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You Are Not Alone: Joining Together to Face Down Fascism – A Message to Tovana Sangha, Israel

Thanissara, March 27, ’23

Organizers say more than 600,000 Israelis turned out today (March 25) the 12th consecutive week of protests, the biggest demonstration in the country’s history. Israelis say their democracy is at stake.

Dearest Sangha friends, Kittisaro and I extend our heartfelt solidarity with you at this time of extreme threat to our shared values for a democratic society. I’m also heartened by the hundreds of thousands protesting on the streets that is now sending shock waves through the government. The fight to sustain and grow an equitable democracy in the face of a global uprising of authoritarianism and Fascism is also our struggle. We, too, are up against a fight for democracy in our home countries of the U.S. and the U.K. 

Recently, CIVICUS Monitor reported that the U.K.’s authoritarian trend toward curtailing and violating civic freedoms has now downgraded its status alongside Guatemala, Ghana, Tunisia as free and fair societies. The curtailment of freedom of assembly, freedom of expression, and the right to protest are some of the first civic rights in the process of being overturned in the U.K. There is also great concern that the U.K. government’s attempt to repeal the Human Rights Act will end its alliance with the European Convention of Human Rights, threatening the most vulnerable and those wrongly arrested and imprisoned for peaceful demonstrations while opening the door to overturning a slew of other rights.

In the U.S., in the Republican-run States, we see extensive book bans, severe repression of women’s reproductive rights, an attempt to eradicate the visibility and equal rights of the LGBTQ+ community, and the disappearance of historical facts of colonialism and African American and Indigenous histories in educational curriculums. Right now, a bill that will likely pass the Florida State Legislature criminalizes those housing or driving undocumented immigrants, even if related, many of whom have been in the U.S. from childhood but consistently denied a fair path to citizenship. Inevitably this will devastate families, undermine businesses, and demonize an already large vulnerable sector of the population.  

In South Carolina, the Republicans are pushing legislation to execute women who have abortions, with no exceptions, even in the case of rape or incest, with the bill vague enough that it could, in theory, be extended to those who miscarry. This ideology is not from the fringe but an increasingly mainstream Republican strategy. Seeing the recent demonstration in Tel Aviv, where hundreds of women’s rights protestors dressed as Handmaidens, struck a painful and terrifying chord with those of us everywhere fighting to preserve hard-won rights.    

A tactic of fascistic authoritarianism is using speed and relentless bombardment to stun the population while, by stealth, rolling back rights won over decades of struggle. Another tactic, aided by unscrupulous media, is to inflame hatred and drive division like a stake through the heart of civil society to the point where almost no family, community, or institution is untarnished. These shock tactics aim to overwhelm the public’s ability to hold ground and respond effectively.

I remember the shock in the 2016 U.S. election as we sat through that fateful evening with family in Nashville when Trump took the presidency. We were sure, nonchalant even, that Hilary Clinton would win. The horror of watching the U.S. map turn red left us almost speechless. It was a staggering blow.  That sleepless night, I could feel the geo-political tectonic plates moving beneath us as a chilling shadow descended over the world.

With Trump as the perfect archetypal demagogue throwing open the gates of hell, we witnessed the inversion of morals, rationality and democratic processes. At the same time, the politics of chaos, raw fear and hatred were unleashed and normalized. Since then, “truth as lies and lies as truth” has become political expediency. Its most dangerous application is the crazy-making levels of gaslighting by right-wing media busy underwriting a collective psychotic break from society’s ability to react to the dire and urgent reality of a fast-warming world descending into environmental collapse.

When the Trumpian chill descended on Britain with lightning rapidity through the Trojan Horse of Brexit with its ubiquitous myths of “sunny uplands”, it quickly turned a stable democracy into a divided nation. It opened the door to political authoritarianism, a massive wealth transfer to the tax-exempt billionaire class; it sent the country into economic free fall and captured the hundred-year-old venerable BBC, now an arm of right-wing propaganda.

As the authoritarian freeze circles the globe, we’ve seen the loss of a fragile democracy in Myanmar, the overturning of freedoms in Hong Kong and China, the return of authoritarian regimes in Poland and Hungry, and like Netanhayu’s craven attempt to avoid criminal charges through political control, criminally indicted former President Zuma threw South Africa into chaos and societal breakdown to avoid prison. More recently, we’ve seen surprising electoral far-right wins in Sweden and Italy and even in Holland with the shock gains of the right-wing, anti-green, pro-farmers Boerenpartij Party, and, of course, we see the daily horror of Putin’s genocidal attack on Ukraine.  

All of this is to say you are not alone in what you are experiencing in Israel. However, distinguishing Israel from the U.K. and U.S. is the extraordinary speed of Netanyahu’s move for complete control of the judiciary, which amounts to a coup by the extreme religious right. As historian and author Yuval Noah Harari said, this marks the unthinkable reality of Israel’s fast tipping into a dictatorship. The country’s chief justice, Esther Hayut, also called the weakening (and likely hostile takeover) of the Supreme Court a “fatal blow” to democratic institutions. As tens of thousands of protesters have flooded the streets, one sign, as reported in the New Yorker, summed up civic society’s horror: “For Sale: Democracy. Model: 1948. No brakes.”    

