Spiralling Towards the Extremes

In a recent speech made at the Herzliya Conference President Reuven Rivlin described the four main tribes that make up Israeli society: Secular, Religious, Haredi and Arab. His main concern is the divisions between these four groupings, and the fact that they are developing in parallel and in potential conflict with one another.

I would suggest that it is no less crucial to look at the boundaries and internal struggle that exist inside these separate groups, with respect to each tribe’s relationship to the other and their loyalty or relationship to Israel as the nation state of the Jews. Each of these groups has its form of extreme ideology, and the only people who can successfully define the boundaries of the acceptable are the members of that tribe.

Not only have we drifted from sensible debate between the different groups, we have become obsessed with undermining one another’s loyalties. By doing this we are reducing each tribe to its most extreme form, as we use the minority at the edge of left or right to define the entire tribe. All this is achieving is an amplified voice for those on the margins, gradually decreasing the room for those in the center to flourish. The more one side attacks the other on the basis of its marginal voices, the less likely we are to have each tribe clarify for itself what should be acceptable discourse and activism, and what, whilst perhaps remaining formally legal, is morally or ideologically beyond the pale.

It is no coincidence that Rivlin chose the tribal metaphor, as political camps in Israel have a tendency to act like tribes, and hence act defensively if they sense their tribe is under attack. Tribal allegiance blurs lines between centrist and extremist. This is true for left and right, Haredi and secular. Each has their touch buttons, which engenders a reflex action to close ranks.  As one example of many – see how quickly many in the national religious camp were persuaded by Itamar Ben Gvir and others about alleged severe, even outlandish mis-treatment by the Shin Bet, when that same community overwhelmingly supports and even idealizes the security services.

One could get the impression that in the current climate of confusion, the extreme ideologies might have the answer. What is actually happening is a weakening of the intellectual health and confidence of the mainstream leadership, whether secular, religious or Haredi, each in the face of its own brand of extremism. The silent majority must reclaim this ground, and the opposing camps need to give one another the space to internally define for themselves what should be legitimate, whether in the form of expression or by way of action.

Within our own families, schools, communities, and at national level it is our responsibility to nurture an open and robust environment for debate. Our strength as a society and as a democracy is not measured by the limits to free speech, but by the confidence to allow a full expression of it. Obviously being careful not to allow this to be manipulated.

Let us also be clear that not everything legal is acceptable.

Understanding this hierarchy is crucial to forming a healthier debate. How do we deal with ideas and people who fall between the two (legal and acceptable)? Academics who call ministers neo-Nazis; public figures condoning vigilante violence, if not actively calling for it; – they may fall inside the law from a formal free speech definition, but each political group needs to make clear tribal membership requires a higher than legal bar.

At what stage do extreme ideologies move beyond the pale? My gut certainly tells me that violent rhetoric and violence itself is clearly one signal, but society also needs to beware of professional provocateurs, expert at using the rule of the law for their own purpose, without the slightest respect or belief in the very same rule of law and the institutions that uphold it. These distinctions can be tricky, and lead to subjective thinking, hence caution is required before we make strident decisions that may lead to permanent rupture between sections of our people. Not every act of political stupidity need necessarily be defined as treachery or fascism.

Each ideological “tribe” has a responsibility to define its margins of the acceptable, indeed outside interference in this process damages the chances of this crucial process from happening, as it simply prompts the building of more tribal barricades limiting the very important public debate we need.

Freedom of speech, or freedom to incite?

There is much talk about freedom of speech and ideas. Indeed in the Diaspora there are constant debates around the Big Tent as a metaphor for who is considered to be legitimate partners in debating cardinal issues relating to Israel and the Jewish people. Israeli society benefits from its ability to have open and public debates on core issues, such that defining the limits of the debate becomes an important issue for those who care about the country’s future.

