Politics of The Dead

An article in Issue 18, December 22, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. It's election time again. Popular wisdom has it that Israeli politics are a morally bankrupt mess and that political leaders are impotent, egoistic and corrupt. The 2008 Democracy Index survey, published by the Israel Democracy Institute, shows that 51 percent of the Israeli population believes that an individual must be corrupt in order to reach the top in politics today. The very word, "politics," conjures free associations of "deceit, corruption or treason" among 33 percent of respondents; the next most popular, unprompted answer, was "nausea" (22 percent). Until recently, the United States, too, seemed to be an inspiration wasteland. Few children growing up in the United States in the 1970s and 1980s ever experienced the sweeping political passion and idealism of the previous decades - until Barack Obama came on the political stage. For many Americans, Obama's election represents a paradigm shift from the politics of cynicism to the politics of hope. And so, ever since Obama's rousing acceptance speech in Grant Park, Chicago, on November 4th, many Israelis have been asking: Can we get some of that inspirational hope over here, too? Is there anyone in Israel who could inspire us about our national endeavor? Or, in more local terms, is there a political balm for Gilead? On November 26, The Jerusalem Report asked a representative sample of 500 voter-age Jewish Israelis if they thought that any one of a list of 10 Israelis could thrill them the way Barack Obama thrilled millions of Americans. The names were selected from the fields of culture, business and entertainment, from the past and the present, some alive and some long-gone. Our results show that visionary leadership in Israel is indeed, quite literally, dead. The list was topped by two politicians whose political lives have been over for more than a quarter of a century. The plurality, 18 percent, chose Menachem Begin, the hawk who made peace with Egypt during his 1977-1983 term as prime minister and died in 1992. Next, with 14 percent, was David Ben-Gurion, the legendary leader of the Jewish state and its first prime minister, who died in 1973. Begin even beat out his party's current chairman and candidate for prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, by nearly 8 points. In terms of living figures, Netanyahu, who received only 10.4 percent of the excitement vote, has just a hairline lead over Tzipi Livni, who trailed by less than one point, at 9.7 percent (with less than one-quarter of the 4 percent margin of error, this is a fairly insignificant difference). Respondents seem to pine for a leader they can respect. Following real politicians (living or dead) was multi-billionaire industrialist Stef Wertheimer, our own visionary for an age of economic passion, chosen by 5 percent; writer David Grossman followed with 4 percent. A handful of respondents chose Supreme Court Chief Dorit Beinish (1.5 percent); while Meretz party head Haim Oron inspired just 1.1 percent of the respondents. Women are more excited by the female candidate - 12 percent chose Livni, compared to 8 percent of men. This may provide a counterweight to the catty notion that "women don't support other women" - although since our study concentrated on inspiration and not preference, it remains unclear how supportive they will be in the voting booth. Men find Netanyahu to be more inspirational, choosing him by 11 percent (9.6% of women chose him). Seventeen percent of men chose Ben-Gurion, but only 12 percent of the women - who, interestingly, preferred Begin instead: fully 20 percent of them chose him over the country's founding father. Judging by our results, Israeli politics has not quite crossed the line from tragedy to farce: We tempted frivolity by offering popular diva and television personality Ninette as an option but she garnered barely seven absolute votes (1.3%). But still, our study brings us to some ominous conclusions. Young people are particularly politically uninspired and alienated. Fully 40 percent of the youngest respondents (ages 18-24) said that none of the 10 names excited them as a future leader (compared to 26 percent of the total sample and only 10 percent of older respondents). Even the popular dead candidates didn't do it for them: Among these younger voters, only 8 percent and 10 percent chose Begin and Ben-Gurion, respectively, while among voters over the age of 55, each of these two political icons received 18 percent. In other words, four times more young people chose "no one" rather than a dead leader. The study shows that certain groups in Israeli society remain dangerously alienated from the political process: People who say they earn less than the average household income show disaffection similar to the younger voters, and 33 percent of them could not find a single inspiring figure. And the ultra-Orthodox feel more alienated than any other group: 55 percent of haredi respondents found no leader inspiring. (While no haredi leader was offered on the list, several respondents did spontaneously nominate Rabbi Ovadia Yosef as their inspirational leader.) The conclusion is that while America seems to have broken the mold of cynicism, Israelis have a hard time feeling that their leaders inspire passion or commitment to the political process. The majority will still make a choice from among the (actual) candidates, but it's a choice they would rather not have to make. Israelis would rather look to the past for national inspiration instead of looking forward, to nowhere. This poll was conducted for The Jerusalem Report on November 25, 2008 by New Wave Research among a representative sample of 500 Jewish Israelis, with a margin of error: +/- 4 percent. • Dahlia Scheindlin is an international political consultant and public opinion analyst based in Tel Aviv. An article in Issue 18, December 22, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.