The Reckoning of Israel's Left
For many Israeli liberals, or liberal non-Israeli Jews who follow Israeli politics, it is simply impossible to understand how it is the Benjamin Netanyahu won yet another election. Many people in Tel Aviv and Haifa probably woke up the morning after the election and thought to themselves: “How did this happen? Who voted for Likud? Nobody I know!” Thus lies the problem of Israel’s left.
Though I am not an Israeli citizen living in Israel, I too could not imagine voting for Bibi, for a variety of reasons. Under his premiership, the security situation in the south has deteriorated time and time again, with his only solution being short lived incursions that accomplish nothing more than giving Israel bad PR. His policies on Iran are, in my opinion, misguided at best and extremely dangerous at worst, as he seems more interested in personal political power than actually preventing Iran from getting a bomb (if Iran really wanted Bibi out of power, all they would have to do is announce that they are no longer pursuing a bomb). He denounces the peace process and Abu Mazen’s personal character. He allows the Haredi establishment to perpetuate their chokehold on Israeli religion, even for those who are not religious. He has insulted the US, Israel’s most important ally. His dire warning that “the Arabs are going out to vote in droves” was nothing short of pure racism. I can go on and on.
Yet, I totally understand why people would disagree with me on every single one of those points. I understand and respect that these issues are complex, and not everybody will agree with me. I can try to argue for my opinion, but I certainly understand why others disagree.
However, I am not sure if everyone on Israel’s center-left and left understands the other side. Herzog and Livni’s mistake may have been in outreach. You cannot win an election by winning in Tel Aviv. The left needs to use this time to regroup, and figure out a message that appeals not just to a liberal, Ashkenazi,upper class, but to all Israelis. They need to ask themselves: What would a liberal party that appeals to Sephardim look like? How about a liberal party that appeals to the religious? To Haredim? To Israeli Arabs? By having such a narrow base, the left is all but assuring itself to never win a national election again.
Ironically, it is a similar problem that Republicans in America are facing. They have gained the reputation as only appealing to older, straight, white men. They know that if they ever want to win a national election again (different than congressional elections), that they must figure a way to get more votes from women, minorities, and millennials. For a while, appealing to older, straight, white men was a good strategy. They were considered the upper echelons of society, having power both in numbers and more importantly in influence. However, everybody has realized that times have changed.
The same is true in Israel. The classic Zionists - well to do, educated, Ashkenazi, and secular - were able to retain power for decades in Israel, and they wielded significant power and influence. Times have changed. Parties such as Labor and Meretz need to be able to get a solid base of Sephardim if they want to be relevant again. And not just because that is the best way to get votes, but because it is the right thing to do. Sephardim are a major part of Israeli society. To give up on them is arguably immoral. They must find a way to make their message culturally relevant to the immigrant from Morocco living in Dimona. Maybe there is no way - maybe the message of European style liberalism can never appeal to Sephardim. If that is the case, the left must take a long, hard look in the mirror at what they are trying to accomplish.
There is also the issue of the religious. Many assuming that religious people will only vote for their own. Haredim will vote for UTJ or Shas, and the national religious for Jewish Home or Likud. This is not a fair assumption to make, however. I would find it hard to believe that every religious person living in Israel is convinced by Naftali Bennet’s Messianic neo-colonialism. How can the left convince a religious person in Alon Shevut, a border settlement, that creating a society that embraces liberal values, tolerance, and even pluralism, benefit his Kippah Serugah (knit) wearing son and Ulpanah (religious girls seminary) attending daughter? They need to have an answer to this question.
And, of course, there are the Haredim. In America, Haredim are big supporters of liberal candidates. The Ultra-Orthodox in Brooklyn voted en masse for Bill de Blasio. They are convinced by the Democrats’ policies on social welfare, healthcare, and education, even if they may disagree about marriage equality. How can the Israeli left spread their message to Haredim? Could a Haredi party ever join a left-leaning coalition, even if they disagree about civil marriage in Israel?
There are many questions for Israel’s left to answer before the next election. This election was, in many ways, a learning experience. The left had great candidates, men and women of integrity, experience, and intellect. They made some gains, but ultimately did not prevail. Now I wonder, do they know why they lost? Do they understand that they cannot win an election without appealing to the various colors of Israeli society?
Meretz, an unapologetically liberal party, faced loses in this election, now having only 4 seats in the Knesset. Their long time party head, Zahava Galon, announced on Facebook that she will take responsibility for their loses and resign from Meretz, to allow younger Meretz members the opportunity to spread their message. I respect Galon for her class; taking responsibility for both gains and loses shows a certain integrity of character. However, I hope whoever takes her spot recognizes that continuing to perpetuate their important values in cafes in Tel Aviv will ultimately be fruitless.