Do we need to tone down the rhetoric?

Published on Haaretz

On a recent trip to Israel, law professor Alan Dershowitz complained about the cognitive dissonance between the Israel as presented by the local media, with headlines about democracy in danger and brewing fascism, and the Israel of serious and unrestricted debate that he experienced during his stay.

The overheated rhetoric not only gives a false image to friends and foes worldwide, but feeds the international anti-Israel campaigns, Dershowitz suggested. If Israelis call their own government fascist or their society apartheid, our enemies would argue that it must be so.

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Dershowitz gives us fair warning that Israel’s delegitimizers exploit the careless use of politically-loaded epithets. And we probably should be more sensitive to the fact that our harsh self-derision sounds different to non-Israelis than it does at home. But toning down the discourse is not easy and may not always be desirable.

Israel is an in-your-face society. People prefer directness to subtlety, they tell you what they think, they talk over each other, and rudeness begins far beyond what some Americans and Europeans are used to. Israelis reject as insincere what are elsewhere considered social niceties and diplomatic language.

If a public figure in the U.S. or Europe is observed to be angry, he or she is presumed to have lost control. But here, expressing anger is often taken as a sign of passion rather than weakness. Rhetoric routinely reaches the highest decibels, and raising one’s voice is part of the patter. An outburst might quickly be followed by a rapprochement.

The etiquette of civility, which for example limits the hostilities in Republican debates to candidates challenging each other’s records and low-flame sniping, is not the norm in our political discourse. Demagoguery rules from left to right. Leaders like Yitzhak Rabin, who shunned demagogic vocal tricks and emotional manipulation, are the exception.

The escalating use of the language that disturbs Dershowitz – terms like “fascist,” “democracy-at-risk” or “apartheid state” – comes from the increasing frustration felt by many who feel that nobody’s listening. Dershowitz sees himself as fighting the good fight against those seeking Israel’s destruction, which could explain why he didn’t criticize the far more vindictive language used against the left and liberal center in the right-wing and ultra-Orthodox press: Terms like “traitor,” “abomination” “or self-hating Jew” probably do not serve the delegimitizers.

But we Israelis are operating in a different arena. Both the left and the right use alarmist discourse to stir things up, as a call to arms, to mobilize the base and to reassure that base that they are not the only ones who feel things are spinning out of control. It is deployed tactically, to link issues that may grow out of the same soil – think of the summer’s social protest or the anti-democratic legislation – or to simplify issues so it is easier to rally support. While it would be best to examine each issue in its full complexity, in most cases, neither the media nor its consumers are up to this task.

But ultimately, bombast is popular, even when inflammatory and dangerous, because the democratic process of reasoned debate that Dershowitz suggests he sees in Israel is increasingly absent from our political process. If citizens and politicians do not have the basic trust that one side will either persuade the other through discourse or reach a tolerable compromise when persuasion fails, then there is little cause for discussion. Part of our current government’s real culpability lies in its efforts to prevent reasoned debate on our most existential national challenges.

Many of us tune out scorched-earth rhetoric, yet it’s effective. Witness the protests over gender segregation. While any violence resulting from media coverage of the subject is abhorrent, the country is now debating an issue that extends from bus lines to city streets to billboards and down to some first-grade classrooms in state religious schools. It’s not likely that our citizens or leaders would have responded to less overblown reactions or more moderate commentary.

We are far from fascism, and our imperfect democracy is still operating, but eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. While we do not have to write our detractors’ tirades for them – we could, for example, side with Amos Schocken (in his piece in Haaretz English Edition of November 25, 2011 ) in making more careful distinctions, when he wrote that Israel is not an apartheid state, but that some aspects of the occupation do indeed resemble apartheid – we cannot afford to muzzle ourselves either. So long as we are still at liberty to be vigilant, we must sound the alarm when we feel the need. Our enemies will find ammunition to use against us, with or without our help.

Perhaps at this stage in our evolution, we can only begin to analyze our internal conflicts more deeply once we have finished yelling our heads off. And perhaps we need a government that seeks to promote discourse, rather than to stifle it.

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