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Dialogue or destruction

The new Israeli government must not demonize the opposition.

Tens of thousands of Israelis protest against the proposed changes to the legal system in Tel Aviv, Jan. 21, 2023. Photo by Flash90.
Tens of thousands of Israelis protest against the proposed changes to the legal system in Tel Aviv, Jan. 21, 2023. Photo by Flash90.
Simcha Chesner
Simcha Chesner

“The First Temple was destroyed because of idolatry. The Second Temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred.” — Babylonian Talmud

The human brain transforms opponents and enemies into demons, which was undoubtedly of immense value when our ancestors lived in jungles. Unfortunately, in a pluralistic democracy, demonization may not only delegitimize the opposition but also inadvertently weaken the democratic principles of effective government.

After a cycle of inconclusive elections, the Israeli population recently elected a center-right government. The conservative or neoconservative ruling parties, although they won a clear majority, still represent less than 60% of the Israeli populace. The center-left opposition, however, representing over 40%, possesses no government authority.

The right-wing government, reflecting the frustration of much of its electorate, may see this as an opportunity to “even the score” and demonize the opposition. This would only widen the schism and the acrimonious nature of Israeli society would reach new heights of extremism.

Demonization is a process that begins with seeing the opposition as totally “other” from us. We are wise. They are ignorant. We are Zionist. They are anti-Zionist. We are rooted in Jewish tradition. They are divorced from tradition. We believe in God. They are atheists. Dichotomous thinking of this sort distances us from our brothers and sisters with different political viewpoints. It is an oversimplification of reality. In its extreme form, it delegitimizes the right of the other to exist, much less be involved in politics.

The fate of Israeli society depends on our ability to consider alternative views. We need not accept all views as equally valid and we may choose to determine policy based on a particular ideology. If we are to continue to exist as a pluralistic, democratic society, however, we must differentiate between rejecting a particular view and rejecting the individual who holds it.

The Talmud relates that Rabbi Yochanan was harassed by a group of ruffians. He complained about this to his wife Beruriah. She pointed out to him the words of the Psalmist who prays not for the elimination of sinners but the eradication of sin.

This points us in the proper direction. Although we may argue against opposing views, and even consider them sinful, we must see our opponents as individuals of ultimate value. Differentiating between one’s views and the ultimate value of the other is difficult. It requires inhibiting the habituated response of demonizing the opposition.

The ability to inhibit an aggressive response to a perceived threat is the basis of life in a democracy, as well as in our families and communities. When children and adolescents feel devalued by their parents, they naturally react with extreme forms of rebellion. This is how they ensure their psychological survival. On the other hand, when parents carefully contemplate and comprehend their children’s views, parents are capable of setting limits and saying no.

Although policy decisions ought to reflect the will of the majority, compassionate consideration of the minority view should be respected according to both democratic and Jewish traditions. Delegitimization of the minority could result in an irreparable rupture.

Politicians tend to shy away from what they perceive as “touchy-feely” dialogue, but the failure to validate others’ views, even when we disagree, results in the political opposition being viewed as the enemy, and this would herald the end of democracy and statehood.

The Talmud states that the fall of the second Jewish commonwealth was the result of “sinat chinam.” This phrase is usually understood as meaning “baseless hatred.” When Jews were not able to appreciate the values of their opponents, Jewish statehood ceased.

However, this is not an exact understanding of the term sinat chinam. In biblical and Talmudic usage, the term chinam is descriptive of value. When something has no value, it is chinam. The message of the Talmud is that while we may disagree with our opponents and commit to a policy that contradicts their beliefs, we are not to devalue those beliefs. When we devalue the other, we create sinat chinam and this ultimately leads to destruction.

We are fortunate to have a majority coalition in the State of Israel. Hopefully, the coalition will strive to implement the policies its supporters voted for. But the new government must not stumble into sinat chinam. This can only be accomplished through intimate dialogue and mutual understanding. The ability to proceed with a clear policy while studying opposing views with clear-headed compassion will determine the legacy of the current Israeli government.

Simcha Chesner received his Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Case Western Reserve University and has lived in Israel for the past 32 years. He is the founder and director of the Jacob’s Ladder schools and clinic for families coping with ADHD and associated disorders and a senior lecturer of psychology and education at Orot Teachers College.

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