Israel's Right and Left Need a Common Refuge Away From This Vile, Dumbed-down Campaign

This election battle features insults like those of the pre-Rabin-assassination period, but in the Internet age, the hate is multiplied 10,000-fold.

Fania Oz-Salzberger
Fania Oz-Salzberger
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The Jew, in an image from an animated video released by the Samaria Residents Council.
Fania Oz-Salzberger
Fania Oz-Salzberger

The “Sturmer” video produced by the Samaria Residents Committee, which portrays the Israeli left as the paid Jewboy of Euro-Nazi anti-Semitism and ends with his hanging himself from a tree, is an opportunity to fundamentally change the nature of the current election campaign. Doing this would require decent people on the right, like those who immediately condemned the “Sturmer” clip, and intelligent leftists – those who understand that without a dialogue with fair-minded right-wingers, things are going to get very bad here – to establish a common refuge for debating the core issues of Israeli politics.

We need a common refuge because in recent months the public square has been undergoing an unprecedented infantilization. By “infantile” I don’t mean childish, but downright puerile. We are being bombarded by the inferior products of the media consultants, creative geniuses, video whizzes and social media wizards; and by politicians who seem eager to reduce every complex issue to a lame and insulting joke, dripping with clichés and animosity.

We need a protected space for a real debate. A condition for this is for the left and right alike to stop addressing their most enthusiastic followers as if the issues don’t also affect the masses of well-meaning citizens whose opinions differ. They must understand something basic about the digital age: There are no more internal debates or private forums. Everything uttered is heard by everyone – and that’s a good thing.

Thus, when people on the left, including people close to me, rightly attack Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s campaign of destruction against the Israel Prize for Literature, it would be a shame if the public thinks they are mocking his cultural backwardness. After all, the problem lies in the absurd demand that the Israel Prize for Literature, Medicine or Chemistry should be awarded by “representative” judges to “patriotic” candidates. We must address the conscience of everyone, no matter what his political outlook or reading habits. We must restore people’s confidence in the worthy foundations of Israeli activity; excellence that is not elitist, professionalism that is not a guild, and quality that is not condescending.

But the bitterest enemies of serious political debate are those politicians who have cracked the code of digital populism. They are deliberately building professional campaigns that incite, and hidden there is a deep insult to their supporters’ intelligence. It is no coincidence that digital populists prefer pictures over words, videos over arguments, slogans over political platforms and clips over diplomatic policy.

With a skill that Machiavelli would envy, they have reduced real and fateful discussions to catchy insults that are light as a feather but do serious harm. Harm to the extent of what was prevailing in the pre-Rabin-assassination era. But in the Internet age, the hate is multiplied 10,000-fold, with the verbal violence winking at its sister, physical violence.

The Internet is actually the place where this refuge can be established. Anyone can participate, but on the home page there will be a virtual cloak room where all will have to check their knee-jerk reflexes and pick up some listening equipment. This protected space will favor those who think, with no regard to ethnic group or camp.

The rules will require even the most opinionated people to prove that they have listened carefully to the opposing opinions. Our protected space will be populated by honest people from across the political spectrum, those who know how to argue without help from “creative” and without cursing. We will pointedly express our views on political and social justice, in depth, here and there, without gloves but also without knives. The debate might get very stormy, but without Sturmer videos. Our national leaders, ministers and elected officials will be welcome to join the debate as ordinary citizens, not as tycoons with huge advertising budgets.

A fantasy? Maybe not. A society rooted in both the Babylonian Talmud and modern liberalism knows, deep in its common memory, how to conduct a debate. Israeli discourse can set itself a much higher standard than the current rude, mean, infantile level that risks becoming the real winner of this election campaign.

The writer is a professor of history at University of Haifa. Together with her father, Amos Oz, she is the author of “Jews and Words.”