In My Own Write: Words that grow wings

They can fly away to echo back in ways the speaker never intended.

President Reuven Rivlin (photo credit: REUTERS)
President Reuven Rivlin
(photo credit: REUTERS)
As a writer and former editor, I am acutely aware of the truth inherent in the words “less is more” (taken from a poem by Robert Browning). I am conscious of the fact that what one opts to leave out of any piece of writing is as important as – and sometimes more important than – what one puts in.
It calls to mind that marvelous observation attributed to Michelangelo to the effect that every block of stone has a statue already inside and it is the job of the sculptor to uncover it. Or, as he movingly declared, “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”
It sounds rather easy, as if all the artist (or writer or editor) has to do is chip away the superfluous material until the authentic piece is revealed. But what is authentic and what is superfluous? That differentiation is where the difficulty lies, and it is where a sure hand and a good dollop of self-discipline are essential.
“You must kill your children,” is how a now-departed literary friend once put it to me rather shockingly, going on to explain that the bits you feel most attached to in any piece of writing are often the very ones you need to excise without mercy for the ultimate good of the whole.
As in writing, so in public utterances of any kind, where what is omitted can be more crucial than what is said; and what is said might have remained better unsaid, or at least phrased differently. Yet few public figures, even the most seasoned ones, are wise enough to keep it constantly in mind that words can take on wings and fly away to echo back in ways the speaker never dreamed of.
THESE THOUGHTS were occasioned by a recent segment I saw of Conflict Zone, a one-on-one interview show on the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle’s international English-language channel DW. Hosted by award-winning British television journalist Tim Sebastian, the interviewee was Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who held his own politely but firmly in the face of aggressive questioning about Israel’s treatment of its Arab population.
To judge whether Bennett was being subjected to an unduly harsh critique, I watched another recent Sebastian interview with Qatari Foreign Minister Khalid al-Attiyah on the issue of human rights in his country, and concluded that the hard-hitting interviewer’s approach is to take the name of his show rather literally, creating a verbal conflict zone between himself and his invitees.
Sebastian’s modus operandi includes citing, without context, controversial quotes from leaders of the interviewee’s country that his guest must then defend or parry to the best of his ability.
To this end, among a number of controversial quotes, Sebastian confronted Bennett with President Reuven Rivlin’s telling a group of Israeli academics a year ago that, as Sebastian read from his notes, “Israel is sick with racism... horrified by the thuggishness that has permeated the national dialogue.” I couldn’t trace Rivlin using the actual words Sebastian cited, but the president certainly did go on record categorizing Israel as a “sick society,” ill with “a disease that we must treat.”
This categorical description led the left-wing Haaretz newspaper to ask in a headline: “Is Israel’s president an anti-Semite?” opining that “if he was an American politician, he’d probably be forced out of his job.”
THE CONTEXT of Rivlin’s remarks in October 2014 was the opening session of a conference entitled “From hatred of the stranger to acceptance of the Other.”
It was held against the backdrop of an escalation of tension and animosity between Jews and Arabs in the wake of a painful and bloody summer which saw Israel at war with Hamas in Gaza.
At the conference the president urged participants to continue the vital task of seeking to reduce violence in Israeli society by encouraging dialogue and the study of different cultures and languages with the aim of promoting mutual understanding between the various communities.
During his interview with Bennett, Sebastian provocatively harked back twice to Rivlin’s “sick society,” stressing that no less an authority than Israel’s president had thus defined us.
This was one of the few instances in the interview where I felt Bennett failed by not explaining that it is characteristic of Israelis to be hypercritical of their own actions, beating themselves up endlessly over their real and perceived moral shortcomings. He might have advised the somewhat hectoring Sebastian that others in the region might do well – as would the cause of peace – to emulate the soul-searching that goes on in large swathes of Israeli society, and not only among the Left.
NO ONE disputes the existence of anti-Arab feeling in certain sectors of our society and there have been some horrifying manifestations of that animosity – all roundly condemned by Israeli officialdom and by every clear-thinking citizen.
When Sebastian confronted Bennett with a report from Israel’s Economy and Trade Ministry saying that racism increased dramatically by more than 120 percent in the first half of this year, the education minister gave his reply against the background of the current wave of stabbings and car-ramming attacks on innocent people by Palestinian terrorists.
“I can understand,” he said, “even if I don’t accept, the fear of a Jew that the person [standing] next to him will murder him.”
Israeli Arabs have also expressed their fear of reprisals by enraged citizens, and at least one young woman interviewed said she was afraid that some in her community might manipulate her into participating in an act of terrorism.
AT THE conference, as president, Rivlin had every right, and possibly duty, to point to the dangerous lack of mutual understanding in our society – and not just between Arabs and Jews – and to urge the fostering of tolerance among its diverse sectors in our small country which sometimes feels like a pressure-cooker rocking under full steam.
But his blanket painting in 2014 of the Israeli nation as a “sick society” continues to tarnish every member of our country – Sebastian brought up that characterization no less than three times during his interview of Bennett, one year later – as well as providing ammunition to the many real anti-Semites out there who gleefully seize on such juicy fodder to fuel their machinery of hate.
Our president, mindful of the weight his words carry, should have left that across-the-board labeling out of his speech.
Had I attended the conference, I would have asked President Rivlin and anyone who agreed with him: If Israel is a sick society, then what term would you employ to describe Syrian society, Iraqi society, Saudi society and the society of virtually every other country in a region where Israel is the only democratic entity, a society where people can freely speak their minds?
LEST ANYONE think I am picking on our president, who is a man of admirable qualities with a genuine desire to see a better society and a better world, I should add that his was not the only controversial quote Sebastian brandished under Bennet’s nose.
He cited deputy religious services minister Eli Ben-Dahan opining in a Ma’ariv interview that the souls of all Jews are higher than those of Christians or Muslims or anybody else. I must say it is a great comfort to know that we have among us a being who is privy to the hierarchy of souls.
The deputy minister, too, could use a bit of soulsearching before he opens his mouth. As, no doubt, could we all.