By Rabbi Dow Marmur.
They may hear, but they don’t listen. Almost any TV panel of politicians will illustrate it. Before a panelist has an opportunity to say what s/he has been asked to talk about, there’ll be frequent interruptions from other panelists. Sometimes, even a moderator or an interviewer, having asked the question, interrupts the respondent before the latter has had a chance to say something.
It’s even worse in the Knesset. That’s why in place of debates we only get monologues with cat calls from the floor. That members heckle each other is common, even legitimate, but when they do it to visiting dignitaries, it can get ugly. Thus, for example, when in the course of his recent visit, the prime minister of Canada spoke in glowing terms about Israel and what it stands for he was heckled by an Arab member of Knesset. In the end, he and the other of his colleagues present left the chamber.
And when the president of the European Parliament came to speak last Wednesday, it was members of a party in government that interrupted him and, after the usual display of incivility, walked out in a huff to follow it up with what amounts to a condemnation. Perhaps even Prime Minister Netanyahu concurred.
Martin Schulz is a friend of Israel. A day or so before his appearance in the Knesset he received an honorary doctorate from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. In his acceptance speech he spoke warmly of Israel, roundly condemned efforts to boycott Israel and assured his audience that Europe would never succumb to it.
He seems to have spoken along similar lines in the Knesset, but there he also asked (not asserted) if it was true what a Palestinian has told him that whereas the average Israeli uses 70 liter water a day, a Palestinian would only have access to about 17. That’s when the members of Habayit Hayehudi (the settlers’ party) erupted, heckled and then demonstratively walked out. Their leader is Naftali Bennett, a senior member of the cabinet; he seems to have led the pack and even demanded an apology.
Let’s assume (and that is very much an assumption, not a fact!) that Mr. Schulz got it wrong. Surely, there would have been other, civilized, ways of putting him right. Instead, Bennett & Co decided to show their indignation, which included a reference to the fact that he spoke in German (the language that Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, had assumed would be the official language of the Jewish state).
I dare not speculate about to what extent, if any, the heckling Knesset members had had personal experience of the Holocaust and the language of its perpetrators, but once again to use that allusion as an opportunity to have a go at a German politician, who by all accounts is a friend and admirer of Israel, seems to reflect cheap posturing.
Nor do I wish to speculate about the psychology of overreaction in the face of possible inconvenient truth. I’ll confine myself to a reflection with which I started: the apparent inability by politicians to listen to what they hear. The lame defense of incivility is that it’s a reflection of Israel’s vibrant democracy. More likely it’s evidence of holding to dogmatic views in place of looking at the evidence to establish its veracity.
Is this the way Israeli politicians are about to respond to Kerry’s proposals? Is that the way they intend to negotiate peace with the Palestinians? And is that the way future foreign dignitaries can expect to be treated in Israel’s parliament?