This morning, everyone’s focusing on the politicians’ day-after version of the “U’netane Tokef,” (once known by Jews as a spiritual peak of the High Holy Days, now popularized by Leonard Cohen’s “Who by Fire”): Who won, who lost; who did better than expected, who did worse than expected; who will be visible in the upcoming coalition shuk – and who will disappear? But as the pollsters try explaining how accurate or off their predictions were, as pundits trying interpreting the voters’ tea-leaf-messages, let’s think bigger picture: what did yesterday’s elections tell us about Israel today – and tomorrow?
On one hand, we just finished a most depressing campaign. Both parties failed to provide “that vision thing.” The common complaint about Blue and White was that the party never filled in the blanks beyond “we-hate-Bibi.” That negativity fed an empty, enervating feeling throughout the campaign, throughout the country. People didn’t get enough meat-on-the-bones about what Blue and White would do in Gaza, against Hezbollah, about housing, to close the gap between rich and poor, etc. Blue and White posted some answers on its website in prose – but never brought it to the campaign in poetry. The party needed three big ideas offering creative solutions to ongoing problems that reflected some ideological bond uniting the party beyond not-being-Bibi, some inspiring vision.
The Blue and Whiters did succeed in focusing on Netanyahu, his corruption, and his potential threat to Israeli democracy. In response, Bibi had two answers. To the challenge that, for all his successes, Netanyahu had become corrupt, his supporters shouted “doesn’t matter, he’s Mr. Security.” And to the accusation that a culture of excusing corruption, dividing society, demonizing opponents, and embracing bigots, undermines democracy, Netanyahu and his supporters shouted, “Shut up, you’re leftists.”
The results, on one level, were depressing. A campaign without substance to save democracy weakens democracy, while a campaign polarizing society to boost security, weakens society, undermining security. Israel’s secret weapon has always been its population’s unity, its ability to put differences aside – or, in Boogie Ya’alon’s lovely words, “When I look at a soldier, I never know if there’s a kippa underneath the helmet, or not.” Day by day, slur by slur, Netanyahu planted time bombs in the public square that will continue to detonate, damaging our body politic while spreading noxious fumes.
Beware of false equivalence here: Blue and White missed opportunities to elevate democracy further; Netanyahu vandalized to get more votes.
Amid this vacuum, we all missed important opportunities. We needed real debates about how to manage the Gaza border – which remains volatile. We needed real debates about how to guarantee Israel’s security while minimizing our impositions on Palestinians – sweeping, election-eve demagoguery about annexing territory just won’t do. We needed real debates about economics and society, about respecting Israeli-Arabs, not demonizing them. But most important, we needed some vision from the two leading parties – not just Moshe Feiglin and Kulanu – about who we are, how we approach problems, what principles we apply to politics, what values shape our lives.
And yet, Israel passed the true tests of democracy and security yesterday – and over the last few months. Once again, in a Middle East that usually does politics with bullets and bombs, we deployed ballots. In a region where Arab women in hijabs rarely vote, they voted in Israel as equals, as fellow citizens. We woke up this morning in an Israeli democracy far freer than it was 20, 40, 60 years ago. By almost any standard, Israeli society is more open, more tolerant, more stable, than ever before; it’s a nicer place to live than ever before. Similarly, we are less isolated diplomatically than we’ve been in decades – our military is stronger, our opponents divided and weaker. The only places where Palestinians are winning anything are in the UN and in some – not all – campuses. They’re divided deeply, they’re fighting internally, they’re being abandoned by exasperated Arab regimes.
This goes way beyond glass half-empty versus half-full talk. Appreciating our accomplishments salutes the achievement of Israel’s founders, the successes of its citizens.
Of course, as the first campaign for votes ended, the second campaign for real power began. The horse trading and posturing and bullying and backstabbing in the coalition building in the coming months will be operatic – and even more demoralizing.
Perhaps we as citizens have to learn to put all that politicking in the background and bring something else in the foreground.
This Election Day, 2019, happened to fall 10 days before Passover – which always starts the march of the “Yom-Ha”s… Yom Hashoah, Yom Hazikaron, Yom Ha’atzmaut, the holidays marking the Holocaust, our losses and our independence. As we eat matzah and barbecue, as we celebrate and mourn, can we use these moments – defying our politicians’ shortcomings – to start asking some deep questions around our tables with our loved ones: who we are as individuals – and who we wish to be; who we are as people – and what we wish to be; and who we are a state – and where we hope to go?
Every democratic election should be a national seminar in envisioning, dreaming, stretching. It should involve learning from the past, scrutinizing the present and imagining a better future. Our leaders failed to jump-start that kind of conversation in the 2019 campaign – that shouldn’t stop us from trying – and leading our leaders if they can’t lead us.
The writer is the author of the newly released The Zionist Ideas, an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society. A Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University, he is the author of 10 books on American history, including The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s.