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Drawing the line between speech and violence

The decline of political civility damages democracy. Yet there is still a difference between offensive speech and violent actions.

A 2012 memorial ceremony to commemorate the 17th anniversary of the assassination of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
A 2012 memorial ceremony to commemorate the 17th anniversary of the assassination of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

In Israel, it’s a yearly debate. Every year on the anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin’s tragic assassination, some on the left and the right repeat the same argument they’ve been having about whether current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s fiery speeches denouncing the Oslo Accords were in some way responsible for encouraging the assassin.

A 2012 memorial ceremony to commemorate the 17th anniversary of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination. Credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.

This year was no different, as Rabin’s grandchildren again accused Netanyahu of incitement against their grandfather before his murder, including falsely accusing his office of issuing a contemporary tweet accusing the late prime minister of being a “traitor.” In the Knesset, opposition leader Tzipi Livni accused Netanyahu and the right of incitement while, in turn, the prime minister and his defenders noted the calls for violence against him from the left.

The charge, still deeply felt by the grieving Rabin family, is unfair. Netanyahu never personally encouraged violence. He had every right as the leader of the opposition to advocate against policies that he believed to be misguided—a stand that was, alas, vindicated by subsequent events. The only person responsible for that heinous crime was the murderer and those who might have stopped him.

The issue is as relevant today in both Israel and the United States as it was in 1995.

The bombs sent to various figures in the Democratic Party, as well as other critics of U.S. President Donald Trump, such as actor Robert De Niro and the CNN studios, have shocked Americans. As we learn more about the alleged perpetrator, it raises the issue of whether there is a direct link between contentious and increasingly uncivil political debate and actual violence.

The problem with this discussion is that there is no shortage of ammunition for both sides in our increasingly partisan political culture to blame each other for what’s happening.

At the top of the list of those guilty of incivility is, of course, the president. His speeches at campaign rallies and Twitter account are a source of nonstop contempt of and verbal abuse towards political opponents, including seeming to condone those against protesters and the press. Trump is also dead wrong to use the Stalinist phrase of “enemy of the people” when referring to journalists, even if the brazen bias of many mainstream outlets ensures that an unhealthy war between right and left about the free press will continue.

There is no excuse for Trump’s behavior. But we also know that Trump is not alone in encouraging uncivil behavior.

In recent months, his opponents in both the “resistance” and the leadership of the Democratic Party have at times seemed to encourage the same spirit of angry intolerance for opponents. People like Sen. Cory Booker, Rep. Maxine Waters, former Attorney General Eric Holder and even Hillary Clinton have endorsed incivility or encouraged the harassment of Republicans and administration officials.

Hypocrisy in this discussion is widespread as both sides see only the faults of their opponents and not on their own side. But can there be a worse example than The New York Times? It has continuously editorialized against Trump for speech that it believes incites violence. Yet this Sunday, in its weekly Book Review section, it will publish a series of essays by prominent novelists in which they were asked to imagine Trump’s demise. One of them, by the writer Zoe Sharp, was a lurid fantasy in which Trump is assassinated.

Nor is this the only instance in which fictional violence against the president was promoted. In addition to comedians joking about Trump’s death, last summer, New York City’s venerable Shakespeare in the Park series staged a version of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, in which the Roman dictator was depicted as a Trump look-a-like allowing audiences to cheer the “resistance” as assassins struck down the stand-in for the president.

The same people who smirk and cheer at such incitement are ready to damn Trump for his willingness to encourage attacks on the press and those who protest him. Yet those who are quick to connect the dots between Trump and extremist right-wing violence dismiss any links between the incendiary rhetoric heard on the left and violence against conservatives, such as the attack by a Bernie Sanders supporter on Republican members of Congress during a baseball practice.

The only sane response to all of these incidents, especially to this week’s mail bombs, is for everyone to realize that the cycle of rhetorical demonization is taking a toll on our society. The recent publication of a study called “Hidden Tribes,” which traces the source of polarization to the way partisans on the left and right have seized control of our political culture, tells us a lot about not only the way politics, as opposed to race or class, is dividing us. Social media and the breakdown of communities have also changed the way we interact, particularly with those with whom we disagree. Neither side seems to consider that their opponents might be right, and so interpret everything that happens as proof that their foes are wrong. Doubts about your side are banished, as is a willingness to credit your opponents with good motives. We forget that agreeing to disagree is an essential element of a functioning democracy.

To ask that we put aside political absolutism and re-embrace notions of civility does not mean that we should be silent about what we think is right. Political speech—whether civil or uncivil, conservative or liberal—is both necessary and deserving of absolute protection. Nor is it fair to blame crimes committed by disturbed individuals on those whom they support. There is a big difference between Netanyahu and Trump, just as there is a big difference between failed bomb threats and an actual assassination. But just as Rabin’s death reminded Israelis  of the necessity to stand against violence, so must Americans contemplate the cost of the path we are heading down when we embrace figures, whether in Trump or the “resistance” that hates him, who push us towards greater anger and intolerance.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS — Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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