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Left, right: Both need to tone down the rhetoric

I know that the vast majority of Israelis are patriots and democrats. But everyone should take a deep breath and look at the messages they are sending because words can kill.

A protest against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the nationwide COVID-19 lockdown in Tel Aviv on Oct. 6, 2020. Photo by Gili Yaari/Flash90.
A protest against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the nationwide COVID-19 lockdown in Tel Aviv on Oct. 6, 2020. Photo by Gili Yaari/Flash90.
Israeli National Infrastructure, Energy and Water Resources Minister Yuval Steinitz attends the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, at the Inbal Hotel in Jerusalem, on Feb. 20, 2017. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Yuval Steinitz

“Violence is eating away at the foundations of democracy,” the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin said in his last speech.

In these crazy times, amid a pandemic and public hysteria, when the world and local orders are being shaken up, when verbal abuse is flying in every direction and we are falling into collective insanity, we should go back and take Rabin’s words to heart.

It is equally important to go back and remember the second, less-remembered sentence of that same speech: “In democracy, there can be disputes, but the decision will be made in an election.”

When I was young, I was a left-winger. Now that I am an adult, I’m on the right. In the 1980s I took part in demonstrations organized by Peace Now, and at the start of the 21st century, I became a Likud Knesset member and minister. I have experienced incitement and hatred as both a right-winger and a left-winger. I was “privileged” to sample the contempt and attacks from both sides.

It’s the same old song and dance, and lately, we are seeing and feeling the flames of our small tribal campfires growing and threatening to engulf us all. How the ideological passion of one camp or another is translated to incitement, loathing and contempt for those who aren’t part of it. In the past few weeks, we’ve seen repeatedly how large, key sectors—some passionately determined to save either the “democratic” or the “Jewish” element of the country, depending on how they see things—sometimes slip into disobeying instructions from government institutions, and even become violent toward police and soldiers.

The formula: Judaism and democracy

It seems to me that sometimes, my personal history gives me a certain advantage over my colleagues on both the right and the left. I know, and can even feel, what things look like from the other side.

I know with absolute certainty that the vast majority of people on both sides truly and wholeheartedly want the best for the country and everyone here. I am convinced in every fiber of my being that the vast majority of leftists are patriots in the strict sense of the word, not—heaven forbid—”traitors” or “stinking left-wingers.” I also know absolutely the vast majority of right-wingers are democrats in the strict sense of the word, and not—heaven forbid—”fascists” or “sheep-like beasts.”

We are brothers, even when we see and interpret reality in completely different ways. We are brothers, and not only because we are all one people that is still fighting for its existence and independence in a tough, dangerous region. We are brothers because nearly none of us has a family or circle of friends that does not include religious and secular, Sephardi and Ashkenazi, left-wing and right-wing, and equally impassioned supporters of and opponents of the government and its leader.

Now, with the world in an uproar, and the media catastrophizing, as it does, and highlighting the disputes to give us our daily doses of excitement in its ratings’ battle, it is vital to calm down for a moment and look at things from a slightly more philosophical-historical perspective.

It’s important to remember that in the short history of our tiny country, we’ve seen worse crises. Do you remember the worries about the country’s fate, even its existence, during the wait that preceded the 1967 Six-Day War? Do you remember the difficult times of the 1973 Yom Kippur War? The warnings about the fate of democracy that went along with Menachem Begin’s election win? The unprecedentedly violent campaign of 1981? The economic crisis and hyperinflation of the 1980s? The polarization and protests during the Oslo Accords? The terrible event of Rabin’s assassination? The buses and restaurants that were blown up in our cities’ streets during the Second Intifada?

Our “Jewish-democratic” formula has already proven itself a winning one, and believe me that if we’ve made it through all this, we will survive COVID-19, too. The way it looks now, despite how bad things are, the coronavirus crisis will pass in the not-too-distant future thanks to the vaccines and treatments that are even now being developed. We can already risk the prediction that this time, the serious complications for the world order are temporary. This is not an event that will change the world as World War II did. In the meantime, we should all calm down, and calm each other down. This is the most rational way of maintaining our “Jewish, democratic” identity.

Words can kill

So I am calling on my friends on the right who are upset over the anti-government protests that are sometimes seen as condescending and dismissive to steer clear of verbal altercations with the protesters, and certainly to avoid physical confrontations.

They have a right to protest, and that right is not to be challenged, even if some of their messages annoy us, and even if they insult and offend us. They have a right to protest, yes, and even utter filth, as long as they follow the law and public health restrictions. I still carry in my left leg the fragments of a grenade thrown at the Peace Now demonstration nearly 40 years ago at which Emil Greenzweig was killed. We don’t want to see similar situations.

I am also calling on my brothers on the left to moderate their messages and style. Yes, even when it comes to the prime minister. The right to protest is part of the right of free speech and freedom of expression, but there are remarks that shouldn’t be voiced. It’s true that legally, one may use foul language and wish all the evil in the world on others. There is no law that forbids hatred. But please, try a little cognitive experiment and think for a moment how you would respond if it turned out that some of what you are saying now about Netanyahu and his wife had been uttered about Rabin and his wife back in the day.

Protesting against the prime minister and the government is fine, of course. But when the protests slide toward dangerous talk about “revolution” or “revolt,” this is a radical, anti-democratic message that can project violence and bullying toward anyone who thinks or votes differently. A pro-democratic revolution can occur only in places where the people do not have the right to make their own decision at the polls. But calls for revolution or a physical siege on a democratically elected parliament just because certain circles have trouble accepting the voters’ decision as expressed in the makeup of the Cabinet and the Knesset do not align with democratic values.

The right to protest is not the same as a right to revolution, even when some of the protesters see themselves as “the defense and academic elite.” In effect, it even contradicts it. The moment that the right to vote and be elected, and the right to speak and protest, exist in any country, slogans like “revolution” or “siege” send an anti-democratic message, as if someone has the right to change the elected government through violence. Messages like these, by their very nature, create an atmosphere of threats to entire segments of the population, almost calling into question their equal right to have an influence. The leaders of the protesters should make it crystal-clear that they respect the results of the election, as expressed in the Cabinet and Knesset, in accordance with the second sentence of Rabin’s last speech: “In democracy, decisions are made in an election.”

In the meantime, we should all dial it down, refrain from violence, calm down and calm others down, and read a little philosophy and history.

Yuval Steinitz is Israel’s Minister of National Infrastructure, Energy and Water Resources. A member of the Likud Party, he has served as Finance Minister and Intelligence and Strategic Affairs Minister. Steinitz holds a Ph.D. in philosophy and was a senior lecturer at the University of Haifa.

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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