2019 Israeli election analysis: More of the same path for Israeli right; challenge and opportunity for left
Progressive and left-leaning Israelis, American Jews, and pundits were, to say the least, unhappy with Tuesday’s election results in Israel. Sadly, though, Benjamin Netanyahu’s most recent victory does not actually change the realities on the ground compared to what has been in Israel/Palestine for much of the last decade. What is cause for more serious alarm – and opportunity – is how the Zionist left fared in this election.
The New York Times wrote on Wednesday that Bibi and the right’s victory “attests to a starkly conservative vision of the Jewish state and its people about where they are and where they are headed.” Israel’s movement to the right since Netanyahu’s first term as Prime Minister a decade ago should concern anyone who would like to see the rule of law, human rights, and social democratic values and norms upheld in the region. That said, this election will not immediately cause a quantum leap forward in a process that has been, and continues to be, already unfolding.
Bibi will continue to make opportunistic alliances to save himself, just as he has done for years. He will align with the far right in an attempt to limit the Supreme Court’s power. This alliance would enable the far right to more easily achieve its nationalist aspirations and liberate Bibi of his legal entanglements. It would test Israel’s democratic institutions, similarly to what has happened in the United States with the Trump administration, but I believe Israel’s institutions are strong enough to withstand such challenges.
What about the threat of annexation? The normalization of the annexation debate in Israeli public discourse is concerning in that it demonstrates the successful positioning of an anti-democratic agenda into the mainstream. And yet, this too is just another example of Bibi’s opportunism. Bibi’s direct appeal to Israel’s far right went unchecked by the Trump administration, breaking with decades of U.S. Middle East policy. But de-facto annexation has been happening in the West Bank for the better part of the last decade (and before that). While it may seem that Bibi will now be newly emboldened to take more extreme actions, a centrist government may have likely taken those same actions. That is because any action that further limits the freedoms of Palestinians in the West Bank and widens Israeli presence on the ground cannot be attributed to an individual Israeli leader, but rather is the natural progression of 50 years of occupation. In the absence of a powerful opposition, we are on this train with Bibi or without him.
The real alarming result of this election was the further erosion of a powerful opposition. The Zionist left suffered a massive blow. The once-powerful Labor party and Meretz, together, will hold between 10-11 seats in the upcoming Knesset, depending on the final vote count – a meager 8%. Labor shrank significantly because of the emergence of Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party, but more importantly, because of its refusal to form true partnership with Palestinian citizens of Israel. Chairman Avi Gabbay has stated in the past that the Labor party will never sit in a coalition with Arab parties.
Interestingly, Meretz, which was slated for a massive loss, actually ended up with 5 seats according to Thursday morning’s vote count, maintaining its current size. Chairwoman Tamar Zandberg credited Arab voters with saving Meretz, voting for the party in higher numbers than in previous elections. Meretz reached out to Arab voters and kept its seats, as opposed to the Labor party that shunned them and lost half its seats.
Meretz still has a lot of work to do to shed its elitist, white, Ashkenazi, Tel Avivi reputation. In order to grow in numbers and gain influence in the future, it will have to build genuine intersectional coalitions not only with Arabs, but with other marginalized groups in Israel such as Mizrahi Jews, Ethiopians (who were effectively ignored in this election despite mass protests just three months ago that shut down a major highway in Tel Aviv), Ultra-Orthodox Jews, and other socioeconomically disadvantaged populations. Labor needs to do the same if it wants to avoid fading into total irrelevance.
There is not enough of a Jewish Zionist left in Israel. The numbers simply don’t add up. The only way for Israel to maintain any semblance of democracy is by forming true intersectional coalitions, with a Jewish-Arab partnership at their center. Part of that process includes the Zionist left’s reckoning with its own complicity in the subjugation of Arab citizens of Israel and in the occupation. Israeli civil society is doing this work already. The chance that it could trickle into the political sphere is what gives me hope moving forward.
