Life, Life, Life: ‘TRAITOR!’

Democracy either works or it doesn’t.

Netanyahu and Herzog (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST,REUTERS)
Netanyahu and Herzog
Just over 20 years ago, on a balmy day on Succot, we decided to take our young daughters on a fun day out, where they could eat kiddie food, have their faces painted and meet their prime minister.
The event – sponsored by The Jerusalem Post and various English-speaking organizations – turned into a catastrophe as wild hooligans, bused in specially to disrupt Yitzhak Rabin, drowned out his words with a cacophony of bugle blasts and ghastly, vicious cries.
The next day, in an attempt to override this horrible experience, we took our kids to the president’s open day in his Jerusalem succa. As we shuffled past Ezer Weizman for our allotted 20-second handshake, my husband headlined what we had seen.
“It was as though they wanted to kill him,” Martin told our president.
“Barbarians,” Weizman replied. “Something has to be done to stop them.”
We know how that turned out.
When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was voted in some months after that, we were heartbroken and frightened. We remembered Bibi on the balcony in Zion Square not long before the murder, when he didn’t see or hear the throngs calling for Rabin’s ouster with “blood and fire.”
But we believe in democracy; sometimes your candidate wins, and sometimes he doesn’t. Netanyahu was our leader now, and we watched his victory speech prepared to give him a chance.
But we listened to his words in disbelief and disappointment – surely, surely our new prime minister, who was in charge of all of us now, would make some comment about the reason for his election.
He had squeaked to victory on the back of a killing – would he not say that tempered his joy to some small degree? Bibi didn’t mention the assassination. He chose not to heal the rifts in our shattered society at that stage of the game. He must have had his reasons, but I’ve never figured them out.
I had cause to remember this history last week as I listened to Isaac Herzog, the leader of the opposition, address students on Democracy Day at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya where I teach.
Herzog focused on the death threats to President Reuven Rivlin that are flying through cyberspace and being flung about right down here on earth. Our president’s sin was speaking at a recent Haaretz conference in New York and not boycotting it for including the NGO Breaking the Silence.
Breaking the Silence comprises ex-IDF soldiers who are dedicated to documenting and publishing a very uncomfortable view of Israel’s military action in the West Bank and Gaza.
It is unnerving to hear some of their testimonies.
Israel is always under threat. The IDF justifiably prides itself on being a moral army, and our enemies are just looking for points to pounce on. We shun those in our midst who provide them with ammunition.
Yet a minority of soldiers have always presented an alternate narrative in Israel. The Seventh Day, published after the Six Day War, was a best-seller, although it discussed uncomfortable emotions of kibbutznik soldiers. Over the years a small number of pilots and special forces soldiers have signed petitions against serving in the West Bank.
Breaking the Silence does not call for refusing orders or, for that matter, refusing to go to the army at all. (One wonders if hysterical anti-Rivlin cries would have been so strident had he shared a stage with a haredi rabbi denouncing yeshiva boys who join Israel’s army.) The IDC Herzliya is chock-full of Israel’s best: engaged, smart young people, many of whom serve as officers in the army. Some challenged Herzog’s view.
The leader of Israel’s opposition stated that while he wholly disagrees with Breaking the Silence’s tactics and opinions, in a democracy everyone is entitled to express what they believe. Our president is a champion of democracy; for that he is now under threat.
In response to Herzog’s parliamentary demand that Netanyahu publicly defend Rivlin, our prime minister condemned all incitement and all violent discourse against the president and all other public figures, while at the same time pledging to fight for each and every person’s right to express their opinion, because that, he claimed, is how democracy works.
Democracy either works or it doesn’t. The ex-soldiers in Breaking the Silence (which never calls for the death of anyone) cannot be undemocratic while those that threaten the president for not eschewing Breaking the Silence are only exercising their democratic rights. Is it democratic, anyway, to call for the death of people whose views differ from your own?
Feeling the need to debrief, I put that question to my colleagues at a meeting near Tel Aviv, which I attended straight after the talk. Around the table, over coffee and sticky chocolate cake, we discussed the changes that are coming so fast here – the new attitudes emanating from our culture and sport minister, the overturning of the laws that were starting to address more equitable army service for all, the awesome, punitive power of the religious establishment.
Then, one of the participants who was listening intently interjected.
“I must be living in a different country,” she said, blithely. “I live in a country where we are No. 4 on the happiness scale, have an enviably good longevity rate, our infant mortality rate is impressively low, our hi-tech is flourishing....”
Her lack of concern, to me, was the most frightening of all.
Just because someone believes in the right to disagree with government policy, or is disturbed by events in the West Bank, doesn’t mean that she is anti-Israel, that she is not proud of Israel’s achievements, that she doesn’t feel privileged to live here. It is surely possible to love Israel and at the same time not love its government, no? Healthy discourse is surely the basis for a healthy society. Do we really want to label all dissenting voices as traitors and threats to our security? What, in that case, are we keeping secure? “Two Jews, three opinions” has always been our signature tune; now that we are free to sing out loud, we surely need to preserve the melody.
Shabbat shalom to us all.
The writer lectures at Beit Berl and the IDC.