The Center doesn’t know its Left from Right

Rather than being opposing teams on a football field, one side is playing on the basketball court while the other is stuck on the tennis court.

debate cartoon (photo credit: Deborah Danan)
debate cartoon
(photo credit: Deborah Danan)
Everyone in this country seems to be married to their opinions. Except perhaps in Tel Aviv. Apart from some noisy radicals (from both left-wing and right-wing camps) down in South Tel Aviv, I’ve found that your average Tel Avivian doesn’t seem to put too much emphasis on formulating a concrete opinion or philosophy about any particular subject. With the exception, perhaps, of “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow you may be pulverized by an Iranian madman.”
It’s part of what I love about Israel’s first Hebrew city. A place that people flock to in search of some hedonistic escape from, well, anything and everything.
A place where a leftist can live next door to a right-winger, a lawyer can share a rented apartment with a waitress, a religious family can live on top of a thumping bar, a place where gays, straights and everything in between are accepted. A fortress of liberalism; a bastion of egalitarianism. For many, Tel Aviv is an island of hope in this mad region.
But even Tel Aviv, it seems, is not immune to politics.
I recently attended a debating event hosted by the Tel Aviv International Salon in which MK Arieh Eldad of the National Union and Dr. Yair Hirschfeld, director of the Economic Cooperation Foundation and architect of the Oslo Process, battled it out over the issue of one state versus two. The debate was held on the roof of the Brown Hotel, a boutique outfit in the Nahalat Binyamin area. These events cater to Tel Aviv’s young, professional types, who are lured in with the promise of dry wine and sparkling conversation. Sometimes, however, it is the wine that is sparkling while the conversation remains distinctly dry. Such was the case on this particular evening.
Eldad was promoting his vision of Israel’s future with a hard-right, hammer-blow approach. “Unless we end the Muslim occupation,” he said, “we are doomed to war.”
Hirschfeld countered, “A two-state solution will be far better than the mutual killing between us and them.”
Back and forth, the tug of warring words looked as if it would never end, until finally the moderator called upon the audience for a Q and A session. It always interests me to hear what my peers in the community have to say in between sips of champagne.
One member of the audience proposed a wacky solution to the conflict: “We should transfer all the Jews and all the Arabs out of the West Bank for 100 years – let’s make it a no-man’s-land.”
Needless to say, his proposal drew more than a few snickers from the crowd. It occurred to me, though, that his proposal was no less likely to be implemented than the solutions suggested by the debaters. This is because the gap between what Hirschfeld maintains to be true and what Eldad holds as gospel is so wide that no bridge is large enough or strong enough to connect the two. This is so often the case between the Left and the Right, and it’s the reason that holding a real debate that will actually yield results based on compromise is pretty much impossible.
In order for two opposing opinion-holders to nurture a fruitful discussion, there must be some degree of overlap, a kind of “safe zone” if you like. For the most part – at least in Israel – overlap is sorely lacking between the Left and the Right. This got me thinking about the basic nature of the left-wing stance versus the right wing. What is it about them that they can never see eye to eye? After all, I’m sure both Eldad and Hirschfeld agree on at least one thing: namely, that they both want to find the solution that will secure Israel’s future.
The problem is that the respective premises of the Left and the Right simply clash from the get-go. In many disagreements, each side might be attempting to fit their own round peg into a square hole – a futile exercise by any account. But once they discover that the round pegs simply won’t slot in, there is a small chance that they can then put their heads together and eventually fashion a square peg between them.
The issue is that in this country, each side is not even looking to fill the same hole. Rather than being opposing teams on a football field, one side is playing on the basketball court while the other is stuck on the tennis court, serving aces when there’s no one on the other side of the net. They’re simply not playing the same game.
Anyway, you get the point. Nonetheless, indulge me if you will.
The starting point of the Right is “Here’s what they’re doing wrong.” “They” is simply defined as anyone who does not subscribe to the same set of rules: the country’s leaders, leftists, Arabs etc.
Meantime, the leftist argument, by and large, begins with “Here’s what we’re doing wrong.” And in this case, the “we” is all-inclusive: “we,” the citizens of Israel, both from the Left and the Right, have failed.
I say tomato and you say potato. We’re not even talking about the same vegetable. It’s kind of like a believer having an argument with an atheist, which is also a colossal waste of time, in my opinion. Unlike an argument involving our God versus theirs, the atheist-believer discussion will never lead anywhere because it’s based on one side claiming that the subject of the dispute doesn’t even exist. This is what so often happens in the Left-Right argument. One side will present a problem, while the other side, instead of attempting to answer that particular issue, ignores it by countering with another problem altogether.
Many of the Jerusalemites that I know can be accused of being married to their opinions. Funnily enough, it’s also part of what I loved about Jerusalem – people are headstrong, fiery and always have something to say on every subject. Jerusalemites are what I think of when I encounter the biblical adage “am k’she oref” (a stubborn nation). But the whole labeling trend that is so prevalent in the capital is becoming more and more of an issue. By applying a label (such as leftist or rightist) to your debating opponent, it makes you think you understand that person as if one word could ever capture the complexity of a human being. People who label themselves and others then fall into the trap of being twodimensional and losing the power of critical thinking.
Such an attitude doesn’t leave much room for open dialogue between differing parties. The argument will never be on an equal footing because for an argument to be so, each side must have the ability to admit that perhaps the option exists that they might be wrong.
The Jerusalemites that I know are way too proud to admit that they might be wrong.
Tel Avivians, on the other hand, take pride in the “We don’t know, and we don’t want to know” attitude.
And over the years, Tel Aviv – just like its denizens – has shed its labels. All the many types of people who live here have led the city to dissolve into a melting pot. People aren’t as staunch about things as they used to be. You do what you do, I’ll do what I do, live and let live and so on. Obviously, this has its negative sides, and some might accuse them of being too blasé or too wrapped up in their own bubbles.
True, political debates are rare in this city, but I’ve found that when they do occur, people have been far more willing to actually listen to the other side.
The fluidity, flexibility and lack of allegiance to any one school of thought have meant that people are more able to pose real questions without being shackled by preconceived notions. We can direct the debate so that at the very least we’re both examining the same issue. Obscuring an issue with our own egos and agendas – or, indeed, with yet another issue – is simply fighting fire with fire. Perhaps if our political leaders could draw from Tel Aviv’s naive openness and unabashed lack of direction, we might actually start advancing towards building bridges.