Monday, April 4, 2016

Triaging the Israel debate

Ariel Harkham, Jerusalem Post

Image from article, with caption: Palestinian protesters wave Palestinian flags as Israelis carrying Israeli flags walk past in front of the Damascus Gate outside Jerusalem's Old City.

Restoring honest political discourse over Israel requires a return to a common vocabulary.

The art of communication has withered and with it large parts of our political discourse. There are a myriad of reasons for this: the rise of mass communication, the absence of civics in the public square, news as entertainment and the prevalence of political punditry in which the extremes of the political bell curve become the most popularized. Paradoxically, in the age of the Internet, despite increased access to information, important political discourse is rendered meaningless before it begins as this information becomes fragmented, bite-sized, personalized and overloaded.

As a result, canons of knowledge are up for grabs and the intellectual equilibrium, which has produced a deep tradition of political discourse in the West, is upset. Nowhere do we find this more acute than in the current dialogue on the Jewish state.

Restoring honest political discourse over Israel requires a return to a common vocabulary. The most basic rule to any debate is that it takes two to tango. Though opinions may differ, basic definitions, concepts and norms are a prerequisite for rigorous discourse. Without them, discussions enter into the realm of the absurd, as they do regularly when witnessing debates between Israel and its detractors.

This can be seen most glaringly in the breakdown in basic assumptions, which make honest discussion impossible. Maintaining a back and forth over a blockade on Gaza, security checkpoints, settlements or the illegality of targeted assassinations between people who don’t even agree on whether Israel is a legitimate enterprise, let alone moral one, is a pointless exercise. Such discourse only results in participants vainly speaking past each other, showing off their ideological stars rather than pursuing truth. When this breakdown occurs, one is left with a choice: politely explore the depth of the disconnect to determine how it arose, or call it out and force the party to acknowledge its departure from basic norms.

This is an especially critical question for Israel’s public diplomacy, which is faced with a dilemma. While the lay intellectual and official diplomatic defense of Israel has come a long way, it faces a renewed discourse which has been hijacked by radicals and whose propaganda has become normalized into Western culture, especially its academia. In order to adapt to this new “hunger games” environment, Israel advocacy needs to return to the basics and force its detractors to show their true stripes. In this sense, a more confrontational approach is needed, which stands in contrast to the popular notion that any engagement is positive.

A conversation will always be as strong as its lowest denominator and this new approach demands the asking of basic questions to determine if the counter-party is an anti-Semite posing as an Israel basher, an intellectual poseur or demagogic half-wit. Before getting into the issues, one needs to know where the counter- party is anchored intellectually. Are they looking to perpetrate a false history within the confines of polite debate? If so, the 800-lb gorilla in the room needs to be exposed. Israel advocates must begin to operate in a rigged game. The question that begs asking is when do you know if you are dealing with a cheater? When you catch him in the act, of course.

What does this mean practically to the Israel advocate? First, it would be a mistake to assume that the best debaters deliver the best answers; the most experienced debater can tell you that the uncomplicated question can be far more disarming than an insightful answer.

Second, be prepared for the answers that your questions illicit. With this in mind, the following five questions should be relied on to force a return to the basics and determine the true intellectual identity of the counterparty: 1. Is being Jewish an ethnicity as well as a religion? 2. Has Jerusalem been sacred to the Jews for millennia? 3. Was the Holocaust the murder of six million Jews? 4. Does Israel have the right to exist as the Jewish state? 5. Is Zionism racist? Each of these questions forces a return to the basis.

Indeed, how can one discuss Israeli policy with someone who questions the basic legitimacy of the Jewish state or who denies the collective memory of the Jewish people? At the start, asking these basic questions with confidence will at best ensure a more honest dialogue.

At worst it will expose the ignorant and the anti-Semite who denies Jewish temples, Jewish ancestry, Jewish liberation, Jewish tragedy or Jewish political expression.

It would be a mistake, even naive at this point, to believe these basic questions can be taken for granted.

Not today, not anymore. Applying these seemingly simple questions to this radicalized conversation is sure to yield surprising results. For starters, it is likely to expose how deep the anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic strain runs and begin rectifying a broken conversation back into coherence. In the long run these questions can become a lamppost to those who wish to understand the root causes of why the Jewish-Arab conflict is well over a 100 years in the making.

Now is the time for Israel and its friends to take off the gloves in the public arena. Engaging in a hostile world requires that we practice a little bit of intellectual triage and separate the wheat from the chaff. By asking just one of the five questions in the opening moments of a debate, one will very quickly be able to get a feel for who is sitting across the table. Some will squirm in their incoherence and intolerance while others will clarify their positions, but the audience begins to see behind the curtain, the charade passing off as informed debate. Those who decide to pick up the mantle to defend Israel need to embrace that awkward moment when the pseudo-progressive is exposed as a bigot in a bow-tie. And respond with the appropriate passion and contempt for those who seek to deny the Jews rights to life and liberty. Only with a more confrontational attitude can Israel’s public diplomacy begin to re-balance a radicalized debate.

The writer is the co-founder of the Jewish National Initiative, a grassroots advocacy forum that is bringing Zionism into the 21st century, and director of a successful debate society, Whiskey Debates Society, in Tel Aviv since 2008.

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