EssaysLiberal Democracy in Question

Against Pessimism: Reflections on the Prospects of the Israeli Left

For me March 17th was a day of joy. At least so it began. Election days in Israel are fully paid holidays, and this year the elections coincided with the dancing display of the male Houbara Bustard. The display is true nature marvel which I have never seen before. I woke up at 4:00am and with a fellow birder drove south for nearly two hours all the way to the border with Egypt. There, we watched a lone specimen of the endangered species, which faces environmental threats, much like the Israeli left.

The evening was less joyful, though I admit, I wasn’t depressed, nor did I evaluate the election results as the tragedy portrayed by some. Three reasons left me somewhat hopeful. First, a day in which a birder adds a bird species to his or her life list is always a happy day no matter the politics around (and I had three lifers this day!). Second, I was not surprised by the outcomes. I was prepared for them. True, the Likud Party won 30 mandates, way more than I expected. But those extra mandates didn’t come from the left or the center. The Likud gained its extra mandate from its sister right parties, and did so with a last-minute and well-orchestrated campaign, targeted at the feelings of fear and hate so prevalent in Israeli society. Third, and closely related, soberly considered by political blocks, the election outcomes were not so different from those of the previous ones, and for that matter, were quite a draw. The left might be endangered like the Houbara Bustard, but the political block of center and left to the center, is still very much alive. Nothing dramatic has happened in these elections, and tragedy was felt mostly by those who harbored great expectations, which were not backed by any reasonable evidence.

Let me clarify a point: pessimism is a reasonable position concerning Israel, might even be the most reasonable one. The trend of Israeli society is towards the right, which increasingly consolidates its popular support and its hold on state power-centers. As was argued forcefully by Nachman Ben-Yehuda, the right uses the educational system into “supporting increasingly strong national and traditional religious educational values and systems… These long-term investments yielded a very large part of the population that supports national, traditional, religious and expansionist values.” Bearing this trend in mind one can understand the anxiety of the left and the worries that these elections might have been the last opportunity to change the long term trend. Losing these elections, and — so the argument goes — the consolidation of the right’s hold on the polity and over the hearts and minds will be a done deal.

Moreover, these long term trends were manifested in what was the real tragedy of these elections. These elections were founded on hatred and fear, revolving around racism. Israeli society is now torn along several axes: Affluent/poor, periphery/center, Ashkenazi/Sephardic, religious/secular, right/left, and the most striking of all, Jews/Arabs. Many party campaigns were founded on the “us” versus “them,” almost on the Schmittian logic of “friend” “foe.” Most horrid of them all was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu proclamation on the elections day that “Arab voters are heading to the polling stations in droves.” In a healthy democracy, Netanyahu would have had to resign his post immediately. In Israel, he probably gained votes. Racism is a legitimate stand nowadays in Israel (though the most racist party didn’t make it to the Knesset: Yachad failed the Election threshold by the fraction, but failed it nonetheless).

So where is the hope and is it still a reasonable position in and about Israel? Let’s go back to Ben-Yehuda’s analysis of the mobilization of the education system by the governing right. I could not but be reminded of Antonio Gramsci’s theory of hegemony. The right is gaining the upper hand in dominating the Israeli commonsense, and demonizing whomever is the other. But Gramsci allows us not only analysis, but also a prescription. Gramsci analyzed not only hegemony, but also the counter-hegemonic struggle, the slow and arduous war of positions. This is the lesson for the Israeli left: not despair and tragedy, but the hard toil of war of positions (a war which in Israel should not really be a war, but a socio-political campaign). This is surely an uphill struggle against state machineries to reclaim the commonsense and restructure alliances, values, interests, and expectations; a struggle to substitute the hatred and identity politics with a real and reasonable democracy; one in which racism is not a legitimate option and in which coalitions cross the identity and ethnic delineation lines. No reason why the left should not stretch its hand across the schism lines of religion and ethnicity, especially with those constituents of the Arab Unity List that broadly share the same political vision (mostly supporters of TAAL, and CHADASH). It is certainly not an easy task, but the right did it successfully. From 1948 till 1977 the right was the outcast other, the one in the barren land of parliamentary opposition. It did not give up and worked hard against the state machineries ruled by the left, and it built those coalitions that presently serve it so successfully.

