It has been years since Israelis have shown up consistently in the tens of thousands to protest against their own government. Israel has a healthy tradition of protest, it is a sign of Israel’s robust democracy. The Tel Aviv Saturday night demonstrations have been peaceful but forceful in their message. Many Israelis are alarmed by the direction of the government and they insist on being heard.
These aren’t concerns that can be brushed aside; Israelis on both sides of the issues want a healthy debate about their concerns. The desire for a debate is an encouraging sign for Israel. Zionists have always debated the future policies of the Jewish people. At the end of the debate, Israel and Zionists will come out stronger – just as they have during previous times of inner debate.
Shrieking “The world is going to end!” is never a good way to get people’s attention for the long term. While the shriek might attract an immediate head term and curious look, people have a natural disposition to believe that things aren’t really that bad – even when they seem bad and will begin to tune out the end-of-the-world messages. Raising alarms is ineffective in an airport, at a public park and, especially, in political discussions.
A healthy civil society aims to have polite discussions where logical and reasonable points are made to support their approach to how society should operate. The hope is that by having healthy discussions common ground can be found, nuance can be employed and divisions can be healed instead of enlarged.
Making irrational and unreasonable points, along with exaggerations and blowing events out of proportion, causes society to regress. Instead of finding common ground, divisions are exploited for political promotion and society grows unhealthy.
When people place partisanship ahead of society or imagine that acting as a partisan operative is in society’s benefit, civil discussions become impossible. When every political argument is buttressed with a dose of hysteria about the irreversible damage their opponents’ positions will cause society, it becomes challenging to address the individual political arguments being made in the public sphere.
Journalism suffers from the same society-crushing phenomenon of hysteria ruining what was designed to be a vehicle to help advance society. Instead of being a calm voice of reason that reports, analyzes, and opines on events, news agencies now shriek headlines designed to convey the worst possible outcome of any event is highlighted, giving the impression that the community should be terrified of the next news event.
Perusing headlines today can give the reader a headache. Headlines scream hysterical news that consistently turns out to be exaggerated or even completely fabricated.
Turning every political position into a hysterical alarm distracts people from honest analysis and debate over the issues by making every topic sound like an existential issue. It is impossible to claim that every issue has the potential to bring the nation, society, or even the local community to an end.
No problem is taken seriously
WHEN EVERY problem is characterized as a major issue, no problems are taken seriously. People with the potential to honestly analyze the issues and offer solutions will be discouraged or distracted by the partisanship that is fueling the overemphasis of the problem.
Once partisanship fuels the alarm raising in discussions, both sides tend to demonize each other as being opposed to actively listening to their opponents’ points. Once a person vilifies their opponent, they can convince themselves the opposing points are so illegitimate they don’t deserve analysis. Listening honestly with an open mind and engaging with nuance are forgotten values; defeating your opponent becomes the most important objective.
A civil society hosts discussions and debates with the hopes of reaching pathways forward that both sides can agree to as a compromise. To remain credible to one’s base, politicians and pundits can’t compromise on an issue they discussed with hysteria.
How can someone remain credible after saying this is the most important issue in the nation and then turn around and offer to compromise? People don’t forget the original hysteria brought to the issue.
Any society that suffers from the constant bombardment with hysterical messages declaring the end of the nation begins to tune out the partisan pundits, media and politicians. Every issue becomes background noise and the serious issues deserving of national attention don’t receive the attention they deserve.
Journalists, commentators and politicians must take responsibility, look past the easy partisan wins and the attention that comes with hysterical shrieking on each issue. Rather, they must discuss the important issues with honest analysis, nuance and without vilification of the opposing side. Then a healthy civil society can host civil discussions where logical and reasonable points are made to support each sides’ position and the community can reach a reasonable conclusion.
Zionism was a movement set up to entertain serious discussions and debates about the Jewish people’s future. There was never a top-down approach with a few select leaders deciding the fate of the Jewish people. The spirit of debate in the Zionist movement carried on to the establishment of the State of Israel.
The Knesset is widely known as one of the most raucous parliaments in the world, where debates extend deep into the night. While some debates regress into name calling, histrionics and demonization of opponents, for the most part debates in Israeli society have contributed to a robust democracy.
Unfortunately, over the past few years, Israel’s political scene has become more and more partisan. The divide and schisms in Israeli society have grown and the serious debates about the Jewish future that were a point of pride for Zionists are becoming rare. Israelis are debating some of the most important issues of Israel’s existence.
These are serious issues that deserve the attention of every Israeli. Regardless of which side of the debate one finds themselves and no matter how precarious the future may seem, it’s important that debate happens in a calm and nuanced manner – consistent with the Zionist values of unity. To make sure that Israel retains its healthy democracy and civil society, Zionists must return to their values of civil debate.
The writer is a senior educator at numerous educational institutions. He is the author of three books and teaches Torah, Zionism and Israeli studies around the world.