I have to be honest and say that I am torn between the very real passion for extending debate as far as we can, and with as many opinions as possible, and the need to check what the sensible boundaries of such debate are. At what point does the debate itself lead to counter-productive results? We certainly find ourselves in a period with little or no substantive debate, with the political leaders more focused on who their adversary may or may not be condemning, and indeed trying to prove that the other camp’s extremists are more extreme.

I wish I had some magic formula for this, but I do not. I do know that patience, a level head, an endless ability to listen is crucial. Conveners of the debate must help the vast majority of us stuck in the middle. Whilst we co-exist with different ideologies, keeping the extremes on the narrowest margins possible is to the benefit of all of us. Understanding more clearly a sensible hierarchy, between what is legal, what is moral, what is an acceptable public debate and what should not be given a platform is the precursor to a more constructive public debate. These criteria must be applied maturely and fairly by political leaders at all levels. I do not expect politicians to give up “scoring points” completely, but when called for, a no ifs no buts approach to condemnation is required, even if it is against a group or idea connected to your own tribe.

Bennet and Yachimovich on the same side

Minister Naftali Bennett made this distinction clear during the December controversy of the Duma investigation. For this he deserves credit, no matter one’s political leaning. To be clear, one-sided legislation, which is perceived by many to have political motives on the subject of freedom of speech or expression will of course have the opposite effect. The proposed NGO law falls into this category, as did some of the drafts of the National Law in the last Knesset.

MK Shelly Yachimovich took an equally admirable stance in September, when she supported ex-Yesha chair Danny Dayan, as Israel’s candidate for Ambassador to Brazil, in the face of attempts made a small group of ex-Israeli diplomats to block his appointment. They had been lobbying directly with Brazilian politicians. She made clear that in a democracy this was completely unacceptable, as well as ultimately counter-productive.

The Modern-Day Anti-Zionists

There are three ideological groups within Israel that have ostensibly anti-Zionist aims. Some have more historic beginnings than others, and indeed all choose different forms of political or ideological activism to further their ideas. It is hard to make numerical comparisons between these groups, and indeed it is not my immediate concern. What is more dramatic is the possible extent that these ideologies have over wider circles of influence and have the ability to set agendas, even if they are seen as extreme with only passive support.

On the one hand there are the hard-left ultra-universalists, who do not believe that Israel should have anything uniquely Jewish about it.  They can best be described as the “Bi-National State” supporters. Among those historically associated with this ideology would be those who formed the “Brit Shalom”, whose founders and leaders included Martin Buber, Shlomo Shocken, and Henrietta Szold. Although many considered them at the time to be non- or anti-Zionist (including Jabotinsky), they certainly self-defined themselves as Zionist. It is worthy to making the distinction between such an ideology pre-State, and those who now hold post 1948. Brit Shalom were certainly in favor of Aliya, while many bi-national state backers today are in favor of repealing the Law of Return. Clearly an important difference.

On the hard right there has formed an ideology or group of ideologies that will only recognize a Jewish state exclusively governed by the Torah and its laws. Much of this ideology was first espoused by Rabbi, MK and activist Meir Kahane, although certain outlying followers of the Kook tradition and even Chabad have become associated ideologies. Meir Ettinger, a grandson of Kahane is widely believed to lead a group of youth that is conspiring to overthrow the current system, with the intent of using violent methods to do so. While there may seem to be some overlap between this group and the Haredim, there is a crucial difference. Whilst the Haredim propose a passive strategy in waiting for the Redemption, these groups have adopted a much more pro-active view, that it is our role in history to actively accelerate the Messiah’s coming.

The third group is inspired by the teachings and writings of the Satmar Rebbe Yoel Teitelbaum, whose ideology remains that the Jewish people are obliged to wait until the Messiah before achieving sovereignty, even including if the pre-Messianic state acted in exact accordance with Jewish law. As such any cooperation with the State (receiving funds, serving in the IDF, participating in elections), is strictly forbidden. Today this ideology stretches from the Neturei Karta to the Eida Haredit in Israel, even spilling over to the followers of Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach at the extremities of the mainstream Haredi world.

