Cultural Prism: A polarized paradigm

Politicians should try to persuade us to support their policies, not manipulate our understanding of realities.

PORTRAYING A black and white reality (photo credit: AMIT BAR-YOSEF)
PORTRAYING A black and white reality
(photo credit: AMIT BAR-YOSEF)
Do the actions of Breaking the Silence constitute treachery, or serve as an ethical and moral compass? Well, it depends if you are right-wing or left-wing.
Several unfortunate factors make our political debate one-dimensional, categorical, and polarized. There is, of course, our horrible culture of debate, and the biased, sensation-seeking and ratings-driven media. But above all, it is the political culture of extremism.
Political scientists have shown that politicians have an incentive to support and advance polarized positions. They know that the more extreme and vocal they are, the more popular they become, and so they act accordingly.
There is no in-depth exchange of ideas, only introversion to a partisan line and divergence to extreme ideological and political views. Politicians are engaged in a constant brawl of spins and slogans, and attempts to gain popularity while vilifying and demonizing their opponents.
There is much more here than only uncivilized discourse. Instead of persuading people to subscribe to a policy relating to a clarified situation, the fundamentals of understanding the situation are manipulated and masked. As a result, we suffer from a twisted understanding of reality, virtually depriving us of the ability to construct an educated point of view.
The chairman of Gesher, Daniel Goldman, recently wrote an excellent analysis in The Times of Israel about our culture of tribal allegiance and the danger of extremism: “Not only have we drifted from sensible debate between the different groups, we have become obsessed with undermining one another’s loyalties. By doing this we are reducing each tribe to its most extreme form, as we use the minority at the edge of left or right to define the entire tribe.”
Almost all issues on our political table are shaped in a partisan mold. The perceived strategic threats to Israel are a classic example. One side says that, due to the crumbling of Middle Eastern states, we no longer face traditional armies and therefore enjoy the safest situation in our history, enabling a substantial downsizing of our military.
The other side claims that the Middle East is in a state of unparalleled turmoil, and that we are facing a convergence of threats, led by Iran and its proxies, tantamount to an existential threat, and mandating the fortification of our military might.
The truth, of course, is somewhere in the middle. We may need fewer tanks, but must also invest huge resources in new arenas and advanced technologies.
Here are a few more polarized issues.
The news of how Palestinian land brokers were set up to be killed by reporting them to the PA exposed a shocking example of left-wing extremism. It was also shocking to see that instead of denouncing the acts as immoral and unacceptable, many responses from the Left backed up the perpetrators, or attacked the journalists for revealing the story.
At the same time, it is wrong for rightwing leaders to use individual instances of left-wing extremism to smear the varied operations of human rights organizations.
Breaking the Silence is an example of overly polarized debate. The organization argues that immoral actions are inherent in acting as an occupying force, and that exposing this reality can hasten the end of the occupation. Their target is not the IDF but the government, and international public opinion.
I believe that their political goal of ending the occupation does not justify the means of manipulating singular events as representing the spirit and conduct of the IDF as a whole. The by-product of presenting a false image of the IDF is a grave mistake with severe ramifications.
But I also believe that they do what they think is right for Israel. I do not categorize them in derogatory terms, and certainly object to the undemocratic initiative of outlawing their activity.
As a former military officer who still serves in the IDF reserves, I very much value the contribution of organizations that are critical of our conduct, as this keeps us in constant self-examination.
Nothing should be viewed as black and white, and open and honest debate can lead to learning and recalibrating on all fronts.
Ayelet Shaked’s new NGO law is portrayed by the Right as a valuable tool, replicating similar mechanisms that exist in other democracies. But the Left tells us that it is a draconian measure aimed at harassing, degrading and limiting leftwing activism. With this extremely polarized presentation, how are we to shape an educated opinion? The clash over entering houses in Hebron was no different. Each side presented mantras according to its political affiliation, instead of sticking to the facts.
In such a case, I recommend that we all back up the minister of defense and let him do his job.
The most recent scandals were the despicable “culture mole” add by Im Tirtzu which was, in my opinion, blown out of proportion, and the ridiculous controversy over the new civics textbook. Not a dull moment.
This polarization does not occur only in sensitive issues of national magnitude.
A case in point was a recently proposed bill by Kulanu MKs Yifat Shasha-Biton and Roy Folkman, aiming to lower the legal work age, during summer vacations only, from 14 to 13. I believe it is a very good idea, as teenagers can benefit from attaining work ethics, raising self-esteem, learning a trade and obtaining an appreciation for hard-earned money.
The opposition, led by MKs Shelly Yacimovich, Aliza Lavie and Orly Levy-Abecassis, launched a massive campaign to shoot down the bill, and staged a dramatic exposition, making it look as if a draconian decree was to doom young children to labor instead of school.
There was no real debate, only political manipulation, making it impossible to truly evaluate the pros and cons.
When MKs yell at the top of their lungs, wave their hands, and use a multitude of negative descriptive terms, it may look like genuine expressions of outrage and zeal, but more times than not, it’s an act.
In 2013 Yesh Atid MK Pnina Tamano- Shata attempted to donate blood in the Knesset, knowing very well that she was unqualified according to the ministry of health criteria, which did not allow donations from people who have lived for more than a year in HIV-prevalent countries since 1977.
It was a staged scandal, in order to garner support for changing the criteria.
Everyone knew it, but everyone played along. Then-president Peres expressed disgust. Prime Minister Netanyahu condemned.
The Knesset’s director-general shamed the MDA staff by throwing them out of the building. Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid wrote one of his sharp Facebook posts, accusing MDA personnel of harassment and even vowing to have one of them fired.
Back to contemporary political clashes.
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog regularly engages in shallow polarized debate, cloaked by artificial hard talk and claims of having solutions to all our problems. The new gimmick is his “Separation Plan” – a pompous slogan without a shred of logic behind it. The idea that total separation from the Palestinians will lead to stability is quite absurd.
Yair Lapid continues his indefatigable campaign towards becoming the prime minster, and his public image is being brilliantly shaped to look and sound as a leader should. Yes, it’s an act, but at least from the perspective of balanced debate – he is a rare blessing in the political arena.
Not only opposition leaders try to stake out opinions that contrast those of Netanyahu.
During the past few weeks, Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett has also been differentiating himself ideologically, probably in preparation for the next elections.
Politicians all play their part, and we rarely see ideological deviations from the party line, such as Shelly Yacimovich’s stance in the presidential elections, and her support for Danny Dayan’s nomination as ambassador to Brazil. Another positive example was Minister Bennett’s strong condemnation of the Jewish terrorists and support for the security measures in the Duma case.
In conclusion, instead of serious public debate, we have shallow quarrels between demagogic manipulators.
We should aspire to a broader “center” in our political spectrum. The problem is that we are taught to perceive balanced opinions as “parve.” Proportionality is seen as indecisiveness. Changing your mind is mocked as zig-zagging. Expressing views which are different from the party line is condemned as betrayal.
I know it’s a lot to ask for, but members of Knesset should have more respect for the people they serve. They should promote a constructive, rather than destructive, ideological debate. They should try to persuade us to support their policies, not manipulate our understanding of realities.
Debates should address the issues at hand and aim to counter opposing views, and not personally target the people who hold them.
Of course this is not only an Israeli phenomenon.
In the US, for example, every issue, from gun laws and abortions, to separation of church and state, and even global warming – are all seen though an extremely polarized political prism, each side relating to its opponents as if they were total nut cases.
The writer is the founder of Cross-Cultural Strategies Ltd.