When Vladimir Putin or Donald Trump refers to internal political rivals, opposition voices, and journalists as provocateurs, fifth columnists, and enemies of the people; there is little surprise. Putin’s repressive regime and Trump’s aspirations to authoritarianism thrive on negating, slandering, and if possible punishing voices who challenge their claims to power. All dissidence and dissonance are perceived by them as traitorous. Putin and Trump are heirs to those political traditions that prefer the cult of character to the cultivation of democratic culture, and the closing of public debate to a vigorous and civil argument over the core issues that will determine who we are and who we want to be.
Member of Knesset Bezalel Smotritch, the leader of Israel’s National Religious Party, figuratively joined Putin and Trump when at a conference of the ‘Ad Kan’ organization; he accused a wide variety of progressive and left movements and organizations as ‘existential threats to the state of Israel.’ Movements like ‘Four Mothers’ who spearheaded the public campaign for the Israeli pullout from Lebanon, and ‘Peace Now’ – a stalwart champion of a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict were named as organizations undermining Israel and its security. In addition, MK Smotrich made the claim that these organizations are funded and driven by foreign political interests; mainly European, and do not represent an authentic voice in the Israeli political landscape.
The accusations employed by MK Smotrich and his ilk are not new. Pointing to political opponents as outsiders and strangers is a classic tool of antidemocratic regimes. MK Smotrich’s political colleagues want to squash diversity and so they finger alternative voices as enemies of the people. They claim that the spirit of the nation and the voice of God are only understood in their corner of the political arena. Debate and compromise with alternative outlooks are impossible because at their very core – those alternatives are seen as essentially illegitimate. Tolerance is not a virtue that can be abided by would- be warriors who believe they are fighting a sacred crusade.
The accusations made about foreign funding of left-leaning organizations, and it’s use as a trope to delegitimize their activities and paint them as dupes of the enemies of Israel is ludicrous when one recalls that right wing activities in Israel also benefit from a flow of money from well wishers outside of Israel. Jewish organizations, evangelical sources, and others with conservative and right-wing agendas invest funding in Israel in think tanks, policy institutions, NGO’s, and in the expansion of the settlement project in Jerusalem’s mainly Palestinian neighborhoods and beyond the Green Line. MK Smotrich and his backers would not have the political clout that they have amassed without that foreign support. What they deem legitimate political expression and support for their plans and purposes are labeled as traitorous when used by groups with alternate political visions.
Umberto Ecco, in his ‘Inventing the Enemy’ reminds us that negative identities, models of self-perception that rely not on internal confidence and healthy self-worth, would starve without magnifying the existence of enemies both real and imagined. The image of an enemy becomes the bogeyman that extremists and authoritarians use to scare people from non-conformity, and from doubt that Putinesque and Trumpian tactics and strategies may not be the wisest towards achieving the best that we can be. In that same essay, Ecco conjures the Roman historian Tactitus. Tacitus is celebrated as one of ancient Rome’s finest orators, public intellectuals, and historians. Tacitus was also an antisemite, branding the Jews as enemies of humanity, as the enemy of all good. “All things that are sacred for us are profane for them, and what is impure for us is lawful for them”
An Israeli politician whispers into the ear of a leading rabbi that ‘The left has forgotten how to be Jews.” A prime minister fails to congratulate Israeli citizens taking advantage of their democratic right to vote on election day. He denigrates the validity of their vote and their very status as human beings by referring to them as a ‘stampeding herd.’ Sad, frightening, and infuriating when the contemporary Israeli public debate seems to borrow so much from a heritage of odium that targeted the Jews as one of its main victims for so many centuries. It seems that there are those who are prepared to shout to rooftops about peoplehood and unity– yet at the same time they refuse to live up to those words. They elevate themselves and their victories by tearing down their fellow citizens. And the circle of animosity is expanded – the left, the Arabs, the immigrants, the LGBTQ community, the journalists, the courts, the police – until dystopia is achieved and our social-political reality becomes a shouting match of insult and blame, rather than a restrained argument of how each one of can contribute to bettering our shared futures – even if we do not agree or even like each other.
At the beginning of November, Israel marked twenty-seven years since the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin by a law student who held that all those who supported an attempt to reach a painful and negotiated settlement with the Palestinians were enemies of Israel and traitors to God. It made no difference that Yitzchak Rabin devoted his life to the defense of the Jewish people and the State of Israel. It made no difference that Yitzchak Rabin was a Prime Minister heading a democratically elected government. It made no difference that democratic politics relies on a rejection of verbal and physical violence, and on an underlying faith that there is a profound difference between legitimate, deep-seated political rivalry; and enmity that places fellow citizens beyond the pale. It is also no coincidence that MK Smothrich stood at the Knesset podium earlier this month and accused Israeli security services of negligence and complicity in Prime Minister Rabin’s assassination. Like President Trump blamed American security services including the FBI, the CIA, and the Secret Service to cover up his own incompetence and malicious behavior; MK Smotrich did not hesitate in calling into question the integrity of one of Israel’s most important security arms and the men and women who serve Israel valiantly.
The Economist – not a journalistic organization with a reputation for being bleeding heart or lily-white liberal – describes Israel as a flawed democracy. Israel receives high marks because of its system of checks and balances, it’s system of free and open elections, and the existence of a fierce, multi-vocal public debate. In fact, Israel’s grade as a democratic country even surpasses that of many other Western democracies, including in some years that of the United States of America. With that said, politicians, legal professionals, writers, academics, rabbis, and educators need to stand guard over Israeli democracy. Democracy is about the rule of the majority. Democracy is not about the tyranny of the majority. Practices of civility measured argument, and tolerance especially for voices that we disagree strongly with are the muscles that need repeated exercise if democracy is to be bolstered. One cannot learn to play guitar, or learn a new language, or become a consummate professional without a discipline of practice and exercise. We cannot expect that becoming a less-flawed democracy will come without a similar discipline of practice, exercise, and observance.