Yael Wissner-Levy

Words Matter: The Untapped Power of Rhetoric in Preserving Israel’s Democracy

It’s been a heartbreaking, heart wrenching 11 weeks in Israel. The polarization, distrust, and sheer disappointment between the pro and anti judicial overhaul camps, the disconnect between the people and the elected officials, the moral turmoil our security leaders are thrust into – all are accelerating at an unbelievable and frightening pace. 

I- together with my family, friends, and neighbors-  am out protesting twice a week. Texting ministers on WhatsApp, attempting to appeal to their common sense. Listening to academic expert panels; engaging in water cooler discussions and scouring the Internet to hear others’ opinions. Last week I went marching with hundreds of brave women as a handmaid- a haunting experience that even Margaret Atwood, the author of the apocalyptic book-made-hit-tv-series, tweeted about. 

Over 60 percent of Israelis have said they’re against the proposed reform- really a judicial overhaul- yet week after week legislation has been cascading forward, aiming to get the anti-democratic amendments approved before the self imposed Passover deadline (April). 

And now we are here. Two weeks away from doomsday, and it feels like rock bottom, with the country divided and broken. What’s there left to do, besides continuing to demonstrate, around the world, and speak out against the rushed, aggressive, and damning legislation? Despite the outcry of world leaders, Nobel laureates, economic and legal experts, and former and current heads of Israel’s top security establishments, all of whom have pleaded to tread with caution, and put the brakes on the legislation to first sit down and talk. 

It’s time for our coalition leaders to speak up. Words matter, and as a persuasive weapon as old as time, words can be extremely effective.

Instead of labeling the tax-paying, military-serving,  citizens “anarchists” or “terrorists” – start treating them as fellow brothers (and sisters), something our Minister of Finance Bezalel Smotrich tweeted at the start of the protests. Brothers? ( and sisters, my addition). Hardly. Start by using your words to build bridges, and don’t make us enemies of the state. 

Our Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who the Economist coined “King Bibi” just four years ago, this week questioned whether the revered leader was actually the man in charge for the country’s impending destruction. The very Netanyahu who is a master wordsmith, a globally renowned orator, who for decades has used the art of the spoken word to defend Israel on the international stage, is very knowingly and pointedly using his power to deepen the divide of his own people, pinpointing the protestors at the same level of threat to national security as Iran, or terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas.

Those who were elected into power, from those whose silence equals their complacency, to those who never miss an opportunity to gain some extra political capital from their base of supporters with an inciting sneer – time’s up. It’s on you to change the narrative, and change the rhetoric. You don’t have to agree with the protestors; after all, we still are a democracy – but it’s dangerous and unprecedented to incite against us. It’s on you to start mending the shattered fragments of our country and its nearly irreversible damage by first using words of unity and acknowledging and understanding the differences in opinion. 

Craft your statements to understand the pain and distraught of “the other side.” Speak publicly about it, not only behind closed doors. Explain your intentions behind the so-called reform and why it’s so crucial in your eyes. History has proven that non violent campaigns are usually resolved with words. People on both sides know that some sort of compromise will need to be reached, whether or not under the President’s guise, but in today’s political climate, compromise is a dirty word. How can those in the streets give up on their demands against the powerful coalition that time and again calls them “anarchists” or as Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi dismissed protesting military heroes and told them to “go to hell.”

As the cliche goes, with great power comes great responsibility. The governing coalition has just about lost every ounce of trust and legitimacy with the people, and they’re using the most poignant weapon – their words- to sharpen the divide. Surely the opposition leaders have responsibility as well- but in such an imbalanced field of power, the buck stops with the coalition.

No one on the protesting side will blindly put down their demands. No one will simply stop bringing themselves and everyone around them to the streets to defend democracy. But if we are ever going to start treating the bleeding wounds these few months have opened, it starts with those in power respecting the other side as the brothers and sisters they claim to be. 

Roads blocked, some protesters attacked, in mass demos against overhaul; 21 arrested | The Times of Israel
Credit: AP

The words said today will haunt these leaders forever. They will be their legacy. Once upon a time, there used to be a saying that today’s news is tomorrow’s fish wrap. That’s long been disputed – and with social media, nothing is forgotten. Our elected officials would be wise to use their time in the limelight to speak with the people – from Holocaust survivors to our next generations-  waving Israeli flags and defending democracy with respect and compassion. Words matter, and the first coalition member to realize that will forever change their legacy – and possibly open an opportunity for real dialogue. 

Yael Wissner-Levy is a former speechwriter for Israeli politicians and current Vice President, Communications at Lemonade .

About the Author
Yael Wissner-Levy is a former speechwriter for Israeli politicians and business leaders, and currently the Vice President, Communications at Lemonade. .
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