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).

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Piki Ish-Shalom

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