Silberstein Challenges Morals
Tal Silberstein about politics and morals: why dirty campaigning is not a bad thing, why Benjamin Netanyahu is a bad role model and his view on Austria’s “Ibiza scandal”.
Text: Tal Silberstein
As you may have noticed, these past months I refused to take part in the Austrian media’s ongoing discussion of the so-called Ibiza scandal. The main reason is that certain politicians continue to mention my name in connection with it.
For the record, I had absolutely nothing to do with the Ibiza scandal. The first time I heard about it at all was when it was published in the German, Austrian and international media.
Then the discussion, as far as I am concerned, got so ridiculous with people including the Chancellor and Vice Chancellor pointing a finger at me. I did not refuse because of lack of things to say but rather because anything I said would probably just serve those who were trying to drag may name into the discussion.
I do not feel that I was treated unfairly, as people including journalists have very little information upon which to correctly judge and asses the facts. We live in a world of headlines and under these rules, the headline, “Tal Silberstein Indicted” was certainly much more interesting than the headline “Tal Silberstein Acquitted”.
Very early in the 2017 election campaign in Austria, the Social Democratic Party was under attack because the public was informed that I had been accused of a crime in Romania. In fact, for the past three years I have been involved in that trial, which shouldn’t have ever taken place. I was very happy that the Romanian court accepted our defense and acquitted my colleagues and myself from all accusations.
Apparently, the prosecution in Romania saw things differently, did not accept the verdict and immediately appealed to the Supreme Court. So unfortunately, we will be facing another two years of useless proceedings. That being said, I have full trust in the judicial system of Romania, its professionalism and above all its independence from the other institutions and authorities.
Haider, Kurz and Orbán
Almost 20 years ago, during the Viennese elections, Jörg Haider was attacking the consultants “from the East Coast” referring to Stanley Greenberg and myself when we were helping Mayor Michael Häupl and the SPÖ.
This is exactly what has also worked for Victor Orbán over the past decade in Hungary: He uses George Soros as a demon. I am now, for Kurz, what Soros is for Orbán – the demon of choice. I have nothing in common with George Soros. Nevertheless, by chance, both of us are Jews, both of us are foreigners, and the use of our names, us as a brand for bad things, serves very dark purposes. In both countries.
It is clear that the use of my name in the context of the Ibiza scandal – without a single shred of proof – is an attempt to make me an enemy of the state, which unfortunately speaks to some deep dark feelings hidden in some parts of the society. Feelings that Kurz seeks to cater to in the upcoming elections. Anyone who would claim differently is simply naive or dishonest.
This should alert for sure not me but any supporter of democracy in Austria. It has nothing to do with me personally. This is an internal issue in Austrian politics.
My only disappointment is that only a handful of brave people talked about the problem and challenged him by asking: “What is this? Do you have any proof?”
Contrary to his claims, Mr. Kurz knows very well who I am and has met me in person. He also knows very well that I have nothing to do with the Ibiza scandal. Still, in several interviews he has deliberately stated that he believes that I am behind this scandal. He has had enough time to apologize, it would have made me appreciate him and treat this as an honest mistake, but I never got an apology.
There you have it, the perfect introduction to the theme and the topic of this issue – Politics and Morals.
How I Found My Way Into Politics
So, in light of the fact that, in Austria, my name is probably currently branded with “political immorality” and “The Silberstein method” used as a term to describe immoral and negative activity, I decided to meet the challenge and speak freely in this issue of Addendum.
If we get into the subject of politics and morals from my humble and personal vantage point, I think I have to start with how I got into politics 24 years ago.
I am an industrial engineer by profession. I was very much involved in the Israeli high-tech scene in a very successful company that essentially invented the USB stick (M-Systems). I was totally uninvolved in politics apart from coming from a rather politically left-wing home – at least by ideology. But I never took an actual part or an interest in politics. I went to a few demonstrations, used to debate in high school maybe, but nothing more than that.
It was in November 4th 1995, when an Israeli motivated by an extreme semi-religious semi-nationalistic ideology took a gun and in a very bland manner killed our prime minister Yitzhak Rabin that my thoughts about the world, about politics and about my role in all of this changed. In particular, it brought me to the realization that continuing my then very interesting and financially rewarding work as a vice president of a very successful company at the age of 25 would have zero impact and influence of the world around me.
I was like many others, blind to the deep and very frightening currents that Israeli society was undergoing. Many said later that they “saw the writing on the wall”. But in my opinion too few people were warning about it and even fewer were actively resisting it.
