Ceding cultural power centers without putting up a fight

The left controls such centers because it invested decades of effort in doing so. The right doesn’t even try.

2014 Israel Prize ceremony (photo credit: SASSON TIRAM)
2014 Israel Prize ceremony
(photo credit: SASSON TIRAM)
One of the more perceptive responses to the recent uproar over the composition of the Israel Prize juries came from columnist Ariana Melamed. Responding to the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s complaint that these juries have become a “private playground of the radical Left,” Melamed retorted, “while it’s true that a huge number of leftists have won the prize, that [is] only because the right has failed to establish an alternative to an elite that began turning to the left way back when Begin was giving speeches in city squares.”
Though her explanation of this failure is ludicrous (she essentially argues that great artists and intellectuals almost by definition vote left), the failure itself is undeniable. Because an intellectual or cultural elite isn’t just a random collection of individuals who produce intellectual or cultural output; it’s a power center. And while Israel’s center-right produces both intellectuals and artists, not only has it failed to mobilize these resources to pose any real challenge to the left’s cultural dominance, but for the most part, it hasn’t even tried. Instead, it makes do with whining about the leftist elites’ lock on intellectual and cultural power centers, from universities to the legal establishment to the media to the Israel Prizes.
Last week brought a classic example of this willful refusal to contest control over such power centers: Prof. Asher Cohen’s ouster as head of a professional advisory committee on the school civics curriculum because he ran in Bayit Yehudi’s party primary.
Leftists have always understood that control over the civics curriculum is vital, because it shapes students’ views on critical questions like whether Zionism is essentially just or inherently unjust, whether a “Jewish and democratic” state is a reasonable goal or an oxymoron. Consequently, they have made great efforts to influence this curriculum. Thus, for instance, Cohen’s predecessor, Adar Cohen, approved a civics textbook which not only termed the Law of Return a violation of civil rights (the law exemplifies "a clash between civil liberties ... and Israel's purpose as a Jewish state"), but even claimed that Judaism was originally only a religion, not a nationality (a blatant contradiction of Judaism’s formative text, the Bible, which refers to the Jews repeatedly as “the nation of Israel”).
Former Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar, one of the few rightists who do understand the importance of cultural power centers, consequently braved a storm of opposition to replace Adar Cohen with Asher Cohen in 2012. That put the latter in a unique position to shape the views of generations of schoolchildren. But instead, he threw it away for a chance to enter the Knesset, where his influence on future generations would have been incomparably smaller even had he not fared so poorly enough in the primary that he certainly won’t get in.
For another example, consider columnist Emily Amrousi’s extended whine about the New Israel Fund in Israel Hayom last month. Inter alia, she complained, the NIF is “actively trying to insert its own people into government -- just look at the success of the New Israel Fund's law fellowship, which has been operating for three decades with the express aim of ‘cultivating legal leadership to promote human and civil rights and social justice.’ Dozens of the fellowship's alumni have gone on to serve in the State Prosecutor's Office and the Justice Ministry. Some have them have been appointed judges and as such, proven their commitment to the spirit of the New Israel Fund in their legal work.”
My reaction on reading this was, “What a brilliant idea. Why hasn’t the right created legal fellowships to groom its people for influential positions in the legal establishment?” After all, whoever controls the legal establishment controls a major power center. The NIF understands this, which is why it puts money and effort into these fellowships. But not only has the center-right created nothing equivalent, it has done nothing whatsoever to contest the left’s legal dominance.
Thus, for instance, successive center-right governments have consistently quashed bills to alter the way Supreme Court justices are chosen, even though changing the selection process is crucial to ending the left’s hammerlock on the court. Similarly, right-leaning members of the Bar Association frequently back left-wing candidates for the Judicial Appointments Committee in exchange for getting “their” candidates on the panel that appoints religious court judges, not understanding that the former – which chooses the Supreme Court – ultimately has far more impact on Israel’s Jewish character than the latter.
The picture is identical in the media. Rightists complain bitterly that the left dominates radio and television, but during decades in power, center-right governments have repeatedly refused to enact legislation opening the airwaves to competition. Thus the two state-owned radio stations (Army Radio and Kol Yisrael) continue to monopolize the national news agenda, because no other station can legally broadcast a nationwide news program.
Incredibly, center-right governments have even rushed to rescue failing left-wing broadcasters instead of letting them collapse. For instance, the left-leaning Channel 10 television has repeatedly been on the verge of losing its license in recent years because it hasn’t met its financial commitments.  Yet instead of letting it fail and auctioning its license to someone else, Netanyahu’s government has repeatedly bailed it out.
Even in the world of print media, Israeli rightists correctly complained for years about the left-wing slant of Haaretz and Yedioth Ahronoth, but made no serious effort to launch a rival paper with a different editorial viewpoint. It took an American Jew, Sheldon Adelson, to finally step up to the plate and do it for them by founding Israel Hayom.
It’s true that the left exploits its control of Israel’s cultural power centers to systematically exclude people of the wrong political persuasion. But leftists didn’t achieve their dominance of these power centers by divine decree; they achieved it through decades of intensive effort. So if the right wants to contest left-wing domination of the intellectual and cultural elite, it needs to invest equivalent effort. If it just keeps waiting for the left to share this power of its own accord, it will be waiting until the Messiah comes.
Evelyn Gordon is a journalist and commentator. Follow her on twitter here.