What is ‘extremist’?

February 23, 2009

As coalition talks heat up, the phrase ‘extremist coalition’ is frequently heard. At times it is Kadima stating that they will not join an extremist coalition, while at other times it is the leadership of the Likud saying they will form a right-wing coalition, albeit not an extremist one. With the term being bantered about so regularly, perhaps it should be clarified what exactly this term means.

For starters, according to one dictionary, ‘extremist’ means “one who advocates or resorts to measures beyond the norm”. Hence, right from the start, it should be clear that ‘extremist’ is a relative term. Moreover, something is determined as extremist only in relation to its position vis-à-vis the ‘norm’ (which of course is also a relative term). Thus, for example, we find that according to this definition Zeev Jabotinsky’s frantic pleas in the 1930s to European Jewry “to liquidate the exile before the exile liquidates them”, would certainly be considered extremist, since the majority of European Jewry (the ‘norm’) did not agree with Jabotinsky’s prediction. Nonetheless, history proved that Jabotinsky was unfortunately correct while the majority (the ‘norm’) was clearly wrong.

This is just one example of many to show that what occasionally is considered as an extremist approach is in retrospect correct, while what is considered the norm is in retrospect mistaken. Of course this is not a fixed law and sometimes the opposite is true. What is important, however, is to understand that these terms are purely subjective and relative. Thus, whoever designates an idea or approach as extremist, and by default what is the norm, is doing so from his own personal subjective point of view and world outlook. This is an important point that should be kept in mind when confronted by such terms.

Of course a much healthier approach would be if public officials would clearly state what they consider as extremist in another party, and why, and in the process clarify what is their own unique point of view and world outlook. Thus, for example, if Kadima or Likud were to state why they believe that Yisrael Beiteinu’s calling for citizenship based on loyalty is extremist, perhaps Yisrael Beiteinu would respond with their own reasoning of why they believe that such a position is legitimate and required. Whatever the outcome of such a dialogue would be, at the very least the public would be presented with some clear ideas of what our public officials actually believe in, rather than being fed the usual clichés.

Turning to another dictionary, we find that extremism is “any political theory favoring uncompromising policies”. Thus, for example, based on this definition Kadima could easily claim that Ha-Ichud Ha-Leumi has an extremist point of view since they are 100% opposed to the creation of a Palestinian state, in any shape or size, in any part of the Land of Israel. In other words, they are totally uncompromising and therefore extremist. However, similar to the case above, if Kadima would only state this clearly, rather than talking in general terms about an extremist coalition, perhaps some genuine public dialogue would ensue. In such a scenario, Ha-Ichud Ha-Leumi might respond by saying that Kadima’s determination to establish a Palestinian state in the majority of Judea and Samaria, despite the experience of missile attacks from Lebanon and Gaza during the past few years and despite the direct threat that such a state would pose against Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, is not only foolish but is also extremist due to Kadima’s uncompromising commitment to bring such a policy to fruition. Or perhaps they would respond by explaining in an intelligent way that from a Jewish perspective their position is actually the norm, while everything else should be viewed relative to their position.

The debates could go on and on but the point here is that rather than continuing to spend endless time delegitimizing and vilifying other parties who have different points of view, the time has come for Israeli pubic officials to start engaging in real discussions based upon actual ideas and approaches, rather than mere sound bites and clichés such as ‘extremist’. The Israeli public deserves this from their elected officials.

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