catastrophe - a direct trampling on the basic right to free expression. Not to be outdone, another rightist MK has proposed a Film Bill, under which public funding for any movie would depend on every member of the cast and crew first swearing loyalty to Israel as a Jewish state.

Such steps would not be out of place in both Putin's Russia and Joe McCarthy's America. But it's the spreading chauvinism and, yes, racism that is most striking. Note the case of Eli Tzavieli, the 89-year-old Holocaust survivor who received death threats because he had the temerity to rent rooms in his Safed home to three Bedouin students. Instead of condemning such behaviour, the town's chief rabbi lambasted the old man - before winning the backing of 50 more rabbis who issued what they claimed was a halachic edict banning Jews from renting land or apartments to non-Jews.

Rabbis are state employees in Israel, their salaries funded by taxpayers - Jewish and Arab. Sure, Bibi Netanyahu criticised the rabbis, but that was it. Not one of these state employees was fired, even though they had urged collective discrimination against one group of Israeli citizens simply because of their ethnicity.

Hagai El-Ad of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel says Netanyahu's inaction - like his backing for Lieberman's probe of human-rights groups - was understood clearly as: "a green light for such behaviour to continue."

What should those outside Israel, who claim to care about its future, do about this creeping Liebermanisation of the country?

Will they recognise this steady process as doing far more to delegitimise the Jewish state than the words of any critic? Will they see it for what it is, a violation of the most cherished Jewish ethics? Or will they do nothing, dumbly standing by, watching a country they claim to love slide into the darkness?

Jonathan Freedland is a Guardian columnist.

    Last updated: 10:30am, January 24 2011