The spin doctors of the right have a standard shtick. Instead of addressing the other side’s arguments, they delegitimize the speaker. Instead of responding to criticism, they peddle conspiracy theories about their critics’ supposedly ulterior motives: “Don’t listen to what they say, ask who funds them.” Ad hominem, McCarthy-style.
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This gimmick was employed again recently in connection with the discussion of the penetration by right-wing religious elements into the state-secular education system. Alarmed by the mounting criticism in the media and among the public of the budget-rich, right-wing, not-for-profit associations and their connection to the Education Ministry, Minister Naftali Bennett and his flock of court journalists launched an offensive against the critics, never addressing their claims, always their funding – whether from European foundations or from the Jewish billionaire George Soros. The brats of Im Tirtzu went so far as to accuse critics of the Orthodox right of attempting to convert Israel’s children to Christianity. For his part, the prime minister’s son claimed that the progressive think-tank Molad was receiving money from the “Israel Destruction Fund,” as he put it.
This is hardly new. The demagogues of the right have been employing such thuggish diversion tactics for a long time. In 1910, the illustrious Hebrew writer Yosef Haim Brenner published a provocative article on the “conversion anxiety” stirred by the rising rates of conversion to Christianity among young European Jews. Brenner shrugged off the problem, and together with it the superiority of Judaism over Christianity and the importance of the Jewish religion for the Jewish national project.
“I see no fundamental difference between the ascetic worldview of submission to God of the prophet from Anatoth [Jeremiah] and of the prophet from Nazareth,” Brenner asserted audaciously in the article.
Both approaches, he argued, are theological myths from which the emancipated individual chooses what to reject and what to adopt. According to Brenner, one can adopt ideas from Christianity without becoming a Christian, and even adhere to the Christian faith without ceasing to be a member of the Jewish people, for, “The major forms of life of the individual and the nation are not nourished or sustained by religion. Religion itself, with all its pomp and nonsense, is no more than part of the forms of life that people have forged willingly and willy-nilly.” He rejects the idea – shared, in his opinion, by those who convert to Christianity (who feel a need to sever themselves from the Jewish people) and by observant Jews (who identify nationality with religious ritual) – according to which “mezuzah and Jew are one and the same.”
The spokespersons of secular Zionism can learn a great deal from Brenner, who kowtowed to neither the Orthodox nor those who espouse “Jewish pride,” as he calls it elsewhere (we might call them advocates of “Jewish identity”). He mocked them without an iota of flattery: “Let not the stars of extinguished ancient Judaism deceive you. The dream is over.” The question that terrifies so many secular Jews in our time – what makes you Jewish? – did not bother him in the least: “The question of our Jewish life is not the question of the Jewish religion, the question of ‘maintaining Judaism.’ That mongrel idea needs to be uprooted [We] free Jews have nothing in common with Judaism, but nevertheless we are part of the collectivity no less than those who put on tefillin and those who grow earlocks.”
The “Brenner affair,” as it became known, stirred a furor in the Jewish press. For two years, nearly everyone of influence in Palestine and outside it joined in the controversy. Dozens of articles were published on the subject, in almost every Hebrew-language paper. Many of them were substantive, articulate and thoughtful. But the depravity of right-wing demagoguery did not begin with NGO Monitor or with Im Tirtzu. The Jerusalem newspaper Haherut devoted an editorial to a critique of Brenner, calling him an “inciter” and “impertinent.” The short text – bursting with rage but meager in arguments – accused Brenner of preaching conversion in the service of Christian missionaries. “The only question is: How much? How much are you getting as payment for your work?” the paper fulminated.
In his response, Brenner ignored the vituperations and the self-righteous wrath, but did not overlook the base accusation. Every article can be answered with another article, he wrote, adding that in a debate one can “thunder, be embittered, shake the rafters.” But to accuse him and his associates of inciting Jews to become Christians in order to profit from missionaries’ payments, he wrote, is “madness and despicableness of savage ignoramuses.” Brenner discerned precisely what was behind accusations of this kind, then as now: flaccid thinking and moral feebleness.
It takes one to know one: “Is it not clear that a ‘sensation’ like this can be fomented only by people who are ready to sell themselves for a penny at any time?” he wrote. Indeed, it’s not surprising that many of those who are ranting against foreign funding these days work in the service of some foreign billionaire. Sheldon Adelson, Roger Hertog and the Central Fund of Israel are only a few examples.
Brenner, one of the greatest Hebrew polemicists, didn’t back down, and he offered no apologies: “Obviously, I, the undersigned,” he wrote, “will not come to prove incontrovertibly to the defamers – whether they are malicious or because they are unable to understand what’s written – that I am not one of the inciters.” Instead, the “impertinent” Brenner hit back in kind, writing that Haherut “lacks content, and in order not to publish the rag blank, its editor allows himself to sell publicly the souls of Hebrew authors to the odious missionaries.”
That is also the appropriate response to the right-wing ruffians of our time, heirs to the demagogues of the early-20th century. The delegitimization of ideological rivals by questioning their motives and funding is not part of the public debate but, rather, amounts to its deliberate sabotage. Aggressive and determined as it may be, a polemic must assume that all sides are sincere in their avowals and concerned with the public good, even if they are divided on the question of what that good is and how it is to be achieved. Parties to a debate may attack, mock, needle and ridicule – but they may not undermine the legitimacy and sincerity of the other side’s motives. Those driven by extraneous motives are not adversaries but enemies. And with enemies you don’t argue – you fight.
Even Brenner’s fiercest critics, such as Ahad Ha’am, understood that the inflammatory remarks had to be rebuffed, and vehemently condemned the “slander.” As one newspaper editor wrote, “Disgusted, we just want to show the slanderer his proper place.” This is the duty of leaders, pundits and journalists today as well: to rebuff the spin and denounce the inciters. If not, public debate in Israel – which is already debased – will be reduced to vilifications, manipulations and imprecations. These can inflame the masses but cannot advance our collective interests.
Dr. Assaf Sharon is co-chair of Molad: the Center for the Renewal of Israeli Democracy.