Take a deep breath, everybody, and put some cynical filters in your ears. Israel is not on the edge of a precipice. Israeli democracy is not in a tailspin.
The country is not going to soar or crash no matter what the Knesset decides on laws relating to the nation-state, surrogacy, haredi (ultra-Orthodox) draft, illegal immigrants, conversion and settlement, or in relation to a pluralistic prayer pavilion at the Western Wall.
Israelis are not making choices between good and evil. Nobody is committing gross sins. There are legitimate positions on all sides of these issues.
It must be said: Israel is more stable and moral, and much saner and more judicious in handling its external challenges and internal disputes than our politicians give it credit for, and certainly more so than do Israel’s overheated critics abroad, both Jewish and gentile.
It’s important to say this because desperate politicians are revving up hysterical campaigns that portray Israel as a country in danger of going down the drain; a country threatened by dark forces; a country where “religious extremists” and “ugly nationalists” seek to “turn back the clock,” and to “impose” and “dictate” their “intolerant” views on a beleaguered society.
Haaretz, for example, contemptibly has taken to calling Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the “apartheid prime minister,” and wildly alleges that he has “given up on democracy.” The new opposition leader Tzipi Livni intemperately asserts that the government is driven by “radical nationalism,” and controlled by “extremist elements.”
Prof. Mordechai Kremnitzer of Bteslem and the Israel Democracy Institute violently charges that Israel is becoming “darkness unto the nations.” Former US Reform Movement chief rabbi Eric Yoffie insultingly chatters that Netanyahu “serially chooses the path of stupidity, political convenience and moral obtuseness,” alongside “weak, cowardly, unprincipled, and self-serving politicians” of the current coalition.
From the other side the political spectrum, the invective isn’t much prettier. Base right-wing politicians have taken to labeling just about everybody in the opposition as “anti-Zionist” and “defeatist,” who “steer Israel towards diplomatic suicide” and “want to bring back Marxism.”
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Radical ultra-Orthodox politicians smear anybody associated with liberal religious denominations in Israel or abroad as “assimilationist,” “neo-Christian,” and “worse than Hitler.”
As Israel moves into election season (probably this winter), the overwrought rhetoric is only going to get worse, I fear. The choice before the electorate, we will be (wrongly) told, is “between Zionism and extremism,” no less; between liberal democracy and illiberal theocracy.
We’re going to be bombarded with bombast about this race being a turning point in the battle for Israel’s “soul;” a battle between the forces of light and the forces of darkness.
ALL OF this is nonsense; tempestuous and dangerous drivel. Not only should we ignore such defamatory talk, we must reject it from every flank of the political spectrum.
Instead, let us re-tell ourselves and re-emphasize to outside observers that Israeli democracy has strong institutions and foundations; that there are reasonable points of view on all sides of the current debates; and that the public here is wiser and more substantive than the screechers give it credit for.
Let’s remember: The contours of Israeli diplomatic, military, economic and social policy are relatively constricted by the realities of the times – including regional threats, the fecklessness of Israel’s Palestinian neighbors, and the inevitabilities of coalition politics. The actual differences in policy between another Netanyahu-led coalition government and, say, an Avi Gabbay-led coalition government, are likely to be more cosmetic than real.
And thus, the upcoming campaign is not a do-or-die moment. It’s just one more muddy election in a convoluted Israeli political system where negative campaigning and personal animosities are at a peak. Let’s not make it out to be more than that.
Yet Netanyahu and especially the opposition to Netanyahu seem determined to raise the rhetorical stakes; to draw apocalyptic lines in the sand; to present this race as a grand tipping point in Israel’s history.
To me, this hyperbole is uber-problematic for several reasons. Firstly, as I say, it is inaccurate. It sets up a false dichotomy between Netanyahu and his political opponents; between purported “extremists” and those who have high-handedly self-appropriated the distinguished moniker “Zionist.”
Secondly, it seeds perilous dynamics of internal hatred.
Thirdly, the scorched-earth posturing is bound to reverberate beyond Israel’s borders, and undermine perceptions of Israel as a stable and decent democratic polity.
When the political opposition to the Israeli government spuriously maligns the dominant political leader and his political party as fanatic and fundamentalist – language usually reserved for the Iranians – the State of Israel suffers long-term damage. What’s good for fundraising and electioneering is not necessarily good for Israel or for world Jewry. The end (replacing the government) does not justify the means (falsely depicting half or more of Israel as extremist).
THE DANGER in this campaign, is alienation. Who in their right mind wants to be associated with a country as retrogressive and thuggish as the place Tzipi Livni has taken to depicting?
And what happens if the “good guys” don’t succeed in stopping the alleged hordes of Jewish ayatollahs? What if Netanyahu wins again and the Jewish nation-state law isn’t overturned? What if the Orthodox maintain their control over matters of religion and state? What if Israel moves to strengthen its hold on Jerusalem and the settlement blocs? Would these not be valid choices of the Israeli electorate?
And conversely, what if a new center-left coalition government goes a different direction, and cancels budgets for settlement life and legislates an option for Jewish marriage and divorce outside the Chief Rabbinate? Does Israel become anti-Zionist and anti-Jewish?
The answer is that like it or lump it, these are legitimate electoral choices for Israel, and Israel will remain a noble venture either way.
By painting the situation in dire terms, Israel’s politicians are threatening the very legitimacy of Israel. They are cutting away the limb – love for, and identification with, Israel – upon which much of Israeli and world Jewish amity is based. They are destabilizing the foundations on which Israel’s diplomatic relations are based.
I say to our politicians (and to Jewish leaders abroad): Stick to the facts and the issues. Offer us realistic policy prescriptions. Avoid besmirching Israel or significant sectors of Israeli society. Beware campaign themes that are corrosive to this embattled state’s strategic objectives and international image.
Take some of the absolutist self-assurance out of your speeches. Speak moderately and be a little humble. None of you are such great saviors that defamation of your opponents is justified.
Always ask yourselves – what are the political and social models of Israel’s future that will allow you to continue to love the country, even if the next government doesn’t sign onto your very particular, partisan vision?The author is vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies, jiss.org.il. His personal site is davidmweinberg.com.
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