What are these groups trying to dismantle?

In a classical view of Zionism (itself an idea with many expressions, the basic mission statement is to create a homeland for Jews under Jewish sovereignty. Some saw Zionism as the world’s solution to centuries of global anti-Semitism and lack of self- determination, while others see Israel as the land in which the Jews can fulfil their potential as a people. We do know that the vast majority of Israeli’s also believe in the rule of law, the idea that the country should be uniquely Jewish and that the rules of the game be based arounds the rule of law and democracy.

These are very wide parameters leaving a tremendous amount of white space to define the limits and boundaries of all these critical elements. What type of democratic system? What will make Israeli society and its legal and cultural framework uniquely Jewish? Does one see the re-establishment of Jewish sovereignty as a stepping stone to the final redemption, or a political solution to centuries of anti-Semitism and oppression of the Jews? Can one be Haredi and work within the Zionist framework? Can one hold universal views of humanism and still believe that Israel and Israelis should have some Jewish identity? Can you believe in the State as a pre-curser to the final Redemption, but compromise on State and religious issues?

Historically it was possible to straddle the identities we think of in such a black and white framework today. One of the earliest Zionists (at the time known as Hovevei Zion) was a great Haredi Rabbi, Yizchak Elchanan Spector (1817-1896), considered to be his generation’s leading Orthodox Rabbi and Halachic decisor. This did not stop him reaching the conclusion that it was important to encourage and support Aliya and the agricultural settlement of the Land of Israel. On the other side we have seen some of the former religious Zionist Rabbis moving towards the Haredi and even anti-Zionist camp. A good example is the response of Rabbi Shmuel Tal who post the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza moved ideologically from a position that was aligned with the mainstream Religious Zionist camp, to one of disapproval and withdrawal from the State. He moved to a Haredi or quasi-Haredi position. He no longer celebrates Israel’s Independence Day, nor recites the weekly prayer for the State of Israel. Even amongst the early secular proponents of the bi-national state solution saw themselves as Zionists, as would many on the hard left today.

How do the extremists muddy the waters?

What are the measures that these groupings, in their most extreme forms, are prepared to take in order to promote their ideology? We have seen violence and there is plenty of intimidation and incitement. In a bizarre, almost grotesque new finding, we have seen hard-left activists prepared to endanger Palestinians by reporting on them to the Palestinian security forces for selling land to Jews. This his allegedly even lead to their death. However we have seen extreme right violence towards Palestinians, violence towards Israel’s security forces and a great deal of incitement against those identified as hard-left haters of Israel (by their definition). In the last 3 years we have witnessed an internal Haredi campaign of incitement, which has led to a series of violent attacks on Haredi members of the IDF by ultra-extreme Haredim. Whilst the amount of actual violence remains minimal and at the edges, it is a worrying symbol of what is latent, if we do not constantly defend the borders of acceptable dialogue and behavior.

For the vast majority of Israelis, the democratic system remains the channel through which agendas are promoted and changes are achieved. Being elected to the Knesset, passing laws, creating thought leadership through writing and debating, and indeed ex-parliamentary activism are all fair game in ideological market place. It is absolutely crucial for our success that politics and the system of law maintains integrity, which means rooting our corruption and cronyism, and making sure that the legal and court system is transparent, accountable and managing a “healthy” tension between them.

Where things become murkier is the political use of state apparatus to limit other’s free-speech, recruitment of international support (private or governmental) which may not be acting out of the best interests of the country; support for violent conduct (the destruction of property or physical harm to innocent civilians), or actual violent conduct. What is the difference between supporting Tag Mechir, and saying that all Palestinians have the right to commit acts of violence against Israelis? When one MK refuses to define the possibility that Jews could be called terrorists and another refuses to denounce the knife attacks against Israeli, then the extremes are influencing the mainstream. NGO’s campaigning against Israel on foreign soil – is that bad protocol or treachery against the Jewish people (Satmar outside the UN or Breaking Silence inside the EU parliament)? Instead of the public forum as a space for debating the issues, there is a spiraling competition to paint the opposing political camp as either traitors or neo-fascists. This is the best promotion the extremists could dream of and undoubtedly helps in their recruitment program as the lines are blurred.

