Emotional Social Media Stampedes and Israel’s Judicial Reform Debate
As the New Knesset session opens, Israel is a divided nation (and people) today. Perhaps not “as never before” as some claim (think of the Zionist/anti-Zionist debates of a century ago, the German reparations dispute soon after the country’s founding, or the more recent discord over the withdrawal from Sinai in 1981, the 1993 Oslo accords, the 1999 pullout from Lebanon, the disengagement from Gaza in 2005, just to name a few)… but somehow this time it seems more severe, more fateful. Why is that?
I’d like to suggest here a number of ideas which, taken together, suggest not only an explanation of how we got here, but a way out of the morass and a way forward, together. And I do so in the spirit of, and in honor of, Rabbi Leo Dee and his call for our people’s unity in the service of the good we represent (all Jews, and all humanity), and in memory of his wife Lucy and daughters Rina and Maia of blessed memory, murdered in early April by Arab terrorists while on a family trip (may God avenge their murder).
There is no intention here to argue the merits of Israel’s judicial reform itself, or to address the details of the proposed legislation. Reasonable people can debate the issues involved and the specifics of current proposed legislation – and have for over two decades, and do still. As described below, from a dispassionate analysis of the actual wording of the proposed legislation there is no justification for the heated rhetoric used to oppose (or promote) it.
In brief, I argue here that a lethal combination of (1) emotional reactions (not rational analysis) and (2) the power of a few well-placed ‘influencers’ using simplistic and inflammatory rhetoric to rile up the masses, with (3) social media’s powerful amplification of these passions, is responsible for the current impasse. A recent demonstration of the devastating effects of this combination is the recent run on Silicon Valley Bank, where a few Internet posts expressing some mild concern regarding the bank’s liquidity created widespread panic. In Israel this combination resulted in thousands turning out to protest and strike to “save democracy from dictatorship”. (There is also a similarity to what we’ve seen over the past few decades with the “apartheid“ canard about Israel taking hold in the public imagination, with even more destructive consequences.)
Therefore the way forward requires a return to logical analysis and a calming of the hysteria. To restore a sense of shared identity and common purpose, we must reject these passionate emotions, demand that our leaders refrain from extreme and hostile rhetoric and return to civilized dialogue, and reduce our reliance on, and attention to, the media.
Put even more succinctly:
Many of us seem to be suffering from, or applying, a form of ‘reverse CBT’ where we allow our emotions to affect our perceptions of reality, promoted by a number of leaders and compounded by social media accelerating the effect of a form of stampede.
- Extreme and polarizing declarations by some leaders have led to divisiveness and misunderstandings, which have engendered frustration, anger and even hatred, and have led to collective actions, and thus to further societal divide.
- Like the Silicon Valley Bank panic, prompted by a single ‘influencer’ simply suggesting attention be paid to the bank’s holdings which was magnified by social media leading to depositors’ withdrawals, in Israel we’ve seen claims of “fascism” and “dictatorship” lead to massive protests, refusal to serve, and even withdrawal of funds.
- With the negotiations facilitated by President Herzog already showing fruit, and with the Knesset session set to begin April 30th, now is the time to tone down the rhetoric, cease the demonization of opposing viewpoints, look for the good in each other, and allow the leaders now sitting together to iron out a mutually-agreeable approach to restoring the balance and democratic structure of Israel’s political and judicial system.
“Reverse Cognitive Behavioral Therapy” – Emotions dictating perceptions
In a recent article, Jonathan Haidt points to what Greg Lukianoff calls a “great untruth”: The idea that one’s emotions – especially anxieties – are reliable guides to reality. This is the central aspect of a provocative hypothesis that modern society is foisting on us a reversal of the traditional practice of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or CBT.
CBT insists that one can control one’s emotions by using our critical faculties; identifying when our feelings are influencing our assessments, including various pitfalls like “catastrophizing, black-and-white thinking and emotional reasoning”. CBT provides a method to ensure that an objective evaluation of reality can shape one’s feelings, rather than allowing our emotions to manipulate our appraisal of any given situation.
