I was thirteen, and sitting in a tent. The word “unity” was written over my head, and the reality of unity was tangible around me. Russian-speaking secular Jews chatted with religious settlers wearing yarmulkes. Former Chief Justices and prominent politicians rubbed shoulders with young parents and tourists. People from all over Israel came to meet each other and talk.
The tent was both an act of protest and a declaration of principle. Prime Minister Ehud Barak was in Camp David, negotiating with Yasser Arafat. My father, Natan Sharansky, thought that Barak’s narrow coalition didn’t have the authority nor the ability to form a peace agreement. Such an agreement, he claimed, must represent Israeli society as a whole. The time has come for a unity government.
When the prime minister refused to consider this option, my father’s party quit the government. They walked over to the grassy park across the street from Barak’s office and set up the unity tent. And they invited all Israelis to join them. If you believe in the necessity and the possibility of a broader social accord, they announced, come to our tent.
And over the next ten days, many people did.
On that particular afternoon, a group of elderly sheikhs answered the call. They sat in the tent, striking in their white robes and colorful kafiyas, and brought with them an air of quiet dignity. A passerby noticed them, changed colors, and started to yell. “Traitors,” she screamed, looking straight at me. “Damn leftists! Traitors! Backstabbers!”
I tried to placate her. I tried to explain that we stood for unity and discussions across political divides, not for this or that political agenda. But she didn’t even stop to draw breath. She just kept yelling, her spit spraying my face. “Don’t bother,” said a family friend eventually, and pulled me away. “Such people don’t come here to listen.”
And she was right. Some people don’t want to listen. They don’t want to engage with different opinions. They want to silence and delegitimize the opposition instead.
That sunny July afternoon stayed on my mind over the years. And when I watched Im Tirtzu‘s controversial video clip attacking Israeli Human Rights activists as “moles,” I felt like I was a shaken thirteen-year-old all over again.
By refusing to listen, the woman who yelled at me that day rejected more than our association with Arabs. She rejected the very idea that our tent represented: discussions and engagement that transcend camps and divides. She didn’t want to discuss anything. She just wanted to yell.
By portraying their opponents as fifth columnists and traitors, instead of engaging with their arguments, Im Tirtzu made the same choice. And they’re not the only organization to do so. When Peace Now portrayed all right-wing individuals as inherently stupid and simplistic in their “It’s so fun to be a right-wing” video clip, they conveyed the same rejection of discussion. Sure, they didn’t call for a silencing of the right-wing camp. But if all the people on the other side are idiots by definition, why bother talking to them in the first place?
God created the world using words, teaches the book of Genesis. And in a way, so do we.
Im Tirtzu calls the left immoral, and Peace Now calls the right stupid. The net effect is the same: both create a polarized world of people who attack instead of engaging, dismiss instead of asking, generalize instead of conversing.
They create the world of the yelling woman, and this world is a bleak, dangerous place.
“Difference of opinion leads to enquiry, and enquiry to truth,” wrote Thomas Jefferson in 1815. In the world of the yelling woman, what will lead us to enquiry and truth? What will challenge our ideas?
Civil society can’t solve its problems when everything is partisan. In the world of the yelling woman, one camp’s suggestion will automatically become the other’s object of scorn. Remember when the US government was shutdown over Obamacare? Can we afford to be stuck like that in a region like ours?
Over the years, I have met people from many camps and affiliations, and I have learned from them all. In the world of the yelling woman, these friends and encounters would have been impossible. My life would have been monochromatic and flat.
Much of the public discourse over the past week is leading us in that direction. But we don’t have to accept that kind of world. Words and discourse are a matter of choice. We don’t have to use words that dismiss and delegitimize. .
We can choose to use words like “why” and “I disagree because” and “let’s discuss” instead.
We can choose the kind of words that allow for shades of gray.
We can choose to say, “I respect you even though I disagree.”
Words create worlds. Faced with toxic videos and virulent online attacks, we can still create the world of engagement. The choice lies with each and every one of us, as we enter discussions and social media debates.
We can succumb to the world of yelling people, or we can create the world of the tent.