We control our own fate

Leader of the Opposition Herzog is as much agent of a foreign government as Prime Minister Netanyahu is a Kahanist. However this does not stop some politicians and the media from quickly slipping into these shallow descriptions. The default of politics is to make the short term political gain by demonizing the opposing side, even though creating even the impression of a nexus between Bibi and the Kahanists only strengthens the most extremist elements, in the same way as happens in the exact reverse.

It is in the interests of the 95% in the middle to marginalize those who no longer believe in the State of Israel and do not respect the rule of law.

  1. Each side of the political map needs to clarify what they are prepared to tolerate within their own big tent. The left cannot do this for the right, the right cannot do this for the left, and the secular cannot define this for the religious or the Haredim etc. The reason for this is simple. Each perceives the other as acting in bad faith when they criticize the whole camp for the views and sins of the margins. Even if the criticism is truly constructive and rational, with our polarized political culture it is hard, or near impossible to listen to one another.
  2. Whilst it is great to believe that one can surgically remove extreme elements from within a certain camp it is neither simple nor quick.
  3. On the left there is a consensus that without a two-state solution, or at least a horizon for one, it will be impossible to solve our country’s problems. For example Breaking Silence mixes a civil rights agenda with open political motives. The left can concede the very idea of “Breaking the Silence” as being important even if they disagree with the methodology. How does one go about making the distinction? This is for the left to resolve. (Recommend this opinion piece by Ari Shavit)
  4. At the same time, the nexus between Rabbis like Dov Lior and Kahanists like Gopstein leave the right with a similar challenge. Whilst Lior does not subscribe to the anti-Zionist and violent agenda of Ettinger, his support for Gopstein indirectly enhances their potential for mainstream support. (see here for excellent article by Hillel Gershuni)
  5. Whilst culturally difficult, a lack of response by the mainstream Haredi community to the Hardak campaigns etc, only weakens the wider Haredi community, exposing it to more external criticism, whilst blocking important internal changes they are cautiously navigating.

Once these political or religious groups clarify their own lines of engagement with those on their extremities, there can be a debate across ideological lines that can be fierce, but without the constant need to back each other in the corner.

Extremists always have the answers

All parts of Israeli society need to take a step back and assess the damage the extremes are having, first and foremost on those closest to them. This should be motivation enough to change the tone and nature of the dialogue, which is pushing into a spiral of demonization.

For those who hold or seek the highest national office (Bibi, Herzog, Bennet and Lapid) the goal of national leadership should actually drive them to this conclusion. The center right and center left see more questions than answers in life, whereas those at the extreme are hugely confident that they have all the answers all the time. If the leaders at the center of Israeli politics want the support and the confidence of the bulk of the Israeli population, then they will need to express the questions more clearly, and be slightly less strident about having all the answers.

The job of building Israel as a strong and secure society, with the confidence to marginalize those who seek to damage us, a job for us all. We are all parents, community members and in many cases activists or leaders, even if only within our own community. In particular leaders in education, religion and politics have a special responsibility to present the challenges and drive an honest debate about the possible solutions. Instead of driving each camp into the arms of the extremists we need to find ways to generate a dialogue of cooperation, across traditional tribal lines.

About the Author
Daniel Goldman is a social entrepreneur and the Founding Partner of Goldrock Capital, one of Israel's leading multi-family offices. Daniel is the founder of The Institute for Jewish and Zionist Research and co-chairs the Coalition for Haredi Employment. He is the former chairman of World Bnei Akiva, and immediate past chairman of Gesher.