Updated: Nov 25, 2019
Israel undergoes an unprecedented political crisis. How has it come to this, and what does it say about Netanyahu (aka Bibi), Israel, politics, and the (postmodern) human condition? Doublethink might be the answer.
Bibi lost the election. Bibi won the election.
Logically, these claims are incompatible, inherently contradictory. They can’t both be true. Unless, of course, you live in Israel, where reality has become so elusive that many see double, daily. Amidst this public diplopia, Benjamin Netanyahu’s re-sounding nickname “Bi-bi” has become a perfect fit to his corrupting impact on Israeli consciousness, and conscience.
Netanyahu’s re-sounding nickname “Bi-bi” has become a perfect fit to his corrupting impact on Israeli consciousness, and conscience.
Subatomic physics has now taken a quantum leap onto politics. Is it a wave? Is it a particle? Both, or whatever you (be)hold it to be. Fittingly, Israel’s PM since 2009, Bibi himself now lies in a superposition, and with him, Israeli politics itself, like Schrödinger’s cat, at once both dead and alive, weirdly awaiting an unknown observer to determine which.
Some hoped that Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, will cut the Gordian knot. But instead, he too resigned himself to the split personality of Israeli body politic, proposing two concomitant PMs – so Bibi could hold fast to his “precious.”
While Israel’s apparent schizophrenia has certainly achieved new heights, it didn’t start on September 17, when 70% of eligible voters went to the ballots, for the second time in five months, hoping to avoid a third round. This mass mental malady commenced long ago, mushrooming under Bibi’s careful gardening, since his debut in the early 1990s.
Israel’s apparent schizophrenia commenced long ago, mushrooming under Bibi’s careful gardening, since his debut in the early 1990s.
“It’s personal, and it’s going to remain personal,” Bibi protested, as publicly as possible, on national TV during his 1993 bid to lead the Likud party. Confessing his extramarital affair, Bibi solemnly declared that his political opponent is blackmailing him via a tape recording, and “should be in prison, not in leadership.”
The police investigation of the alleged blackmail (and tape) ended in naught, and two years later Bibi apologized to his rival for the accusation. The timing was safe, Bibi had already won, and led the Likud to a most ferocious campaign against the Oslo peace process, and to a character assassination against PM Rabin. No apology followed the corporeal assassination, and subsequent terror attacks paved the path for Bibi’s 1996 ascendance to the premiership.
Since then, though occasionally suffering electoral setbacks (most notably in 1999 and 2006), Netanyahu has profoundly shaped contemporary Israel. By now the longest serving PM in Israel history, Bibi has left an insidious mark that merits its own ism – BBism.
Big Brother could have never imagined a better disciple. If Netanyahu is a magician, as his admirers claim, to fathom his appeal one must master the politics of dark magic. Few tutors introduce this art better than George Orwell in 1984. The “Two Minute Hate” commences with Goldstein, the archenemy of the state, featured on the big screen, denouncing Big Brother and the party, demanding peace and freedom of speech and thought.
As Goldstein’s image “produced fear and anger automatically,” Winston Smith, the protagonist rebel amidst the ecstatic crowd, could sense how “his secret loathing of Big Brother changed into adoration, and Big Brother seemed to tower up, an invincible, fearless protector, standing like a rock against the hordes of Asia.” That was all the crowd needed to break “into a deep, slow, rhythmical chant of ‘B-B!... B-B!’... Partly it was a sort of hymn to the wisdom and majesty of Big Brother, but still more it was an act of self-hypnosis, a deliberate drowning of consciousness by means of rhythmic noise.”
‘B-B!... B-B!’... Partly it was a sort of hymn to the wisdom and majesty of Big Brother, but still more it was an act of self-hypnosis, a deliberate drowning of consciousness by means of rhythmic noise. (Orwell, 1984)
Whether in Oceania 1984 or Israel 2019, that “deliberate drowning of consciousness by means of rhythmic noise” lies at the heart of BBism. It amounts to what Orwell saw as the ultimate weapon against human freedom: doublethink. It’s a tricky business, a half-conscious effort to overcome consciousness itself, in particular, to do away with cognitive dissonance; in Orwell’s words: “to know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies... to repudiate morality while laying claim to it.”
Whether Bibi learned doublethink the hard way, or simply has a knack for it, is hard to tell, but well before the small screen, Bibi already made “Big Brother” a reality show, and his political playground. The record is astounding. It’s not merely factual lies that Bibi, a historian’s son, has spread so generously, whether speaking about himself (e.g. “I didn’t vote in favor of disengagement”) or others (e.g. the Palestinian mufti gave Hitler the idea for the Holocaust). It’s saying one thing, then saying/doing the opposite, neither acknowledging the contradiction, nor reasoning the obvious shift.
Netanyahu supported the disengagement arrangements, in six consecutive votes
There are ample examples. For years Bibi lambasted negotiation with terrorists, especially on prisoner exchange. But then, in 2011, to deflect the unprecedented mass protests calling for social justice, he struck exactly such a deal with the Hamas. Indeed, since his 1997 directive to release Hamas founder Ahmed Yassin, Bibi has been reaping the benefits of sustaining the organization; after all, what offers better proof that there is “no partner for peace”?
Bibi has been reaping the benefits of sustaining the Hamas; after all, what offers better proof that there is “no partner for peace”?
