Center Field: Why all this ‘fascist’ and ‘traitor’ talk – let’s debate civilly!

It shouldn’t be considered the norm to spend 364 days annually pummeling each other, with a 24-hour Independence Day break hailing Israel as a “miracle.”

February 2, 2016 21:35
Amos Oz Gila Almagor

Amos Oz and Gila Almagor. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Although I know how annoying it is when outsiders, including the UN secretary general, blindly, amorally, blame Israelis and Palestinians equally, both the Israeli Left and Right disgust me these days. Leftists throw around the f-word, “fascism,” as loosely as rightists throw around the t-word, “traitor.” Such overstatements underestimate Israel’s robust yet stable democracy. Combatants could easily reverse the usual targeting: there is something “fascist” in hypercritical liberals shutting down their own critics by crying “fascist,” while hyperpatriotic conservatives betray Israel’s democratic ideals by yelling “traitor!” Political debates need not be delicate waltzes, but they shouldn’t always become barroom brawls. It shouldn’t take Hamas kidnapping our teenagers or Palestinian teens slashing our neighbors to remind us of our common fate and shared values. It shouldn’t require our enemies’ libels or the world’s moral obtuseness to see how our viciousness not only emboldens Israel bashers but demoralizes Israelis.

And it shouldn’t be considered the norm to spend 364 days annually pummeling each other, with a 24-hour Independence Day break hailing Israel as a “miracle.”

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America’s presidential campaign and congressional deadlock show that partisan name-calling is not just an Israeli affliction. Round-the-clock coverage, an unfiltered blogosphere and growing individualism followed by fragmentation into self-sustaining and self-referential intellectual, communal, cultural and political silos have polarized politics throughout the West.

Still, it’s despicable for political hooligans to call David Grossman, among others, a “mole,” a traitor, especially because he’s a grieving father whose tank commander son Uri was killed fighting in the 2006 Lebanon War. Shortly after that life-shattering loss, addressing the Yitzhak Rabin memorial that November, Grossman elegantly insisted that the “tragedy... does not give me special privileges in the public discourse.” He said what dissenting patriots say: that his “love for this country is difficult and complicated, but nonetheless unequivocal.” He acknowledged, unlike some deluded leftists, that “not everything depends on our own actions, and there are stronger forces... like Iran, like extreme Islam,” that “seek to harm us.”

Similarly, imagine the anguish of a Natan Sharansky, having suffered years in the Gulag, feeling compelled to write an op-ed in Haaretz explaining to the self-righteous fanatics of Breaking the Silence – the IDF veterans who crisscross the globe libeling the Israeli army – why their campaign differs from “that of the dissidents who fought for human rights in the Soviet Union,” despite their repeated comparisons between the two. Sharansky, who heroically outmaneuvered the KGB, explained that “Soviet dissidents set out to democratize a dictatorial regime, to create the kind of representative institution with which Israel is already blessed.... Breaking the Silence, by contrast, sets out to bypass an existing democratic government and resolve a controversial political issue by means of international pressure.”

Ethics of the Fathers, 2:1, teaches that people find the “right path” by bringing “tiferet” to themselves and humanity, with tiferet variously translated as splendor, glory, honor, harmony. In that spirit, Sharansky helped broker this week’s historic, constructive Western Wall compromise, creating an egalitarian prayer space near Robinson’s Arch, reflecting the kind of leadership we need and rarely get.

In fairness, with enemies for neighbors, Israel faces more disruptions to its political equanimity than most democracies.

That same rabbinic passage ends by urging people to remember three things to help avoid sin: God’s seeing eye, listening ear and readiness to record our deeds. Just as believing in that Eternal Overseer steadies many individuals, Israelis’ political behavior is further inflamed by the earthly version of the opposite: the world’s biased perceptions and jaundiced chronicling.

Too many outsiders, including too many Jews, view Israel harshly, using binoculars to magnify any Israeli missteps while flipping the field glasses around to minimize our enemies’ sins. Thus, this week, UN Secretary General Ban Ki moon rationalized Palestinian terrorism – magnifying Israeli responsibility while minimizing Palestinian culpability. At the same time, Canada’s new prime minister, Justin Trudeau, marked Holocaust Remembrance Day with a generic statement about “suffering,” ignoring the inconvenient fact that Hitler mounted an anti-Semitic war against the Jews. (Trudeau apologized; Ban Ki moon doubled-down on his rhetoric).

This tendency to exaggerate Palestinian suffering and slight Jewish suffering emboldens Palestinians, frustrates many Jews and further roils the Israeli debate. Encouraged by the attacks, radical leftists pile on, hoping, as Sharansky warned, to bully Israel with international opprobrium.

Discouraged by the attacks, radical rightists give up, losing faith in the world, the Palestinians, and their fellow citizens who dare disagree with them.

Even in a vibrant democracy, bullying into silence is despicable while so much polarization is destructive. The myopia of both extremes is often ridiculous: the Right, targeting the EU, wants to publicize the foreign governments funding NGOs; the Left, resenting Sheldon Adelson, wants to publicize private donors. True transparency demands full disclosure of all contributions, regardless of the source, regardless of the political leaning. More fundamentally, at their worst, leftists minimize the values of loyalty and seemingly value transparency only when scrutinizing others; rightists ignore any Palestinian suffering and seemingly fight bigotry only when Jews endure it.

Words like fascist and traitor, accusations of acting like Communists or Nazis, occasionally have their place in political discourse – but only when appalling acts truly deserve such harsh labels. Invoking these analogies so sloppily, so freely, unnecessarily inflames the political culture while obscuring the evil of the Soviet and Nazi regimes. Those who call all their critics fascists won’t recognize the real ones.

Meanwhile, the resulting hysteria demonizes unnecessarily, distracts from the real issues, divides the citizenry and derails the kind of creative compromising that produced this week’s Western Wall deal. Let’s stop diminishing the splendor, tarnishing the glory, questioning the honor and upsetting the harmony. We need tiferet in our democratic Jewish state as well as our private lives.

The writer is the author of The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s, just published by Thomas Dunne Books of St. Martin’s Press. He is professor of history at McGill University. Follow on Twitter @GilTroy. w

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