Reverse CBT takes Lukianoff’s untruth and gives it primary of place in our decision-making processes: We are lonely and feel unloved, so we interpret a friend’s backing out of a date as a rejection. (CBT would instruct us to use our understanding of the reality that our friend had another pressing obligation to help us not feel unloved.) In real life, as Haidt reports, over the past decade liberal young women in the US have suffered a pronounced deterioration in their mental health due to a form of this reverse CBT, encouraged by their universities and progressive institutions to focus on their emotions, leading to “cognitive distortions which then caused them to become more anxious and depressed than other groups.”
Similarly, in the Silicon Valley Bank collapse, the fear of financial loss (the emotion, not expert analysis of the stability of the bank as a business) affected some customers’ evaluation of the firmness of the institution, leading to their panicked demands for cash. (See below for how that fear was stoked by social media.) The issue here is one recognized as far back as the 1929 stock market crash (or even earlier in history, and in game theory): emotions like fear and the distress associated with uncertainty can lead to precipitous and unwarranted actions. And the point is the same: allowing our feelings to shape our opinion of what is real can lead to unjustified (and unjustifiable) behaviors.
Which brings us to Israel.
Over the past decade and more, in Israel and in many other western democracies, the growing influence of both traditional media and new social media platforms has transformed public discourse, and not for the better. We’ve come a long way since 1906, when Evelyn Beatrice Hall referred to Voltaire’s attitude towards political debate with the now-famous saying “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Today’s media personalities and the politicians who rely on the 24/7 media for exposure use demonization of opposing views, and those who hold them, as standard practice in the race for ratings, views and clicks.
It is true that those promoting judicial reform in Israel portray former Supreme Court President Aharon Barak’s “constitutional revolution” (his term) of the 1990s as an illegal and non-democratic “judicial coup”. But while these themes have appeared occasionally over the years, they are not dominant in today’s public discourse. Much more disturbingly, those opposing the reform legislation use harsh and hostile language constantly, claiming it will be the “death of democracy” and calling those supporting the reform “fascists” and “dictators” (and worse). Naturally, were these epithets true, they would (and should) engender the sort of fear, anger, frustration and even hatred we’ve experienced here in Israel these past few months on the part of those who oppose the reform.
But here’s the rub: they are not true. This is not the place to review the specifics of the proposed legislation; it should suffice to note three facts which support this claim:
- Almost all the ‘opponents’ of the proposed legislation have in recent years actually called for reforming the judicial system, on the record, including Yair Lapid, Gideon Saar, Benny Gantz, Tzippi Livni and many others. (Various online citations and videos demonstrate this; and others (including former Mossad head Ephraim Halevi’s recent CNN interview) confirm that the opposition is primarily against PM Netanyahu, not the reform itself – “anyone but Bibi” – another topic not the subject of this article.
- Various leading liberal/progressive (Left) legal scholars and political analysts have testified that the legislation itself is not undemocratic nor out of keeping with common practice and law in numerous other democracies including Britain, Holland, New Zealand and many others. (See for instance Alan Dershowitz: “Judicial reform will not undercut democracy”.)
- In survey after survey, when asked specifically about detailed elements of reforming the judicial system, most Israelis support many aspects of the reform, even while a majority lately do not support “judicial reform” in its entirety.
So what explains the willingness of so many thousands to spend Saturday nights outdoors protesting, or to post and argue online or in family gatherings constantly? Most Israelis opposing the reform admit they are unfamiliar with the details or wording of the proposed legislation. Therefore it’s not about the actual specifics of the reform itself; it’s all about feelings.
As evidenced in polls, media interviews and personal conversations, it is the fear of losing Israel’s democratic character, and the fear of damaging our precious civil and human rights. And more: There is an anger, and in many quarters a hatred, of the “other” (who happen to have been elected and formed a Right-leaning coalition government) – religiously observant, conservative in their thinking, hawkish on security and dedicated to the national revival of the people of Israel in our ancestral homeland.
Which is to say that opposition to the reform (analysis) and the accompanying protest actions (behavior) have been affected – or perhaps infected – by the passionate emotions among certain progressive/liberal sectors of Israeli society. And this has been induced by a form of reverse CBT on the part of the ‘leaders’ of that opposition, whereby they use the emotive and provocative language of “destroying democracy” and predictions of Israel becoming a “fascist dictatorship” to induce fear and revulsion among their followers and supporters (who are also animated by their anti-Bibi and often anti-religious dogma). The rhetoric used in these past weeks to oppose the judicial reform is more suited to an election campaign, where demonization of the ‘other’ has become part of our political lexicon to distinguish one party or politician from another; but it has no place in the democratic process of negotiation over social and legal norms and legislation.