This hard labor is mainly a domestic one, but there is also an international dimension to it. For too long the U.S. and Europe (along with Jewish communities around the world) gave free hand to Israel. They spoke, sometime quite harshly against the occupation, but when push came to shove, they finished with words only. They should stop talking and start acting. They should be firmer about the moral red lines that must not be crossed by a state claiming to be a democracy. Racism and occupation should not be tolerated. To a large extent, the occupation is financed by the international community. The occupation became so cheap for Israel, and it should stop being so. No BDS is necessary, responsible support and targeted interactions is sufficient and potentially powerful. Thus, Israelis will not be able to turn a blind eye to the results of the so-called democratic elections: elections in which only we Israelis participate and decide the future of Palestinians and Palestinian polity. Real international pressure combined with hard domestic war of positions might do the job.

Easy? No. Pessimism? A reasonable position. But like the endangered Houbara Bustard, Israel along with its landscapes, people, and tastes, are so much ingrained in me that I cannot afford giving up I cannot spread wings and migrate elsewhere. So doomed, I’m here to maintain hope and cautious optimism (and always bear in mind the fate of Antonio Gramsci, or for that matter, the Passenger Pigeon).

Also for you:

Piki Ish-Shalom

  • Lior H.

    Dear Piki,
    Thank you for an excellent commentary and particularly for bringing Gramsci as an analytic framework providing both insight and outlook. As I was reading it, I was thinking that today’s right wing behaviour (towards its ideological opponents) is no different to that of the left when it was in power, but then again you quickly raised it yourself. Power provokes power and one the challenges in the years to come will for the left, when and if regaining power, to do so in an inclusive fashion, embracing also those whom it stands ideologically against (I am not suggesting the extreme right). Doing otherwise will further and deepen the cleavages outlined in the article.

    One additional element to reflect on is the fact that the right-left axis is dynamic and not static. Nowadays, the so called centre is well-anchored in what was the right some twenty years ago. Hence, the left is largely concentrated further right to where it used to be. In one sense, it reinforces the political chances of the left, yet in another sense it also means that the scope of the change is constrained.

    Comments should be short and I am already way over my self-imposed limit, but since political theory is applied here, it is worth noting (perhaps, another article for you Piki?) that the bitter irony of the right in Israel and in many places elsewhere, notably in Europe, is that it is the right that should be the first to stand-up for minorities rights. It is the right, where human rights have been conceptualised, developed and pursued, and it the right that have lost its ideological roots connecting between those rights and freedom, substituting them for national(istic) ideologies, which originated at the other spectrum of the political map.

  • Omri Boehm

    such an elegant (and optimistic!) piece of writing. but there is something in your analysis that, i believe, needs to be more accurate – among other things if we are to continue working on change and to that end are will have to locate where to push in order to succeed.
    you say:

    “True, the Likud Party won 30 mandates, way more than I expected. But those extra mandates didn’t come from the left or the center. The Likud gained its extra mandate from its sister right parties, and did so with a last-minute and well-orchestrated campaign, targeted at the feelings of fear and hate so prevalent in Israeli society. Third, and closely related, soberly considered by political blocks, the election outcomes were not so different from those of the previous ones, and for that matter, were quite a draw. The left might be endangered like the Houbara Bustard, but the political block of center and left to the center, is still very much alive.”

    this does seem to me somewhat too optimistic. the problem in this election is not that the left gained less seats from the right; it is rather that the left has given up on being a left. whatever power was preserved in the ambiguous left/center-left block is speaking nowadays just like the israeli right. (if it doesn’t sound like the israeli right, it is because today israel’s right doesn’t sound like the right, either – similarly to this country it sounds like the extreme-right.) thus, your hope seems to me de facto the hope that something like the right — under the name of the center-left block – which maintains similar electoral power to the past – will replace the extreme right. this is more pessimistic that you’d like to admit.

    in order not to give up, we must somehow reclaim the left being a left — most significantly it’s ability to speak of (and believe in) a two state solution.

    • I agree with Omri that a clear commitment to a two state solution would more clearly be the grounds for cautious optimism. But I wonder whether just as important (perhaps even more so) would be developing a real working relationship with the Arab Unity (Joint) List.

    • Piki Ish-Shalom

      Thanks Omri,
      I do agree to some extent, but isn’t it the case in many countries, this right left confusion? In many countries I know the main parties of the blocks (those that are more to the center) are being blamed for betraying the principles. Politicians who run to office almost always believe they should approach the center, and mostly you have a sort of balance between the central parties of the block and the small purist ones. And they all have a role in the political system. So I wouldn’t point out the Zionist Camp (note the name!) for that. And from what I gather they are for the two state solution. Which brings me to Jeff’s comment: sadly the Zionist Camp does not reach out enough (or at all) for the Israeli Palestinians. This is where I am afraid they truely betray principles for electoral reasons, and this is really harming on the longer term.
      Piki

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