For those less familiar with Israeli politics, Netanayhu’s enablers from the far-right religious Zionist movement led by notorious Itamar Ben-Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit “Jewish Power” party in tandem with the Religious Zionist Party are together attempting to perpetuate the crime of destroying Israel’s secular democracy. Ben Gvir is considered so dangerous that it prompted former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to describe him as a “more imminent danger to Israel than a nuclear-armed Iran.” Ben Gvir has a long history of inflaming hatred toward Arabs and has been convicted of supporting a terrorist organization and inciting racism. 

Given the complex nature of Israel’s fragile geo-political position alongside its internal mix of crushing Palestinian rights, militarized incursions into the Occupied Territories, the extremism of fanatical Settlers, and deep tensions between the secular and religious in society, the last thing everyone needs is this extreme right-wing Netanyahu-Ben Gvir alliance. 

While truly shocking for liberal-minded Israelis, it will be even more devastating for Israeli Arabs, Palestinians and all not Jewish-identified people living under the Israeli state’s umbrella. While this steep rise of nationalism may seem like safety for those who voted for it, as so painfully known in Israel and from the indelible lessons of the last century, Fascism has nothing to offer except hatred, division, the destruction of civil society and humane values, and ultimately, the horrors of genocide.

So, here we are. It shouldn’t be the way it is, right now, this is the way it is. So, first, we must take stock and shake off any last vestiges of denial that we are going back to “business as usual” soon. We need to understand in our bones that the more beautiful world we dream, hope, and work for is under extreme threat by those who now hold an excessive amount of political, economic and media power, and if successfully captured, the power of state, military and legislature. In response, we need to understand ourselves, not just as individuals or meditation practitioners interested in awakening, but as needed members of a Dharma-informed resistance movement.

I have a folder marked “Climate” on my laptop filled with years of collected articles, information, and initiatives I’m involved with. After my Zoom call with beloved sangha member and Tovana teacher Ilan Luttenberg, who invited me to write this article, I created a new folder titled “Fascism.” The pathway to ensuring eco-sustainability, human rights, animal rights and climate justice has to run through democracy. We don’t have the luxury of being bogged down by indecision. Instead, we must grapple with the reality of a double-headed hydra of malignant forces focused on plunging the world into a brutal and violent descent.    

As Ajahn Chah said, Dharma practice is preparation for more significant challenges. We practiced for this moment. While it’s tempting to retreat into meditative quietism and spiritual bypass, we need to expand our understanding of the fullness of the Buddha’s transmission instead. As one schooled in politics and military strategy from the warrior caste, the Buddha overturned the oppressive caste system of his time. He overturned the sacrifice of animals, engaged and advised political, monarchic and military power, tried to stop wars, mediated water rights, and debated with his detractors to great effect. He threatened the religious hierarchy so profoundly they consistently tried to undermine him and even kill him.   

The heartbeat of the awakened mind is bodhicitta, meaning the force of compassion rooted in the understanding that reality is seamless. In other words, all is present within this one awareness. Zen master Dogen articulated this insight as “enlightenment is the intimacy of all things.” Dharma practice inducts us into the direct knowing heart in allegiance with the intuitive, quantum-like guiding intelligence of the living Dharma. Even in the face of fear, we can still access an innate, indomitable fountain of love, compassion and clarity of seeing, which means even though employing our intellect, we must engage from the heart.

So, alongside the reality check of challenges we face, mindfully, in the true meaning of the word – to remember – we remember that we also carry power. The power of love, community, strategic response, joining together en masse, holding an authentic relational field that is compassionate, nourishing, resourcing, and listening to the heartbeat of the Dharma. In this case, the Dharma of reality is our refuge, guide, and source of strength. The task before us then is to use all non-violent methods available to us to defeat Fascism, uplift humanity, and for all its tattered corruptions to save and improve democracy.

How does this translate into practice? We have practiced internally for hours, months, and even years in retreat, exploring the internal realms. We have practiced in community building sangha and a body of teachings. Now it’s time to consider a practice that engages society where we move out of our silos, our bubbles and comfortable spaces to build bridges and create alliances. In Israel, I encourage the Sangha to join the protests as part of the front-line challenge against this unabashed attempt at a full-on coup. Now is the moment because once a coup and control of the judiciary are secured, it will be harder to roll back. 

To find courage, remember our parents, grandparents and ancestors’ struggles and how each generation had to fight for a better world. Remember all spiritually-based activists who inspire us to pick up the challenge. Find what skills are present in the Sangha as writers, speakers, organizers, and artists and explore strategies for optimum engagement. Hold meditation circles for peace, perhaps in the streets.

Meanwhile, I encourage everyone to get the small handbook “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century” (here in brief) by the Levin professor of History at Yale University, Timothy Synder who has written extensively on fascism and is a pro-democracy lecturer and activist.  

Whatever ways you find to meet this moment, Kittisaro and myself, alongside so many of us here in our Sangha circles, are with you and hold you in our hearts most tenderly. These days, together, may we all be as radical as possible in the spirit of Dharma to grow the beautiful world of our higher dreams. If not now, when?