Instead of writing, speaking and arguing about the merits of the legislation; instead of empathizing with the legitimate concerns of the reform’s proponents (concerns expressed by its opponents previously, as noted); instead of addressing the particulars of the proposals and engaging in public debate in the forums available (in parliament, academia, media etc. as in other democracies – ie. using the system as they otherwise insist it must be used when they are in power and pursue policies objected to by large segments of Israeli society), these opposition leaders incite anxiety and panic, promoting an emotional reaction rather than intellectual analysis of the lacunae of the judicial system and the actual proposals being put forward by the government.
Herd Mentality and the Impact of Social Media
Luke Burgis recently dissected just why the Silicon Valley Bank collapse happened, and especially related to the power of today’s Internet-based platforms to guide behavior, as mentioned above. In a his article, Burgis writes that “social media is a superconductor of mimetic contagion – the spread of ideas and desires in mere seconds” – and refers to social theorist René Girard’s work relating to the fact that “humans are extraordinarily powerful and sophisticated imitators. And the speed and force of that imitation increases dramatically at times of uncertainty.”
Burgis notes that “stampedes are created when people see other people running, and they don’t give much thought about why. We don’t think of Twitter like a stadium in which we can easily be trampled, but it is not too far off.” (He is focused on human nature; neither he nor I suggests that people ran to pull their funds from SVB, or go out to protest against the judicial reform, as mindless animals. The point is recognizing the formidable potency of group behavior among humans.)
The basic conceptual framework of all this is the simple power of suggestion. “It is the mere suggestion that something that is or would normally be a minor risk which has the power to amplify that same risk and set off a reflexive process whereby perception becomes reality” (my emphasis).
SVB collapsed following a few casual references by analysts that perhaps the bank’s financial underpinnings might warrant some attention, which were intensified by social media overnight and erupted into a full-scale public panic, which Burgis describes to demonstrate how “the mimetic contagion has epistemic consequences”, as he puts it. “It doesn’t matter whether the suggestion turns out to be true or false, or even the motivations of the person who made it. The effect is the same.” (Emphasis mine.)
And the power of those individual ‘influencers’ to turn those subtle suggestions into accepted wisdom – irrespective of whether that wisdom is indeed supported by the facts – is what makes today’s social media milieu so dangerous. This ‘accepted wisdom’ then affects not only how people feel (as above, afraid for their financial future or afraid for Israel’s democracy or anger at Israel’s government) but how people act (rushing to their bank or protesting in the streets or arguing viciously with their friends and neighbors).
In the Israel context, Yair Lapid, head of the Knesset opposition and one of the outspoken opponents of the judicial reform, declared at a rally in Ashdod a few weeks ago that “we won’t let Israel become a dictatorship” and “you [protesters blocking streets] are saving our democracy from fascism”. His words form the basis for the mimetic contagion which infects an entire sector of our society.
When other leaders suggest that this is the “most existential crisis Israel has ever faced”, that this reform will “eviscerate” Israel’s judiciary and will “destroy Israel’s democracy”, that “there will be civil war” (and that this is somehow justified), such demonization of the government and proponents of the reform and delegitimization of the ideas behind the reform proposals creates a contagious panic situation which defies both logic and justification. (And not incidentally, describing Netanyahu, Levin and Rotman as Nazis, fascists and dictators makes it virtually impossible for the opposition to be seen as collaborating with the devil by even attempting to play their traditional role in any democracy and to negotiate the terms of the proposed legislation.)
This demonization and delegitimization is comparable to the canards presented by anti-Israel activists, academics and politicians in Europe and the US which have manipulated public discourse about Israel, Zionism and the Arab-Israel conflict over the past five decades, in an almost classic demonstration of the mimetic contagion concept. The repeated use of anti-Israel rhetoric – presenting Israel as an “apartheid”, colonial state, its presence across the 1949 Rhodes armistice lines as “illegal” and its communities there branded as “settlements”, its defensive military operations labeled as aggression using “disproportionate force” or as “state terror” and the like – have created a sort of ‘accepted wisdom’ even among some of Israel’s supporters.
