I try my best not to write about politics, but nothing gets my blood up like seeing the word “extremist” in every other article that I read in the press. I am of course referring to the recent torrent of stories (news reports, mind you, not opinion pieces) lamenting the latest political merger between the Jewish Home party and the Otzma Yahudit party. I want to emphasize that I have no desire whatsoever to comment on the actual merger or the political platforms of either party.
I will explain. First, the extreme or mainstream nature of a position says nothing about its merit, so calling people “extremists” pejoratively is simply misguided. It is, however, understandable that this point gets lost in the fast-paced news cycle. What I think makes name-calling more sinister is that it obviates the need to engage in any meaningful way with the actual opinions, political platforms, and ideas that one disagrees with.
The tactic of affixing a pejorative label to an opponent, which automatically designates him as out of bounds and marked for destruction, was first successfully cultivated in Marxist propaganda, and has been zealously deployed by ideologues everywhere, but particularly by the left. Why debate ideas, when it is so much faster to tack on a Marxist epithet (pick one: extreme, racist, counter-revolutionary, fascist, capitalist, imperialist, far right, etc).
This method for silencing opponents has been so thoroughly absorbed by the left that it is deployed without any awareness of demagoguery. Enough to spend some time at a university, no matter your political leanings: a conservative professor of history will tell you that he is teaching history from a conservative point of view. A leftist professor of history will admit only to speaking God’s truth (usually to power). Similarly, ideologues on the left all too frequently refuse to dignify right-wing ideas, which are actually a legitimate matter of opinion, with debate. So much easier to condemn the mere thinking of right-wing ideas as contemptible and probably racist.
Only such a blissful lack of self-awareness can account for the head of Meretz, a party polling at around the same percentage as Otzma Yehudit, roughly 4% give or take, routinely deploying the “extremist” charge against the agenda of the New Right, Jewish Home, Otzma Yahudit, National Union, the Likud, and anyone else they don’t happen to agree with. Even together with Labor, also bottoming out at around 4% in some polls, political parties that self-identify as the Israeli left represent a dismal percentage of the votes, as compared to roughly half of the electorate on the so-called “hard right.” Who’s the extremist here?
I was always amused by the writing style that I perceived many years ago as somewhat unique to one of Israel’s major newspapers, of not even mustering the energy to denounce ideas and platforms they disagreed with. Their opinion writers would simply list the policies (e.g. holding the judiciary more accountable) assuming that their readers already agreed with them to such an extent that simply mentioning the proposal would discredit the politician making it. This intellectual laziness has since become the norm. One wonders, however, whether the arrogance of labeling political opponents as extremists whose ideas do not merit careful analysis and debate, isn’t what has led to the melt-down of the left in Israel and elsewhere.
Full disclosure: this whole extremist business actually prompted me to youtube-google Rav Meir Kahane. I won’t comment on what I heard, but what stuck me the most is the abundance of fascinating videos from the 80s in which news anchors and opponents engage with him in respectful, sensible, and informative debate, seemingly for hours on end (I didn’t have time to watch the clips start to finish). I would never thought I’d say this, but I think that I have discovered a cultural norm from the 80s that actually deserves our admiration.