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What Israel’s Upcoming Elections Are Really About

It’s not security or the economy or even that speech to Congress. It’s about two competing visions of the Jewish state.

Liel Leibovitz
March 13, 2015
Thousands of demonstrators take part in an anti-government protest in Rabin Square on March 7, 2015, in Tel Aviv. (Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images)
Thousands of demonstrators take part in an anti-government protest in Rabin Square on March 7, 2015, in Tel Aviv. (Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images)

What are next week’s Israeli elections about? If they were about security and the nation’s eternal existential jitters, they would, presumably, feature candidates with a significant range of proposals and ideas. It’s hard to judge a political outfit by the spongy language it puts forward just before an election, but if you want a taste of the essential sameness of Israel’s largest parties, here’s a pop quiz: Which party vows to keep any future Palestinian state permanently disarmed, safeguard Jerusalem as the eternal capital of the Jewish people, rejecting the Palestinian right of return and keeping the blocs of settlements in Judea and Samaria under Israeli sovereignty? That would be the fellows on the left, sounding every bit like the fellows on the right. Is it any wonder that the Israeli voter is bummed out?

One could, of course, make any number of reasonable arguments about the differences between Netanyahu and the others, but none are quite as stark as anything the Anyone-But-Bibi crowd would like to believe. Netanyahu, it’s true, is an enthusiastic privatizer, and his policies have helped create a class of fantastically wealthy Israelis and land Israel the No. 5 spot in the list of countries with the widest gap between rich and poor, right behind the United States. But rumors of the Israeli economy’s demise have been greatly exaggerated: In the last quarter of 2014, it grew a robust 7.2 percent, a number that’s all the more impressive if you consider the massive blow to Israel’s economy caused by last summer’s war in Gaza. The average salary also continues to climb, and if you’re not one for economic abstractions, consider this: While the salary of the average American teacher dropped 2 percent since 2000, that of Israeli teacher’s spiked 54 percent in the same period. These are nice numbers to look at, but Netanyahu’s detractors can take comfort in knowing that, for the most part, this growth happened regardless of who was occupying the prime minister’s office.

So, if neither security nor the economy is at issue, what is? A glimpse at a possible answer was on display last week, when tens of thousands of Netanyahu’s detractors congregated in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square for a rally that organizers described as an apolitical expression of popular sentiment. One of the speakers at the rally, artist Yair Garbuz, had this to say: “They told us again and again that the racists and those who curse don’t represent Israeli society in its entirety, that they’re only a small group. They said that the thieves and the bribe-takers were only a small group, and those who are corrupt and decadent and piggish only a small group. And those out to destroy democracy only a small group, and those who think democracy is the tyranny of the majority—only a small group. Those who kiss good-luck charms, those idol-worshipers who pray by the graves of righteous rabbis, only a small group. Even the sexual molesters and the rapists are only a small group.”

The point was hardly lost on the protesters huddled in the square: Garbuz was being ironic, as the small group he was talking about wasn’t small at all and included more or less all of those who voted for Bibi. Garbuz’s listeners applauded his speech, presumably because they agreed with him that when it came to the elections, and to Israel in general, there was an us and a them, one group that sanctified reason and believed in science and progress and another resigned to more primitive stuff like prayer and faith, both of which were shameful enough to merit being spoken of in the same breath as rape and thievery.

The requisite media storm soon broke out, with some noting that the Israeli left had a rich tradition of making insensitive speeches on the cusp of national elections. In 1981, toward the end of a very contentious electoral campaign, Dudu Topaz, a famous Israeli entertainer, stood on the exact same stage Garbuz had occupied last week and, speaking at a rally against then Prime Minister Menachem Begin, called the Likud’s supporters chakhchakhim, a derogatory term loaded with racist connotations that translates loosely as guidos, suggesting that only inferior Mizrachim came out for Begin while the cream of the crop, the white Ashkenazi Israelis, were smart enough to vote Labor.

Like Topaz’s sorry expression, Garbuz’s, too, is easy to disregard. He represents no political party, and it’s unlikely that he truly believes that rapists, observant Jews, and racist thugs all occupy the same spot at the center of some demonic Venn diagram. But the sentiment at the core of his cri de coeur is hard to ignore, and it is likely the same one that animated so many on the Israeli left in 1981 and long before—the belief that the kippah-clad barbarians were at the gates and that it was the primary duty of educated, well-mannered, peaceful liberals to keep them away from the seats of power. Forcefully expressing this idea earlier this week was Yehoshua Sobol, one of Israel’s most celebrated playwrights, who took to the radio to support Garbuz’s statement. Anyone who kissed a mezuzah, he said in an interview, was stupid.

And here, quite possibly, is where the dark heart of next week’s political contest lies: It isn’t so much between left and right, at least not in the traditional sense of two diametrically opposed camps promoting a clearly delineated worldview. In the past decade and a half, Israelis have voted in leaders left, right, and center; all did more or less the same thing: maintain a Jewish presence in the West Bank while striving to somehow make the peace talks with the Palestinians work. When it comes to policy, then, Israeli voters may be excused if they feel a slight sense of vertigo—even a fierce Netanyahu critic like author David Grossman recently admitted that he saw no alternative to the prime minister’s Iran policy. Instead, as the outrage over Garbuz’s comments implies, Israelis seem to be aligning themselves according to a different dichotomy, one that is much harder to decipher. It’s not precisely the mostly Ashkenazi left versus the largely Mizrachi right. Nor is it exactly between the cosmopolitan secularists and the nationalistic faithful. But it’s somewhere in that zone, a fight between two principal feelings that are having a hard time hardening into coherent policies and clear guidelines.

Which, perhaps, is only normal for a state just three generations removed from its miraculous birth. The founders shed blood and raised the flag. Their sons united Jerusalem and kept annihilation at bay. What might the grandsons do for an encore?

The question is profound, and it transcends next week’s elections and the petty calculations of pollsters. To answer it, Israelis would have to consider not only their political allegiances but their deepest ideological ones. They would have to figure out what to make of Zionism, a conviction most of them share but that—six decades after achieving the goal of establishing a national homeland for the Jews in Eretz Yisrael—is in dire need of rethinking. To extricate themselves from the morass of partisan politics, Israelis need to ask better, bolder questions, not about which pale contender they wish to place at the helm of their ship but about which stars they wish to follow as they sail on.


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Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.

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