Critical Currents: What's left of the Left

We must refine and update a value-driven unifying vision.

naomi chazan 88 (photo credit: )
naomi chazan 88
(photo credit: )
The political Left collapsed in the 2009 elections. Never before in the history of the country has the formal representation of progressive ideas been as meager as it is today. It is far too early, however, to bury this worldview. The revival or, conversely, the complete demise of a forward-looking agenda depends on how its advocates deal with the tremendous electoral shock they have recently undergone. The February ballot struck a serious blow to parties traditionally identified with the Left. Even if one includes all of Labor, Meretz and the three predominantly Arab parties in this category - a very broad definition indeed - the total comes to only 27 members of the 18th Knesset (a mere 22.5 percent of the seats). Since 1992 the Labor Party has gone down from 44 to 13 MKs - a loss of more than 70%. The 13 members elected on its list last month constitute a drop of 32% from the previous low of 19 selected in the two previous elections of this century. Meretz has fared no better: a 75% slide from 12 in 1992 to three today. Together, the parties associated with the Jewish Left declined from 46% of the Knesset in 1992 and 30% in 1999 to 13.3% in 2009. This is, by any measure, a systematic and dramatic contraction. It cannot be understood by reference to superficial and heuristic factors alone. The Gaza operation undoubtedly had an impact (pre-election military escapades have always favored parties on the Right). The ongoing uncertainty in security matters also helped to legitimate the thinly veiled anti-Arab campaign unabashedly conducted by Avigdor Lieberman and his Israel Beiteinu party. The last-minute strategic shift of Labor and Meretz voters to Kadima in an effort to block a Binyamin Netanyahu-led government also played a role. But the ease of this wholesale abandonment of left-leaning parties is in itself perhaps the starkest indicator of their electoral bankruptcy. THE ELECTION RESULTS are therefore the outcome of much more prolonged and deeper processes. The root causes for this indisputable pattern of constriction and decline lie, first and foremost, in the amorphous policies and behavior of the parties in question. Their ambiguous - at times opportunistic - comportment contributed directly to diluting their support and undermining the ethical foundations of the mind-set which they were charged with promoting. Thus, Labor participated in consecutive governments which made a mockery of social-democratic precepts and undercut solidarity and social justice. It repeatedly bowed to the demands of religious parties, undercutting pluralism and limiting personal rights. Along with Meretz, it stood by as educational standards eroded and more barriers were erected between Israelis and Palestinians, between Arabs and Jews, between veterans and newcomers, between rich and poor. These parties did precious little to uphold the most fundamental tenets of civil equality, human rights and respect for the other. Sadly but truly, left-leaning parties have also been complicit in the widespread mockery of the essential pillars of the democratic ethos that has permeated policy-making circles for years. This has been particularly evident in the growing indifference to the plight of the Palestinians - not only in the occupied territories, but also within Israel. Fear, frustration and fatalism have combined to dim the moral compass that consciously guided many Israelis in the past. The progressive message is, nevertheless, still alive. Large segments of the population remain committed to the binding norms of freedom, equality, tolerance and human dignity laid down in the Declaration of Independence. Ironically, Kadima, an avowedly centrist party, was the main beneficiary of their aspirations and hence their votes this time. These progressive values are far more prevalent in Israeli society than in the formal arena. They are deeply embedded in a broad array of civil society organizations that give voice to the underprivileged, combat bigotry, champion diversity, embody tolerance and construct paths to equitable forms of joint living. But these individuals and groups lack focus and direction, not to speak of relevance to unfolding realities. Their activities are all too often subsumed under a thick layer of countercurrents laced with indifference. Those dedicated to an open and just society have to find ways of capitalizing on these buildings blocks to generate meaningful transformation. THE FIRST STEP in recovering from the present crisis confronting the Left is to refine and update a value-driven unifying vision. The mainstays of such a principled brief are as pertinent now as ever before: a firm belief in the democratic ethos and the civil rights that guarantee its realization; an unwavering commitment to socioeconomic equity as the vehicle to ensuring a healthy society; a dedication to social diversity which recognizes and values difference; and an affirmation of the need to bring about a fair and lasting end to the conflict while eschewing the use of force. What is lacking, however, is a framework that can tie together these threads into a programmatic blueprint informed by the universal and Jewish ethic of human dignity and mutual respect. Laying forth such a coherent program can instill some hope among the growing number of still concerned, yet increasingly despairing, Israelis. The second step in the rehabilitation of the Left involves the reconstruction and empowerment of a robust and dynamic open society through the realignment of involved individuals and groups and their galvanization in new political forms. Opportunities for such a reconsolidation are already apparent in the midst of increased prejudice, disparities and hopelessness. Arab-Jewish tensions - strained to their limit in recent months - can be significantly altered when workers of all faiths band together to maintain their livelihood. This novel type of cooperation was apparent in the struggles to prevent the closure of Pri Hagalil and Of Ha'emek - a model for productive solidarity in times of distress. In a similar vein, in mixed cities veterans and newcomers are knitting together new patterns of shared living which augur well for overcoming ingrained patterns of discrimination. These are empowering experiences which, when rooted in common values, can make a real difference. More is left of the Left than one can imagine. In Israel, as happened recently in the United States, it remains the responsibility of those who abide by its guiding precepts to refine its contours, reassert its centrality, arouse its adherents and mobilize them to action without compromising their principles. If they fail to meet this challenge, they will play a major role in sounding the death knell of a decent and better Israel in the future.