Eilon Schwartz

Between racists and traitors

Change will emerge only from a politics of empathy that allows the right and left to start hearing one another

It didn’t take very long for the left’s relief at the election results to give way to the usual demonization of those who disagree. Post-election, the target is no longer Shelly Yachomovitch, but rather Yair Lapid, with his meteoric rise to center stage. From “pretty-face lightweight,” to “Bibi lite,” to “our local racist who is a continuation of the politics of no less than Yigal Amir,” the list of insults grows daily. And the attacks are not only on Lapid, but on those who voted for him: a collectivist horde who abhor criticism, are self-absorbed, live in a land with no Arabs, or are for the most part simply a bunch of idiots. This combination – of alienation and despair on the one hand, smugness and superiority on the other – is exasperating.

It is telling that the political dynamic here in Israel, while having unique features, resembles the political dynamic in so many other countries. John Haidt, psychologist and the author of the bestselling book The Righteous Mind, has given us powerful tools to explain our political dynamics. Cross-cultural research in moral psychology is dramatically conclusive, he shows, finding similar patterns distinguishing leftists and rightists across cultures and countries. Put simply, the leftist camp connects deeply with values of care and fairness, is strongly individualistic, and has universalist predilections. The religious and political right, it turns out, also value care and fairness, but their moral sensibilities also include values of loyalty and authority, with a strong sense of responsibility and group identity, and a clear definition of the enemy which threatens the group’s well-being.

Research suggests that all of these values have their roots in our biological beings, evolutionary adaptations which strengthened survival. They are part of all of our psychological make-ups, and cultures have shaped them in different ways and different directions, emphasizing some and devaluing others. No less importantly, studies show that these are pre-rational values, meaning that they are intuitive, and are barely susceptible to rational arguments aimed at changing them. A debate of ideas rarely convinces anyone. We simply find rationalizations for intuitions that we already hold. And these intuitions are very different from one another.

How does Haidt’s research map onto Israeli politics? It shouldn’t be surprising that the threat to Israel’s security from its Arab neighbors accentuates group loyalty among those who are already sympathetic to such loyalties, and sees those that undervalue those loyalties as mistaken at best, traitors at worst. And it shouldn’t be surprising that group loyalty often makes its adherents indifferent or antagonistic also to Arab citizens of Israel, especially when they articulate their opposing group loyalty. Lapid’s disparaging rejection of a bloc with Arab political parties by stating that he won’t make any political deals with “Hanin Zoabis,” referring to the Arab Balad Party Knesset member, is seen as a racist remark as one moves to the left on the political spectrum. But for the right it is a sign of loyalty to the group against those who threaten it. Naftali Bennett presented his group loyalties explicitly on election night: “I’m not from the U.N., I’m not objective. I’m in favor of the Jewish People.”

Shelli Yachomovitz’s strategy, and Yair Lapid’s success, was in presenting a politics that tries to speak to that wider palate, where group loyalty matters. Each attempt was deeply flawed in its own way, but they were both attempts to appeal to a conflicted center that cares about decency and fairness, but holds a wider range of loyalties than the traditional left (Bennett, from the right, campaigned to a similar audience). Arguments from the left about the need for peace, or the evils of the occupation, rarely convince anyone. Nor, as Lapid seems to know, are demands that smack of an attack on religious identity. When those who deeply value group loyalty (while often undervaluing loyalty to others) sense that their values are not present – that Judaea and Samaria mean nothing to the other side, that religion is viewed as medieval, that articulation of threats to the group are perceived as demagoguery – no rational arguments about the value of peace or pluralism is going to change that.

We are all going to be here for a while. Maybe it is time to take democracy seriously, to understand that there are many different ways to look at reality, and that we need a politics that allows us to start hearing one another. The haughtiness of the right took a beating in this election, having ignored all too often the intuitions of care and fairness which so many Israelis share. The measured response is not to continue the culture wars. Change can come when we stop demonizing the other side, and begin to understand their values and commitments, and perhaps even to appreciate them.

“An argument in the name of Heaven” the rabbis called it, or the Golden Mean in Aristotelian philosophy, which doesn’t mean a muddied middle, but rather the proper place to occupy when balancing legitimately conflicting values. Haidt in his research shows how little we understand perspectives other than our own, and how difficult it is to articulate opposing values systems and their politics. Part of it is that we are locked into our worldviews. And part of it is that we live in our bubbles, reinforcing our sense that we hold the truth, and the other side are racists and morons, or conversely, naïve and traitors.

For the left, breaking out of its bubble, taking other moral views seriously, is a necessary condition for becoming relevant again. Empathy, not arguments, creates conversation and the possibility for change, from all sides. The democratic idea is based on the decency and reasonableness of citizens, and so rather than vilifying, it’s time that we break out of our bubbles that are so convenient and comfortable, and start taking each other’s moral universes seriously.

About the Author
Eilon Schwartz is Director of The Shaharit Institute: Building a Politics of the Common Good. He is also Senior Faculty at the Melton Centre for Jewish Education at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem