Last week, I was privileged to participate in the fourth annual Jerusalem President’s Conference.
The brainchild of the President of Israel, Mr. Shimon Peres, the conference is a three-day public forum where noted speakers from Israel and around the world gather to exchange ideas relating to Israel and her relationship with the world at large.
Like most people, I came to the conference with pre-conceived notions about a number of the speakers. Much to my surprise, the conference succeeded in altering my perception of one public figure, President Peres himself. It was actually seeing and hearing him – live, up close and in technicolor – that made the difference.
Mr. Peres is arguably the sole Israeli politician in active service whose career spans the life of the modern State of Israel. As a close aide to Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, Shimon Peres was instrumental in setting the tone and content of the government of the fledgling Zionist State that came into being in 1948.
It has always been easy for me to blame Mr. Peres for some of Israel’s greatest failures. The most prominent of the downsides in which Mr. Peres directly played a part was the very creation of a secular state that often tramples the Jewish values that lie at the heart of the original Zionist idea.
Furthermore, Mr. Peres was responsible for the aliyah in 1949 and 1950 of the ancient Jewish community of Yemen. It is this aliyah that was made famous through pictures of young children having their side locks cut off as they were forcibly absorbed into the fabric of the socialist, anti-religious kibbutz and moshav system.
It is one thing to blame an individual for his role in the darker sides of history. But it is often all too easy to slip into demonization of those who were responsible for fiascos. They can resemble demons, driven by evil plans concocted over time and usually accomplished with any number of accomplices in crime.
Once a public figure achieves demon status, it is impossible to see anything that he or she does as good. The figure’s most basic motives are questioned, and then it becomes axiomatic that the individual is purposely trying to bring harm to one or more groups in society.
There is an antidote to this demonization syndrome: seeing and hearing the demon express his or her ideas in person. I have found that only in this manner can one see through the smoke screen of demonization and recognize that yes: the person has a true and idealistic love for what he is doing; and yes, his policies are a product of his or her understanding of the actual facts on the ground before him. They want to do the right thing, and believe that that is in fact what they are doing.
Note: no-one is saying you have to agree with everyone whose policies differ dramatically from what you think is best for the nation. Reasonable people are allowed disagree. But the direct contact like that at the conference helps evaporate the creeping perception that those with whom you disagree are incorrigible subversives who are trying to destroy what is right in the nation. This perception – this demonization – is dangerous because it dehumanizes one’s opponents, moving them from being on your side into the position of an enemy that must be fought at every opportunity.
As I listened to Mr. Peres speak, I became convinced that he really is the highest form of a true civil servant, doing everything he can do for the improvement of the lives of the citizens of Israel. Why I disagree with some of his means for getting there, I now know that Mr. Peres and I share the same love of Israel, the same respect for others, and even the same core belief in the importance of Judaism in our society.
Having removed him from the demon list, I feel confident that I can now enter into real dialog with those who share his ideas.