We need creative extremism – not left or right Orthodoxy

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 9-1-10

Ideologues left and right seem unhinged these days. Leftists claim that bullying right-wingers menace Israeli democracy. Their diatribes suggest there is no free thought in Israeli universities, with everyone forced to parrot a right-wing line. Meanwhile rightists charge traitorous left-wingers with threatening Israel’s very existence. Their diatribes create the impression that Israelis are bracing for apocalypse now rather than anticipating the start of school today and the Jewish New Year next week.

Day after day both warring camps make extreme claims and idiotic moves. Leftists hysterically – and ahistorically – cry “McCarthyism” whenever anyone dares criticize them. And most recently Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu foolishly fed the paranoia by threatening to cut theatres’ funding when some actors refused to perform in the West Bank. Both extremes forgot that democracy guarantees freedom for the thought we hate.

Too many leftists apparently skipped the lessons about mutual rights along with civic responsibility in their democracy primers. For over a decade thoughtful critics have complained that too many professors in too many universities preach more than teach, imposing an anti-Zionist line which intimidates students. These charges of educational malpractice transcend the political content of the critiques. Academic freedom is not only about criticizing but about creating a learning environment which does not compel adherence to party lines. Yet, when a think tank such as the Institute for Zionist Strategies researches academic bias cries of “McCarthyism” and “thought police” mount even before the paper is released. And when Im Tirzu activists threaten to take the struggle against a politicized professoriate to donors, leftists shout “Stalinism” not just McCarthyism. Academics confident that they are offering a balanced, open-minded, thought-provoking education should say, ” Bring it on. We can win a debate about the quality of our teaching and research without crying foul.”

Similarly, NGOs that foster a culture of criticism about Israel demonize their critics rather than responding to substantive challenges regarding the sources of their funding and the destructive aims of some organizations they support. Does the Israeli left want a politically correct orthodoxy or a dynamic democracy? The shrill response to critics suggests that they love criticism only when directed at others, not at them.

At the same time, too many rightist ignore the civility and governmental restraint essential for healthy democracies. Bibi Netanyahu should know better than to risk the dignity of his office by duelling with activist actors. He should have ignored their refusal to perform in Ariel, or said this proposed boycott demonstrates Israel’s democratic vitality. The anti-Israel boycott movement abroad is reprehensible because it demonizes all of Israel, attacking the State’s legitimacy while singling Israel out for special opprobrium. That movement’s essentialism, one-sidedness and complicity in Arab-fueled anti-Semitism targets the collective Jewish state  and harms the peace process. However, focused boycotts for specific policy goals are legitimate.

While failing to defend democracy in Ariel, Netanyahu correctly condemned Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s outburst praying for Palestinians to “vanish from the world.” Still, more cabinet ministers should have repudiated such language. It is immoral and stupid, undermining Israel’s demand that Palestinians end their constant anti-Israel incitement.

Partisans should learn from two of the greatest social activists Natan Sharansky and Martin Luther King, Jr.  Sharansky, who went from imprisoned dissident to cabinet minister, judges democracies using his “town square test” – can citizens denounce their rulers publicly without being harassed by the authorities? Nothing in this test absolves social critics from criticism in the free marketplace of ideas. Yet Sharansky’s test cautions leaders in a democracy to avoid any appearance of punishing peaceful protesters.

Martin Luther King advocated “creative extremism… a type of constructive, nonviolent tension” to free individuals “from the bondage of myths and half-truths” and spur “creative analysis.” Israel needs creative extremists who – blessed to live in a society that passes Sharansky’s “town square test” – foster King’s “constructive, nonviolent tension.” Understanding that freedom is a subversive power, activists should hold contradictory or nuanced thoughts in their heads:  Israel may be imperfect but it is not illegitimate; criticism may be harsh but it is not illegal; some Palestinians may be ready for peace and engaging in state building while others still seek Israel destruction.

Activists should learn from criticism and understand their political culture. King shrewdly spoke the language of Christianity, Cold War and the Constitution while demanding radical change. Too many Israeli critics repudiate Zionism and convey contempt for Israel while peddling reform, then complain when they are denounced or ignored.

Moreover, appreciating that democracy is a fragile flower and that the Middle East is a volatile region, “creative extremists” should understand some realities constraining Israeli actions. We need hope to combat the sourpusses left and right who demonize adversaries and exaggerate problems rather than seeking common ground and finding solutions.

In fact, hope might be breaking out as the Jewish New Year begins with a round of peace talks.  Understanding Winston Churchill’s vision that “to jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war,” even the normally anti-Netanyahu Ha’aretz speculated that Bibi might be poised to become Israel’s Mikhail Gorbachev, confounding expectations to make peace.

Of course, Zionism has always been fueled by hope, “HaTikvah.” Without hope the Jews who stayed in the land of Israel for millennia could not have survived. Without hope the early Zionist pioneers would not have built the infrastructure for a state in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Without hope no Holocaust refugees would have moved to Israel. Without hope no refugees from Arab lands would have been absorbed as Israelis – rather than being consigned to perpetual refugee status as the Arab countries have done to the Palestinians. And without hope Israel would not have matured and thrived.

Right-wing and left-wing extremists are caught in their parallel pessimisms, in dueling nihilisms. Those of us in the center must progress fast enough to catch the historical train, but not too fast that we stumble and get overrun.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. The author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today, he is also the author of The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction. He can be reached at giltroy@gmail.com

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