Honest, ugly discourse: Gilad Sharon and John Stewart Mill
One of the responsibilities of the news media is to set the parameters of acceptable discourse in society. But while media outlets have the unique ability to demarcate what is and isn’t acceptable to print, in doing so, they walk a fine line and risk masking the ugliest – but real – faces of society.
Last week, in the midst of the latest round of deadly violence between Israel and Gaza, The Jerusalem Post printed an op-ed penned by Gilad Sharon, a man who has pushed himself into the public eye solely by virtue of the name and legacy of his father, former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon.
In a hyper-nationalist tone, Sharon advocated escalating the limited military operation into what would be the 21st century’s first instance of genocide:
“We need to flatten entire neighborhoods in Gaza. Flatten all of Gaza. The Americans didn’t stop with Hiroshima – the Japanese weren’t surrendering fast enough, so they hit Nagasaki, too.”
There is no need to delve into the plethora of reasons Sharon’s words and ideas are appalling. If he were a man of any influence, his writings might be considered criminal under the Genocide Convention; a cursory reading makes that clear even to the legal layman.
More worthy of discussion is the wisdom of disseminating such abhorrent ideas.
Anyone who has lived in Israel for any significant period of time can recall at least a handful of times they heard public calls to “turn Gaza into a parking lot,” to “kill them all,” and other unabashed murderous racism most often associated with stereotypes of taxi drivers. Nationalist marches through Palestinian neighborhoods filled with genocidal chants of “death to Arabs” have without challenge, become part and parcel of the defective Israeli social landscape.
A day before Sharon’s article was published, Knesset member Michael Ben-Ari, a former member of a terrorist organization, picked up a megaphone at a public demonstration in Tel Aviv to declare that security for Israel is synonymous with “erasing Gaza [from the map].” A few days earlier, he posted a message to IDF soldiers on his Facebook page saying, “There are no innocents in Gaza … mow them down.” (Hebrew link)
At the same demonstration in Tel Aviv last week, as a young Army Radio reporter stood by recording, Knesset candidate and former spokesman for the Kach terrorist organization (designated as such by both Israel and the United States) Baruch Marzel said Israel can and must “exterminate” its enemies, namely Palestinians in Gaza.
But despite their commonality and de facto acceptance in Israeli society, such calls for racially motivated mass murder, genocide and ethnic cleansing are not usually aired for the Israeli public to see and hear, let alone translated by international or English-language media for foreigners to read and watch.
The first step in recovery is admitting you have a problem.
Racism and calls for mass murder are normally cast aside by the Israeli mainstream as insignificant and peripheral views. While by no means do such overtly racist and unacceptable outbursts represent the entirety of Israeli society, Israeli society as a whole can and should be morally indicted for its silent assent to and passive acceptance of those ideas’ legitimacy, and for its unwillingness to confront them.
When a recent poll found that a full one-third of Israeli Jews think Israeli-Arabs should be stripped of the right to vote (Hebrew PDF), the public backlash was not against the rampant racism it exposed but against the journalist who published it. (A similar poll in 2010 found 36% held the same view)
It may be legitimate to attempt not to air one’s dirty laundry in public, but the laundry must be washed somewhere, sometime.
While it is indeed objectionable to print the genocidal, racist ramblings of somebody like Gilad Sharon, shutting one’s eyes and pretending his ideas exist only in the minds of a crazy few is even more reprehensible than suppressing the expression of those thoughts in the first place.
As John Stuart Mill wrote over 150 years ago, “Wrong opinions and practices gradually yield to fact and argument: but facts and arguments, to produce any effect on the mind, must be brought before it”.
Instead of burying and dismissing outrageous views and ideas, expressed and espoused by no insignificant minority of Jewish Israelis, maybe it’s better they are aired and printed for all to hear and read.
Only by forcing Israel – and the world – to acknowledge the ugly reality and xenophobic consequences on society wrought by nearly half a century of military control over another people does rehabilitation even stand a chance. Only by exposing the murderous ideologies espoused by the likes of Gilad Sharon – and many others – can Israel begin to treat the plague it has long been afflicted with.
But exposure is not enough; if there is any chance for change, the silent majority must remove its blinders and act – there must be outrage.