Israel has vacated the battlefield of ideas...Israel has made itself defenseless.
– Melanie Philips
The Left will be easy to defeat in the battle of ideas if we can make a level playing field.
– Jay Abouaf, in a Facebook talkback to my previous column
As readers will recall, I devoted my last two columns to a discussion of why much of right-wing philanthropy has been misdirected, in the sense that if it was intended to determine political realities, reflecting the predilections of the benefactors, it has been spectacularly ineffective.
For in the past two decades, the hard Left has managed to convert what was up until the early 1990s a completely marginalized – indeed, borderline treasonous – political doctrine into a respectable, arguably majority mainstream position.Breathtaking metamorphosis
This is clearly a political metamorphosis of breathtaking proportions, made even more remarkable since it cannot be attributed to an electoral failure of allegedly right-wing parties, or to widespread and sustained public pressure.
Accordingly, right-wing Zionist philanthropists wishing to arrest and reverse its detrimental consequences must have a clear understanding of its origins and mechanisms of development if they are to have any chance of success.
In my previous columns, I described how political realities in Israel are determined: From their positions of unelected power and prestige, a numerically small group of left-leaning civil-society elites is able to control the political discourse in the country.
This discourse determines elected politicians’ perception of the prevailing policy constraints and possibilities and hence of the parameters of policy they feel they can/must adopt.
Accordingly, this elite-driven process by which political realities are created is largely unaffected by the outcome of elections or the sentiments of the broader public.The inescapable conclusion
The inescapable conclusion that emerges from this is that if currently empowered elites are the generators of political realities, then the only way to generate new realities is to set about emplacing, empowering and promoting new elites to challenge and replace the existing ones.
In turn, the only way to promote new elites is to undermine existing ones and discredit them in the eyes of their own “constituencies,” by exposing the fraudulent and foolhardy folly of their worldview and the actionable policies that allegedly flow from it.
However, to accomplish this, the existing vehicles available to the Right will not suffice, since much of the adversarial “constituents” are not exposed to them, or purposely avoid them.
Indeed, today, whenever a serious challenge to the validity of their political precepts is mounted, the preferred strategy of the currently entrenched elites is to refrain from responding, thus averting the need to defend their positions. Alternatively, if they cannot totally ignore it, they attempt to delegitimize the challenge itself – or the challengers – as marginal, biased, unprofessional and so on.
Clearly then, new vehicles of communication must be established, capable of generating a discourse that neither the adversarial elites nor their constituencies feel they can ignore with impunity.
Imperative to engage ideological adversaries
It seems almost self-evident that in order to defeat an adversary, one has to engage him/her.
Yet, despite this virtually axiomatic truism, the Right has hitherto been extraordinarily maladroit in compelling the Left to defend/justify its disastrously defective policies in the mainstream discourse in the country. Conversely, the Left has been remarkably adept in avoiding any real engagement with the Right, thus preventing genuine scrutiny of the blunders made over the past two decades.
In this regard, Jerusalem Post readers will recall that last week Caroline Glick, in her analysis of Oslo and its aftermath, clearly illustrated how the incumbent elite establishment has managed to give prominence to certain issues and suppress debate on others in accordance with its own political agenda.
(Indeed, Glick’s own recent experience starkly illustrates this discriminatory phenomenon when Channel 1, after months of stalling, rejected her satirical production, Latma, but decided to air another series of political satire with a blatant – some might say vicious – anti-right-wing bias.) Thus, as long as the elite leadership feels it can control the discourse and senses that the right does not have regular and widespread access to its constituencies, it can continue with a strategy of non-response – whether by disregard or dismissal – to challenges to the validity of its doctrines and dogmas.
What is required is not to establish an “alternative” discourse, but to take control of the existing mainstream one.
To do this it is essential to be able to “reach across the political divide” and acquire the attention of adversarial target audiences – which is the sine qua non for developing the ability to change their political allegiances.
While I have no wish to denigrate current efforts on the Right, they have little chance of accomplishing this objective. Articles, however compelling and erudite, in publications such as Makor Rishon; interviews, however incisive and intelligent, conducted on radio stations such as Arutz 7; conferences, no matter how well attended by like-minded (and generally less-than-youthful) audiences, in Ariel and/or venues in Jerusalem inextricably identified with the Right, may have considerable value in “energizing the base,” but have little prospect of broadening it – or of narrowing that of the adversary.
New intellectual “theater of engagement” needed
The natural conclusion that emerges from this discussion is that it is imperative for the Right to create a new conceptual “theater of engagement,” in which it can conduct “intellectual combat” with its ideological rivals on the Left, from which the elite leadership cannot abscond, and to which its constituency will be exposed.
It is essential for this theater of engagement to be structured so as to facilitate the previously mentioned need to “reach across the political divide” and “acquire the attention” of adversarial constituencies. Indeed, this would in effect be its very raison d'etre.
For it is only concern that “heretical” messages are reaching their base that will induce in the elite leadership a sense of need to respond – and to attempt to repudiate their “pernicious” claims — i.e. to engage in an intellectual clash to which its own constituency is spectator.
