To bring change, turn down the volume
Israeli election posters, circa 1937
Photo by Hugo Mendelson
February 6, 2013
The Israeli voter has spoken. According to most commentators, Israelis sent a clear message that resolving our domestic challenges must dominate the Israeli political agenda. We want our political leaders to finally solve problems such as “burden sharing,” housing, and the high cost of living. Other issues can wait.
While some Israelis are reveling in the election results, others nurse their resentment and are waiting for the day when their candidates will take center stage and shift the pendulum back in their direction. Push too hard one way, and your opponents are empowered to rally. Yesh Atid won 19 seats, but the ultra-Orthodox parties together won 18. Groundbreaking decisions where one tribe trumps the other can be a dangerous gamble in a society where power is diffused and the equilibrium is fragile.
Election season tends to obscure these kinds of complexities. It is governed by the two great commandments of modern political discourse: Simplify and Exaggerate. The loudest voices, the most far-reaching promises, are the ones that are usually heard. We are drawn to those who speak with conviction and confidence that they have the answer. We suspend our appreciation for the complexities and are swept up in the compelling appeal of the forthright message, or the magnetic personality of its deliverer.
But then the elections pass and the business of governing begins. And so often, the realities of governance turn hope into disappointment. We place our faith in a new figure that emerges on the political firmament, promising to bring genuine change, to make revolutionary decisions. But how often is that promise realized? How often are we disappointed by the compromises made, by the difficulty and deadlock of the decision-making process, by what we come to think of the leader we once so admired?
Our reaction at these moments of frustration is telling. Many of us believe that the problem was not in our lofty hopes for radical change, but in the individual with whom our hopes were invested. The hero of the moment is Yair Lapid. But if he disappoints, like other political stars before him, another hero will emerge to take his place, and we will transfer our hopes, like a torch, from one leader to another.
But perhaps part of the problem here lies with the hopes themselves — with the collective act of self-delusion that we engage in at every election cycle. In a society as tribal and beset by challenges as Israel, we may need a quieter, more nuanced view of how change takes place. We may need to develop the skill of being able to hear and value softer voices, those who don’t make grand promises, who are less certain they have the answer, but have the human qualities that help navigate lasting change in a fragmented society.
These figures are, almost by definition, less adept at campaigning. They cannot free themselves from the complexities of the issues, or the legitimacy of views different from their own. They shy away from battle cries and noisy promises, because they know that change is usually more evolution than revolution. They know that after change takes place in Israeli society — as it must — we have to live together here and respect each other. We need to cultivate and value more leaders like this — who are as skilled at listening as at oratory and who know both how to be agents of change and how to bring it about while ensuring that the fabric of our society is not irreparably torn.
Israel’s greatest leader, Moses, was a profoundly modest man with a speech impediment. He would have made a lousy political candidate. And our tradition tells us that God’s own voice can be heard as a kol dmama daka — the thin sound of silence. The most powerful voice, the most outspoken and blunt, the ones that promise change, quickly, dramatically, painlessly, are the ones that enjoy the spotlight. They attract our hopes. They tell us what we want to hear. But the softer, less strident voices in our society may be no less deserving of our attention. Sometimes, they tell us what we need to hear, and they may be no less capable of bringing the lasting change we seek.