Three years ago, I moved to Philadelphia after living abroad since college, a move that was necessary for my partner’s career – and completely derailed mine. As a person whose professional identity, national identity, physical place, and happiness have always been closely linked, this was a huge challenge. My work defined me and determined my place in the world. I mean that quite literally – I moved to Tel Aviv 3 weeks after college graduation. In part, I moved to come home. I was born and raised in Israel. But I also moved back because I wanted to play a direct role in building a more just and equal future for Israelis and Palestinians. My time in Philadelphia turned all those plans into chaos and has forced me to make the mental shift away from circumstantial, and toward unconditional happiness and gratitude. I needed to learn the impermanence of anything in this life. And through learning that, I’ve grown to appreciate life’s unexpected turns, and the unknown that is the only constant.
Cross-continental moves play a significant part in my family’s history. My paternal grandparents sought refuge in New York City after surviving the Holocaust, but their two adult children moved to Israel in the 80's and 90's, respectively. My maternal grandparents journeyed from Los Angeles to Israel, bringing their four little girls along for the ride, in 1968. My mom would later return stateside and settle in Boston, where she met my dad. In 1989 they moved to the Holy Land, where my siblings and I were born.
My grandmother told me once that our family is cursed. “Since you have two homes – Israel and the U.S.,” she said, “you are never fully at home in either place”. I know she’s right because my story, too, is full cross-continental moves: from Israel to Atlanta in fourth grade, Atlanta to Israel in fifth, Israel to Central Massachusetts in seventh, back to Israel after college, Philadelphia five years after that.
When I started my job search in Philadelphia in 2016, it was a sharp slap in the face to learn I wasn’t special. No one cared about the money I raised for economic development projects in Israel. Not one of the many non-profits I took interest in thought I could do the same for them. And truthfully, I wasn’t interested. My passions were in Israel/Palestine. How could I ever find professional satisfaction, let alone happiness, in a cold, grey city where I have no roots? For me, the connection between work, passion, and place ran so deep that reeducating myself to find happiness anywhere seemed like an insurmountable challenge.
And indeed, what followed was a messy time. A period of depression, deep confusion, lots of searching, little finding, and many moments of utter exhaustion. A non-linear and never-ending process of cultivating happiness amid chaos. All my identities were challenged: I was no longer a Tel Avivian. I didn’t quite fit with the Israeli community in Philly, and also not with the American Jewish community here. I had always considered myself unquestionably career-driven and independent. But we moved because of my partner’s professional aspirations, and I couldn’t continue the career path I was on here. Over the last three years, I’ve switched from one bad job to the next, struggled to find community, and made career changes that have left me with more questions than answers.
None of the issues I’ve described here have been resolved. In fact, this summer we’ll be moving somewhere new, again for my partner’s career. But time, plus many hours of meditation and routine self-care, has taught to separate work and place from identity. This might come naturally to some – it doesn’t at all to me. I often hold back tears when I meet someone new and have to answer the question “so what do you do?”. It’s hard for me to say I’ve been living away from Israel, the home I chose to return to as an adult and then voluntary left, for three years. My career is a constant rollercoaster. And yet, a critical mass of tears has revealed a simple truth: I am here now, and that is okay. Tomorrow I will be somewhere else, and that will also be okay.
There is no ending here – happy or not. I still have deep questions of identity and happiness that I grapple with every single day. But something big has changed. I sense a deep certainty in the uncertainty. If I’ve survived the last three years, I can cope with whatever comes next because I am constantly building the tools I’ll need. I know that life will likely throw at me things far worse than a few bad jobs and some professional uncertainty – I am also well aware of my privilege to choose where I live and what career paths I pursue. Whatever those challenges are, though, they too will come and pass. In knowing that, I can find calm, and I can’t wait to see what I’ll learn on the other side.
The following piece was published in Alma on October 31, 2018:
"I do not think about synagogue often. My partner and I belong to one, but rarely go. Progressive millennials like us are generally moving away from, not toward, organized religion - I believe some studies demonstrate that, although I need only to look at most 30-year-old Jews I know to see it.
But I am an avid reader of my rabbi's weekly Shabbat e-mail, which is how I found out last Friday afternoon that the weekly Torah portion was Vayera, the same one I read for my bat mitzvah 16 years ago.
In Vayera, Abraham bargains relentlessly with God to save 10 righteous people in Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham, my rabbi wrote, spoke truth to power when it was unjust, challenging God to see the good in people.
It was eerie, to say the least, when within 24 hours of reading about this Torah portion, a white nationalist slaughtered 11 Jews at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh..."
Keep reading here.