This got me to initiate what was then called Peace Generation with my friends. It was the largest Israeli non-partisan political movement fighting for peace, democracy and social justice with 25,000 young activists all over Israel. The movement began by organizing mass demonstrations, rallies and campaigns to changing people’s opinions. But it became a very active social and educational movement, which has brought forth several educational NGOs. Most of them still exist today, working very successfully with young people to foster peace and promote social justice and democracy. Some of them are very influential organizations with tens of thousands of kids and young people taking part in educational and social activities.
As for any young person, my involvement in politics stems from an idealistically motivated background of what I describe as “fighting the forces of evil.” Especially forces of nationalism, of fanaticism, of religious extremism, and of people who use violent methods to impose or try to influence people with their point of view. That’s what happened in Israel in a big way. Yigal Amir, the man who assassinated Prime Minister Rabin, succeeded in changing the course of history very much. It’s true that he’ll be sitting in jail for the rest of his life, but I’m sure if you ask him, it is a small sacrifice he was willing to make to change the course of history. Israel went from a country that was going in a very clear, optimistic, peaceful, direction in 1995, to two and a half decades of violence and thousands of people dead, including children, women and elderly people. In my opinion, that could all have been prevented.
Looking back at where we were in 1995, we could not be farther away from our pursuit of peace. Maybe 10–15% of the Israeli public discuss peace. No one talks about harmony or reconciliation. It’s a huge victory for the dark forces, they have even managed to kill the hope for peace.
Now, of course, Yigal Amir is not the only one responsible for this. There are many others, especially politicians and of course in a major way the Palestinians that didn’t miss an opportunity to take a step in the wrong direction to make Israelis more suspicious and lose hope for true peace. So, he’s won. For now.
Politics and Morals
One cannot take apart or discuss politics and morals without discussing political philosophy in general.
For me, one of the most important books on this issue is the “Tractatus Politicus” by Spinoza, one of the greatest philosophers of all time. What Spinoza said in the 17th century, in essence, is that the law of nature will push people to do whatever they want and can. And naturally he is associating this with the ability of God to create and do anything. For Spinoza, God is nature.
Spinoza gives an example of fish that nature has determined to swim and big fish to eat little ones, and therefore, by natural right, fish own the water and big fish eat small fish.
Therefore, a person that is a creation of God and/or nature can imagine and think about anything. They can aspire to achieve anything they want and are limited only by the extent of their power. By this law of nature, in which individuals live in a group, every person will most likely try to impose their aspirations and their way of life on others. Whether if the others want it or not, this person will try to control the group in order to create the correct setting, up to a point of “eating” the little fish. Spinoza describes this as a total battle between all of those wishes.
Who Decides What’s Moral?
Who is able to influence – I’m purposefully not saying “dictate” – what is right and what is wrong in a society? Who forces us to adhere to a certain code of conduct?
To answer this question we must travel back to Plato’s times. In his ideal state, Plato envisioned a council of philosopher kings as rulers. These higher beings, as he describes, would be closest to God and abilities in the realm of knowledge and reason make them predestined to become the rulers of the state. They would make the rules and decide on morals, on what is right and wrong.
If we jump to the current day, there is of course no council of philosopher kings as a practical example in any state. But there are many individuals who see themselves as philosopher kings. Most would simply call them dictators who believe that the sheer ability to keep control over their countries is, in itself, proof that they are special individuals. Louis XIV, born few years apart from Spinoza, called himself the “Sun King” and his famous saying – “L’état c’est moi” has certainly served as an approach– consciously or unconsciously – for many world leaders, even to this day. These leaders create a reality in their mind in which they become the state, the state becomes them, making them are the one deciding on rules and morals.
As we recently saw in the case of Turkey – thank God – some of them are still democratic, whether fully or in part. On the one hand, Erdogan allowed a democratic election and lost again for the second time in Istanbul. On the other hand, Turkey is the country with the most journalists arrested in the world over the past few years. Values like freedom of speech, that we in the West see as the essence of democracy, are not being strictly upheld or even followed there. For other countries, democracy is not even an option.
I’m a big believer in democracy. That is why I do what I do, working on elections.
And this is why I would never work in a place where there are no free and fair elections. Period.
I once worked in a country in Africa when the campaign manager took me aside one day and said very seriously, “We have a telepathic way of knowing the election results.” it took me three hours to pack my things, gather my entire staff and catch a flight, all the while wondering why on earth they asked me to work for them in the first place.
