The Irrelevance of the Left in Israeli Policy-Making

What ever became of the rational, activist, Jewish left? Recently, I have been reading a great many of the writings by authors who claim to be representatives of what is nowadays being euphemistically called “Progressive” or “liberal” Diaspora Jewry. By any objective measure, it is neither progressive nor liberal in its outlook. It has become even more doctrinaire and intolerant than many of those it criticizes.


Not only that, its self-appointed spokespeople tell everyone else what to do, but never take to the barricades themselves.


After perusing several years worth of the output of people like Jonathan Freedland, Jonathan Chait, Roger Cohen, Peter Beinart, and most recently a new whiner named Anthony Lerman, I have found their work to be boring, repetitive, self-centred and totally lacking in new ideas.
Almost invariably, their writing consists of whimpering, simpering prose bemoaning that Israel has ignored their entreaties to act like they believe they would act if they were in a position where they actually had to face the consequences of dealing with the issues that Israel has to confront.


Oh how the once-mighty have fallen into self-pity.


I remember the vibrant left of the 1960s and 1970s only too well. In those days, it wasn’t hard to spot a committed rational leftist. Unlike the rightist and the communist blusterers, who hid behind their ideologies so that they didn’t have to take the effort to come up with an original thought, rational Jewish leftists tended to be a rather contemplative lot. The intellectuals among them tended to do a lot of research before they spoke, and often seemed to me to be the true heirs of the Talmudic tradition of “On the one hand, on the other hand.”


Unlike their competitors on the extremes of the political spectrum, these intellectuals seemed to revel in trying to explore and to fathom the nuances and the complexity of the human condition.


No more.


Today, what passes for leftist intellectualism is no different from the blind dogmatism one finds elsewhere…with the exception that their posturing is also combined with navel-gazing self-absorption and self-righteousness. There used to be an old saw on Fleet Street “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.” A more apt one that could be applied to today’s Jewish “Progressives” is “Never let the facts get in the way of a good angry sob.”


“It’s not quite like that,” the phrase once commonly used by rational, well-researched leftist debaters before they demolished an opponent’s argument, has now disappeared from common usage.


There is possibly no better example of this revolution in word usage than in the unfounded canard, propagated by both the right and the left, that Israel “is moving to the right.” So common has this phrase become in the writings of so-called “analysts” that it has gone beyond conventional wisdom and become a truism to too many.


Had the punditocracy done even a minimal amount of research, its members would have found that this claim is patently false. The truth is that, as a result of the police brutality that accompanied the rioting by Arabs in Israel in October 2000, many young Arabs decided that national Israeli politics would never provide them with an adequate vehicle for them to accomplish their social and economic goals.


As a result, the participation of Israeli Arabs in national elections dropped precipitously from its previous average level of 82-85 percent to the current level of 53 percent. Since a majority of Israeli Arabs had usually voted for leftist Israeli Zionist parties such as Labour and Meretz, this meant that, under the Israeli system of proportional representation, the activist neo-nationalists were handed a gift and gained in the number of Knesset seats that they held.


I have to say at this point, that, unlike all the “Progressives” I have met, I refuse to label the settlers in the West Bank and their supporters “rightists.” That is too honourable a term. Real conservative rightists can trace their intellectual roots back to genuine political thinkers such as Hobbes, Burke and Strauss. The settlers’ beliefs, however, are the very antithesis of the theorizing of those men. The settlers are far more closely related to Bolsheviks because of their belief in centralized planning, reliance on military power and dependence on high taxation to further their enterprise. Moreover they have shown an appalling tolerance towards those who defy the rule of law, do not believe in Palestinian property rights, and do not accept the sovereignty of the majority—all cardinal rightist principles.


But to get back to the issue at hand. It is true that there are more, extremist, nationalist Knesset members than ever before, and they are more vociferous and vocal than their predecessors. However, their presence in the Israeli legislature is not the product of any significant shift in the opinion of the Israeli body politic. Beginning in 2011, the settlers and their supporters began joining the Likud in droves in a deliberate attempt to take control of the party’s electoral slate. They succeeded. When the last primary’s ballots were counted, the settler radicals had managed to drive out the remnants of the party’s old-line Zionist Revisionist theoreticians, such as Dan Meridor, Mickey Eitan and Benny Begin, and had installed a cabal of Knesset candidates whose presence on the slate would have made Revisionism’s founder, Vladimir Jabotinsky, weep in despair.


In its original form, Revisionism was a comprehensive political ideology that grew out of the European liberal tradition. In many ways, its platform, with the exception of its demand that Jews control both banks of the Jordan River, most closely resembled that of liberal Republicans in the US. It favoured the rule of law, equal rights for Israel’s Arab citizens, and a basic security blanket for all Israelis. The new Likudniks were uninterested in such niceties.


To make things worse, when it came to general election time, the settlers who had taken control of the Likud agenda then voted for the religious HaBayit HaYehudi party—effectively giving the settlers and their supporters the same kind of influence and power that comes from a double vote.


