It turns out that there is at least one person in Israel who actually believes in freedom of speech. Nir Orbach is a member of Naftali Bennett’s Yamina Party and was to be wavering as to whether to support the “government of change” that has been assembled to topple longtime Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Along with other supporters of the prospective multi-party coalition, Orbach has been confronted by angry pro-Netanyahu protesters, some of which have been appearing outside his home on a nightly basis.
The rhetoric that has been employed against the coalition’s right-wing supporters from Yamina and the New Home Party has been angry and personal. Orbach’s treatment has been especially brutal. But it hasn’t shaken his faith in democracy.
That became apparent after the current prime minister’s son Yair Netanyahu, who has a well-earned reputation as a social-media troll, was temporarily banned from Twitter, Facebook and Instagram for reposting an image of a poster promoting a protest outside Orbach’s home that included his address.
Sending demonstrators to someone’s private home is the sort of thing that shouldn’t be considered part of the normal rough and tumble of political debate. Whether it happens in Israel or the United States, personalizing disputes in such a way—as we saw in the United States when some Democrats, like Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), encouraged confrontations with supporters of former President Donald Trump—it is wrong. Trying to scare or intimidate the families of public figures while eating out or in their homes is a vile practice that illustrates the toll that polarization has taken on our public discourse.
But to Orbach’s credit, he said he opposed the ban on Netanyahu, echoing the French enlightenment writer Voltaire, saying, “In Israel, everyone is allowed to demonstrate and protest, and I’d be happy if it stays like that, even if the protest is directed at me. Even if I don’t agree with a word you say, I will fight for your right to say it.”
But predictably, neither that nor his willingness to go out and speak to the protestors lowered the temperature. As news spread that Orbach had decided to either support the new government or to resign and allow another Yamina member to vote for it, the rhetoric directed at him got hotter, with even more shouts of “traitor” from Netanyahu supporters and threats including one in which he was invited to his own funeral.
The heated language isn’t just coming from the streets.
A group of national religious rabbis signed a letter giving the OK to their followers to “do everything” to stop the coalition headed by Bennett and Yesh Atid Party leader Yair Lapid from taking power next week. The fact that the letter didn’t also explicitly oppose violence was interpreted by some as an ominous reminder of the incitement that was seen as enabling the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.
That fear was strengthened by, among other things, the statement from Likud member of Knesset May Golan, who likened Bennett and Gideon Sa’ar, who left Netanyahu’s party to form his own faction and is a key figure in the new coalition, to “suicide bombers.” This atrocious analogy and her doubling down on the claim that they are “dangerous” seemed similar to the threats to Yamina MKs and their families—a clear and present danger of political violence.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu seems to want to have it both ways as he has furiously worked to drum up opposition to his opponents’ plans. Speaking to a meeting of his Knesset faction, he did say that he “condemn[s] all forms of incitement from any side.” He also rightly noted that “incitement” is “not criticism. It’s a call for violence. It’s crossing the line between criticism and incitement.”
That is correct and is a reference to the myth that he was somehow responsible for Rabin’s murder. In 1995, Netanyahu was speaking for what polls then said was the views of at least half of Israel, if not a majority, when he denounced the impact of the Oslo Accords, which led to an increase in terrorism. His criticisms of Rabin’s policies were accurate and at no time did he ever call for violence or acquiesce to it. The decision of an extremist to murder Rabin was not Netanyahu’s fault, and the resulting willingness of the Israeli left to promote the myth of his guilty was rooted in politics and nothing else.
That’s especially true when it is recalled that in the years preceding Rabin’s murder, his government was more interested in stifling its foes than in defending the right to dissent. When Oslo opponents engaged in civil disobedience such as blocking roads, Rabin ordered them to be charged with sedition. As a country without a written constitution or the equivalent of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the right to free speech has always been more a bit more precarious in Israel, despite the fact that it has always been a lively democracy.
Still, the extreme rhetoric being used by Netanyahu and his supporters against their opponents is deplorable. Even while he denounced incitement, the prime minister continued to denounce the prospect of a Bennett-Lapid government as worse than Oslo or Ariel Sharon’s withdrawal from Gaza, disastrous policy choices that led to bloodshed and terror. Civil discourse has no chance when disagreements between politicians with relatively similar positions on the great issues facing the country—as is the case between Netanyahu and Bennett, and even Lapid—are depicted as life or death choices.
This is particularly hypocritical with respect to the Likud attacks on Bennett and Lapid’s reliance on Mansour Abbas and his Ra’am Party, which was elected as an Islamist Arab faction to support their government. It was Netanyahu’s effort to woo Abbas to support him that made it possible for Bennett and Lapid to try the same tactic. Nor is it likely that Netanyahu would have balked at making the same concessions to Ra’am as his opponents did had such a deal not been vetoed by some of his right-wing allies.
Those who demonize their political opponents, as Netanyahu has done, should be criticized. But the same can be said about those who have spent recent years smearing him and demonstrating outside his home.
Yet it is also incumbent on leaders to do more than pay lip service to the danger of differences escalating into violence.
The situation in Israel is not dissimilar to that in the United States, where there is the same polarization in which Democrats claim Republicans are “insurrectionists who are foes of democracy and,” and, in turn, the GOP disparages them.
Opposing former President Donald Trump, Netanyahu or their foes by all democratic means should never be confused with treason or violence. Yet partisanship that strips opponents of legitimacy can lead to anti-democratic actions, sometimes from those who falsely claim to be defending it. Attempts to suppress opposing views or unflattering stories about their opponents under the guise of seeking to stamp out “disinformation,” as happened when the mainstream media and Internet companies sought to suppress accounts of Biden family corruption or even discussions of Chinese responsibility for the coronavirus pandemic, are a more potent threat to democracy than extremist trolling on social media.
But it’s also true that as we saw on Jan. 6, encouraging people to protest can lead to violence that should never be countenanced.
When it comes to polarization, there’s more than enough blame to go around to all the main political factions in both Israel and the United States. Nations are in trouble when people lose the ability to listen to their opponents and credit each other with good intentions. Balancing the right to protest against the need to discourage discourse that treats opponents as enemies to be suppressed isn’t easy. But if both Israelis and Americans truly want to defend democracy, then that’s what they must do.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.