The most widely mentioned text in Israel over the last few weeks has been the famous quotation by Pastor Martin Niemller from 1946, which begins: ‘First they came for the Communists'.

The quotation serves to communicate one idea: the increasing persecution of Palestinian citizens has led to verbal threats against Jewish radical left activists, and is now directed at proposed laws against Zionist-left activists, university professors, journalists, artists and others.

The warning from the quotation is clear: ‘Then they came for me, and by that time there was no one left to speak up for me'.

The use of Niemller's emotive words reflects the increasingly bitter national debate around loyalty and patriotism. The populist language of bigoted media consumers is now pervading official legislative bills, pending parliamentary approval and with a reasonable chance of turning into law.

Israel Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, whose 15 Knesset members cement the coalition government, is in the process of upgrading his successful election slogan, ‘no citizenship without loyalty'. He demands that the Kadima party acquiesce to his "loyalty bill", as a precondition for its admission into the coalition government. The bill would coerce all citizens to declare allegiance to the state of Israel as a ‘Jewish and democratic' state.

Many rightwing Israelis see the ‘patriotism oath' not only as a potential weapon against Palestinian citizens, but also as an instrument to settle scores with pesky lefties. They echo the new-ish and vociferous movement, Im Tirtzu (if you will it).

The movement directs most of its venom at university lecturers who support the academic, or economic, boycott of Israeli academic institutes or of Israeli products in general. They propose a new bill that would enable the prosecution of anyone who advocates the boycott, and allow those who feel aggravated by his/her behaviour to sue for up to $7,972 (Dh29,276).

Artists not spared

This neo-McCarthyism extends itself to artists. A group of mayors last year vowed to stop singers and musicians who dodged military service on medical or other grounds from performing in their cities. Different celebrity figures, mainly models and athletes, are being named and shamed on similar counts.

In a recent discussion in the Knesset's economy committee, Right-wing members called for a ban on government funding of non-patriotic cinema products. Carmel Shama (Likud) referred to successful director Scandar Copti, who co-directed the internationally acclaimed and Academy award nominated film, Ajami, as a terrorist. "I want any director who wants to make a film in Israel to sign a statement stating he is not against Israel," Shama said.

Several racist bills include one specifying a year in prison for anybody who voices objection to Israel's nature as a Jewish or democratic state.

This spirit of xenophobia, and the hunt for traitors and backstabbers, naturally increases the already alarming levels of racism in Israel. The demand for proof of loyalty is no longer confined to the Palestinian citizens, but directed at the Jewish ones, too.

This new racism is widening its scope. Palestinians, as well as anything Arab or Muslim, are still targets, but the shockwaves have now spread towards Sudanese refugees, who are portrayed by much of the media as "criminal elements". Other non-Jew immigrant workers suffer too.

Growing xenophobia

This xenophobia is closely related to Israel's sense of siege. The international outrage invoked by the multiple attacks on Lebanon and later on Gaza, and the global shock over the flotilla fiasco, left Israelis feeling more isolated and misunderstood than ever. The boycott movements are beginning to sting.

This picture of panic and racism should not obfuscate another voice now emerging within Israeli discourse. It is the voice of middle-class Israeli liberals, mostly Zionists, who feel that the hour is very dark indeed.

The smear campaign has created huge waves, threatening to wash away the honourable professors of the Hebrew university, and the level-headed law-abiding senior citizens. In the process, quite a few of them are now suggesting that maybe a boycott, which they originally tended to object to, is the only way to make Israel change direction.

This gradual transformation has failed to embrace centrist liberals and other members of the Zionist centre-left. Mati David, a Labour Party activist, has attacked the Israeli universities for nurturing anti-Zionist activities.

Popular professor of political science Shlomo Aveneri argued in the Haaretz that there is nothing wrong with demanding loyalty to the state. However, he suggested a milder wording which includes acceptance of the "legitimacy of the state of Israel".

Level-headed Israelis can no longer pretend to ignore Palestinian citizens and their parliamentary representatives being smeared and bullied by the state and its agents.

The very right to have an opinion and a voice is now under grave threat.

Daphna Baram is a freelance writer and journalist.