Helena Desivilya Syna on The Paradox of Tolerance with a response from Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess

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Newsletter #98 — March 23, 2023


CRQ Editor, Helena Desivilya Syna*  recently published in the Conflict Resolution Quarterly a new commentary on our original CRQ article on hyper-polarization which was published (and is available to read for free) on the CRQ site.  But we wanted to summarize it here as well, and follow the summary with our response.  We welcome further comments from Helena and/or other readers who have a view on the issues we discuss.


From the BI/CRQ Hyper-Polarization Discussion

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Helena Desivilya Syna's Commentary on the Burgess CRQ Paper on Hyper-polarization

by Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess

March 22, 2023

Helena started her commentary thusly: 

My comments follow up the previous commentaries, extending them further while witnessing and reflecting upon the current events in Israel and embedding them in the unique local context.

She then goes on to describe the current Israeli context and the recent events in Israel which have fueled hyper-polarization and are presenting a serious challenge to Israeli democracy. Israel, she points out, is different from most other liberal democracies in that its foundations are based not on a constitution, but on its Declaration of Independence, which declared Israel to be a Jewish state —hence no separation of religion and state. This linkage makes Israel's democracy "fragile from the outset," she says, "as these two principles [democracy and a Jewish state] often clash." In addition to the extremely intractable, Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is again heating up, Israel is also struggling with deep divisions within its Jewish community. Currently, this crisis revolves around what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calls "judicial reform," and which his opponents see as an attempted authoritarian take-over of Israeli democracy. 

In essence, the "judicial reform" led by the minister of justice intends to usurp the judiciary independence and grant unlimited power to the executive authority – the government - along with constrained legislature (the Knesset).   A very recent and vivid example of an attempt to implement the "judicial reform," are the actions of the Israeli ministers, backed by the chair of the constitution, law and justice committee. They are advancing a bill aimed to revoke the High Court's power to abolish "unconstitutional" (unlawful)  laws passed by the Knesset.

Opposition to this "judicial restructuring" has brought together an extremely large coalition of opposition parties, civil society organizations, professional groups, businesses, education leaders, teachers, and students, journalists, and high-ranking former military and security personnel. These groups have staged multiple very large demonstrations involving up to 100,000 people. (In addition to reading Helena's description of the situation, readers can get more information about the conflict in from two articles we (Heidi and Guy Burgess) recently included in one of our "Colleague and Context Newsletters." 

The Israeli President has tried to assume the role of intervenor, suggesting that the two sides engage in a dialogue to resolve their differences. While a few parties on both sides of the conflict have agreed to the idea, most have not, leaving his suggestion unfulfilled at this time. 

Helena argues that now is not the time for dialogue or any kind of mediation or consensus building. Drawing on the work of of Jan Werner Müller and Karl Popper for ideas of how to approach the current crisis, she wrote:

According to Müller, the intolerant, the "bad faith" actors deliberately set out to create a Kleptocracy, (regime controlled by corrupt leaders) devoid of any legal constraints, and controlling the judiciary and the political system thereby avoiding punishment. According to Popper's tenet, the opposition needed to set boundaries of tolerance, namely, not tolerating the intolerant in order to preserve democracy. 

. . .

To counteract the invidious strategy and deeds of the government, the opposing party had to publicly expose the former's intentions and firmly act against it.  In line with Goldberg's commentary  following Mayer and Font-Guzmán (2022), claims regarding mediator neutrality, dialogue with the adversary designed to attain compromise in such extreme circumstances where the tolerance limits had been crossed, was no longer a viable strategy.

Helena goes on to suggest that consensus building might be possible over the longer term. One of the characteristics of democracy, she cites Müller as pointing out, is uncertainty.  While such uncertainty carries risks, it also provides opportunities...

to prevent the judicial overhaul or at the least to slow down the reform, allowing alternative courses of action, including a consensus building. The latter intervention ought to be facilitated by a third party team composed of legal experts, economists , social scientists, representatives of the business community, and Israel's president. Thus, depolarization work as advocated by Burgess et al. (2022) are important and may be effective in the mid and long run. However, in the current extreme circumstances, the firm, uncompromising stance, proclaimed by Popper, Müller, Illouz, Mayer, and Font-Guzmán, many in Israel deem it necessary.

