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I remember vividly voting in my first Israeli election in 1984. I had made aliya three years before, and was quite proud to become a participant in what I considered to be a supreme civic and national privilege - choosing one's government.
What I find amusing and revealing, however, is that I cannot remember which party I voted for in 1984. I think I know the reason for not remembering, and it is not incipient senility. It may be because of all the elections which I and all Israelis have had to endure since 1984, and which have left me weary, confused, not yet cynical, but certainly skeptical of platforms and promises, assurances and pledges.
I consider myself an open-minded voter. Look at my checkered voting record: Since 1984 I have voted for Likud, Labor, and the National Religious Party. In the two direct elections for prime minister I chose first Binyamin Netanyahu and then Ehud Barak. And in the last election I joined the landslide for Likud and Ariel Sharon.
Does this mean I am fickle? Hardly. Gullible? I hope not. Idealistic - or more to the point, ideologically committed? I have always thought so.
In 1984, as I recall, my ideological loyalties were torn among five parties. I might have voted Likud as best representing Herzl's and Jabotinsky's maximalist aspirations regarding national sovereignty for the Jewish people in the Land of Israel. I might have voted Labor in tribute to its having built the superstructure of the Zionist enterprise that is in fact today's State of Israel.
I might then have voted Tsomet-Tehiya (remember them?) because of their argument that realpolitik demanded that Zionists settle the Greater Land of Israel. At the same time I might have voted for the old Shinui party in appreciation of its proclaimed devotion to the highest ideals of prophetic Judaism and Western liberal democracy. And finally, I could have cast my vote for the NRP, which has always had the most mature understanding of the significance of Judaism's religious covenant as the indispensable grounding for any Zionist effort.
WHAT ABOUT today? Have my ideological dreams vanished in the course of decades of broken promises, compromises, if not downright violations of principles and commitments?
Not necessarily. I am not naive. I realize that politicians are in the business of gaining power, and the first objective of any politician is to get elected; therefore, in a campaign they will say and do almost anything which they judge will contribute to that end.
This is the game. And the realization that the chief initial function of the party in power is to provide jobs for its loyal members does not shock me, nor does it blemish my loftiest dreams of ideological purity, clarity and decisiveness someday determining elections.
Many years ago I had a professor of literature who expressed contempt for politicians, referring to them figuratively as "garbage collectors." The professor was way off the mark in not appreciating the elementary truth that without politicians no society can function. The professor's opportunity to enjoy the world of esthetics was only made possible by those who ostensibly sully themselves in a world in which he would not set foot.
Politics at its grubbiest, day-to-day survival level - like life - is not always a principled process. In life, one cannot always hold to one's principles. As the jargon in systems analysis puts it, one always "reoptimizes" according to the circumstances.
Living - and politics - are incremental processes. In politics and government one tilts the ship of state a little to the left, a little to the right, hoping for another day, another week, another year of survival. The politician's task is to serve the people by wielding his power in order to keep the ship of state afloat. The ship of state need not be heading in any particular direction in the long term to justify a given politician's right to hold on to power. Keeping afloat itself demands a supreme moral and managerial effort, and is itself worthy of reward by the electorate.
WHERE DOES this leave me as far as our coming election is concerned? I am arguing, on the one hand, for the validity - nay necessity - of a voter's ideological commitment to some vision of Jewish and Zionist fulfillment. On the other hand, I am accepting the reality of politics and the limitations that politicians face, even if they have the best of intentions.
Therefore, my conclusion is that (1) I will vote ideologically; and (2) I will leave the running of the country - do I have a choice? - to the government that is formed, however it is formed.
If I am to vote ideologically, it is clear that I cannot bring myself to vote for any of the three major parties leading the polls. Labor and Likud, despite their rhetoric, appear to host a hodge-podge of views, with their chief "conviction" being their readiness - under the right conditions, of course - to join in a coalition with Kadima. More accurately, they plan to unite with Sharon, assuming that they or anyone else knows what Sharon is planning to do.
As for Sharon, may he live "until 120," one prays that he is not suffering from geriatric hubris, that particular complex that believes that only he can solve Israel's major problems and that he must do it now!
My search for an ideological vote, then, continues to the parties outside the mainstream. But to vote with the extreme Left would be to vote for a non-Jewish non-Zionist never-never land. That leaves the extreme Right.
Perhaps it is providential that I have just moved from Jerusalem's center to Rehov Yisrael Eldad, named after a great Israeli ideologue, philosopher, polemicist, Bible scholar, and formerly the ideological head of Lehi (the Sternists). Of course, the National Union won't be in the government. The government will be the amorphous, disputatious Center - may it serve the ship-of-state well. But on this coming Election Day, I cherish the right to vote not for the government but for my dream - a Jewish-Zionist dream.
The writer is rabbi emeritus of Moreshet Yisrael, a Masorti congregation in Jerusalem.