I’m sure democracy has its flaws. As Churchill said in a speech in 1947: “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
And still, the question of morals still remains the biggest and toughest question to answer.
The Morals of “King Bibi”
What is right and wrong? Which are the values or morals which a person should follow in order to be considered a moral politician and which shouldn’t they?
Israel today is a perfect example. There couldn’t be a better time for and better manifestation of this question.
The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu – whom I happen to know personally – is already the longest serving leader in Israel’s history. He is by far the most popular politician, despite being hated and loathed by very large parts of society, mainly for his politics of fear and hatred. Still, just a few months ago, over 50% of the voters elected him (indirectly) to be PM again. A famous documentary movie dubbed him “King Bibi.”
I must stress that I’m a firm believer in the principle of a person being considered innocent until found guilty by a court of law. Netanyahu has three pending indictments for a series of severe criminal allegations, two of them involving bribery and other crimes and all awaiting a hearing by the general prosecutor at the beginning of October. Despite winning the election, he could not form a coalition, the reason for which being his insistence, in the coalition negotiations, on including an immunity law, which would relieve him of his indictments.
And he didn’t stop there.
He also demanded that his coalition partners accept a special law that enables the Knesset to overturn or reject rulings of the Supreme Court. In practical terms, that means rendering the Supreme Court of Israel powerless.
The reason for this, as he rightfully assumes, is that if he only held fast to immunity, the Supreme Court would rule that the immunity law is illegal and therefore he could be prosecuted. So, Netanyahu’s people demanded that the parliament, with a majority of one, a simple 61-seat majority, could basically reject any ruling of the Supreme Court, which effectively eliminates judicial power.
Then, 60 scared and powerless members of the out of 120-stong Parliament voted for this insane scheme. Only one brave member from the right wing, Ivet Liberman and his fraction, stood against it, preventing Israel of becoming an authoritarian regime. Liberman rightfully claimed that this is not right-wing politics, but rather a personality cult.
So there’s a very lively and extremely relevant discussion about morals going on in my country. If you’d currently take a survey in Israeli society, 40-45% of the people would agree on three things:
- Netanyahu didn’t do anything wrong. It’s all fake news. The evidence doesn’t matter and the fact that the general prosecutor he himself appointed, so “his” man, decided to indict him on three different counts, two of them bribery charges.
- The second thing they would say is that this is simply a “means” for the left elites, together with the judicial elites, to try to oust Netanyahu from power since they cannot beat him in elections.
- And, third, they would say that, since he’s a good PM, he’s allowed to break the law here and there. Nothing bad will happen.
The most harmless of these three accusations is that over the past years he and his family have requested and received gifts valued at hundreds of thousands of euros including champagne, expensive cigars, jewelry, clothes, vacations etc. from two very influential business people, while negotiating on laws, which benefit those individuals.
For those approximately 45% this is a non-issue: “So what if he drank champagne and smoked cigars?” The question of moral society is irrelevant to them.
I know Netanyahu very well, having volunteered for him in the past, promoting the peace process with the Palestinians. I don’t think he is a financially corrupt person and I personally don’t wish for him to sit in jail even if he is found guilty of all three accusations in court. My biggest criticism and the reason he should end his time as Prime Minister is – and this is my main critique of him – because he has completely destroyed Israel’s moral code. Completely.
Similarly to the way his very close friend Donald Trump has done in United States. Maybe history will present Trump as a great President that succeeded reviving the US economy and maybe even broker peace with North Korea. For me, his moral behavior alone is reason enough to oust him.
For me it is a very simple question and the only important one in life: How can I, as a father of three – my son will have to serve in the Israeli military in a few years – show them what is right and wrong when the Prime Minister makes his own rules, separate from the rules that exist for others?
In my opinion, Netanyahu sets the worst possible example for morals and morality when it comes to telling the truth. When it comes to instigating and spreading hatred. When it comes to attacking of weak elements of society. When it comes to basic justice.
How can I tell my kids, “you are not allowed to lie” when they can answer, “The prime minister lies and gets away with it so why should we act differently?”
That brings us to the big philosophical question: what if not 45%, but 60%, or at least 51% of the public would say “Because Netanyahu convinced us that it’s ok to lie. From now on we live in a society where it’s ok to lie, it’s not so bad. It’s not immoral to lie or to accept bribes.”
What will become of morality? To me, this represents the biggest philosophical and political question and I’m currently witnessing it being debated right before my eyes in Israel.
