Meretz targets youth, but most members are elderly

Its average member is an elderly Ashkenazi, middle-class and up, intellectual and privileged Tel-Avivian.

meretz hall 224.88 amir (photo credit: Amir Mizroch)
meretz hall 224.88 amir
(photo credit: Amir Mizroch)
Justin Kliger is Meretz's dream voter. He's 26, very liberal, loves Israel and yearns for peace with our neighbors. He works for the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, so he's passionate about the environment. He's a Reform Jew and has nothing but love for the other streams of Judaism. A new immigrant from Australia, Kliger speaks good Hebrew, has many Israeli friends and wants to get more involved in fixing this country. He's politically and socially fired up, motivated and ready to do his part to make Israel a light unto the nations. He believes in voting (Australia has mandatory voting) and will vote for Meretz even if it doesn't pass the electoral threshold in the next national election. But at Tuesday's internal Meretz poll at the United Kibbutz Movement's headquarters in Tel-Aviv, young people like Kliger were a rare species. The vast majority of those who came to vote for Ran Cohen, Haim Oron or Zehava Gal-On to take over Meretz's leadership were middle-aged and older. Some even came with their Filipino caregivers in tow, while others used canes and walking sticks. There were younger voters, but by and large, the average Meretz member in 2008 is an elderly Ashkenazi, middle-class and up, intellectual and privileged Tel-Avivian with easy access to the Kibbutz Movement building's convenient parking lots. "Meretz used to be my party," said Kliger, who joined the party one year ago, "but now I don't think it represents me anymore. Come to think of it, no party out there represents me. I like what Dov Henin from Hadash has to say about the environment. But I'm not likely to vote Hadash." Kliger voted for Gal-On Tuesday, because he was looking for someone "provocative." "Look what I have to choose from: two old men and a bourgeoisie woman," he said, adding that at least Gal-On seemed to have some "pilpel," or spunk. The vote Tuesday seemed to be split mostly between Cohen and Oron, the two oldest candidates. As one of Gal-On's supporters told her after she cast her vote: "If it doesn't work this time, you just stick it out - you're the youngest, and everyone will wake up to that sooner or later." Gal-On is counting on it. Out of the three candidates, she was the one with the least to lose, but also the one seemingly having to work the hardest to get people out to vote, with one of her supporters lugging a table from the basement out to the building's entrance, where Oron and Cohen's activists had set up small campaigning stations to attract voters on their way in. Speaking constantly on her cell phone to activists across the country, Gal-On was particularly concerned that certain people get to one of the country's retirement homes to vote. "The party is tired, it's old. I'm working to bring new life, new energy and new people into it," Gal-On said. The signs are unmistakable: Meretz is a party literally holding a walking stick in one hand and a Filipino with the other. Its position in the polls puts it anywhere between total obliteration and just making the cut for the Knesset. Avi Blau, Meretz's Tel Aviv branch head, says he has seen polls showing Meretz gaining popularity, but he's really the only one saying that. There are some 15,000 card-carrying members of the left-wing party, and it seems that Meretz, like the other parties of the Center-Left, is finding it hard to attract a new generation. "In the last election, over 40 percent of the young electorate went to the beach instead of the voting booths," Gal-On said, adding, "If we don't find a way to bring them back, the right wing is going to come back to power." Gal-On, like the other candidates, is worried by the seeming ease with which the religious and right-wing parties are attracting the younger generation of activists and members, largely through fervent idealism and a sense that things in the country are headed the wrong way. So, with an aging membership and difficulties attracting a new generation, does Meretz have a future? One woman offered an explanation as to why, in her mind, so few people had come out to vote: "Meretz in any case won't be in the next government, so let's just vote Labor, or stay at home." Another long-time member of Meretz, who was accompanying his wife to the voting booth, said that ever since Mapam (Mifleget Hapoalim Hameuhedet, or United Workers Party) and Meretz merged, "it just wasn't the same thing" and he wasn't voting for it. Quite a few of the activists at the polling booths were busy helping confused elderly people find the right voting room, and then helping them find the right elevator back out of the building. For some of the old-timers, the party has lost its shine, and the future looks murky. Some say they will vote Labor if Meretz disappears. The party does have a youth wing, though, with hundreds of members, and its 17-year-old chairman, Tomer Reznik, naturally believes Meretz does have a future. Reznik makes an interesting point: The party's main messages are increasingly aimed at the younger voters. "We're focusing on student issues, civil marriage, gay rights, environmental protection and the peace process. All these resonate with young people in Israel," Reznik says. So why are there so few young people in Meretz? "Because it's harder to get messages through to people today who view politics as dirty. They don't realize the daily connection between politics and their lives, like student loans and free education, for instance," the young activist says. Reznik believes it's sad that the political parties can't seem to attract the young anymore, and believes that Meretz needs younger leadership. "What would I do to attract young members? Go talk to them at the nightclubs?"