Left Behind: Why a New Party Won’t Save Social Democracy in Israel

Haim Watzman

Ha’aretz has been going ga-ga over the impending new left-wing party that will incorporate Meretz, a few old Labor hands, and some literary figures who have long acted as the collective conscience of the Israeli left. The newspaper also devoted several pages of its Friday opinion supplement to the age-old question of whither the Israeli left.

While I admire most of the people involved in the new initiative, I’m skeptical. In fact, it’s counterproductive, both for practical and ideological reasons.

The practical reason has to do with the rules of human political behavior, as borne out by Israeli political history. As in other modern Western democracies, most voters here do not want to see themselves as radicals of either the left or the right. Whatever their positions on the issues, generally want to see themselves as part of a broad consensus. Therefore, they have a natural aversion to voting for parties that place themselves at the far reaches of the left or right.

Conversely, those voters who place a value on the purity of their ideology lose interest . . .
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2 thoughts on “Left Behind: Why a New Party Won’t Save Social Democracy in Israel”

  1. I’ll tell you what the real problem with the Israeli Left. It is only partly their ideology. The primary problem is their attitude, their unsufferable arrogance. This is why a large part of the population despises them. I’ll explain why.
    First I should describe my own background. I grew up in a traditionalist, Conservative home in Southern California. My parents loved Israel but were not involved politically in Zionist activities. I was sent to a “Habonim”-Labor Zionist summer camp in 1966 which was my only real contact in my life with Labor Zionism before I made aliyah 20 years later. To put it bluntly, I hated the camp. We were indoctrinated with Socialism (“you can’t bring anything into the camp grounds, even a candy bar, if you don’t share it with everybody”). The people there were crude, used a lot of foul language, although some of the madrichim were alright, but none were people I would want to emulate. I remember hearing a lecture about the Balfour Declaration but I never really figured out what it was.
    In the 1970’s when I was in unversity I was becoming more religiously observant and I also started reading about the history of Israel. I discovered stories about the ETZEL and LEHI, about their heroism, and how they (particularly the ETZEL) were treated as pariahs after the state was created.

    It was this that opened my eyes to the attitude of the Israeli Left. They view themselves as the only people who are fit to rule Israel since they view themselves as the country’s owners, since they mistakenly believe that only they built it. For years there was unending propaganda about how the Kibbutzim built Israel, which then entitled them in the 1980’s to millions of dollars in bail-outs, “afterall Grandma and Grandpa built the state, so it is reasonable for the taxpayer to pay for our Kibbutz’s swimming pool”. The role of the non-socialist urban workers (largely Sefardi and religious or at least traditionalist) who built the roads, railways, other infrastructure and the factories was ignored.
    The Left views the Right as being inherently illegtimate. This, of course, has an ethnic component, i.e. the Sefardim are too “primitive” to be allowed to have power. If you think these ideas are “old fashioned”, just note that in the entire history of the MAPAI, MAPAM, Labor and MERETZ parties (also throw in Kadima, which is essentially a Leftist party as well) , there has only been ONE Sefardi chosen as party leader, Amir Peretz, and when he won, Shimon Peres’ brother cursed him out on television and said his victory was “like Franco’s fascist hordes invading the Spanish Republic”. He was ousted in short order and the “acceptable” Ashkenazi Ehud Barak was put into power.
    Right-wing intellectuals are disparaged and dismissed out of hand, and generally kept out of the media. Yossi Beilin once said “I never met an intelligent right-winger”. Once a reporter quoted Right-wing thinker Aryeh Stav (editor of Netiv magazine) and Beilin said “what are you quoting HIM for?”.
    The institutions associated with the Left, such as Kupat Holim, the Histradrut, The Jewish Agency, the Labor Unions all have a long history of corruption and they ripped off the taxpayers for hundreds of millions of dollars .
    Then there is their political hypocrisy. For years they have screamed at election time “we must help the poor!”. Yet the constituency of voters for Labor and MERETZ are the well-off Kibbutzim, the well-to-do bureaucratic functionaries and most of the financial barons. All the people forming this new Leftist movement are very well-off. Do you really think these people want to pay higher taxes to “help the poor”? Most of the poor vote Likud, SHAS and the Arab parties. The fact is that Labor supported all the deep cuts in social welfare payments that Netanyahu passed several years ago. When SHAS tried to increase the social welfare payments for the poor as part of their coalition negotiations they were accused of being “blackmailers” and “money-grubbers”, but when the Labor and MERETZ demand money for their institutions such as the film industry which turns out movies hardly anyone wants to see, it is called “arrangements”, and of course, the well-0ff University Professors who threaten to go on strike every year if their already large salaries are not increased, it is called “preserving educational excellence”, not “money-grubbing”, perish the thought.
    The Left views most of the population as an ignorant rabble, riff-raff. Occasionally they actually come out and say this, such as Dudu Topaz’s infamous “chachchakim” comment in the 1980’s (he said something to the effect that “all the officers and good soldiers are in Labor, the rabble of the Likud are the dregs of the IDF”), Tikki Dayan in 1999 who said to Labor Party campaign workers something to the effect “the Likud people are ignorant rabble, you have to learn to talk down to their level”.
    This is why the Left opposes democratically choosing the judges of the Supreme Court, they way the US and other democracies do it…they insist only the sitting judges should pick their successors. They call it “politicization”, but of course, the implication is that the representatives of the people in the Knesset represent the riff-raff and are thus unqualified for choosing people for such exalted positions.

    Then, of course, there was the Left’s barely disguised contempt for Jewish religious tradition and those who practice it. Amnon Lord, editor of Makor Rishon, grew up on a MAPAM kibbutz. He remembers how , as late as 1966, they celebrated Russian Revolution Day, but they were taught that Judaism was a primitive, disgusting religion and those who practiced it were barbarians. However, on the other hand, Arabs and Muslims, although also despised, were to be treated outwardly with great respect and their traditions honored in the name of “multi-culturalism”. A neighbor, who was the son of a well-known Rabbi , was encouraged by his father to go into the IDF and become an officer in the 1950’s. He told how religious soldiers were ridiculed by their officers and the non-religous soldiers, and were told they were lazy because they insisted on fasting on fast days or observing Shabbat.

    There is a lot more than could be said. But until they change their mentality and the way they relate to everyone outside their camp, I don’t see them overcoming the hatred (and it is not an exaggerations to use that word) they have generated over the generations. Barak tried to “apologize” for this in the 1999 campaign, but as Peres’ brother’s comment about “Franco’s fascist hordes”, nothing has changed. I see it everyday in many of the supporters of the Left I deal with at my place of employment. Thus, I predict that Kadima will become the dominant party of the Left for the simple reason that many of its people, including its leadership are ex-Likud people who have “seen the light” and now support the policies of the Left, but they don’t have this burden of being identified with this arrogant mind-set of the traditional Israeli Left.

  2. Right on!
    As a Sefardi, I appreciate your frankness and your support. However, don’t assume we are all carbon copy of each other. We are all individuals with different educational and socio-economic backgrounds. I know you mean well but your views could be considered patronizing.
    I can’t allow myself to paint the Israeli left with the same brush, I am sure some are OK. Just because some people in Israel are racists jerks, I don’t have to support SHAS for ethnic solidarity reasons. I don’t share their views.

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