In Israel, we are used to hearing that everything is more “complex” than one might think. Situations are typically described as variegated, imprecise or intangible and they seem almost intentionally so. Implicitness — about politics, religion, military actions, and human rights — rules. But I would argue that that situation has changed. In the past year in Israel, things have become clear and precise. Things have become explicit.
The government that will be formed this week is the most clearly articulated, narrowest, most right-wing, most religious and most nationalistic government ever assembled in Israel. A combination of the fundamentalist Orthodox clerical parties with the nationalistic chauvinism of the Jewish Home, led by Naftali Bennett who makes no attempt to hide his annexation plans, has been orchestrated by Benjamin Netanyahu in no uncertain terms. Along with Likud, Netanyahu’s home, which is the largest party in Israel today, and Kulanu (All of Us – a breakaway of Likud), this whole bloc is unambiguous in its Jewish, nationalistic agenda.
Twenty years ago, the philosopher Robert Brandom, in his momentous book, “Making It Explicit,” presented us with a new way of looking at language and meaning. Using the work of a number of philosophers — from Kant and Hegel, to 20th-century thinkers like Ludwig Wittgenstein, Gottlob Frege, W.V. Quine, Michael Dummett and many others — he showed us how to move the fulcrum of our attention from representation to inference, from the molecular to the holistic, from the individual to the social, and from the factual-descriptive to the normative. In short: Brandom explained that it is through social, communal norms that we give meaning to our words.
According to Brandom, we, as rational beings looking for reasons, make assertions that commit us to the connections (through inference) between the things we say, yet this is actually part of a game of making explicit what is already there, in our social, moral and political norms.
In Israel, the unambiguous move to explicitness began in July 2014 — more exactly between July 8 and August 27 of last year — when Israel engaged in the military operation called Tsuk Eitan. That means “Firm Cliff,” not “Protective Edge,” as translated by the army spokesperson, a phrase expressing implicit defensiveness. The precise goals of the operation were never clearly articulated, moving from the reported objective of stopping Hamas rockets from falling on Israeli territory to that of destroying the tunnels to weakening Hamas to returning quiet and security for Israeli communities in the South to achieving a responsible, militarily weakened sovereign in Gaza.
By the operation’s end, more than 2,100 Gazans were killed, a majority of whom were civilians, around 500 of those children. Seventy-three Israelis were killed during Firm Cliff — almost all of them soldiers. In the aftermath of the horrors — or sometimes even during them — journalists, diplomats, politicians, academics and pundits engaged in assessment of the summer’s events and their potential consequences. Amazingly, they produced two diametrically opposed appraisals. On the one hand, there was the familiar, weary lament that “there is nothing new under the sun” (and the implied “there never will be”); Israelis and Palestinians, it was said, would continue their decades-long “conflict,” with constant low-level violence and occasional high-level flare-ups. On the other hand, there was a newly formulated perception that this time something essential had changed. That summer brought a novel phenomenon, whose precise contours were still elusive and whose impact was yet to be gauged. I submit that in the summer of 2014 things were made explicit.
Explicitness surfaced right after the abduction and killing on June 12,,, 2014, of three Israeli teenagers by Palestinians. It emerged in the frenzied atmosphere that engulfed Israel until the discovery of the bodies on June 30, and the consequent vengeance killing of a Palestinian teenager by Jewish Israelis on July 2. During those three weeks, Israeli leaders openly called for retribution, with Prime Minister Netanyahu openly quoting the national poet Haim Nachman Bialik’s “Vengeance like this, for the blood of a child, / Satan has yet to devise.”
When the Firm Cliff fighting officially started, the Israeli media, whether on its own or while quoting political, cultural, religious and military leaders, was replete with clearly voiced messages of racism and hate toward any and all Arabs or Palestinians. “Death to the Arabs,” a call previously shrugged away as an instigation used mainly by erstwhile extremists and soccer fans, could be heard loud and clear. And antiwar protesters, now encountering without police protection the so-called “nationalist” supporters of the war, heard the loud and explicit “Death to the Leftists.” The long-brewing enmity between Jew and Arab, which had always been understood but sometimes unspoken, came out in full force, rising to the boiling surface. We were facing the nebulous — but no less substantial for that — move from the implicit to the explicit.
In March of this year we were witness to elections in Israel. Three days before the elections the polls showed Netanyahu trailing his opponent Isaac Herzog (leader of the “center-left” Zionist Union). In those final days, Netanyahu made two astonishing statements. First, in a newspaper interview on the day before the election, he said there would be no Palestinian state established during his term in office as prime minister. Second, on Election Day itself, he called his voters to come out to vote for his party, warning that Arabs were voting “in droves.” What exactly was he doing?
Specifically, Netanyahu voiced an “anti-norm” — what he made explicit were not universal democratic values, which are often loudly touted in official Israel, but the bald, unadorned Zionist norms of exclusive Jewish rights and exclusion of Arab citizens. These norms might be implicit; they might lie in hiding in Israeli society (even in what is perceived as center-left Zionism) but are, for that reason, no less regulative, indeed constitutive, of Israeli Jewish society. Making those norms explicit reminded Jewish voters of how they should vote.
Netanyahu’s statement against the idea of a Palestinian state being established during his term was also an “anti-norm” — it seemed to fly in the face of several years of diplomatic efforts. But what is diplomacy, if not implicitness brought to the hilt? Yes, Netanyahu had proclaimed his support of a “Palestinian state” in his (in)famous Bar-Ilan speech of 2009. But anyone following his actions and talk since that one statement could have, should have, been wise to his real intentions. It was Netanyahu’s move to explicitness that upended the implicit diplomatic games.
With these two statements, Netanyahu made explicit the implicit beliefs and attitudes which are the real norms of Zionist, Jewish Israel — or, at the very least, of many of its citizens.
We might ask which is better – the hypocrisy of pretending to accept universal democratic norms or the truthfulness of denying them in favor of parochial discriminatory ones? Which is better, implicitness or explicitness? Brandom tells us that “political norms… end up being a matter of making explicit things that are implicit in living a life of giving and asking for reasons.” But what if the overarching system of implicit norms is itself reprehensible? Or, even if there is a conflict between different implicit norms, some universalistic, others exclusivist — is there any value in making precisely the latter explicit? That seems to be the rub.
The story of Israel is a sad story; and that story has now become sadly explicit. Still, we might look to Brandom for a sliver of hope: he suggests that “having made [it] explicit, now you’re in a position to be critical about it.” Making the norms that rule in Israel explicit might, beyond shocking the conscience of mankind, open up a conversation that has been sorely lacking in the United States. For Brandom, the implications are philosophical, but no less political for that: “[I]f you can bring it out into the open as something we can discuss and give and ask for reasons for, then these implicit inferences that are curled up in our concepts don’t have power over us anymore. They’ve come into the light of day where we have the power of reasoning about them.”
Perhaps such reasoning, now in explicit political contexts, might even lead to the power of changing them.