So here comes the more basic question: What is moral in society and who decides that? Is there a list? Can you go to Wikipedia and check what morals are generally right for humankind or for a specific country? Probably not.
Did the morals arise out of your country’s traditions and should others live by them because this is the standard accepted by the majority?
I would prefer global morals. But the question is: are they enforceable?
The Morality of “The Silberstein Method”
I will go into some of accusations made against me in Austria without going on too long – I am not the issue.
Yes, in my life I have used political tactics which I thought would serve the purpose of the campaign. I also ran many negative campaigns, which I believe to be a part of the democratic process and see nothing wrong with them.
When it comes to politics, sometimes in order to put emphasis on something, to exaggerate in a way to make a point. But it is not allowed to lie or to make things up.
However, there are three points on which I have never compromised and which have never been used in my campaigns: The first is lying. The second is making up facts. And the third is using an opponent’s personal life.
This is where I draw the line between what’s right and wrong in political campaigns and what is not allowed to be used in my campaigns, even if I believe that the other side is immoral or not following these principles.
More than a few times in my career I have lost elections because of these rules. These self-imposed constraints have limited my work, but I always told my clients, “if this is what you want, you’ll have to find someone else. These are boundaries I’m not willing to cross.” Once I cross this line, I’m no different than Netanyahu. Once I cross this line, I’m no use in teaching my kids about morals and principles.
In Austria, during the 2017 campaign, we didn’t spread any lies or invent facts. Secondly, those accusing me of the “Silberstein Method”, are in fact, using similar and worse methods by coming up with false facts, unsubstantiated claims, and accusing people of things without a shred of proof. And I am not only referring to the attack on myself but also on others. Using these methods, is a means of drawing attention away from problematic realities that have recently been revealed about the people involved.
When Donald Trump was debating Hilary Clinton during the 2016 US election, in many ways he rewrote the political rulebook as we know it. Clinton came up with arguments: “These are the facts,” she said, “check them on Google.” Trump in return, grabbed the microphone and simply said, “Wrong.” Clinton urged the public: “Go ahead, google it.” And Trump kept saying, “Wrong!” Trump supporters probably thought to themselves: “Who cares what it says on Google? If he says it’s wrong, then it’s probably wrong.”
Sir Karl Popper’s Open Society
The Open Society and its Enemies by Karl Popper is a book I have recommended to every politician I have worked with. And I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in politics. This book influenced my life, my work and my political philosophy more than any other.
Popper, being originally an Austrian, was no doubt one of the greatest philosophers of science. His most important body of work was on the theory of falsification. Popper claimed that we can never know the actual truth about science and about the world in general. Any scientific discovery or theory is only true as long as it cannot be refuted or falsified.
Popper also claimed that if a theory cannot, in principle, be falsified by criticism, it is not a scientific theory at all and in his opinion the only thing we do while pursuing the truth in science is falsifying theories and making errors that would get us closer to the truth, but that we would most likely never reach absolute truth.
Popper, having witnessed the horrors of WWII, Fascism and Communism alike, began writing The Open Society and its Enemies in 1939 and finished it in 1945.
In the book, he attacks what he calls the “poverty of historicism,” claiming that both theories he attacked, Communism and Fascism, were established on the basis of historicism and their founders viewed these ideologies as science. Therefore, they used the scientific verifiability of these political theories as a pretense for sacrificing millions of people, as this was the inevitable course of history and truth.
Popper argued that historicism is founded on mistaken assumptions regarding the nature of scientific law and prediction. Since the growth of human knowledge is a coincidental factor in the evolution of human history, and since “no society can predict, scientifically, its own future states of knowledge,” it follows, he argued, that there can be no predictive science of human history. According to Popper, these political theories cannot be falsified because there can never be an experiment in which we reach a national or historic magnitude in which infinite variables are possible, in which one can repeat the same experiment and expect comparable results. Any attempt to do so is irrational and useless.
Any theories that don’t adhere to the principle of falsification cannot be called scientific. In the same way that astrology cannot be called science. Therefore, one cannot treat these theories as scientific truths, nor can people be allowed to commit atrocities and do societal experiments based on these pseudo-scientific political theories.
Popper places the majority of the blame on Plato. In Plato’s famous essay The Republic in which he described the ideal state, he claims that the state is divided (as mentioned earlier) into three different classes: the philosopher kings, the guards that are meant to defend the state from its enemies, and the working and producing elements of society that are needed to feed and financially support the state.
