It's great that Israelis aren't politically correct - opinion

A kibbutz-born Lefty insisted the Israeli character is too blunt, too honest, too sarcastic, to cancel “thought criminals” or tolerate pious virtue-signaling.

 Prime Minister Naftali Bennett points at opposition members amid squabble in Knesset plenum, January 5, 2022 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett points at opposition members amid squabble in Knesset plenum, January 5, 2022
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

‘There will never be too much wokeness here because we are Israeli… Israelis welcome frank talk.” I loved hearing that in a recent class with young Israelis. This kibbutz-born Lefty insisted the Israeli character is too blunt, too honest, too sarcastic, too full-of-life, to cancel “thought criminals” or tolerate pious virtue-signaling. The students nodded appreciatively when she defended Omer Adam, whose tongue-in-cheek song “Kakdila,” incurred Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli’s wrath as anti-Russian and anti-woman. They agreed with Adam, who noting his own Russian roots in the Caucasus Mountains, suggested that Michaeli concentrate on improving public transportation.

I appreciate Israeli openness and directness. I dread seeing political correctness or wokeness imported, especially to inhibit comedy and culture. But after watching last week’s legislative circus, I still love that Israelis aren’t PC – but this Knesset is ridiculous.

The opposition parties made Worldwide Wrestling matches seem calm. As they rose from their seats, gesticulating rhythmically, shouting “shame, shame,” the opposition refused to vote. Likud MK Ofir Akunis posted a clip of himself saying: “All that’s missing is for the Israeli flag to be replaced by a Palestinian flag.” And still-in-denial-ex-prime-minister Benjamin Netanyahu – who was talked out of boycotting the Knesset by his ultra-Orthodox allies – called passing the law “a dark day for Zionism and democracy.”

What could trigger such hysteria? Which bill so threatens Zionism and Israeli identity?

It was a decent, long-overdue, and rather a benign bill, The Electricity Law. Proposed by the coalition’s Islamist Ra’am Party, it should connect more than 130,000 Israeli-Arabs to the national grid. The shame involved was watching some elected representatives in our 21st-century Jewish-democratic state behave like thugs, seeking to deprive fellow citizens of basic 20th-century amenities such as light, heat and hot water.

 PRIME MINISTER Naftali Bennett gets involved in the sharp debate over the Electricity Law on Wednesday in the Knesset plenum. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90) PRIME MINISTER Naftali Bennett gets involved in the sharp debate over the Electricity Law on Wednesday in the Knesset plenum. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

You need not be some liberal “snowflake” to call out their bullying, deeming their overreaction unwarranted and demagogic. You need not be woke to call out their bigoted dog-whistling, repudiating such poisonous anti-Arab fearmongering. And you need not be PC to call out their assault on Zionism, not just decency, deviating from both the open, democratic, equal-rights-oriented Zionism of the Menachem Begin Right and the David Ben-Gurion Left.

All-too-enthusiastically breaking the Right’s monopoly on thuggery, Israel’s Deputy Economic Affairs Minister Yair Golan called the Homesh settlers protesting Yehuda Dimentman’s murder, “subhuman,” a term he should have used in the original German – Untermenschen. Unlike Netanyahu, his hyper-partisan predecessor, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett courageously criticized a coalition partner, calling “Golan’s words… shocking” and “a blood libel.”

WE POLITICAL junkies love the passion of great debates – and the cleverness behind great political insults. For decades, former president Lyndon Johnson’s slur dogged Gerald Ford, that Ford was nice enough, “except he played football too long without his helmet.” Only his targets would have wanted to muffle Winston Churchill, who mocked the man who displaced him as prime minister by saying “An empty cab pulled up to Downing Street. Clement Attlee got out.” And perhaps Israel’s most wry quipster prime minister, Golda Meir, mocked Moshe Dayan by snapping: “Don’t be so humble, you’re not that great.”

As a columnist, I want to be able to skewer the still-in-denial-ex-prime-minister who refuses to call Bennett “Mr. Prime Minister” as Bi-bust or Bi-bui (pronounced, French-style, Bib-we, with the “ui” short for “under-indictment”). More informally, I also want to laugh with my friends and my kids at ourselves and at others, acknowledging our differences and collective tics, both as people and as members of distinct peoples. That’s why I err on the side of tolerating touchy jokes and rhetorical overkill.

But a healthy democracy still needs to draw some lines.

In his indispensable commentary on Ethics of the Fathers, Sage Advice, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg wisely interprets Mishna 2:9, wherein Rabbi Shimon answered the question “what is the right path,” by answering “Ha-roeh et ha-nolad.” Greenberg translates those words as “To see what is coming [see beyond the moment],” adding that the ethical challenge involves becoming “aware of the consequence of your actions,” anticipating what you might spawn.

Indeed, that was the great failing last week, from Right and Left. Hysterical doomsday predictions dehumanize those who disagree with you, essentially accusing your political rivals of treason. They indulge fleeting frustrations while leaving lasting damage. Living in the moment, demagogues ignore the long-term blows the body politic absorbs from these toxic outbursts.

Legislators must work together the day after. Tomorrow, Golan’s former IDF comrades may have to catch another terrorist menacing those settlers in Homesh or elsewhere, just as Bi-bui’s rival may need his cooperation in uniting the country against another Hamas or Hezbollah or Iranian threat. A little moderation, some magnanimity, keeps democracies resilient – and ready for looming menaces around the corner.

As a tikkun, a healing, I mischievously – yet sincerely – suggest that these bridge burners learn from a different coalition partner, Ra’am’s chief Mansour Abbas. He recently acknowledged that “Israel was born a Jewish state.” Those words contradicted his party’s 80-page charter which insists “there can be no allegiance to Israel” because Zionism is a “racist, occupying project.”

Abbas, however, per Rabbi Shimon, is “seeing what is coming,” thinking ahead, and doing what haters can never do: thinking about how to make Jewish-democratic Israel better, a place where all its citizens, Jewish and non-Jewish, can thrive freely, safely, with dignity, in peace and prosperity. That’s our leaders’ jobs, Left and Right. It’s a shame that too many of them keep betraying that mission.

The writer is a distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University and the author of nine books on American history and three books on Zionism. His book, Never Alone: Prison, Politics and My People, coauthored with Natan Sharansky was just published by PublicAffairs of Hachette.