Iran supplied a similar boon, building that remarkable time machine that kept Bibi’s world spinning in one single year – “It’s 1938 and Iran Is Germany” – for over two decades. As with Oceania’s alternating wars with Eurasia and Eastasia, what matters is not winning, but maintaining enough enmity to gather public fear and hatred in order to retain domestic power.
Moreover, in the labyrinthine world of doublethink, enemies can be best friends. Israel should fight the rising tide of antisemitism worldwide, as Bibi tirelessly reiterates, while heartily befriending far-right, quasi authoritarian, often antisemitic, leaders, like Bolsonaro, Duterte, Morawiecki and Orban.
The list goes on. On the 2015 election day Bibi successfully incited his supporters by his fabrication that “the Arab voters are heading to the polling stations in droves, left-wing NGOs are bringing them in buses,” then, once victorious, dissembled it. Before the April 2019 election, Bibi pledged to “obviously, never” advance laws to protect him for indictment, then, after winning the election, went ahead and did just that.
Facing mounting allegations, Bibi has soulfully chanted “there will be nothing, because there is nothing,” while doing everything to stop that “nothing” from being adjudicated, including tarnishing the police, and its Chief, whom he was instrumental in appointing, then doing the same with the Attorney General, who eventually decided to indict the one who appointed him on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
The 2019 double election brought Bibi’s doublethink to an almost comic crescendo, glaringly evident in his treatment of Benny Gantz, who dared challenge his reign. For many months, in Bibi’s world, the former IDF chief of staff was effectively leading a putsch and could not even be trusted with his own private phone; now, once the ballot boxes have spoken - twice - Gantz has become a legitimate PM, with one caveat of course – Bibi must be first. That Bibi accepted President Rivlin’s diplopic formula is all the more remarkable. The leader who professed to be the only real protector against Israel’s evil doers is now willing to have “a dangerous Leftist” run the government, and the state, if only he can keep the PM title and residence.
But what is truly remarkable is not Bibi’s conduct, but BBism: his doublethink’s insidious sway. It attests to the great burden of freedom – of making a reasoned, responsible, choice – and the great appeal of the flight from that freedom. Doublethink is freedom’s enemy for it allows us to dodge any cognitive dissonance that might emerge from facing a dilemma about what is right, factually or morally. There is no real choice without doubt, which doublethink does away with.
Doublethink is freedom’s enemy... There is no real choice without doubt, which doublethink does away with.
For Hannah Arendt, as for Plato and Socrates, thinking is “the two-in-one of the soundless dialogue,” a critical conversation one has with oneself. Doublethink is the dark flipside of this “two-in-one”: rather than conduct a silent inner dialogue about what to choose, I silence that very dialogue by discarding the choice, the two options become one and the same. Hamlet could have had such an easy life. To be or not to be? Just Bibi.
Recall Orwell’s emphasis on doublethink as “self-hypnosis.” Jean-Paul Sartre would have agreed. A couple of years before Orwell wrote 1984, the French existentialist explained the nature of “bad faith,” escaping freedom through “self-deception,” in which “it is from myself that I am hiding the truth… The one to whom the lie is told and the one who lies are one and the same person, which means that I must know in my capacity as deceiver the truth which is hidden from me in my capacity as the one deceived. Better yet I must know the truth very exactly in order to conceal it more carefully – and this not at two different moments, which at a pinch would allow us to reestablish a semblance of duality – but in the unitary structure of a single project.” That project allows us to immerse ourselves in “make up reality. It is neither true nor false since it does not exist for itself. It simply is, exactly like this table, which is neither true nor false in itself but simply real.”
[in "bad faith"] I must know the truth very exactly in order to conceal it more carefully – and this not at two different moments (Sartre, Being and Nothingness)
Israelis have been dodging dilemmas of right and wrong for quite some time now, indeed, even before Bibi burst onto the scene. Israel’s single most dangerous doublethink emerged in 1967, and for over fifty years has remained the same: to neither relinquish, nor absorb, the occupied territories; to neither allow the Palestinians to form their own independent state, nor annex the land and naturalize its inhabitants. In that sense, BBism precedes Bibi, allowing the latter to imperiously proclaim his support of a two-state solution, then go about obliterating it.
We can now perhaps better understand why 1984 ends the way it does, for Winston: “But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.” Doublethink most insidious effect is affective: Winston loves BB, like he could have never loved the free-spirited Julia, precisely because BB liberated him from freedom (Winston should have known that the whole time; after all, “Freedom is Slavery”).
Doublethink most insidious effect is affective: Winston loves BB, like he could have never loved the free-spirited Julia, precisely because BB liberated him from freedom
Is there a way out? Recall, again, Orwell’s succinct depiction of doublethink: this “deliberate drowning of consciousness” happens “by means of rhythmic noise.” It is not enough to self-hypnotize yourself – reality and your own conscience may kick back – you need to bombard the mind with constant noise to never recuperate, never reclaim its humanity. It is thus of interest to note how Hebrew author Amos Oz depicted, two decades ago, the wake of Bibi’s 1999 electoral defeat: “It is as though a compressor battering under your window for years and years had suddenly switched off. First of all, the quiet.” It is perhaps what Israelis now need most: the quiet to revive their minds, to free their thoughts, and then, I hope, to make the right choice.
Bibi was there before many others joined the ranks of rising populism. Ousting Bibi will not reverse that tide but ending BBism might.