Successful leaders know how to identify mistakes and risks and turn them into opportunities. Bill Clinton, whether or not you agree with him on policy or think him a moral character, is practically a savant in this regard. In a paradigmatic moment in modern American politics, he faced just such a challenge. In the wake of the 1992 Los Angeles race riots, Rap artist Sistah Souljah was quoted in the Washington Post as saying “If black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?” Sistah Souljah, a self-described ‘raptivist’, was a member of Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition, and as Jackson was a close ally and supporter of then Governor Clinton who was running for his first term as President, this ugly quote reflected on the candidate. Though Clnton needed the African American vote as central to his base and Jackson’s support was critical, Clinton vocally denounced Sistah Souljah’s statement and called out Jackson for including her in his movement. He also took the opportunity to condemn Ice-T’s lyrics for potentially inciting violence against the police. Clinton won respect for doing this, even in the black community.
One would think that with the Israeli left’s alignment with the US Democratic Party it would be familiar with the resulting concept, now known as a ‘Sistah Souljah Moment’. Furthermore, with its problematic historical reliance on, and privileging of secular Ashkenazi voters, its leaders should have noted just such an opportunity presented by two key figures last week. At a mass anti-Netanyahu rally, political pundit and painter Yair Garbuz derided religious Jews as “amulet-kissers and pagan worshipers.” The next day playwright Yehoshua Sobol joined his derision of “mezuzah kissers,” further declaring them “fools.”
Perhaps some leaders on the left disavowed these remarks. But mostly I heard crickets. Where was Meretz’s Zehava Galon, who unequivocally asserted her atheism in a recent questionnaire put to party heads, but in the same breath affirmed her respect for believers. Yitzhak (Bougie) Herzog, head of Labor/Zionist Camp, pointed out on the radio the next day that Garbuz and Sobol don’t represent his party and described himself a “traditional” person who attends synagogue on holidays. Given that his grandfather was Chief Rabbi of Ireland and then Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of Israel, this is fully believable. And perhaps he made some other more forceful statement. Somewhere. But this was an opportunity for both leaders to make a loud noise and declare that derision of traditional Jews and their practices has no place in the Jewish left, any more than derision of Islam or Christianity does. They could and should have called out Garbuz and Sobol forcefully, disavowing their remarks and any similar sentiments that can only be described as naked bigotry. This was a gift-wrapped opportunity to align political and moral objectives. And they missed it.
The left will always suffer as long as it fails to attract religious voters. Pluralism, a core left-wing principle, requires it. Without inclusion of traditional and religious Jews, it’s hard to evade the charge of hypocrisy and anti-religious chauvinism. Meretz, though branded as an Ashkenazi elitist Tel Aviv party, actually has a very diverse list. Its top ten includes four women, two Mizrahis, and one Palestinian Israeli from Kafr Kasem. But no kippot and no mitpahot. Given its diversity with regard to ethnicity and gender, the list’s lack of religious members in the upper echelons is particularly conspicuous. Garbuz and Sobol provided an opportunity to address this problem, to demonstrate awareness of a need to be more open and to reach out more effectively to religious voters. It was an opportunity to clarify and champion Yeshayahu Leibowitz’s insight that any combination of religion and state, of the civic and the sacred, inevitably degrades both, and that religious coercion only leads to antipathy toward religion. Why not use these ugly and bigoted comments as a moment to champion pluralism and promote secularism as a way to safeguard freedom of religion? Why not use this moment to reinforce the point that civil marriage and the lifting of the ban on public transportation on Shabbat are not attacks on religion, not anti-religious hatred of the Torah, but only anti-religious coercion? Why not use this as an opportunity to affirm respect for religion and for the cultural contributions of religious communities and to commit unequivocally to eliminating anti-religious bigotry? Why not use it to commit to championing both respect for the religious and the secular and to emphasize the imperative of making the divide between us more gentle and our communities more mutually accepting. In doing so, the left would have announced itself as a viable home for both secular and religious Israelis.
The ideals of the left, including commitments to separation of religion and state and support for diplomacy and social democratic economics, present no necessary barriers to religious Jews. And though the left generally speaks the transnational language of secular democracy, many of its core values can be expressed also in traditional Jewish terms and with reference to Jewish texts and history. The language of universalism and humanism does not preclude the employment of traditional language and references. Indeed, they can be combined to inspiring effect.
But the leaders of the left missed their moment to make these points, or at the very least radically understated them. And now, on the eve of the election, Bibi Netanyahu, as secular a Jew as any who ever lived, stood in front of his supporters in the same place as Garbuz last week and declared:
They called us ‘amulet-kissers. Later they added ‘foolish mezuzah-kissers.’ I ask, what is the problem with kissing a mezuzah? When did that become a sin? Yes, we keep the tradition of Israel, and we believe in Israel’s eternity.
Us? Unless eating seafood is a “tradition of Israel,” Netanyahu actually doesn’t keep it. And I absolutely support his right not to do so. And I don’t think he’s less a Jew, just less religious. But that fact makes his grandstanding appear pretty hollow. Of course, it was the left-wing Garbuz and Sobol who built him this particular grandstand. And the leaders of the left failed to tear it down, immediately and convincingly, before he climbed on top of it. Had Garbuz and Sobol’s comments been unequivocally and loudly and repeatedly disavowed, Netanyahu’s statement would have rung hollow and he would have failed to extend a “they” of two speakers to an entire segment of the Israeli electorate. This could have been held up effectively for what it was: cynical and divisive opportunism. Herzog and Galon could then have responded credibly with the argument that the leader we need, now more than ever, will unite Israel and not divide it. And those of us who keep Shabbat, kashrut, attend synagogue, observe holidays, and study traditional Jewish texts with reverence, devotion, excitement, and love…while also voting left would have a much easier time sharing our perspectives with our religious as well as our secular friends and fellow citizens.
Sadly, the moment was missed. Either all bigotry is bad or it’s all admissible. I respect the work of both Garbuz and Sobol. I share many of their political convictions and frustrations. But I absolutely deplore their anti-religious bigotry. The left is supposed to be anchored in the ethics of communitarian fellowship, of pluralism and inclusion and respect for difference. Too often have we failed to live up to and promote these principles. And we just failed once again.