Instead of bemoaning the election result, the Diaspora “Progressives” would have done the Israeli political system a far greater favour had they thought about how best to entice Israeli Arabs back into the country’s political framework, and then set about campaigning for things like equal rights, compensatory funding for education and making more land in Arab communities available for home building.


But that was not to be. Harvard Professor Ronnie Heifetz calls the kind of behavior Diaspora “Progressive” pundits engage in, where people exhaust themselves in fruitless or useless endeavours and then have no time to deal with real issues, “work avoidance.”


By any reasonable measure, work avoidance has become an epidemic among Diaspora liberal Jewry.


It’s not that I view 1960s and 1970s Jewish social activism with nostalgia. But it is objectively true that, in those days, Jewish social activists didn’t whine about a situation, they did something about it. And they helped achieve concrete goals not by telling others what to do, but by first asking those most affected by inequality, for example, what they could do to help. Activists in those days would have thought it presumptuous to tell the blacks seeking their civil rights how they should act.


I was a personal witness to what actually took place. Scenes such as “Need bodies for a demonstration? I’ll try to get them for you, or “Need money and Dick Gregory is available? I’ll arrange a fund-raiser”, or “Martin Luther King wants to come to town for a speaking engagement? Fine. You can have the Temple’s sanctuary and I’ll see about getting other synagogues’ mailing lists,” were regular occurrences.


Today’s self-labelled “activists” do the very opposite. They keep telling Israelis what to do, never ask questions, and never listen when Israelis, unasked, tell them what is really needed.


For example, during the period from the signing of the peace treaty with Egypt to the first Intifada in 1986, the Israeli press was awash with suggestions on how the Israeli public could be mobilized to support peace negotiations with Israel’s neighbours. I went through 5,000 articles, op-eds and notes on radio talk shows and found that they could be boiled down to 9 points. During another period of intense reflection that came in the wake of the second Intifada that began in 2000, another two points were added.


Some were easy to fulfill; others required a bit of thought before they could be implemented; and a couple of them required real imagination if the problems they raised were to be solved.


But when I presented my findings to diplomats in Washington, NGO members, or Jewish “Progressives,” they were waved off as unimportant or trivial. However, those issues were obviously hardly trivial to those Israelis who had spent a lot of time thinking about them and trying to rally a consensus behind them.


The thing is that it would have taken real work to concretize them and to campaign to have those suggestions adopted.


Take the issue of a freeze in settlement activity as an example. President Obama got Bibi Netanyahu to agree to an eleven month freeze in settlement construction, but made no effort to ensure that, after that period was over, Bibi would have something to show his critics so that there would be a domestic constituency in favor of extending the freeze.


Clearly one of the central problems in the peace negotiations is the lack of trust and the lack of goodwill on both sides. One of the ways the left could have helped the peace process along would have been to campaign to increase both the level of trust and of goodwill. One of the most important of the 9 Israeli demands is a call for an end to the demonizing of Israel in Palestinian textbooks and on Palestinian television. It is certainly a demand that the left could sympathize with and work towards. However, in all the articles by “Progressives” that I have read, that issue has never been addressed. In an act of sheer idiocy, the left has totally ignored the natural human desire for a quid pro quo in inter-human dealings. It has been easier to simply wail about settlements.


Work avoidance takes many forms. What, for example, has prevented the left from linking the Palestinian demand for a freeze on settlement activity with the Israeli desire to see hateful stuff excised from official Palestinian texts? Why have leftists not called for a trade? A trade whose basis would be an end to settlement construction in return for an end to the production of hateful material has so many obvious advantages that I find it quite incredible that no one has campaigned for it.


What makes such a trade so inviting is the fact that implementation of such a deal is easily subject to monitoring. Furthermore, setting easily-understood concrete goals would be simple: No more housing starts in return for an end to hateful words. And to top it all off, any breaches of such an agreement could be easily spotted and dealt with quickly because the US already has programmes in place that could be adapted to provide the necessary supervision.


Or how about addressing what has proven to be the most problematic of the nine points? Not unreasonably, the Israeli public wants to be assured in advance that once a peace treaty is signed, neither side will have any further claims on the other. The Palestinians have refused to agree to this demand for two basic reasons. It would mean giving up the visceral hold that the “right of return” of Palestinian refugees and their heirs to their ancestral homes has on most Palestinians. And, secondly, Sharia law holds that all lands captured by Islamic forces automatically become the property in perpetuity of the Waqf, the Moslem religious trust. For that reason, any act that would legitimize Israeli possession of land previously held by Moslems is strictly forbidden.


Many Israelis have tried to grapple with what appears, at first, second and third glance, to be an unresolvable problem. Iraqi-born Eli Amir, one of Israel’s great men of letters and a devout member of the Israeli left, for example, has suggested that the problem could be overcome if, before the next round of peace talks is held, both sides declare that they are entering into the negotiations recognizing that not all their dreams can be fulfilled. It is certainly a valid suggestion that the Diaspora Jewish left could accept and campaign for. And if the left’s members find some genuine objection to it, why not put the effort into coming up with a viable alternative?


Okay. Okay. I know why not. Doing something so revolutionary would mean having to give up bathing in self-pity and doing real work.

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