The acceptance and perpetuation of this commonly-held set of beliefs relied on both the power of suggestion (by supposed ‘experts’) and the appeal to emotions (of course modern moral societies reject apartheid and colonialism, let alone nationalism and the use of military power – the latter a topic for another time). Fortunately, at least most western nations have acknowledged that such demonization and delegitimization of Israel and Zionism and Jews – as well as holding us to a different standard than that to which other countries are held – reflect what is now recognized as the “new antisemitism”, rejected by the free world over the past two decades.
This is primarily because such claims are patently false, and thus are seen as reflective of ulterior motives (whether hatred of Jews or a desire to destroy Israel or promote other agendas is irrelevant). The same can be said of the demonization and delegitimization rampant in the rhetoric used by those opposed to the judicial reform: the claims are false, and may reflect other motives or issues, whether general antipathy towards Bibi or the government or some of its constituent parties, or a frustration with the election results, or a reluctance to relinquish political power.
This is not to say that all opposition to the proposed legislation reforming the judicial system to restore balance to Israel’s democracy is illegitimate; on the contrary, in the normal course of the parliamentary process one expects a natural give-and-take discussion of the terms of any piece of legislation. Moreover, as this topic has been a subject of vigorous public debate and multiple proposals by think tanks and academic institutions over the past few decades, as well as by former justice ministers including those mentioned above, it is clear the legislation is envisaged to be amended before passed into law (and not least given various pronouncements by the current government both before and during the recent period of growing public outcry).
But the polarizing language used by those opposed to the legislation has been so extreme as to be excessive, and the fanatic and apocalyptic tone of the rhetoric brings to mind the catastrophizing, black-and-white approaches and emotionalizing mentioned above, in a bizarre and frightening combination of reverse CBT exacerbated by our traditional and social media to create a virtual and literal stampede.
Conclusions: Respect, Rationality, Dialogue and Unity
Rabbi Leo Dee, with the same dignity and the same message we saw from the mothers of Naftali Fraenkel, Eyal Yifrach and Gilad Shaar – the three boys murdered in the hills of Hebron in 2014 – has exhorted us to restore our sense of unity even as we strive to restore our democracy. Others have of course given powerful expression to this concept. Menachem Begin’s commitment to democracy and societal concord was remarkable in his refusal to allow civil war to erupt as we fought for our independence (especially in the Altalena affair in June 1948). Shimon Peres’ joining various governments made up of opposing parties, with partners as diverse as Yitzhak Rabin, Ariel Sharon and Bibi Netanyahu, demonstrates a similar dedication to our nation’s unity.
Rav Kook was perhaps the most articulate champion of Jewish unity in our modern era. As Dr. Michael Laitman writes, Rav Kook believed that “internal division… was perceived as the root of all troubles, and he therefore emphasized that the secret of the true strength of the Jewish people is in connection, and that unity and spirituality are equal. More than once, he argued that only when we unite in love of others over the egoistic nature that erodes us, can we rise to the spiritual level and live here in peace and tranquility.”
But such lofty ideals need practical application. Rabbi Avi Weiss recently offered five simple suggestions worth our consideration if we truly seek to both foster such communal harmony and work together to ensure Israel’s continued traditions of democracy:
- Language must be used with care. While a word is a word and a deed is a deed, words lead to deeds.
- Dissent is acceptable. Delegitimization is not. No purpose is served in invalidating the other.
- The Right and Left should recognize that it has no monopoly on loving a country or its values.
- When disagreeing, we should not malign the motives of others.
- As difficult as it is sometimes to imagine, each side has what to learn from the other.
Proponents and opponents of the judicial reform should be focused on finding solutions, not attacking each other. At base, Israelis and the Jewish people must return to our traditions of respect for one another, and respect for others’ opinions; to our Talmudic and Mosaic tradition of civil debate and dialogue; to using our cognitive faculties and intellect to affect our emotions, not the other way around… and to keeping the virus of social media under control.