Ex-pats launch Israeli Opposition Network, call for regime change in Israel

UPDATE: Scroll to bottom for corrections.

New York — For Yael Berda, the unexpectedly strong showing of Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party in Israel’s recent national elections is no reason for centrists or liberals to celebrate. Lapid’s party labels itself centrist, she says, but its domestic and security policies are so similar to the right wing parties’ that it will only serve to bolster their agenda. The neophyte politician is from Israel’s wealthy Ashkenazi elite, which identifies with Europe and the United States. “In that cultural sense,” she said, “You can call Lapid a liberal.” But not in terms of his views on security and wealth distribution.

“The best way to understand Yair Lapid,” she said, “Is to see him as an Israeli Sarkozy.”

Berda, an Israeli studying for her doctorate at Princeton University, joined together with a group of Israeli academics at various universities in the United States to form a group called the Israeli Opposition Network. Yesterday they sent out a global email announcement that amounts to a sort of manifesto:

Israelis living in the United States who oppose current Israeli Leadership launch “Israel Opposition Network” warning that election results threaten democracy and rule of law in Israel

 [January 23, 2013, New York] A group of highly engaged young Israeli intellectuals and professionals living the United States who are concerned about Israel’s increasingly fragile democracy have launched the ‘Israeli Opposition Network’ , a political movement opposed to the current political leadership in Israel.

“It’s a mistake to look at the results of today’s election in Israel as a division between two blocks,” says Nitzan Lebovic, a professor of history and a member of the Israeli Opposition Network. “The large majority of the parties in both blocks represent something closer to a Conservative agenda in American and European terms.”

“As advocates for human and civil rights, we fear election results still reflect a political deadlock that stifles the possibility for change. The rise of a centrist party calling for the draft of the ultra religious is not expected to address the more serious concerns about Israel. As long as control is maintained over a large population of Palestinians with no representation and no citizenship, Israel’s label as ‘democratic’ remains an unfulfilled promise,” says Itamar Mann, an Israeli lawyer at Harvard Yale Law School.

“With over 25% under the poverty line and the wholesale privatization of national assets to a small number of families, while most of the public struggle with massive debt and the inability to afford a home, the current leadership benefits the few while over four million Palestinians whose lives are controlled by the Israeli Government could not participate in the vote,” says Liron Mor, currently at Columbia Cornell University.

“We want Israel to be a democracy. We are part a growing opposition in Israel, not only to the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza but also to the corrupt and unjust economic policies that have sent the middle classes spiraling into poverty. We care deeply for the public in Israel, are extremely concerned for the residents of the occupied territories and for future of the state in the region. We believe we must raise our voices in the US to show that there is a young and capable democratic opposition to the current Israeli leadership,” says Yael Berda, an Israeli Lawyer at Princeton University.

Yesh Atid succeeded in capturing votes that might otherwise have gone to the old Likud party (before it kicked out the moderates and merged with Yisrael Beiteinu), because, explained Berda, “People don’t want to vote for Lieberman. That’s also a cultural thing that goes beyond the fact that he’s right wing. He makes Israel look bad. He’s also a Russian. And Lapid is an Israeli.”

Lapid is also a certain type of Israeli — a type  that most Israelis in the greater Tel Aviv area, where the bulk of the country’s Jewish population resides, see as a reflection of themselves, or how they would like to be seen — i.e., secular, western in cultural outlook, uninterested in the Palestinian issue as long as it causes them no personal pain, and against the ultra-Orthodox. In fact, a significant aspect of Lapid’s politics is the populist issue of expanding mandatory military service to include the ultra-Orthodox, who are currently exempt. The issue of drafting the ultra-Orthodox has long been a populist issue in Israel. The late Tommy Lapid, Yair’s father, headed a party that ran in the 2003 elections on a secular, anti-Orthodox platform. His party, Shinui, won 15 seats in 2003 but fizzled and died by the next round of elections. In the early 1980s a party called Tzomet was successful with a similar platform; it, too, is a relic of history. As is Kadima: seven years ago it was a powerhouse party; this election it barely won enough votes to keep a single seat in the Knesset.

One of Lapid’s first post-election actions was to announce that he would be willing to join a coalition with Netanyahu — but not with Haneen Zoabi (the controversial Balad MK). In other words, said Berda,  “He was completely delegitimizing 20 percent of the population and their representatives. That is exactly the same language the right wing uses.”

Lapid has said almost nothing about the social justice protests of the summer of 2011, which drew hundreds of thousands to the streets to demonstrate against a range of issues, mostly connected with unequal wealth distribution, deteriorating social services and education, and the prohibitive cost of housing. That summer, said Berda, was a defining event for a generation of Israelis, inspring dozens of grassroots initiatives.

Berda said she and her colleagues were shocked to discover that American Jews had not heard about the social justice protests, and that they seemed to know so little about Israeli society in general — even though the organized community was reflexively supportive of the government.

“We think the Jewish community has a very skewed view of Israeli politics and society and democracy. They didn’t understand the social justice protests. They don’t believe there are 2 million Israelis living in poverty.”

On the other hand, she and her colleagues at the ION believe the Jewish community in the United States has a lot to teach them about community organizing (“not fundraising”) and that they have a legitimate interest in Israel that goes far beyond donating money. “When you look at American Jewish history you can see that there is a lot to learn from it,” she said.

Berda and her colleagues want to build an alliance between the Israeli Opposition Network and the American Jewish community.

“We believe the entire regime in Israel has to change,” she said bluntly. “Right now Jewish Americans support Israel no matter what it does. And that has got to stop. The government of Israel does not reflect the public; nor does it care about the public. It is making no efforts toward peace. Israel is a democracy only for some of the Jews some of the time. We are afraid. We are at a point where we need help.”

The ION, which Berda estimates is currently composed of between 40 and 50 members, wants to be a political home for like-minded Israelis living in the United States, as well as a bridge to local Jewish communities. The academics, journalists and activists in the group are experienced public speakers, available to speak to Jewish communities across the United States.

Corrections: Following publication of this article, Yael Berda contacted +972 with two corrections to the press release she sent out the previous day. Itamar Mann is at Yale Law School and not Harvard, as in the original text; and Liron Mor is at Cornell University rather than Columbia. The text has been edited accordingly.