A foreign visitor who has been in Israel since last June could be forgiven for scratching his head and saying, “Will the real Israel please stand up.”
For the country swung from one extreme to the other during this 10-month period, bookended on one side by the astounding national solidarity that accompanied the brutal kidnapping and murder of the three boys in Gush Etzion and on the other by an ugly and divisive election campaign.
We went from the heights of great unity of purpose and solidarity in the summer – at least among the majority Jewish population – to the current seemingly cavernous chasms.
We went from former president Shimon Peres’s words at the funeral of one of the murdered youths, Eyal Yifrah, that the tragedy reminded us that we are an “ancient people, united and deeply rooted,” to the campaign slogans of both major parties in this election, that it is either “us or them.”
The Likud’s slogan was, “It is us, or them” (“zeh anachnu, oh’hem”), and the Zionist Union’s slogan – in a reference to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – was, “It’s us, or him” (“zeh anachnu, oh hu.”) But who is them? And who is us? The brutal murder of the boys in the summer, and then the war in Gaza, erased momentarily those “them” and “us” distinctions and the country marched in step, united by a common pain and sense of purpose.
But it was clear that after that period passed, so too would that unity.
Those who hoped or spoke or predicted otherwise were dreamers. That is not who we are. We do impressively unite and come together in times of danger and trauma, but then we divide and pull apart when life returns to normal.
That is our default mode; that is who we are.
The peak of our unity in the summer was a false one – a peak that would have crumbled, regardless, as regular life intervened and eroded that peak’s base. But the natural erosion process was accelerated by the election campaign, an election campaign as vacuous and as factious as any the country has faced.
The campaign began amid the regular exaggerated flourish of how this would be a fateful election for Israel’s soul.
Thankfully, the comments were that the election would be for the country’s soul, and not that the campaign reflected the country’s soul. Because, if this campaign reflected our soul, the image staring back at us is scary – Dorian Gray-scary.
What this campaign reflected was a meanness of spirit, a vindictiveness, an incredible pettiness. It was an ugly campaign that brought out the country’s worst. Issues – and goodness knows we have them to face in abundance – were largely ignored.
The campaign wasn’t about Iran, but rather about Netanyahu’s speech in Congress about Iran. It wasn’t about the wisdom of a two-state solution, but about how the Zionist Union was penetrated by non-Zionists more interested in a Palestinian state than a Jewish one. It wasn’t even about Netanyahu and whether he has a vision, but rather about his wife and whether she stiffed the treasury out of some $1,000 in bottle deposits.
Some say that, for the first time, the campaign was about social and economic issues. But it wasn’t. It was about kvetching about the social and economic issues with no one really articulating any real type of plan about how to deal with them. This was an animated Shabbat dinner table conversation – lots of exaggerations, lots of complaining, lots of passion, but no real operational plan – played out on the national stage.
It was a campaign of wild hyperbole.
You know something is amiss when the Zionist Union has an ad featuring a woman reciting a poem saying that everything is falling apart (Everything!?). Or when a former head of the Mossad, Shabtai Shavit, says Netanyahu has turned the US from ally to enemy (Enemy!?). Or when Netanyahu says Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni could not withstand world pressure for one millisecond (one millisecond!?).
Or when Livni says people in the country don’t even have “enough money to buy a newspaper.” (Not even a newspaper!?) Mercifully, it’s over.
If election campaigns in Israel extended for as long as presidential campaigns do in America, with all the doom and gloom coming out of every microphone, the ceaseless talk about how bad everything is or will be, and with constant chatter about how corrupt and spineless the leadership is, it would be a miracle if anyone actually chose to live in this country. For who would want to live in a land as miserable as the one being portrayed in the campaign.
But that depiction, as most reasonable people understand, is false. It’s false, and as fleeting as that sense of unity we felt in the summer.
All is not bad, all is not falling apart and – if the “other side” comes into power – all will not go down the toilet.
Why not? Because the “other side” won’t have enough time to “destroy everything.”
If the polls are to be even remotely believed, the coalition to emerge in a few weeks time will be as – if not more – unwieldy than the one we happily said goodbye to a few months ago. We’ll most likely be going back to the polls in another two to three years.
Each time, Israel goes to elections hoping that this time it will wake up the next morning to a headline that reads, “Israel has conclusively decided.” But we never do, because we never have conclusively decided.
Instead of that fantasy headline, our reality was best summed up in a sign someone saw fluttering from a balcony a week ago: “I am disappointed in the results of the coming elections.”
The results, much more than the election campaign, will reflect who we are. The message will be muddled because we are a variegated, divided and factious people who can’t agree on what policy should be.
And, yes, we are also one that comes together in times of pain and trauma.