“With malice towards none, with charity for all …”
Abraham Lincoln, second inaugural address, 1865
“Ooh, aah, mah karah, HaLikud achal otah.” [Translation: What happened? The Likud ate it.]
Typical Israeli victory party cheer, 1992
My biggest memory from the first election I watched in Israel was of the Labor party celebrating by singing children’s taunts of the Likud. I assume the Likud had been doing the same when they won. The Labor party leader smiled as he was interrupted by this inspiring song, and then continued to give a victory speech whose central thrust was “I’m in charge now.” Though I later learned his boasts of strength was primarily aimed at internal rival Shimon Peres. And in fairness, Likud leaders hadn’t exactly given gracious concession speeches. On the contrary, they vowed that they would oppose the Labor government with all their strength.
I remember marveling at how immature and uncivilized it all seemed. I grew up watching a very different post-election culture. A gracious concession speech about how the people had spoken and it was now time to rally around their new leader. An even more gracious acceptance speech with the victor pledging to work hard to earn the trust of even the people who didn’t vote for him, and to serve all of the American people.
How times have changed.
Israel’s parliamentary democracy doesn’t lend itself to the same kinds of acceptance and concession speeches. We don’t have a majority party and a minority party, we have a governing party and an opposition.
But for the first time since I got here, the post-election speeches are mostly a diverse set of party leaders talking about how they’re going to work together. Yesh Atid, Shas, Likud, Yisrael Beiteinu, and Jewish Home are focusing on how they’ll find common ground and dodging all interviewers’ attempts to get them to attack each other. Even the cynically inclined are feeling cautious optimism that their leaders can actually make progress on the country’s biggest issues.
Meanwhile, the United States is paralyzed by bitter partisan struggles. Both sides agree that the other side started it, and that their side really tried bi-partisanship but was rebuffed and will no longer play the fool.
Whatever the cause, we just heard the most partisan acceptance and inaugural speeches in memory. These from the man who burst into the public imagination with a convention speech about how “there is not a liberal America and a conservative America – there is the United States of America.” The man who only four years ago gave acceptance and inaugural speeches that made many conservatives believe in the audacity of hope. The man who spoke of Lincoln’s “Team of Rivals” as his inspiration for thriving on a diversity of views.
Two days after President Obama’s non-Lincolnesque second inaugural, when I thought things couldn’t get more bitter and dysfunctional, Republican senators duked it out with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. It may have been the ugliest spectacle in Congress since her husband’s impeachment hearings.
There is some hope. The AP called on its journalists to stop using terms like homophobia and Islamophobia to ascribe mental disorders to those who hold different views. It would have been better if they re-committed to journalistic integrity before the election, but it’s a start. Senators agreed on modest filibuster reform. And Congress is agreeing to raise the debt ceiling in exchange for a commitment to pass a budget. Baby steps. But at least they’re forward.
The journey back to civility, decency, mutual respect, and constructive cooperation is long. But if Israel’s political culture outgrew its kindergarten chant stage, there’s hope for the United States too.