Whenever a country's social contract unravels, conditions become ripe for rumours and absurdities to circulate. Even when these are outrageous and obviously nonsensical, they can give expression to a people's deepest fears and prejudices.
Such is the case in Russia today, where Sergei Markov, a former adviser to President Vladimir Putin, has warned that Ukraine is creating "gay super-soldiers" to wage war against his country: "Military theorists and historians know which army in Greece was the strongest, remember? The Spartans. They were united by a homosexual brotherhood. These were the politics of their leadership. I think they are planning the same for Ukraine's Armed Forces."
Of course, this mixture of homophobia, fake history, and Marvel comic-inspired ideas of super-soldiers indicates that Mr Markov is not interested in encouraging critical thinking and reasoned analysis. No matter: such idiotic statements apparently resonate with at least some important segments of Russian society.
The same derangement also increasingly applies to Russian historical memories of major national traumas and crimes. At a recent ceremony in Velikiye Luki, in Russia's Pskov region, a priest known as "Father Anthony" doused holy water on a 8-metre statue of Stalin. Though "the Church suffered" during Stalin's long reign of terror, he observed, Russians today should be grateful that they have so many "new Russian martyrs and confessors to whom we now pray and are helping us in our Motherland's resurgence."
Such perverse reasoning is just a step away from arguing that Jews should be grateful to Hitler for opening the way for the State of Israel. In fact, precisely that has already happened. According to a 2019 investigation by Channel 13 news in Israel, future Israeli army officers at the state-funded Bnei David military prep school are taught, by rabbis, that:
"The Holocaust was not about killing the Jews. Nonsense. And that it was systematic and ideological makes it more moral than random murder. Humanism, secular culture -- that is the Holocaust. The real Holocaust is pluralism. The Nazi logic was internally consistent. Hitler said that a certain group in society is the cause of all the evil in the world and therefore it must be exterminated. … For years, God has been screaming that the Diaspora is over but Jews aren't obeying. That is their disease that the Holocaust must cure. … Hitler was the most righteous. Of course he was right in every word he said. His ideology was correct. … [The Nazis'] only error was who was on which side."
To be sure, this extreme rhetoric is openly endorsed by only a tiny, fanatical minority. And yet, it hints at the underlying premise behind the current far-right government's policies in the West Bank. To compare the situation in Israel and its occupied territories to Nazi Germany may appear an exaggeration, and if a non-Jew makes this comparison, he is instantly dismissed as anti-Semitic; but if leading Jewish figures do so, they ought to be listened to.
When a society has wrapped itself in layers of tendentious self-justification, it takes insiders to pull back the shroud.
Consider the case of Amiram Levin, the former head of the Israel Defence Forces' Northern Command. Speaking recently to Israel's public broadcasting station about the situation in the West Bank, he contends that "there hasn't been a democracy there in 57 years, there is total apartheid. … the IDF, which is forced to exert sovereignty there, is rotting from the inside. It's standing by, looking at the settler rioters and is beginning to be a partner to war crimes."
When asked to elaborate, he invoked Nazi Germany: "It's hard for us to say it, but it's the truth. Walk around Hebron, look at the streets. Streets where Arabs are no longer allowed to go on, only Jews. That's exactly what happened there, in that dark country."
That a retired IDF general could come to such a conclusion attests not only to his extraordinary ethical stance, but also to just how bad things have gotten there. But as long as there are Israelis like Gen Levin, there is hope, because it is only with the solidarity and support of people like him that the West Bank Palestinians have a chance.
In both Russia and Israel today, the social pact is fracturing under the weight of colonialism and fundamental disagreements about foundational principles. These conditions lend themselves to increasingly absurd and extreme forms of rationalization. But just because you can come up with a reason for doing something does not mean that you should do it. When societies fragment, resisting wrong reasons often requires more strength than following right reasons. ©2023 Project Syndicate
Slavoj Žižek, Professor of Philosophy at the European Graduate School, is International Director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities at the University of London.