The need for these attributes of effective “trans-divide reach” has far-reaching implications for the design of this theater of engagement as a "conceptual Colosseum" for the conduct of “intellectual combat,” which, among other things, will impinge on its ideological base line; intellectual architecture; organizational affiliations; geographical base; and the style and substance of its operating procedures.
These are all factors that will crucially affect its efficacy and help obviate the “manin- a-bucket” syndrome afflicting much of the Right’s political endeavor mentioned in my previous column.Avoiding “man-in-bucket” syndrome
In designing an effective strategy, rightwing activists/benefactors will have to “step outside themselves” and set aside their personal penchants.
It is imperative not only to realize – but accept – that the message to be conveyed is not intended primarily to find favor in their own constituencies. Therefore, what is likely to be appealing to themselves – both in style and substance – and to be persuasive with like-minded publics – may well be totally ineffective with important – indeed, crucial – target audiences on the other side of the political divide.
Moreover, unless this caveat is heeded – and unless significantly more resources are diverted to addressing it – persisting with current efforts and funding existing causes in an endeavor to strategically impact political realities will, sadly, be much like a man in a bucket, trying to lift himself up by the handle.
For example, while I may agree that arguments which focus on issues of Jewish heritage, and historical rights of the Jewish people to the Land, have a tremendous role to play on this side of the political divide in nation-building and in forging a national ethos, they have little weight as political arguments with many on the other side of the divide – who even though they may acknowledge those rights, still believe that they should be foregone to advance the cause of “peace.” For the latter, the task is to demonstrate that even if those rights are foregone, not only will it not bring peace closer, but in fact make it even more remote.
Similarly, while faith-based arguments may be powerfully persuasive for some, they will have little effect on others. For this reason it is essential to provide a secular rationale that supplements and supports these arguments – and validates their conclusions.
Indeed, this appears to be the only conceivable way to wean significant sectors on the other side of the political divide away from the preposterous prevailing precept that support for the establishment of what is almost certainly destined to be yet another Muslim tyranny is the litmus test of progressive liberal credentials.Significance of symbolism: A game changer?
However, it is not only the substantive content of the message that is of importance, but also the style of its formulation and delivery. Indeed the imagery with which it is cast and the symbolism it invokes are, if anything, more significant.
In a Huffington Post article last week, Prof. Marty Kaplan of the University of Southern California cites a study, aptly titled “When Corrections Fail: The persistence of political misperceptions,” dealing with the impact (or lack thereof) of discordant information on entrenched political beliefs.
Although Kaplan attempts to employ the findings to deride the American Right, jibing “no Fox News viewers ever changed their minds because some new data upended their thinking
,” they fit – like the proverbial glove – the conduct of much of the Israeli Left, clinging doggedly and dogmatically to its disproven doctrine.
The study found that “self-affirmation substantially reduces reported misperceptions among those most likely to hold them... [P]eople cling to false beliefs in part because giving them up would threaten their sense of self.... [A]ffirming people’s self-worth can buffer the threat to their self integrity posed by counter-attitudinal information and thereby make them more open-minded
This is hugely important.
For the implication is that in order to successfully reach across the political divide, and erode the political allegiance of the Left-leaning elites’ constituents, there is a need to provide them with appropriate imagery and symbolism to reassure them that in fact there is no clash between embracing “progressive liberal” values on socio-economic issues and hawkish views on foreign policy and security ones.
Thus, by conveying that by taking an uncompromising position in confronting tyranny they will not be undermining their self-perception as enlightened liberals, they need not “cling to false beliefs” because giving them up would not threaten their sense of self.Soul-searching reassessment required
Accomplishing this will be a costly enterprise.
But, if the creation of lasting realities in Israeli politics is any criterion of success/ effectiveness, the abysmal political outcomes over the past two decades must bring right-wing benefactors to the conclusion that some searing soul-searching is imperative.
Right-wing philanthropists will have to distinguish between what they would like to fund, and what they need to fund.
Spreading philanthropic effort over a wide range of endeavors will undoubtedly achieve many meritorious goals of tactical value, but they not will achieve strategic supremacy – without which even the accumulated impact of all their success will have no lasting value.
Thus, if the elites control the defining discourse, what point is there in investing in politicians who don’t – and who do not have an effective intellectual support system, or a countervailing elite infrastructure to advance their agenda? To underscore the cogency of this question, imagine how much money has been donated to the political activities of figures like Ariel Sharon and Binyamin Netanyahu in a futile – and in retrospect, counterproductive – effort to prevent the implementation of precisely the policy they both eventually adopted – or felt coerced to adopt.
I realize I have left many issues unaddressed – but there is only so much one can encompasses in an opinion column. The best I can hope for is that this latest series of articles will promote a vigorous debate on how philanthropic resources should be (re)distributed and (re)directed in the future.
For unless the Right can devise a methodology and put in place mechanisms to determine the political agenda in Israel, it will continue to be determined by the Left – irrespective of electoral outcomes.
Everything else is secondary – and just as futile as a man in a bucket trying to lift himself up by the handle.
Martin Sherman (www.martinsherman.net
) is the founder and executive director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies. (www.strategic-israel.org