My Word: The morning after Election Day

Words can kill – and words can heal. Sooner or later, within the next four years, there will be elections again. Leave the cries of “Gevalt” for then.  

 LIKUD SUPPORTERS break out the champagne following the results of the exit polls on Election Day. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
LIKUD SUPPORTERS break out the champagne following the results of the exit polls on Election Day.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

With five elections in less than four years, there’s been a lot repetition lately. Nothing was repeated more often than the cry of alarm: “Gevalt!” 

Gevalt is one of the relatively few Yiddish words that has been widely adopted in Hebrew-speaking Israel, with its mixed population. It even trips off the tongues of Arabic-speakers – or at least of Arab politicians ahead of elections. And this time was no exception. 

The closer to the November 1 election day, the more frequently political figures across the spectrum used the Yiddish word of warning. It was voiced by the stridently secular and by ultra-Orthodox Jews and Muslims. It wasn’t so much a cry of distress, as a battle cry – a last-ditch attempt to rally potential voters when it was clear that voter turnout could play a decisive role.

When I was asked earlier this week what I thought the election results would be, I refused to make a prediction. Last year, Naftali Bennett, who ran on a campaign ripe with right-wing slogans, managed to oust Benjamin Netanyahu from the Prime Minister’s Residence on just seven mandates (which later dropped to five). He did this by including leftwing parties and the United Arab List (Ra’am) in his coalition. After that, it was hard to guess what would be this time around.

I was willing to say, however, that despite the projected confidence of Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid and claims to the throne by National Unity leader Benny Gantz, Netanyahu had more than a chance of a comeback. I based the prediction less on what I was seeing on Facebook and social media and more on what I saw on the street. Literally. 

While my Jerusalem neighborhood had fewer campaign posters than in the past, almost all those on display were for Netanyahu and the Religious Zionist Party’s Itamar Ben-Gvir. (I don’t think this was simply because Gantz kept changing his party’s name.)

Sadly, yet again, much of the election boiled down to slogans of “Only Bibi” versus “Just not Bibi.” It’s not constructive.

In fact, it’s downright destructive.

Predictably, the morning after there were disappointed voters who claimed that they would be moving abroad rather than stay to face life in the Jewish state under a Netanyahu government in which Ben-Gvir, Bezalel Smotrich and the ultra-Orthodox parties would be dominant forces. They miss the point. It is a truly post-Zionist reaction to abandon Israel rather than stay to have an influence from within. Better to fight (through peaceful means) than take flight.

And to those who declared that they would take to the streets to rally against “the harm caused to democracy,” it should be pointed out that trying to overturn the election results in which more than half the electorate got what it voted for is itself not democratic.

There was a lot of hype and hyperventilation alongside the “Gevalts.” This was one of the factors that helped Netanyahu. It was too much. Yesh Atid MK Ram Ben Barak, for example, said in an interview a few days before the vote: “I am not comparing this to anything – I am saying that in advance in order not to be quoted – but Hitler came to power democratically, he was elected in a democratic way.” 

Ben Barak knew, of course, that he would be quoted. He knew what he was falsely comparing. And he was well aware of how his dire warning would be interpreted, at home and abroad. Did he think that linking Ben-Gvir, Smotrich and Netanyahu to Hitler could somehow save the Jewish state? No. But he might have thought it would save his political career and he didn’t care about the ramifications.

Similarly, when Labor leader Merav Michaeli claimed that Yitzhak Rabin “was murdered in a political assassination with the cooperation of Benjamin Netanyahu,” she knew it was a character assassination of the Likud leader.

The 27th anniversary of Rabin’s assassination falls on November 4. If there is one lesson we should have learned from that despicable murder, it’s the dangers of dehumanizing those you don’t agree with. You can’t claim to heal the country while belittling or delegitimizing half its citizens.

It is often claimed that Rabin’s death ended the Oslo process. But it’s impossible to tell what might have been. The so-called peace process was already literally blowing up before Rabin was shot. The Left focuses on the incitement that preceded his murder (ignoring that some of it was by Shin Bet agents provocateurs like Avishai Raviv), but the Palestinian suicide bombings that accompanied the Oslo process were just as much a part of the background.

The scars of Rabin’s assassination remain. And, in 2022, the polarization and rifts were evident around election day as much as the anniversary of his murder.

There is no doubt that last year’s Arab riots as rockets rained down on Israel from Gaza in Operation Guardian of the Walls seriously damaged trust in the wider Israeli society. The same is true of the ongoing violence in Judea and Samaria, parts of Jerusalem, the Negev and other areas with a high mixed population. This is the primary factor behind the phenomenal rise of the far-Right’s Ben-Gvir – not primitive, fascist racism.

A statement by Hadash MK Aida Touma-Suleiman referring to Palestinian terrorists as “our martyrs” served Ben-Gvir better than it served her. And when Hadash party head Ayman Odeh during Ramadan riots earlier this year urged Muslim police officers and soldiers “to throw their weapons” in the face of their Jewish comrades, he did everyone a disservice. Given that violence within the Arab sector is that community’s most pressing concern, he should be backing Arabic-speaking police officers, not inciting against them.

That’s why Ben-Gvir’s focus on restoring a sense of personal security worked better than cries of “Just not Bibi.” Add to that the divergent opinions on the Jewish nature and values of the country. Transportation Minister Michaeli, for example, made a point of declaring that she, the Labor party leader, would ensure public transport runs on Shabbat (before it adequately serves the periphery on weekdays, by the way.) Similarly, her reluctance to invest in road infrastructure in Judea and Samaria, even though road safety shouldn’t depend on politics, was not wise at any level.

It is no consolation that Israel, of course, is not the only country suffering from polarization and divisions. Indeed, that should serve as a warning. There is a way forward. What the country needs is a stable coalition and a strong, responsible, opposition. I belong to the school of thought that holds that you can’t control everything bad that befalls you, but you can control your response. Neither naiveté nor paranoia helps. Incidentally, many of the issues and values that concern traditional, orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jewish citizens are shared by traditional and religious Muslims. But no one in the secular government was going to ban circumcision just as no one in a government dependent on religious parties is going to enforce head-coverings for women – despite all the rhetoric heard before this week’s polls.

Democracy didn’t die and Israel is not going to disappear either. There’s no need to over-dramatize the tears and fears. As The Jerusalem Post’s Herb Keinon put it: “This country’s checks and balances have not just up and evaporated. Anyone who knows Israel knows the country – meaning the people in the country – would not stand idly by and allow it to fall off a fascist cliff.”

“This country’s checks and balances have not just up and evaporated. Anyone who knows Israel knows the country – meaning the people in the country – would not stand idly by and allow it to fall off a fascist cliff.”

Herb Keinon

Israel’s renowned resilience – its inner and outer strength – depends on its solidarity. Israelis famously come together during disasters and wars. We need to learn to come together in the good times, too. In April, Israel will be celebrating its 75th anniversary – time to overcome the political divisions and have a party. 

Words can kill – and words can heal. Left and Right need to choose their words carefully. Sooner or later, within the next four years, there will be elections again. Leave the cries of “Gevalt” for then.  

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