For the past three days, I had the pleasure of attending the Herzliya Conference. When I skimmed over the program book, one event immediately caught my eye- a political debate about the peace process with the heads of five of Israel’s major parties. Yair Lapid, Naftali Bennett, Tzipi Livni, Issac Hertzog, and Gideon Saar were slated to go head to head in a genuine argument. While the speakers came with vigor and all the great sound bites required to get their pictures on the front page of newspapers, what struck me were the tactics used by Naftali Bennett and how ill-equipped the rest of the political spectrum is in combating them.
Despite the event’s great promise, the result was anything but debate. In its most basic sense, debate is meant to be the exchange of ideas through balanced, critical discourse. This event had each speaker come up one at a time with a prepared speech. There was virtually no engagement or rebuttal. Most of the speakers weren’t even present in the room before or after they gave their speeches.
Beyond the structural issues, one could immediately recognize a certain style of each politician. Only one speaker, Naftali Bennett, had a style radically different than the other participants. His debate technique started hours before the event when hordes of Jewish Home party members poured into the conference to hand out booklets about his plans for peace. This pre-debate reading material looked like the kind of propaganda you would read in a Leon Uris book (I’m a big fan, but lets be honest). It was chock-full of oversimplified maps and one sided narratives you rarely see in modern academia. None of the other participants brought reading materials to push their political agenda because that’s not what discourse is. If one opinion is better than another, it will win out in the market place of ideas. That is the splendor of not just real debate but general liberal democracy. Unfortunately, Bennett’s unusual techniques didn’t end there.
When the self-proclaimed “brother to every Israeli”, Naftali Bennett, came to the podium, like the speaker before him, he was pushing his agenda sound bite after sound bite. The only difference was that, after (what seemed like) every sentence, there was a roar of applause from a small but formidable group of people sitting in the right side of the room. The applause was loud and aggressive, even sometimes taking away from the speaker himself. The others in the audience would politely look back with disapproving eyes but it made no difference to this small group.
Then I noticed that these people that were viciously clapping for Bennett were the same people handing out the flyers he created for this event. In a well-coordinated effort, he bussed his cronies to the conference to cheer for him. When Yair Lapid gave his speech, the audience was silent. He said he would collapse a government that would annex parts of the West Bank- no applause. He diverged from a recent cabinet decision by suggesting that Israel should negotiate with the new Palestinian unity government- not a peep from the audience. The reason wasn’t because people didn’t agree with his ideas. On the contrary, as I would find out later, most people in the room fell in line with his politics. The audience was simply respecting the discourse of the conference and being politically correct.
I don’t know why Bennett bused in his staff. Maybe he thought if people clapped it would give his ideas legitimacy. Maybe he just needed some emotional support from his employees. Or maybe, Naftali Bennett thought he could debate just like he governs- with zero respect for established norms and democratic principals. It seems like even the means are similar in the two situations, with both his debate and politics employing shallow coercion and the assaulting of citizens with misinformation in order to legitimize mob mentality.
After Naftali, Tzipi Livni came up to speak. As she got to the podium, one of the Bennett fanatics sneered, “A women is really going to bring peace?”- I’m not making this up. This is the kind of belligerence that mob mentality inevitably brings. When she started her speech, she said after hearing Bennet speak that now more than ever she was tired of political correctness. She boldly stated that the settlements are a burden, costing us billions of shekels, the lives of our soldiers, and critical standing in the international community. After she said this, one man in the row in front of me began clapping. Livni didn’t hire this man; he was just tired of political correctness the other side never seems to burden itself with. Once this man started clapping, the room exploded with applause save the few Bennet lackeys on the right of the room, who now, relative to the awakened audience seemed infinitely smaller. The majority in the room, which was silent for so long just needed a little spark to set itself off.
The audience of this conference was nothing short of a picturesque metaphor for the state of Israel. Whether right or left, 74% of Israelis disagree with Bennett’s main platform by believing in a two-state solution. But just like his political platforms, his debating style is undemocratic and illiberal, which often makes him seem far more powerful and legitimate in the eyes of Israeli society than he actually is. Just like Livni and the first brave man to clap for her, most of us are fed up with the smoke-and-mirrors tactics of the far right and the tepid response that we afford it. Peaceniks, liberals, lefties, moderates, centrists, and center-rightists must acknowledge that we are tired of being politically correct and wake up! Because Bennett doesn’t care whether or not your feelings are hurt and it’s through that intimidation and coercion that he gains his legitimacy. What I saw in that auditorium wasn’t applause – it was revolution. Reasonable people are willing to take back politics. Slapping your hands together while in a seated position seems meaningless, but it is a distinct sound in the roaring cacophony of change. Until people like Bennett are willing to engage in honest discourse the majority must clap loudly, whenever it can.