Heidi and Guy Burgess's Response

The situation in Israel is, indeed, very worrisome, and some think it presents a foreshadowing of events that could possibly take place in the United States.  Certainly there have been parallels over the last several years between the actions of what Guy calls "authoritarian wannabes," or more broadly "bad-faith actors," (a term Helena also uses in her comment) in both countries. There also is a very high degree of polarization (we would call it hyper-polarization) in both countries, a high level of distrust between the parties, and a high enough level of ill will that violence is feared in both countries, most imminently, perhaps, in Israel.

But it seems to us that Helena is perhaps confusing or conflating two very different roles and processes.  One is the process of advocacy and the role of advocate or activist (also called a disputant in conflict resolution terms).  The other is the process of third-party intervention, which can take the form of dialogue, mediation, consensus-building, arbitration, or many other "ADR" alternatives, and the role is facilitator, or mediator, or arbitrator. The goals of these processes are different, the parties involved are different, and the appropriate timing is different. 

We have argued in a number of places that those of us in the conflict resolution field need to make a choice.  We need to decide whether we are going to act as advocates, arguing for one side or another in any particular conflict, or whether we are going to take the role of third party intervenor—indeed, third party neutral.  We cannot, we believe, do both at the same time, unless we act as what William Ury calls a "third sider," someone who may, indeed, be passionate about the issues on one side, but is still willing to treat all sides fairly and with respect in the interest of coming to a resolution.  As we argued earlier in this discussion, there is a need for three roles: strong partisan advocates who warn us about problems that simply must be addressed; constructive advocates who strengthen efforts to protect their narrow partisan interests by being willing to also help protect the legitimate interests of others; and neutral intermediaries who can help the parties negotiate wise and equitable agreements.

The very nature of most third party processes: dialogue, consensus building, and mediation particularly, calls for all sides being treated fairly and with respect.  All sides are allowed to state their case, their grievances, and their desired outcomes.  The intervenor then helps the parties in a variety of ways to attain those outcomes, ideally while allowing the other disputants to obtain some or all of their desired outcomes as well. In the United States, many third party neutrals are personally liberal, and some (for instance Mayer and Font-Guzmán) in their book The Neutrality Trap and their earlier comment in this discussion argue that neutrality is a "trap" that just empowers oppressors.  As they explain in the introduction to The Neutrality Trap,

...by promoting connections across our differences, conflict intervention efforts can play an important role in social change. Approaches such as dialogue, facilitated interactions, and restorative justice can be an integral part of struggles against oppression but only if they are in sync with concerted efforts at system disruption. Dialogue for the sake of dialogue and collaboration for the sake of collaboration, disconnected from a commitment to social change, is likely to reinforce the status quo. This is the neutrality trap. Unless our engagement efforts are matched by an equally strong commitment to disrupting oppressive systems, they will fail to make a profound contribution to social change. By trying to remain objective, neutral, impartial, and separate, conflict interveners and academics (along with many other professionals) reinforce system-maintaining norms, narratives, and practices that perpetuate a status quo that is calling out for change. (p. x)

Perhaps Mayer and Font-Guzmán are calling for facilitators and mediators to be "third siders," rather than parties (the difference being that third siders can be partial (meaning non-neutral) and still act as effective mediators or facilitators because they are trusted by all sides.  But it doesn't seem to us that this is possible if one comes in with the commitment to "disrupting oppressive systems," unless there is widespread agreement about what systems are oppressive and which are not.  Disrupting systems of governance and policing, for instance, widely regarded by progressives as "oppressive," is not going to be well received on the right (and, indeed, by some on the left who either want more policing for their neighborhoods, or more reliable government services.) 

In the case of Israel, there is certainly a need for strong advocacy against the truly anti-democratic aspects of the proposed judicial reform.  There is a similar need to address what others see as anti-democratic aspects of the existing system. But there is also need for both sides to listen to and work with each other in the interests of saving the country from even more serious political (and potentially violent) turmoil. So we would argue that there is a strong role for advocates, but also a role for third parties (potentially the Israeli President who has offered to mediate, but who's offer has not been accepted). 

* Organizational Development and Consulting, The Max Stern Yezreel Valley College, Emek Yezreel, Israel

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