Many Israelis are losing the ability to indulge in civilized dialogue. Political discourse invariably degenerates into screaming matches, and Knesset debates stoop to personal abuse.
While the decline in civility and rational dialogue is bad enough, the inclination to demonize opponents has reached such a level that it resurrects chilling memories of the Rabin assassination.
There is indeed a danger that we are revisiting the foul swamp. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s unilateral disengagement plan is generating an immense tide of emotional distress. And understandably so. When thousands of Jews are to be displaced from homes and communities they created over three generations with the approval of successive governments, it is hardly surprising that powerful passions are unleashed.
The media conveys the impression that the principal source for potential violence lies among fanatical religious zealots – rabbis and laymen who claim a divine sanction to transgress the laws of the land to further the will of God.
This is frightening because had Yigal Amir not been seduced by an insane religious fervor into believing that he could act as the Almighty’s emissary, this unbalanced young man may not have been transformed into an assassin.
The extremist religious factor is exemplified by rabbis and others urging religious soldiers (who currently make up one-third of combat soldiers completing officer courses) to resist orders which they insist represent a breach of Halacha.
The situation is further exacerbated when Rabbi Avigdor Nebenzahl, a man who exemplifies piety and love of Eretz Yisrael, displayed an utter lack of sophistication by responding to a query and saying that halachicly the displacement of settlements would justify the application of Din Rodef – the law that Yigal Amir employed to justify his abominable act.
Of course, Rav Nebenzahl stressed that his interpretation must never be exploited to justify any form of violence against the state or its instrumentalities. But the media highlighted his comment out of context, unleashing an avalanche of publicity that both religious fanatics and leftist extremists tried to harness to justify their own positions.
And to top this, the media gave prominence to other lunatic scenarios such as a scheme to crash a drone packed with explosives on the Temple Mount and destroy the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aksa mosque.
The hysteria only increased when Internal Security Minister Tzachi Hanegbi announced that he was convinced that there were people waiting to assassinate the prime minister and others in order to “save the people of Israel.” This was corroborated by Shin Bet chief Avi Dichter, who informed the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that he believed there were 150-200 settlers hoping to kill Sharon.
The timing of these releases gave credence to allegations that they had been inspired by political groups seeking to discredit and smear settlers collectively as fanatics and lunatics. After all, intelligence agencies like the Shin Bet would be more inclined to take action against potential killers rather than release sensational press statements. In fact, Dichter made the astonishing observation that had the suspects been Arabs, he would have arrested them. Now if it means that that people conspiring to assassinate a prime minister should be treated more leniently because they are Jews, then Dichter should be sacked.
Of course, the truth is that extremists and lunatics are bound to be found in all societies, and it is not surprising that with passions in Israel now at an all-time high, we too have our fair share of budding madmen capable of taking the law into their own hands.
Hysteria and press sensationalism undoubtedly exacerbate such potential threats. If there are indeed suspects at large, surely they should be arrested or placed in administrative detention. Never mind civil liberties. One assassinated prime minister is enough. But politicians and people like Dichter must also cease making inflammatory statements that could become self-fulfilling.
There must also be a tightening of existing legislation against domestic terrorism, taking care to distinguish between inciting terror and the legitimate right of any group to canvass against government policies.
To his credit, President Moshe Katzav visited Gush Katif and endorsed the right of settlers to constructively oppose the government with protests such as the 150,000 who linked hands and formed a human chain between Gaza and Jerusalem, even earning the admiration of their opponents.
Ultimately, the law is only one element ensuring stability. The prevailing climate of opinion is critical, and there must be an unconditional recognition by all mainstream groups that the use of force is the exclusive prerogative of a government.
It is particularly important that responsible rabbis, especially those opposed to disengagement, make their voices heard condemning violence and disowning anyone calling on soldiers to defy orders. They must insist that issues of security and foreign policy are not to be determined by Halacha. They should also display sensitivity and avoid public theoretical dissertations on subjects like Din Rodef, knowing that such discussions can be misconstrued and incite lunatics to commit terrible evil.
The meeting held at the President’s Residence on Tisha Be’av with representatives from all sections of the community, including settler leaders and prominent political leaders from the Left, is an important step in the right direction. They signed a document entitled “Brotherly Discourse,” which related to the unity of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel.
It rejected all calls for “organized refusal” of soldiers to obey orders and for “mutual respect” in the debate over disengagement without resorting to “delegitimization” of any viewpoints. It condemned all expressions of violence verbal or physical.
The prime minister himself must also bite the bullet and speak directly with the settlers he seeks to displace. The vast majority are loyal, law-abiding citizens who should be embraced as pioneers of a dream that may not be realized. Ariel Sharon must tell them that he and the bulk of the nation share the pain and sacrifices imposed on them for the perceived welfare of the nation as a whole. It is obscene to say to them, “Who asked you to settle in the first place?”
No matter how passionately we feel about these highly emotional issues, there is only one way to proceed. Only by civilized dialogue will we be able to exorcise the fanatics and extremists from both sides of the political spectrum and avoid a catastrophe.