The eternal optimist

by Brian on November 19, 2022

in In the News,Only in Israel,Politics,The Old Country

The posts in my Facebook feed following the November 1 Israeli election quickly turned apocalyptic – and that’s putting it kindly. 

Is Itamar Ben-Gvir the bogeyman we need?

“Pack your bags, it’s time to go,” wrote one heartbroken friend.

“If you can, leave,” opined another.

I, along with some half the country, was devastated with the results of our fifth election in four years. But there are, in fact, several reasons to be optimistic. 

1. Everything is temporary. Other than a terror attack leading to a loss of life, just about anything in politics can be undone. 

Money for full-time yeshiva learning reduced? Wait, it’s back. Nope, gone again. 

Kashrut reform – we got it. Um, well probably not anymore. 

The Supreme Court is neutered by a Knesset “override clause?” For now, perhaps. But just wait another four years (or less) and, with a new coalition, the law will be reversed.

2. We are in the midst of a Trumpian backlash in Israel. The rise of Donald Trump was a clear backlash to the Barack Obama years, just as Joe Biden’s election was a response to four years of Trump. The ascendency of the far right in Israel today is, similarly, a backlash to the now defunct “government of change.” 

Did voters lurch further to the Right because they agreed with everything Benjamin Netanyahu and his presumed political partners had to say? No. But with the demise of Yamina, moderate religious voters had nowhere else to turn and so, as Carrie Keller-Lynn wrote in The Times of Israel, opted “to hold their noses” and vote for the Religious Zionist Party. 

Has Israel transformed overnight into a racist, homophobic nation? While there are certainly some rotten apples, most Israelis are still kind, helpful and moderate. As Martin Luther King Jr. once quipped, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” 

3. Israel is not alone in its swing to the Right. France, Sweden, the U.K., Hungary, Italy – all over the world, voters have moved steadily to the Right. When Trump was elected president, pundits predicted Americans would emigrate in droves. That didn’t happen, whether out of complacency or a desire to fight.

Frankly, where would you even go at this point? If the backlash hypothesis is true, the United States could be facing its own post-Biden Republican reaction in 2024 (although the results from last week’s midterm elections showed Democrats have more staying power than pollsters forecast).

France’s Emmanuel Macron beat rightist firebrand Marine Le Pen this time, but she still received 41% of the vote (far more than the 11% the Religious Zionist Party got in Israel). Budapest may be one of the world’s most beautiful cities, but Prime Minister Victor Orban’s branding Hungary as “an illiberal democracy” hardly makes it a place to move to.

4. A bogeyman can be a useful foil. Bibi hedges his language in ways only an accomplished politician learns to sublimate. Religious Zionist Party leaders Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, on the other hand, say exactly what they mean. “If they are throwing stones, shoot them,” Ben-Gvir told police officers in Sheikh Jarrah while brandishing his own handgun. But, as Vladimir Lenin once said, “the worse, the better” – that is, it’s only when things seem exceptionally dire that a meaningful uprising can take place. 

If the anti-Bibi block ever wants to win, a polarizing figure might be just what’s needed to scare it into motion. If enough policies are implemented that citizens can’t stomach, a fighting opposition will return to protests outside the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem, stronger than ever. We can’t have the left constantly crying “gevalt” every single election. 

Speaking of which…

5. Losing Meretz may not be such a bad thing. I have nothing against Meretz. Many of my friends and family voted for them. But it seems the party has long since lost relevance, and the annual game of begging the nation to save them, such that they squeak by the electoral threshold, isn’t healthy. 

When a new left-wing party comes to replace the old Meretz, it will need to do more than represent an increasingly small slice of the Israeli population. As Haviv Rettig Gur wrote in The Times of Israel, “the left that just collapsed, in terms of raw political strategy, doesn’t deserve to exist.”

6. A Jewish state comes before a democratic one. Daniel Gordis, senior vice president of Shalem College in Jerusalem, noted on Substack that the Left in general tends to eschew terms such as “Jewish” and “Zionist.” Indeed, in one of Yair Lapid’s final campaign videos as prime minister, he used neither term.

“The problem, for me, is that if you translated this video into French and substituted ‘France’ for Israel, Emmanuel Macron could use it in his next campaign,” Gordis wrote. “It’s a lovely video that would work for any modern liberal democracy. But here’s the rub. I never intended to move to any old modern liberal democracy…I came here to live in a Jewish state, a state that, while not imposing religiously on anyone, would be Jewish in manifold ways – culturally, educationally, in values and much more.”

Many moderate Israelis, who are “without question appalled by some things that Ben-Gvir says… just want to know that there is someone in the room reminding everyone that they are in the business of leading a Jewish state,” Gordis added. These voters may or may not want public transportation on Shabbat, but they want “a Jewish voice in government meetings.”

I do, too, although I disagree with Ben-Gvir, Smotrich, Netanyahu and the haredi parties about the best way to get there. But that day is coming, which is why I insist on remaining optimistic. 

It’s our job now to hasten its arrival.

I first wrote about finding the silver linings in an uncomfortable situation for The Jerusalem Post.

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