Why I’m not fighting for a ‘better Israel’

Can a national ethos that needs to balance out its democratic ideals with demographic domination ever provide an avenue for implementing a truly progressive agenda? A response to Maya Haber.

Israelis attend a rally marking 22 years since the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, November 4, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Israelis attend a rally marking 22 years since the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, November 4, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The commemorations of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination have a strange tendency: once a year the Israeli peace camp gathers, both physically and virtually, to reflect on how exactly we got to this particular political moment. This year, discussions have been especially tumultuous after it became clear that the rally in Rabin’s honor, organized by two centrist organizations, would be a wholly apolitical affair — one that aims to bring together the “moderate majority,” including leftists, rightists, centrists, and settlers.

The conversations led to some interesting critiques worth engaging with. Alon Mizrahi wrote a powerful piece on these pages, in which he argued that Israel cannot be a democracy as long as it holds millions under military dictatorship, and that the Left’s mission should be to end that dictatorship. At “Haokets,” Lev Grinburg revisited Rabin’s attempt to build an unstable political coalition across ethnic and national lines that granted him the legitimacy to enter talks with Arafat, and how that coalition quickly unraveled following the prime minister’s murder.

Over at Jewish Currents, Maya Haber published an informative piece titled, “Why there’s hope for a progressive agenda in Israel.” In it she details how following the Rabin assassination, when the Israeli Right was at its political and public nadir, American neoconservatives exported their ideology to Israel by building an infrastructure that would put the Right back in power.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin meets with PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat in Casablanca, October 30, 1994. (GPO/Saar Yaakov)
Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin meets with PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat in Casablanca, October 30, 1994. (GPO/Saar Yaakov)

Through a network of funds, think tanks, media outlets, and philanthropic initiatives, American right-wingers “infused Israeli politics with neoconservative ideology, trained political leadership, and provided a media platform from which to attack the left,” Haber writes. Think tanks like the Shalem Center set the tone for Israel’s neoliberal economic policies, while websites such as Mida have orchestrated smear campaigns against left-wing groups such as Breaking the Silence.

Haber’s piece is worth reading for its historical breadth. Unfortunately, it never really lays out what a progressive agenda in Israel looks like. The reader is left with a nebulous optimism that seems entirely detached from the present reality. “Much like the right in the 1990s,” Haber writes, “the Israeli progressive camp now understands that in order to make Israel a better place, it needs to gain power. They have identified the vulnerabilities of the right and have started fighting back.”

Like the Right in the 1990s, Haber continues, the Israeli Left is in the midst of building a movement that could take back power:

Polls consistently indicate that most of the Israeli public supports a two-state solution, social-democratic economic reforms, and religious pluralism. On top of that, the left has laid down in recent years the building blocks of a new and potent political infrastructure. Progressive Israeli organizations, like the think tank Molad, the Yigal Allon Educational Center, and the Social Economic Academy are investing in education, leadership training, and informing policymakers.

This conclusion is baffling. Recent polls indicate that a majority of Israelis still support a two-state solution — but that majority has dropped significantly over the last decade, and there is no reason to believe it won’t keep shrinking. And while Israelis may theoretically support peace, economic reforms, and religious pluralism, there is no active political movement mobilizing them against the current government’s myriad assaults on those values and policies.

Construction takes place in the West Bank settlement of Ariel, January 25, 2017. (Sebi Berens/Flash90).
Construction takes place in the West Bank settlement of Ariel, January 25, 2017. (Sebi Berens/Flash90).

It is noteworthy that progressive Israeli organizations such as Molad, the Yigal Allon Educational Center, and the Social Economic Academy are building a new, left-wing political infrastructure. But one cannot laud an unproven progressive infrastructure without acknowledging the war of attrition being waged against left-wing, human rights, and anti-occupation groups, the current government’s unprecedented attacks on free speech, and a clamping down on Palestinians and Israelis who tow a different line.

The current political situation is not simply the low ebb of “you win some, you lose some.” The Israeli Right isn’t seeking to compete with the Left — it is trying to decimate it, and it has been unequivocally successful thus far.

Ironically, it is the Left which laid the historical groundwork for much of what we are seeing today. It was the founding generation of the Left that put Jewish demographic domination above all other political considerations. It was the Left’s old guard that created a legacy of political repression of its opponents; racism against minorities, Jewish and otherwise; military rule over Palestinians; and even West Bank settlement.

These are the elements that have come to comprise the DNA of the Jewish state. And if all of those policies indeed transcend the political lines of left and right, perhaps the question is not whether the current right-wing government needs to be replaced by a left-wing government that aims to build “a better Israel.” Perhaps we need to ask ourselves whether a national ethos that requires balancing its democratic ideals with Jewish domination can ever be an avenue for real progressive change.