Israel’s Winter of Discontent
Regardless of the outcome of Israel’s general elections on March 17, the campaign for the 20th Knesset will be remembered for its verbal brutality, rhetoric shallowness and viral viciousness. Never has an Israeli election been so devoid of serious debate on the core issues. Whether Netanyahu or Herzog and Livni win at the polls, the main loser is already known: rational debate and communal ethos.
Israelis seem to have forgotten the best aspect of Jewish tradition, its gift for reasoned disagreement. Having been an active participant in the pre-election media engagements, I would like to single out three aspects of the Israeli political debate that have risen to an unheard-of pitch, or descended to an unprecedented low, during the months since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent us rushing to the polls.
First, the distance between right and left has widened to a chasm. Mutual abhorrence has reduced political conversation to a cacophony of hurled insults. Israeli politicians have been verbally lashing at each other since the heady days of David Ben Gurion and Menachem Begin, but not like this. Can any real dialogue take place between, on the one hand, left-wing Hamas-loving quislings committed to Israel’s destruction and on the payroll of European anti-Semites, and, on the other, right-wing fascists bent on killing democracy in the name of misconceived Judaism? Not all politicians have used these exact terms, but all are now part of mainstream political Hebrew.
Second, interest in purging high-level corruption has become dependent on ideology. When Ehud Olmert faced corruption charges, the judicial system was wrongly accused of keeping him unscathed in the hope he could conclude a peace treaty with the Palestinians. But when the state comptroller recently issued a report documenting grave misapplication of funds in Netanyahu’s tax-funded homes, Likud propagandists immediately translated the charges into a leftist conspiracy to dig up trifles and “topple a legitimate government.” Thus, in a somewhat Orwellian manner, Netanyahu’s supporters waved aside his pecuniary misdemeanors while turning his political and moral critics into criminals. This not only paints the political opposition as anti-Israel schemers; it goes beyond that to legitimize corruption when exercised by alleged patriots.
The third and most troubling development is the digitization of populism. Israelis have been ardent Internet creatures for almost two decades; the Jewish legacy of disputative wordiness easily embraces the web’s inherent multivocality. But demagoguery is overtaking verbal discussion these days. Tellingly, the worst elements of our election discourse are conveyed in viral videos rather than reasoned words. One of Likud’s notorious campaign clips showed gun-toting ISIS militants driving to Jerusalem, stopping to ask for directions and told to “turn left.” The publicly funded Samaria Settlers Committee aired a scandalous video showing a European “Herr Stürmer” flipping golden euros to a subservient Israeli leftist who provides him with damning information from the occupied territories. In the final obnoxious frame, the self-hating Israeli is hanging from a tree, presumably having committed suicide on his Nazi master’s orders. This was, I hope, the lowest-ever point in Israeli public discourse.
If several months ago theocracy seemed poised to challenge democracy in Israel, it now seems that the greater threat is a rising webocracy, the mob rule of spin doctors catering to the grossest rhetoric of extremism. This is not a landscape of dispute but of silencing, and it does not posit religion against secularity, or liberalism against nationalism, because it is not about ideas. It is about manipulating emotions.
My take on this dissolution of civil discourse is not neutral. I belong to the Israeli moderate left. I am a humanist Zionist, striving for a territorial compromise with the Palestinians if at all doable, and firmly committed to liberal democracy. I also believe that the political right is responsible for the worst mud-slinging of this electoral campaign. However, both left and right deserve blame for infantilizing political discourse, undermining serious debate and drowning out reasoned conversation. Left-wing Meretz supporters, taking aim at Netanyahu’s scandalous meddling with the Israel Prizes in Literature and Cinema, unwittingly insulted and demeaned his lower-middle-class voters. An array of right-wing speakers made it known that left-wing and Arab voters, being “anti-Zionist,” are the scum of the earth. No wonder such rhetoric so easily morphed in the social media into videos, tweets and memes: It was never intended to promote dialogue. I find it hard to recall a single politician who actually listened and responded to the hopes and fears of political opponents and their supporters. Israeli society seems to have lost its fundamental common ground.
Things are not terminally dark, for sure. Within Israel’s government, legal system and civil society there are many responsible adults whose voices must become louder in the public sphere. Those voices can then influence the online arena and help curb the brutal and infantile behavior it fosters. Decent right-wingers vocally condemned the Stürmer video; lamentably, the prime minister did not. In all likelihood, Israel’s most responsible adult today is President Reuven Rivlin, whose words of wisdom and moderation helped douse some of the highest flames.
The country’s slumbering sensible center of honest pragmatists is still its largest constituency. The events of the last few months should raise a loud alarm for this moderate middle. Moderation cannot afford to lose its tongue, nor can electoral debates be left to reckless spin doctors.
In the aftermath of the elections, the unavoidable coalition negotiations are likely to remind Israelis that common ground can be sought and found. Rational debate, unlike blind hatred, is always based on shared values. Israel’s next prime minister, whoever he is, will need to make this point loud and clear. Only then will I consider him a true patriot.
Fania Oz-Salzberger is an Israeli historian and essayist and a professor at the University of Haifa. Her most recent book, Jews and Words was co-authored with her father, Amos Oz.