Plato’s basic theory was a theory of ideas, in which ideas are the manifestations of the ideal elements beauty, justice and form. When the state gets closer to its ideal, because the natural course is decay and destruction, the situation must be frozen and protected in order to remain ideal forever.
Plato’s formula for an ideal state is that of a totally enclosed society. Because there is only one way to get to the ideal position, no change should take place as it would be destructive. From then on you have to freeze and guard it by closing it off hermetically.
Thousands of years later in the 20th century, Nazis invented a deranged version of Plato’s ideal state with their theory of race to dominate the world. Just freeze the situation, close it off and preserve it forever. In another part of the world, Marx believed in his “scientific” theory that there will be an ideal world at the end of the road that would require many devastating struggles but, in the end, there will be a society free of class struggle.
And that brings me to the most important point: Popper believed that these are not real sciences but rather very destructive theories that use science as proof of their validity. He stressed that the idea of social engineering as a means to reach their respective ideal state is the most dangerous experiment with catastrophic consequences.
Popper presented a much humbler approach: One should observe what doesn’t work in society or in a state and introduce gradual, step-by-step changes that can be monitored and controlled. Changes with consequences that couldn’t possibly be so devastating. They can always be contained, stopped and changed. Similarly, to the theory of falsification, we have to find out what is not going well and test other hypotheses to change it.
For him, this was the basis of the open society, not the question Plato and his followers asked, how to you choose these philosopher kings, but rather how to oust them when they fail.
So, if I take Popper’s philosophy and try to implement it in my humble world, I’d say that for me, the biggest failure of modern politics is directly associated with term limitation.
The term limits of political leaders, or more precisely, the lack thereof, is the biggest failure of politics today.
And I’m not talking only about Erdogan in Turkey, Putin in Russia, Xi in China or Kim in North Korea. I’m also talking about many other countries that I know, including Israel.
On the General Decline of Morality
Moral decline is not a modern phenomenon. I believe it has always been like this, just that now, we are more aware than before. Thanks to social media, with all its problems, we are exposed to much more information than ever before. I’ve worked in many countries in my life and I’ve noticed one thing: Whenever I met with a political party or person that was in trouble, their first complaint or reasoning was always, “The media is against us,” or “Our opponents control the media.” In the past, I used to explain, “While that may be the case, before asking yourself how you’re being portrayed in the media, ask yourself ‘Should I be doing something differently?’”
Today, this question does not exist. The issue of controlling the media is off the table. Anyone, with a couple of friends can be a TV station with some individuals, a hundred times more influential than some big TV networks. Why? because of their millions of social media followers.
This helps us find much more information than before and be more critical about it.
Around the globe, the political situation is very grave with a long list of leaders that are bigger supporters of the closed society philosophy than of the open one.
I must be – because I am by definition – optimistic about the fact that this would eventually change and that these people’s time would pass, at least by natural expiration. With the hope that they will not be able to destroy the structures of their states and society to a point from which it will take decades to recover. Take the recent example of Venezuela, where millions of people are being starved without electricity and without medicine. Who knows how many years it will take for things to stabilize? Eventually Maduro will fall. But what comes after him?
Or in Syria, after its civil war: Assad is still in power, but does he really have a country left to rule? Can it be even called a country, besides still having a flag and a seat in the UN?
I’d say if Popper were alive today, he would see the situation as much more hopeless as he did when he passed away in 1994.
Back to Poppers Conclusion
But I must remain optimistic that eventually – as with Newton’s third law – every force will have an equal and opposite, so if the force is very negative, the counter force will be just as strong and will retaliate and make changes possible someday.
At times, you cannot fire the philosopher king – or, as I like to say, there is no expiration date on these philosopher kings. And they would have enough time to impose their changes, their set of morals. And whether it is the constitution, the legal systems, the institutions, the structures that are supposed to remain protected in open societies, they actually create closed societies in which most people would look forward to a terrible fate.
Some of the leaders, mentioned earlier did tremendous work for a period time for their countries. Economically for sure. If they had only stepped down in time to allow others – less corrupted by power – to take their seat, they could have helped build truly great nations.
Unlike many things that I don’t like about the US, the fact that the president cannot serve more than two terms is a brilliant constitutional element that should be adopted by all.
The antidote to the problem of immorality in politics is the ability to preserve the structures and rules for maintaining open societies and making sure its leaders can either be replaced or expire by definition.