Is Civility Breaking Out in Israeli Politics?

Israel's elected leaders have a poor track record on civil discourse, but politicians' moderate tones during the election campaign and coalition talks may be a long-awaited harbinger of a less racist, more inclusive language of politics.

Mike Prashker
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Mike Prashker

The tone of Israel's last elections, at least as much as the actual results, provided some much needed encouragement for those of us deeply committed to the idea of shaping a more "civil" society in Israel.

While the term "civil society" more commonly refers to Israel's NGO or third sector, it is time to prioritize in parallel the idea of a more "civil" society, meaning the active promotion of a greater sense of civic belonging for all of Israel's 7.7 million citizens, a greater respect for the diversity that characterizes Israel's citizens and a commitment to the provision of equal opportunities for all.

In a marked departure from the regrettably un-civil trajectory of Israeli political discourse over recent decades, the key contenders in the recent election campaign (including Likud Beiteinu and Habayit Hayehudi) muted their more extreme voices and fronted their campaigns with more moderate ones. They generally sought to present a reasonable balance between Israel's Jewish and democratic character, largely desisted from direct attacks on Israel's Arab citizens and fudged reactionary attitudes towards women, progressive Judaism and the LGBT community.

On the whole, the more abrasive and "un-civil" views of many candidates were downplayed presumably on the basis of opinion-polls that informed the parties of the increasingly "civil" mind-set of their prospective voters.

Further reinforcing this impression, and confirming the professionalism of these parties' pollsters and their spin-doctors, is the fact that the one party that campaigned in an exclusively racist and xenophobic voice – Otzma Leyisrael - could not muster the sixty-five thousand odd-votes required to enter the Knesset. Further, Shas, through popular protest and on order of the Election Committee, quickly withdrew its crude and racist attack on Russian-speaking Israelis regarding what Shas saw as conversion law laxity.

The care taken over the kind of political discourse expressed by political parties this election, in order to attract and not alienate potential voters, can reasonably be interpreted as a positive indicator for the growing moderation and maturity of Israeli voters and Israel's democratic culture. This is all the more remarkable in a context so unfavorable to civility: A country beset by long-term conflict that inevitably colors relations between Israel's 80% Jewish and 20% Arab citizens, that is surrounded by several hostile and increasingly unstable regimes, and where veteran residents of already under-served communities are experiencing major social upheaval as they adjust to living alongside significant numbers of refugees and asylum-seekers.

But we should not get ahead of ourselves. Quickly following the elections, in a reference to the controversial Arab Knesset member Hanin Zuabi, Yair Lapid disparagingly denigrated all Israel's Arab Knesset members and – by inference - one in five citizens of Israel, by referring to them collectively as "Zuabis". This week, in a speech to his party, Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett wrote off the need to speak to Abu Mazen or "Abu-whatever-their names".

These are crude generalizations and outright denigration of an entire group of citizens. Just imagine what would happen if any mainstream elected leader from the United States, or any Western democracy with which Israel likes to compare itself, made similar statements substituting a Jewish name instead of the examples Lapid and Bennett gave. They would be rightly condemned by the Jewish community, anti-racist organizations, probably also by the State of Israel, and would most likely end political careers.

It is therefore of the upmost importance that those of us working towards a more civil society – while we can take some heart from the tone of the last election-campaign – consistently challenge Lapid, Bennett and all elected leaders, on their choice of language.

The relapse of Lapid and Bennett into less civil tones – and doubtless many other politicians unrestrained by election considerations will follow suit – is a stark reminder that shaping a substantively civil society requires a sustained change in public discourse; occasional tactical outbursts of political-correctness are not nearly enough. This is because language fundamentally shapes the way we think and treat each other in all social relations, whether as families, citizens or as a people. Generally, Israel's elected leaders have a poor track record on civil discourse and - looking forward - great responsibility as elected leaders to get this right for the good of their voters and all Israel's citizens.

Israel's Declaration of Independence was prescient and clear on this point. It calls for all citizens to "participate in the building-up of the State on the basis of full and equal citizenship." With great foresight, the drafters of the Declaration provided, alongside a Jewish-Zionist language, the democratic and civil language essential for building a cohesive and inclusive civil society, the bed-rock of any sustainable modern state.

After sixty-five years, it is high time that emerging Jewish-Zionist-Israeli leaders like Lapid and Bennett, who have already made considerable contributions in the areas of media, security and business, appreciate that their choice of language - more or less civil - will indelibly shape the contours, cohesion and future well-being of the State of Israel, and thus also of the Jewish People. 

Mike Prashker is founder and director of Merchavim: The Institute for the Advancement of Shared Citizenship in Israel.

The Yesh Atid Knesset faction: Has Lapid silenced them all?Credit: Michal Fattal

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