Ten days before the March 2015 Israeli elections, the parties in opposition to Benjamin Netanyahu organized a mass rally at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv. One of the speakers was author and satirist Yair Garbuz. In his speech, Garbuz said that the right-wing ruling coalition contained “a handful of talisman kissers and those who prostrate themselves on holy graves.” His statement was immediately pounced on by Netanyahu and others as proof of the left’s snobbish disdain for Likud voters and Sephardi Jews. Some analysts believe the backlash was one of the reasons for Netanyahu’s subsequent electoral victory.
Of course, Garbuz isn’t a politician himself. He represented no one but himself. It’s doubtful whether he meant to tar all of the right or all North African Jews. But the facts don’t really matter: Another clueless liberal had walked into the right wing’s rage machine, and the entire Israeli left was devoured.
It’s the oldest trick in the book for the Israeli right in general and for Netanyahu in particular. They wait for anyone who can remotely be identified with the left to misspeak in order to turn him or her into a supposed representative of the camp as a whole. They are shocked, mortified and outraged by their opponents’ incivility. Menachem Begin did it to comedian Dudu Topaz in 1981 after he described Likud voters as “tshachtachim,” or riffraff, just as Netanyahu pulled the outrage card in 1999 on entertainer Tiki Dayan, after she called Likud voters a mob. Even author Amos Oz, who in 2014 compared Price Tag settler vigilantes as “neo-Nazis,” was instantly turned into the right’s very convenient public enemy number one.
The secret ingredient of the trick, being played out in the United States these days in the wake of a Virginia restaurant’s refusal to serve White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders, is the right wing’s complete lack of self-awareness. Trump can be the most foul-mouthed President in U.S. history, a man who spouts more verbal abuse in a day than most people do in their entire lifetimes, but he can upbraid the Virginia Red Hen establishment and he can lecture Democratic Representative Maxine Waters, who called on protestors to target Trump administration officials personally, with righteous indignation and absolute impunity - and his minions will follow in lockstep to condemn the left’s lack of manners. Netanyahu, who is a master at vilifying political opponents and who railed against “Arabs coming to the polling places” less than a week after he accused Garbuz of invoking racial stereotypes, reacts to insults against him and his flock like a dainty high school princess who can’t imagine that anyone would dare speak ill of political opponents. And it always seems to work.
The classic gambit reached its pinnacle in the wake of the 1995 assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. Even though the assassin Yigal Amir was a right-wing zealot who decided to kill Rabin for ideological reasons, and even though his heinous act was preceded by months on end of rabid right wing incitement against Rabin, from Netanyahu on down, within a few short weeks the right succeeded in niftily turning the tables around. Anyone who was conscious at the time was well aware of the venomous right-wing agitation against Rabin “the traitor,” but the mere mention of it was suddenly deemed uncivil. And even though the cause and effect link between the incitement and Rabin’s murder was self-evident, anyone who dared make the connection was lambasted as disruptive and divisive. The mere mention of the right’s culpability was turned into a more egregious sin than the incitement itself.
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The right’s efforts to whitewash itself were aided and abetted by well-meaning politicians from the left itself. Shimon Peres, who succeeded Rabin for a short-lived stint as prime minister before being dumped by Netanyahu in May 1996, refused to call early elections immediately after the assassination for fear of being accused of capitalizing on the initial public outrage against the right. Other Labor Party stalwarts followed in his path, stifling the left’s rage against the right in the name of elusive “national unity” and lest the left be accused of imitating the right rather than setting itself apart.
It’s an Achilles’ Heel that has plagued the left repeatedly in Israeli politics and has now emerged as a factor in American politics as well. Right wing politicians are allowed to run roughshod over their rivals, to openly accuse them of treachery, treason and other nefarious deeds, but the left is pilloried for responding in kind, even when it does so in far tamer language. Moreover, as the triumphs of Trump and Netanyahu prove, the right’s incitement is an effective tool for rallying support during elections and the left’s response, however tepid, ostensibly achieves exact same result: It also drives voters to the right.
The results of Tuesday’s primary vote in some Democratic districts, most notably the surprise defeat of veteran New York Democratic Congressman Joe Crowley by millennial firebrand Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, may signal that American liberals are fed up with their party’s overcautious and overcourteous response to Trump’s diatribes. New York’s 14th Congressional District collectively shouted Howard Beale’s famous cry from the movie Network “I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it anymore.” As could be expected, however, Democratic leaders are reacting with panic and their Republican rivals with glee. As in Israel, Trump supporters have successfully instilled the conventional wisdom that when the left speaks its true mind with the same outspokenness as the right, it inevitably dooms itself to failure.