A poll publicized in Haaretz last week found that more than half the Israelis who vote for left-leaning parties (54.4%, to be pedantic) “would leave the country if they could.” That’s twice the rate of right-wing voters.
According to the survey, it is the economy, rather than politics, that accounts most for the discontent of those who wish to leave. There is a paradox here. As a group, leftists are richer and better schooled than right-wingers. Yet we worry more about our future and, especially, our kids’ futures. That is part of the reason most of us confide to a pollster on the phone that, yeah, we may pack up and move out.
But, as anyone who lives here knows, that’s only part of the reason. Leaving Israelis a great shibboleth of our day: we talk about it, fantasize about it, fret about it, threaten it. Surveys have found that two-in-three Israelis have either gotten a second passport, or are looking into it.
As Haaretz found, this tendency is especially strong among leftists, and for lots of reasons, some obvious, some obscure. These are tough times for those of us who wish to see the occupied territories handed over to Palestinians, in a deal that will bring them a state and us peace and quiet. The settlements grow steadily stouter and more inexorable. The withdrawal from Gaza produced a fiasco. The right won the last election, will win this one, and probably the next. The ascendant stars in the political firmament are Avigdor Liberman and Moshe Feiglin. All this is bleak enough on its own; the fact that it’s hard to see things improving anytime soon concatenates the dismal facts with staunch and durable depression.
It’s easy to see why, for some leftists, the hopelessness they feel resolves into a simple formula: If Israel chooses Bibi, I choose Berlin. Not long ago, a brilliant and talented young director and activist named Yodfat Getz laid out why she is pondering leaving Israel:
I refuse to see myself as part of it. Part of a country where people are bruising for a battle, [and] support apartheid. Part of a culture of racism and xenophobia.”
I get this, and then again I don’t. For those of us who still believe in the vision behind, say, the Oslo Peace accords, it’s painful to see this vision grow dimmer and more distant, seemingly by the day. But we’ve got to get a grip. There’s myopia in the hopelessness of the left. In the past twenty years, the settlements have grown more obdurate, sure. At the same time, in the past twenty years we’ve seen the Oslo Agreements, the evacuation of Gaza, peace with Jordan, the surprising endurance of peace with Egypt after Mubarak, negotiations between the Olmert administration and the Palestinian authority that, given more time, may have reached agreement, a speech by Netanyahu endorsing a Palestinian state, and more. None of these – save perhaps peace with Jordan– has produced purely happy results, or even very good ones. But they point to the fact that there remains reason for hope, for those willing to entertain it.
Of course, everyone’s entitled to their own ennui. And people should live wherever they’re happiest, be it Beer Sheva or Berlin. But most of the 54 percent of leftists who report that they’d leave the country if they could, never will. What they’ll do is stay here, repeating that they’d leave the country if they could.
Here’s what bugs me. There’s a bitterness to this I’ll-take-my-ball-and-leaveism that threatens to taint the entire discourse on the Left. During a pickup basketball game years ago, Mario Cuomo told my friend Jonathan Ferziger, a journalist then covering Albany, that “cynicism is for suckers.” Lately it’s seemed to me that the payoff for thinking that everything’s just shit – a certain sense of knowing superiority and the aggrandizing frisson of impending doom – is a lot smaller than its cost, which is…living in a world in which everything seems like shit.
In the end, we can choose alienated detachment or we can choose engagement. Only the second way offers a chance of having an impact. There is something self fulfilling about the angry alienation of the left; the less we feel part of the country’s politics, the less we are part of the country’s politics. As our message has grown more shrill over time – Creeping fascism! Apartheid! Racists! Colonialists! Assholes! – it is no wonder that it has grown harder to persuade people to listen. All the more so, if we declaim this message surrounded by suitcases, hailing a cab to the airport.
Doubtless, leftists will ponder leaving Israel so long as Netanyahu, Liberman and their like keep winning elections. We need to see that the opposite is no less true. Netanyahu, Lieberman and their like will keep winning elections, at least so long as we leftists keep talking about leaving.