My Word: Political blame game and end game

The inflammatory words are coming from across the political spectrum in Israel, Left, Right and Center. And it needs to stop.

 AVIV GEFFEN performs at a remembrance ceremony in Tel Aviv for assassinated prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. (photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)
AVIV GEFFEN performs at a remembrance ceremony in Tel Aviv for assassinated prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.
(photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)

“Sorry seems to be the hardest word,” sang Elton John to the lyrics of Bernie Taupin in the mid-1970s. I apologize for putting the song in your head, but it’s a lot better than some of the words that have been thrown around lately. 

Actually, it wasn’t Elton John, so much as Israeli superstar singer Aviv Geffen who has been on my mind recently. Geffen, for years the bad boy of the country’s music scene, has grown up. More importantly, he has matured. The writer-singer who once gave us lyrics that were bleeped out or banned on some radio stations, is in a much milder mood lately. And not everyone likes it.

Last month, he made headlines for the least likely reason: being nice and saying “Sorry.”

The singer who once ranted “We are a f***ed-up generation” in a song called “It’s cloudy now” obviously sees more clearly today. The shift was most evident at a performance at Beit El where he apologized for past comments demonizing religious Jews and residents of Judea and Samaria and calling the settlements “a cancer.” 

“I’ve matured and I want to ask your genuine heartfelt forgiveness.”

Aviv Geffen

“I’ve matured and I want to ask your genuine heartfelt forgiveness,” Geffen told the appreciative audience.

Aviv Geffen in concert via livestream, June 2020 (credit: MOSHE SHAI/FLASH90)Aviv Geffen in concert via livestream, June 2020 (credit: MOSHE SHAI/FLASH90)

Geffen acknowledged that: “Being here today in Beit El is something I wouldn’t have dreamed of several years ago...” adding: “I ask you what I ask from myself: only unity – enough with incitement – to understand that we are true brothers.”

Geffen appeared elsewhere with popular hassidic singer Avraham Fried. The two struck up an unlikely friendship during the COVID pandemic when Geffen expressed sympathy for the residents of the mainly ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak which had been particularly badly hit.

You might have thought the brotherly love and forgiving feelings would be considered a positive thing, particularly among the liberal crowd that preaches “Tikkun olam” (mending the world) as a religion. You’d be mistaken. 

Among the most widely published responses was an article in the British Guardian by Ben Lynfield (a former colleague) who opined: “The public repentance on Thursday at the Beit El settlement can be seen as a cultural milestone in Israel’s move further to the right and another nail in the coffin of the more peace-oriented legacy of the assassinated prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, with whom Geffen had been associated...”

Another journalist I know shared the article on Facebook with the comment: “Feeling nostalgic for Oslo as I read this great piece by Ben Lynfield.”

I pointed out that what I associate with the Oslo Accords (signed 29 years ago this week) is the wave of Palestinian bus bombings and terrorism that immediately followed. Not exactly the stuff nostalgia is made of. I also noted that “settlers” are people, too.

When I looked to check other responses, I found I’d been “unfriended.” Not a great loss. Under the circumstances, I’d rather think of Aviv Geffen as a long-lost friend even though we’ve never met.

Geffen, by the way, tweeted in response to the Guardian article: “I remained on the left, but a man who doesn’t know how to make peace within his own people, won’t know how to make peace with his neighbors.” This triggered another frenzied exchange in cyberspace.

The incident seemed symptomatic of something dark that’s going on not only on social media but also in the real world – or at least the world of Israeli politics.

Nasty rhetoric increases as Israel heads to fifth elections

The closer we get to the November 1 election – the fifth within three years – the nastier the rhetoric.

Benny Gantz, Gideon Saar and Gadi Eisenkot called their newly merged party in Hebrew “Hamachaneh hamamlachti,” an almost untranslatable term meaning something like the “Statesmanly Camp” or “Stately Camp.” The implication is that everyone else – particularly anybody in the camp that voted for Benjamin Netanyahu – does not combine those virtues required for decent support of the state. No wonder in English they stuck to the rather awkward sounding National Unity Party.

Whatever they call themselves, they at least maintain a veneer of decency. This is more than can be said for Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman. He has a way with words but, unfortunately, not those that I can comfortably publish in a family paper. Although I have a regular weekly spot on Hebrew phrases, I will not be sharing how to say “Scum of the earth.” 

This is how Liberman, once director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office under Netanyahu, chose to call the former premier at the beginning of the month. That was after a former Liberman aide claimed that 20 years ago, Liberman had offered him $100,000 to assassinate a senior Israel Police officer. Needless to say, Liberman vehemently denies the allegation. Character assassination, on the other hand, is not beyond him. This week, the Israel Beytenu party head accused the Likud leader of using against him methods “just like those of Goebbels and Stalin.”

This was too much even for the rest of the “anyone but Bibi” crowd. Prime Minister Yair Lapid responded by saying that “even when we are faced with a never-ending machine of poison and incitement that is gnawing at Israeli society, the Holocaust should be left out of the conversation” while Gantz issued a statement saying that while he “greatly appreciates Liberman, he condemns his words and the unacceptable comparison to those who committed the worst atrocities in human history. Even in a difficult election campaign against those who seek to damage statehood and the justice system, boundaries must be set.”

The limits, however, are extremely low and Liberman is like a perverse limbo dancer testing what he can get away with even when it’s uncomfortable. In the wake of the outrage, Liberman realized he needed to apologize, but he issued something so contorted it only added to the problem.

Sadly, Liberman is not alone. Red lines are being crossed all the time. Deputy Minister of Economy and Industry Yair Golan (Meretz), for example, has compared Netanyahu to a cancer. Is not such talk malignant? It certainly reflects a pathological hatred. Are we meant to believe there are no limits to freedom of speech (at least if you belong to the “correct” camp)? 

Golan, a former deputy IDF chief of staff, might have got the top job had he not made comments in 2016 comparing trends in Israeli society to those of pre-World War II Germany – proclaimed at a national Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony, no less. 

He did not change either his views or his tone. Earlier this year, he called residents of Homesh in Samaria “subhuman.” When called out, he corrected himself thus: “I regret the remark... I could have used a better expression, such as ‘despicable thugs.’”

For those still trying to understand the term “mamlachti,” let’s just say that this is the opposite of what it means. And let’s backtrack for a minute and consider the phrasing of Lapid’s rebuke of Liberman, referring to a “never-ending machine of poison and incitement that is gnawing at Israeli society.”

The inflammatory words are coming from across the political spectrum, Left, Right and Center. And it needs to stop

Speaking at a conference at Reichman University in Herzliya this week, Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) head Ronen Bar cited as one of the country’s challenges “the deep and growing rift developing within Israeli society over its character... The prevailing feeling among our adversaries is that our historic comparative advantage, the one that helped us for thousands of years – our national resilience – is dissipating.” 

He added, “This insight should disturb us more than anything else. This is something the Shin Bet can warn about, but certainly not deal with. That is something in every one of our hands.”

He was, of course, immediately attacked for those comments. But he has a point. The danger of nuclearizing Iran is the most serious security threat that the country faces, but the poisonous discourse presents its own dangers. You can’t keep democracy alive if you kill off civility. And somehow we have to continue to live together after the elections, whatever the results.

So, if anyone is offended by this piece, I apologize, but please keep your comments civil.

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