Gil Troy: From the Center: Keeping it civil

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 10-7-08

Last month, a de-magnetized identity card prevented me from entering the building housing my office on the McGill University campus at 10:30 one night. I asked a woman passerby who looked like a faculty member for help. “My ID card isn’t working,” I said. “I teach here.”

“I know who you are,” the woman spit out contemptuously. “You’re that awful right-wing conservative professor.”

Startled, I was about to launch into my standard defense when I face that accusation, saying how I consider myself a centrist, just wrote a book championing moderation and besides, if all she knows about me is that I’m pro-Israel and anti-terror and that makes me conservative, liberalism is in worse shape than I thought. Instead, I wisely stayed silent. I just looked at her quizzically. Backpedaling from this ugly descent into politics when a simple, civil exchange was required, my colleague said she lacked the correct card and left.

This admittedly minor but nevertheless outrageous incident highlights why those of us in the broader Zionist community should be particularly horrified by the pipe bomb attack against Prof. Ze’ev Sternhell ostensibly in the name of Zionism. Those of us who have defended Israel on campus know what it is like to take unpopular stands. We understand that independence of thought is the lifeblood of freedom, that democratic communities and especially intellectual communities wither in environments that smother dissent.

The attacks and ostracism pro-Israel professors experience worldwide reveal that the intolerance underlying the assault against Sternhell is not unique to Israel. But it is rare, and particularly horrible, to see this increasingly common small-mindedness degenerate into violence. The violence reflects the acute shortage of two key ingredients democracy demands: mutuality and civility.

IT IS the most compelling lesson from George W. Bush’s simplistic approach to democracy: Democracy entails much more than choosing your leader. The chaos of Iraq, the brutality of Gaza’s Hamas-Fatah civil war, teach that without mutual respect votes are worthless tools and rights are shams. Citizenship in a democracy requires a commitment to sharing rights, to granting the same liberties to others that we demand and enjoy.

People frequently swing rights as clubs, claiming their right to free speech without extending that freedom to others who disagree with them. Without that grace, people are not enjoying free speech but demanding personal prerogative. Mutuality requires thinking about others, accepting differences within the same community, and limiting some of our excesses for the common good. Mutuality tempers the individualism so essential to freedom, avoiding the descent into selfishness. Civility is the logical and necessary result.

Alas, modern Israel often lacks both mutuality and civility. The litter strewn about too many sidewalks, the aggressiveness harming so many on the roads, the harshness of so many public interactions and the corruption tainting so many leaders, all reflect the elevating of individual whims over communal norms. The palpable, toxic, mutual contempt between left and right, secular and religious, reveals an arrogant presumption of personal infallibility that demeans the freedom of others to draw opposite conclusions reasonably.

And the particular pathology of the settler community, characterized by illegal outposts, bursts of rioting and a growing disrespect for the police and the army is a ticking time bomb that must be defused. Last month, when 40 thuggish settlers attacked an IDF post near Horesh Iron every parent of an IDF recruit or reservist should have denounced this outrage. These soldiers are our sons, brothers and fathers. Anyone who targets them should be jailed; those who facilitate such attacks should be shunned.

After the Sternhell bombing, in the dying days of his administration, while giving interviews sounding more left wing than he ever did so he could guarantee adulation and steady speech income when he travels abroad, Ehud Olmert lectured his fellow citizens about avoiding “lawlessness.” Olmert’s unsuitability to teach anyone about respect for the law underlined his utter inadequacy as the country’s leader.

BOTH VIOLENCE and democracy define Israel’s history, interwoven like the two DNA strands. There is an element of the Wild West in the country, which despite its flaws remains the Middle East’s only real democracy. At its best, this unruliness is part of its appeal, making it compelling as a country-still-in-formation, as a place that can be more open, more malleable, more creative than the more staid West. At its worst, this rowdiness reveals itself in the ugly violence coursing through the society; in the rough way parents handle children, then children handle each other; in the growing crime rate; in occasional outbursts against Palestinians. Like all functional democracies, Israel must forge a community that indulges individuals enough so they flourish without spoiling them so much they harm others.

The balance is delicate, the stakes are high. The Sternhell pipe bombing reflects not only twisted individuals whose moral system has imploded but an ugly strain within society. If America the celebrity-obsessed produces glory hounds like the men who shot Ronald Reagan and killed John Lennon, a politically charged Israel produces ideological fanatics like the criminals who targeted Sternhell.

Fortunately, Israeli society is healthy enough to be united in disgust by this hooliganism. The attack was as evil as it was self-defeating. Instinctively – and blessedly as a disincentive to copycats – reporters echoed Sternhell’s most provocative pronouncements, broadcasting them more loudly than ever in response to this horrific attempt to silence him. All of us who love Israel, who cherish democracy, must embrace Sternhell as he recovers. And in that group hug we should utter the mantra of a healthy democracy rooted in mutuality, fostering civility: Whether or not I agree with you, I will defend to the death your right to express your ideas (knowing that it protects my rights too).

The writer is professor of history at McGill University and author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today and Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents.