“Labor has resurrected,” wrote one pundit following MK Merav Michaeli’s election as the venerable party’s leader.
The good news is that Labor seems set to survive next month’s poll. That’s good because the party that established the Jewish state carries a legacy which remains socially relevant.
The bad news is that Michaeli does not represent this relevance. Worse, Michaeli’s arrival at Labor’s helm will only delay its comeback, while the party that has already traveled from legend to tragedy will now journey from tragedy to farce.
At a time when leadership is confused with self-worship while social solidarity is replaced by social Darwinism, the historic Labor’s values of collectivity, compassion and modesty are sorely missed. Sadly, Michaeli represents not this legacy, but an anti-electoral combination of exhibitionism, radicalism and nihilism.
Now 54, Michaeli became a lawmaker eight years ago, but was well known for decades as a journalist in varied venues, from Army Radio and Educational TV to Channel 2 and Haaretz.
A former youth leader in the Israel Scouts, she knew how to state an opinion passionately, for instance in rehabilitating her grandfather Israel Kasztner, a Zionist activist in wartime Budapest who was assassinated in Tel Aviv in 1957 following baseless accusations of collaboration with the Nazis while negotiating more than 1,600 Hungarian Jews’ journey to freedom.
Michaeli’s struggle to name a street after Kasztner touched many survivors, especially those who knew and admired Kasztner (as my father did), and were offended by an Israeli judge’s very pretension to judge what Jews did and didn’t do under the Holocaust’s mad circumstances.
Sadly, this consensual part of Michaeli’s baggage is the exception rather than the rule.
MICHAELI’S FIRST problem is her attitude.
On the funny side, she uses Hebrew’s feminine gender when referring to any mixture of men and women. The cause she promotes by this is noble. Who, except some fundamentalists, isn’t for women’s empowerment? This is why most of us use, when possible, phrases such as “he or she.” However, using feminine forms fully and incessantly sounds silly, and degrades the cause it is meant to serve.
More seriously, and alarmingly, during a TV broadcast in 2007, Michaeli suddenly lifted her shirt and fully exposed her bra while discussing reports that one of the women who charged then-president Moshe Katsav with rape had dressed provocatively.
“This,” she said, referring to what her lifted blouse unveiled, “doesn’t mean I am inviting Moshe Katsav to rape me.”
As with her linguistic shtick, the cause was noble, but the method of its promotion was not. That’s not how David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin brought Labor its electoral landslides. Then 41, Michaeli was no kid looking for attention. She was an adult looking for attention, and while at it displaying her lack of the kind of brakes that national leaders are expected to possess.
Even more controversially, Michaeli called for the replacement of the national anthem with a universalistic alternative that would appeal equally to Arabs and Jews (“‘Sahaki Shakai’ ke’himnon,” Haaretz, 12 April 2012).
The idea is of course legitimate, but to Labor’s departed voters it is disagreeable, not to say revolting. To them, “Hatikvah’s” words about Jewish hearts yearning for Jerusalem and Jewish eyes gazing toward Zion are as riveting and as irreplaceable as they were to Michaeli’s slain grandfather.
While replacing the anthem defies the consensus, the analogy Michaeli made in that article – between a new neighborhood’s emergence on the ruins of Budapest’s Jewish ghetto and the construction of Tel Aviv University on the site of vanished Palestinian village Sheikh Munis – defies the facts.
Be your narrative concerning the conflict what it may, the historical facts are that the Palestinians started the war that displaced them, whereas Budapest’s Jews fought no one before they were attacked. Comparing those circumstances was therefore as embarrassing as exposing Michaeli’s bra.
Equally thoughtlessly, Michaeli told Army Radio in October 2010 that “women should not send their children to the army,” a statement by which, she later explained, she did not mean to oppose enlistment as such, just to call on women “to place their motherhood above their nationhood.”
As with the anthem, such a view is legitimate, but for an aspiring national leader it is disastrous. Ideologically it puts off almost every Middle Israeli, and tactically it puts off most of the rest.
Self-injuring though these statements, quips and gestures are, they all dwarf compared with Michaeli’s radicalism concerning the family.
ON THE theoretical plane, Michaeli believes marriage is a chauvinistic institution designed to possess and oppress women. On the practical plain, the childless Michaeli has said she is such by choice, that she never had the urge to bear children, and that she does not regret this choice (she has a partner, TV host Lior Shlein).
This attitude puts off not only Middle Israelis but practically this entire land. This is not Germany, France or Japan, where voluntary childlessness is common and legitimate. This is the developed world’s most demographically vibrant society, a country where infertile women, gay couples, or would-be single parents all go out of their way to have children.
Why Israelis are so eager to reproduce and parent is a separate discussion, but the fact that this is their inclination is a given. Challenging them on this cause can only lead to the political margins.
Merav Michaeli won her new position in a primary election, fair and square. However, she won 7,483 votes in an election joined by less than 10,000 people.
Overall, Labor’s membership plunged over the past 25 years by more than 85%, from 261,000 to 37,120. Michaeli does not represent the departed voters’ return. She is what sprouted in what once was their political habitat, and now is an electoral desolation.
Amotz Asa-El’s bestselling Mitzad Ha’ivelet Ha’yehudi (The Jewish March of Folly, Yediot Sefarim, 2019), is a revisionist history of the Jewish people’s leadership from antiquity to modernity.