On Unifying Discourse and Divisive Acts

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Demands to lower the flames of criticism cannot legitimately be made by a government taking actions driven by narrow political interests. If the government does not act in a nonpartisan manner, they cannot demand those who hold different views refrain from opposing political action.

Independence Day ceremony 2024. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90

“We must not revert to the discourse of October 6” is perhaps the expression most commonly presented as the chief lesson of the “Iron Swords” war. Divisive discourse certainly was a central characteristic of Israeli society in the period leading up to the war. During the term of the Bennett-Lapid government, and even more so under the sixth Netanyahu government, there has been a deterioration in the forms of speech used by political camps toward their rivals. However, the problem has been not only in speech, but also in the polarization of the argument itself. Almost every public issue has been the subject of dispute between the coalition and the opposition.

The war, forced upon us by a cruel enemy, and our continued inability to bring the hostages home from Gaza, certainly demand greater solidarity and a closing of the ranks. All sides of the internal dispute in Israel should come together at this time in order to face the external threat, and refrain from demonizing other parties to the argument.

But lowering the flames of public discourse is just one part of this internal consolidation. National unity requires not only unifying speech, but also unifying actions, and in this regard, the ball is largely in the court of the governing regime that can decide whether or not to pursue divisive courses of action. It is the government that controls the budgets, approvals, and decisions that are at the heart of the current political argument. If we truly need to join forces against an external enemy, then it is the government that needs to act in a way that does not polarize and does not alienate.

With the outbreak of the current war, it seemed that the coalition had understood the duty incumbent on it. The judicial overhaul initiatives that had so divided the Israeli people were set aside, and a broader government was formed with the participation of the National Unity party. The new coalition agreement even stated explicitly that no legislation would be advanced in the Knesset without the agreement of all coalition partners.

But the restrictions that the coalition placed on itself in terms of actions, and not just speech, were soon abandoned. We have seen some of the most divisive political issues pushed by the government. For example, the Haredi parties demanded, and received, extensive additional funding for their educational institutions and for yeshiva students who do not serve in the IDF. Additional examples of such issues include, among others, the distribution of weapons, consolidation power in the police, prison services, and government ministries, attempting to make the Haredi exemption from the IDF permanent, and the expansion of settlements. Such divisive actions are happening under the leadership of the very people who pay lip service to ending divisive discourse. In practice, then, the demand to cease division has become one-sided: The government is entitled to advance the interests of the parties in the coalition, and yet any criticism of its actions is deemed divisive, and those voicing such criticism are accused of “reverting to October 6.” The result is a regime that is immune from criticism.

In their book The Case for Democracy, Natan Sharansky and Ron Dermer describe how non-democratic regimes use the threat of external enemies to strengthen their grip on power. They say, it is reasonable to assume that the need to demonstrate unity and stability in the face of an enemy will prevent not only mass expressions of dissatisfaction, but also steps within the government itself to replace the current leadership.

Israel is not a dictatorship, and the enemies it faces are not imagined. But the path on which Israel is now embarking, of silencing internal criticism, constitutes a real danger to Israeli democracy. Demands to lower the flames of criticism cannot legitimately be made by a government taking actions driven by narrow political interests. If the current government does not want, or is unable, to act in a non-partisan fashion in the interests of the public as a whole, then it loses the political and moral justification for demanding that those who hold different views should not do everything they can—by speech, demonstrations, and any other legal method—to resist political action that they do not support.


This article was published in the Times of Israel