Argumentum ad hominem (Latin for “argument against the man”) is an insidiously effective and widespread polemical technique. Its essence consists of attacking a given person in order to discredit his message. There may be no objective fault with said message – indeed, it may be cogent and excellent – but it’s never properly evaluated because the messenger is spitefully trashed.
Deflecting attention from the issues via character assassination is very prevalent in our politics and certainly predates the state. Even before becoming Israel’s first premier, David Ben-Gurion was already a master practitioner surpassed by none. He spoke of Ze’ev Jabotinsky as Vladimir Hitler – no less (for the attention of those pure souls among us who shudder at any Nazi-allusions). Ironically, Ben-Gurion was lots closer to Jabotinsky in no-nonsense realism than generally acknowledged and eventually ended up implementing the very policies which Jabotinsky presciently advocated – hence, perhaps, BG’s psychological hang-ups.
When not branding Menachem Begin an abhorrent fascist, Ben-Gurion rendered him a non-person and referred only to “that man seated next to Dr. Bader.” This isn’t irrelevant ancient history. Ad hominem propaganda is endemic, if not genetic, to Israel’s left-wing dialectics, where the merits of an opponent’s assertions are sidestepped by besmirching him.
This campaign season’s auxiliary bête noir was Avigdor Lieberman. Though a secondary target, he drew ferocious fire. It got so bad that one couldn’t suggest in polite society that attention be paid to real anomalies which Lieberman highlighted. The vogue was to paint him a bigotry-monger and ignore flagrant sedition in Israel’s Arab sector, sanctioned by uber-liberal Supreme Court legal interpretations.
Lieberman recommended no ruthless repression but merely a pledge of allegiance from all Israelis as a prerequisite to citizenship – Jews and Arabs alike. Voters who responded to Lieberman’s pitch weren’t hate-crazed. They were frustrated that their existential common sense was haughtily dismissed by elitist bigwigs who maintain that our democracy must self-destruct in the name of democratic ideals – that democracy must allow those who blatantly and brazenly side with genocidal enemies during wartime to continue undermining our survival prospects at our expense.
Lieberman’s proposals should have been promoted by all other Zionist parties had our patricians not nixed the healthy self-preservation instincts of belittled plebeians. It was arrogant to scorn what no besieged population anywhere could conceivably afford to scorn.
BUT SHOW-STEALING Lieberman-linked hijinks aside, the most primal and deepest detestation is reserved for Netanyahu. In his case the loathing consistently becomes far more visceral and isn’t even pro forma issue-generated. It’s non-specific, all-encompassing and virtually devoid of coherent triggers. Netanyahu is reviled because he’s clearly the most viable political alternative to Israel’s left-leaning establishment. As the single most formidable threat to its hegemony, he must be thoroughly and unambiguously delegitimized. This spawns such supposed slurs as “Bibi is still Bibi,” “the Bibi in him resurfaced,” “the inner-Bibi couldn’t be overcome,” “the Bibi went to his head.”
Don’t fish for explanations about what “the Bibi” means, how Bibi failed to shed “the Bibi,” and from what Bibi was expected to reform. It’s immaterial. The hazy yet all-important impression is that “the Bibi” is somehow bad – a despicable moral flaw, an inherent failing. By not specifying, ad hominem copywriters imply that this defect is patently obvious, an axiomatic indisputable fact.
This was key to Kadima’s quasi-success. With vague slogans like “I don’t believe Bibi,” Kadima’s spinmeisters managed to ingrain the Tzipi-Bibi dichotomy. This became the choice. Bibi was painted as the ogre, and Tzipi became the hyped anti-Bibi bulwark. When push came to shove, even Labor and Meretz diehards heeded the clarion-call and voted for Livni just to “stop Bibi.”
Kadima ingeniously employed the smear tactic – the intentional, premeditated effort to undermine a rival’s reputation, credibility and character via unverifiable innuendo, distortions, half-truths, or even outright lies. The smear can retain effectiveness even after its allegations are refuted, and it derails energies from urgent concerns.
The basic premise is that when enough mud is slung, some sticks. Ordinary citizens are unlikely to send off muck samples to the lab to determine its composition, origin or authenticity. An indistinct but unmistakable odium adheres to the smear-victim, follows him everywhere, and he cannot shirk or avoid it.
HAVING BEEN gravely stigmatized in the past, Netanyahu should expect the denigration to escalate as he seeks to form a coalition. The more demonizing him becomes bon ton among the guardians of our collective conscience, the more it emboldens Netanyahu’s own frustrated coattail-riders to wreak petty vengeance and attract attention from the Left-dominated media. Kicking Netanyahu can again become de rigueur for anyone with ambitions to fulfill or axes to grind.
So, precisely as the comeback commences, Netanyahu must become as circumspect as a monk. He mustn’t be spotted puffing on a cigar, sipping wine or enjoying dinner. His spouse and offspring must remain strictly camera-shy. No hint must be allowed of anything that could remotely provide a pretext for nit-picking or a vehicle for trumped-up scandals.
Netanyahu must pretend humility and austerity. Just like Ben-Gurion. The venerable founding father resided in a posh multi-story private home in the heart of Tel Aviv – on the ultra-desirable Sderot Keren Kayemet (the boulevard today is named for Ben-Gurion). Back then his contemporary average Israelis lived three or four families to one flat, sharing bath and kitchen facilities. We won’t even mention the rickety shacks, Quonset huts or tents of the ma’abarot. But BG preached ascetic socialism. He berated poor Begin as representing wealth. The then-opposition leader raised three children in a cramped two-room semi-basement.
BG’s ultimate ploy was his much-ballyhooed 1953 move to Sde Boker. He never gave up what by yesteryear’s standard was his Tel Aviv palace. Yet in popular mythology he’ll forever be recalled as the self-denying pioneer from the Negev wilderness.
Bibi should now emulate that very affectation and exude disarming modesty. What worked for BG could help Netanyahu gain a minimal chance to function as a premier. Otherwise the wizards of vilification would never let him govern.
Besides, a little disingenuousness may facilitate lots of good. For all his poses and uninhibited ad hominem propensities, Ben-Gurion was a peerless premier. He was a godsend in his day. Had a more timid personality been in charge, never would Israeli independence have been declared nor sustained.
Nowadays dispensers of trendy sanctimony need recall that all Lieberman demands is a token affirmation of loyalty. Ben-Gurion distrusted mere words. Under his watch, enemy flags wouldn’t have been hoisted in Tel Aviv. Arab parties inimical to a Jewish state weren’t tolerated. He subjected Israel’s Arab sector to martial law restrictions – in the name of upholding democracy and socialism. In comparison, Lieberman is a pussycat moderate. But BG wasn’t wrong.
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