Patriotism in the Service of Silencing Dissent

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This past week, Haaretz reported that Israeli diplomats were having a hard time dealing with the film “The Gatekeepers.” Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, outdid all the others when he claimed that the heads of the Shin Bet who were interviewed for the film compromised the state’s public relations efforts, which he said were "in a kind of war.”

His statements join other similar ones that have been made of late – statements that express one of many symptoms of a dangerous disease that has been attacking Israeli society over the past few years. Other symptoms include increasing delegitmization of the left wing (and the Haredi population as well), with the purpose of silencing legitimate voices in public discourse; Culture Minister Limor Livnat’s call to artists to practice self-censorship; the Education Ministry’s dismissal of civics studies supervisor Adar Cohen because his liberal views were not to the liking of former education minister Gideon Sa’ar; the barring by Israel of Professor Rivka Feldhay from participating in a joint Israeli-German academic conference, apparently for her support for Israeli soldiers who refuse to serve in the Palestinian territories; and the attempts to shut down the Department of Politics and Government at Ben-Gurion University. All these are symptoms of the attempts to suppress free speech in Israeli society.

Oren and those who share his opinion claim that criticism of the leadership’s policy is tantamount to damaging the State of Israel’s standing and harming its interests. For the regime’s spokesmen, their methods, ideology and goals are an inseparable part of the state. Therefore, disagreeing with them is equivalent to harming the state, and critics betray the state’s interests. This approach is reminiscent of the spokesmen of the Chinese regime, who use the same reason to silence criticism from within and exert tight control over the media, cultural works and academia. The approach of Oren and his colleagues must therefore justify regimes that attempt to silence criticism of anti-Semitism in their countries for fear that making such criticism public might damage their countries’ image and interests.

In professional terms, the attempt to create an absolute identity between the method of a particular group and the goals of the state is known as “monopolizing patriotism.” This is done by attaching conditions such as support of the leadership and its policies to the definition of patriotism. That is how people who do not meet those conditions are excluded from the patriotic camp and only those who meet those conditions may be considered patriots. Patriotism is thus transformed into an effective mechanism for shunning entire groups within society that do not agree with the leadership’s policies.

Oren and his ilk do not accept the basic principle that patriots who love their country and their people are allowed to disagree with the political leadership’s vision and policy. They deny the approach that heterogeneity of thought is one of the most obvious and necessary signs of an open and pluralistic society. Not for a moment does it occur to them that perhaps their goals and policy are what is causing damage to the state.

Individuals and groups in society have different opinions, and it is important that these opinions be expressed in the public discourse, in cultural expressions, in textbooks, in classroom discussions. Attempts to restrict free speech and weaken critical discussion – whose intent is actually to repair society – harm democracy and lead the state down the road of becoming a totalitarian regime in which everyone must express an identical opinion. The demand to express full support for the leadership’s methods and refrain from criticism sabotages any attempt to promote a solution to the crisis. Defining the situation as “a kind of war” is a demagogic and manipulative use of words whose purpose is to convince people to support the leadership.

Oren and those like him are dictating to the public what the government believes to be the rules of appropriate behavior. Conservative groups operating on the ground strengthen these messages by keeping track of statements that are made or written and then smearing anyone who expresses opinions that differ from the leadership’s. This is how a political climate is constructed in which people are afraid to express their opinions and where free speech, one of the most prominent characteristics of a democratic society, is restricted.

Daniel Bar-Tal is a professor of political psychology at Tel Aviv University. Akiva Eldar is the political commentator at Al-Monitor.

The Israeli film 'The Gatekeepers.'Credit: Toldot Yisrael
Former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren addressing an AIPAC conference in early March.Credit: AFP

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