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Opinion

Israel’s ‘year of elections’ has changed us, and not for the better

In this year of campaigns, it has often seemed as if the Jewish people have stopped acting as a collective, and that groups are showing more loyalty to themselves than to Israel as a whole.

Supporters of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and activists protest against the Israeli legal system outside a hearing at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, on Dec. 31, 2019. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Supporters of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and activists protest against the Israeli legal system outside a hearing at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, on Dec. 31, 2019. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Nadav Shragai
Nadav Shragai
Nadav Shragai is a veteran Israeli journalist.

Something bad is happening here in Israel in this year of campaigns and elections. Without anyone noticing, our language is changing. The Hebrew we use is no longer the same Hebrew. It’s divisive, accusatory, combative and full of generalizations.

For too many of us, hatred and dispute have become our defining characteristics. Normality, and the terminology of normality, have been deleted from our code of personal and public behavior. Someone changed the record, and we never noticed. It is no longer possible to talk without slandering, to argue without ridiculing, to debate without annihilating the person in front of you.

It’s not only Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who has changed our language (and he has). It’s something deeper. It’s the assumption that if we speak quietly, we are not heard, and that words that don’t contain enough mudslinging will fall on deaf ears.

The assumption is that arguments and content are of marginal importance, while what really matters is how they are presented to the public. And when the message becomes marginalized, it can be changed like socks based on political needs, since what really matters is how much it echoes.

This is how terms that define groups of association, identity and outlook, such as “right,” “left,” “ultra-Orthodox” or “Arab,” have become insults designed to delegitimize entire sectors.

No one looks at the complexities. There are no shades of gray anymore. The right is “messianic,” and “messianic” is bad; Israeli Arabs are “supporters of terrorism” because some Israeli Arab Knesset members have forgotten that they serve in the Israeli Knesset and not in the Palestinian parliament; and the ultra-Orthodox—well, Yisrael Beiteinu’s incitement-ridden and almost anti-Semitic campaign makes them out to be freeloaders and exploiters.

Who dares today to point out the good sides of ultra-Orthodox society? Who will spend time reading an informative article like the one Gershon Hacohen published in the last issue of the ultra-Orthodox journal HaUma, in which he pointed out that none other than Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, defined the Zionist idea—and himself—as messianic?

The left, whose mother party formed the foundation of the state and which alongside its serious mistakes inculcated humane and socialist values in us all, has become a profanity on the right; while the right, which moved the nation forward in many important fields, is seen by the left as the source of all impurity. Everything is mixed up, and intentionally so. The resulting concoction poisons not only our language, but also our souls.

A heavy darkness

Two decades ago, the writer S. Yizhar noted that there were two Jewish peoples living in the Land of Israel, who spoke different languages and responded differently to the same events. Yizhar was referring to the Israeli people and the Jewish people. They indeed saw the nation’s existence differently, not to mention Judaism and everyday life.

“Each side understands and feels differently. So much so that what one sees as an achievement, the other sees as a loss, and what one sees as an honor, the other sees as disrespect, and what excites one depresses the other—and nearly no bridge remains,” Yizhar observed.

The mix of hate, insult and brainwashing that the public is forced to confront today cannot even be defined as a dispute between the two Jewish peoples, as Yizhar defined it, or indeed as any dispute at all. The worst thing is that there are no longer two different or conflicting worldviews that can be debated.

That’s how far gone we are. We could live with Yizhar’s diagnosis, because when both extremes are defined, bridges can be built. Today, on the other hand, the boundaries are intentionally blurred because what is important has become trivial—in matters of security and national borders, society, and the economy.

Almost everything is instinctual and personal, and everyone is spraying campaign poison that dulls thought and common sense. The pollution that surrounds us blunts our senses and dulls our minds to the point where we can’t even define our disputes and are just shooting blind.

The darkness is so heavy that we’ve forgotten that there is something bigger than our different paths, that we exist along with others and that the “tribe of Israel” exists simultaneously with the tribal wars. We have forgotten that whatever our different paths may be, the Jews of this land share characteristics of Judaism, and a common past and present of culture and memory and Jewish existence. We have forgotten that instead of boycotting, we can accept, and that the whole—the people of Israel—is greater than the sum of its parts.

Just like in José Saramago’s Blindness, it’s as if we’ve been struck by “white darkness,” and the parties that—for the third time in under 12 months—are aiming their campaigns at us are blinding our eyes and our thinking to the extent we don’t remember that it’s possible to see things differently. Are we so dazzled that we can’t even see ourselves in the mirror? Almost every event that takes place here is roped into smearing the “other,” and nothing is evaluated on its own merits.

Remembering Lifa

It’s time to put aside the poisonous campaign shrapnel, if not for our own sake then for our children’s. I find it harder and harder to explain to my own kids who is against whom and what all the arguments are about.

Instead of insulting others, maybe we should all try to battle for their right to make their opinions heard, even if those opinions seem awful.

We need to respect political rivals and give them their due credit. Respect them, restrain ourselves, accept them and most of all, listen to them. We need to remember the words of Lifa the cart driver in Yeheil Mar’s poem, who said, “A little less is a little more,” or as we might put it today, that more is sometimes less and the perfect is the enemy of the good. “Pull the reins and then let them go a little,” Mar wrote. Even in a different time, when ideologies are supposedly “dead,” and everything is personal, things can be different.

Israeli society was built on values such as sacrifice and giving, modesty and personal example, and most of all on looking out for each other. But in this year of campaigns, it often seems as if the Jewish people have stopped acting as a collective, and that huge groups are showing more loyalty to themselves than to Israel as a whole.

If we are fated to face another two months of campaigning, all of these things must be discussed, if only to remind us where we come from and where we must not end up.

This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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