Israel Really Hasn’t Silenced Dissent

A New York Times op-ed suggests that a right-wing cabal has shut us Israeli leftists up, and we can do little do about it. But we haven’t been silenced. We've just failed to make our case.

Noah Efron
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A protest held in Haifa against the Israeli operation in Gaza, July 19, 2014.Credit: Rami Shllush
Noah Efron

As I write this, the most-emailed post on the New York Times website is a short piece called “How Israel Silences Dissent,” by Mairav Zonszein who, like me, moved to Israel from America where she was born. And like me, she is a leftist and a political activist. Zonszein describes a small group of thugs who mixed it up with Tel Aviv peace demonstrators at the start of the Gaza war, a death threat phoned into a theater against a renowned 75 year old stage actress, Gila Almagor, after a newspaper reported that the grotesque murder and immolation of a Palestinian teen in Jerusalem left her embarrassed to be an Israeli, the cancelling of an endorsement deal for a gifted comedian, Orna Banai, after she expressed sympathy for Gazan kids, and threats against a Haaretz journalist, Gideon Levy, who described Israeli pilots as war criminals. All these, Zonszein wrote, demonstrate “the aggressive silencing of anyone who voices disapproval of Israeli policies or expresses empathy with Palestinians.”

The thing is, they don’t.

Don’t get me wrong; they’re terrible. I took part in the Tel Aviv peace demonstrations during the war, and I saw the handful of young, right-wing bullies angling for a fight. I saw Almagor on the evening news, and then the morning news, describing the anger she encountered on her Facebook page. On the radio, I heard Banai (whom I adore) telling how the feckless cruise company that she shilled for had told her she’d become a commercial liability. And I saw the Levy’s description of his heroic apathy about the public scorn on social media, in the paper and on TV. My stomach churned when I watched, heard and read all these things, just as Zonszein’s did.

But then, that’s the point: I watched, heard and read all these things. The criticisms reached me. The criticisms of the criticisms reached me. Discussion of the criticism and of the criticisms of the criticisms reached me. No one was silenced. The week after thugs punched three demonstrators, there was another demonstration, this one larger, and protected by more police. The actress, the comedian and the journalist received hours of airtime and hundreds of column inches. The murder of the Palestinian kid in Jerusalem was condemned by multitudes, including the parents of the three Israeli boys who were murdered weeks earlier.

Although most Israelis supported the war in Gaza, especially at the start, there were voices of dissent in all media and especially on the internet. Blogs like +972, where Zonszein writes, were active, and my Facebook feed filled with anguished criticism – some from abroad, and a great deal from here – about the deaths and destruction in Gaza. Haaretz published dissent daily, and dissenting articles appeared in all the other papers as well, even right wing platforms like Makor Rishon. Universities hosted public lectures by radical intellectuals whose criticisms of Israeli policy and government were sharp and cutting.

The simple fact is, a lot of the media, and a lot of academia, and a lot of NGOs and civil society in Israel lean left, and sometimes far left. We have ways of expressing ourselves, and we did express ourselves. I was not intimidated. The thugs did not keep me away from the demonstrations, and did not make me too fearful to bring my kids along. If we’re honest, the dozen right-wing bullies shouting threats infuriated lots of us, but they intimidated no one. Leftist Israelis may not have shown as much anguish or empathy as Zonszein thinks we should have. But that was not because we were aggressively silenced. Perhaps we were too silent, but not because we were silenced.

I am not just pedantically trying to set the record straight. This matters to me as a leftist. Zonszein ends her post in the Times with this:

Israelis increasingly seem unwilling to listen to criticism, even when it comes from within their own family. Not only are they not willing to listen, they are trying to silence it before it can even be voiced. With a family like that, I would rather be considered one of “them.”

In the year that has just ended, lots of leftists have, like Zonszein, thrown up their hands. When Haaretz critic Rogel Alpher announced in the paper a few weeks ago that he has finally given up, and is leaving the country, he joined a growing list of well-known leftists who have decided that they’ve had it. They too have concluded that they’d rather be considered one of “them,” whoever they are. If you’ve been silenced, then giving up and leaving makes sense.

But we haven’t been silenced. We’ve just failed to make our case. For a dozen years, we have failed to win a majority in the Knesset. We have failed to convince other Israelis that the cost of holding onto the occupied territories is greater than the dangers of relinquishing them. In Zonszein’s analysis, this is because a right-wing cabal has shut us up, and there’s little we can do about it.

The truth is, we’ve failed because we’ve failed, and there is a lot we can do about it. Rather than whine in the New York Times about how we’ve been silenced, we need to figure out how to speak to other Israelis so that they will listen. The answer is not to convince readers of the New York Times that Israel is no longer a democracy. The answer is to accept that Israel is a democracy, and that democracy demands that we speak to our fellow citizens and listen to them, that we persuade them rather than dismiss them. Zonszein argues that democratic politics in Israel are hopeless. The fact is, it is in Israeli democracy that our greatest hope lies.

Noah Efron teaches in the Graduate Program for Science, Technology & Society at Bar Ilan University, hosts the Promised Podcast on TLV1. 

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