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Shulamit S. Magnus
Jewish historian

Hoping for hope on the grim morrow of an election

It is a grim, terrible morning.

Moralizing is not a response which, in itself, will change anything. It preaches to the converted and leads to paralyzing, circular, self-righteousness.

Ben gvir responded intuitively, as manipulative geniuses do, to a real problem, real distress, real need. He is a zero, posing false and destructive solutions with no background of ever accomplishing anything, delivering on anything, with no record in security, having never even served in the army, having been found unsuitable for service, yet– credibly to his voters– making security his signature issue. He responded to some real pain that needed to be heard and responded to with real, not racist, demagogic, responses. Responses that did not come. The response which came from him evoked the response, in turn, to him.

I did not see, hear, any of the campaigns I would have liked to see do well, make the following central campaign issues: lawlessness, guns in abundance in the south, the anarchy on the roads and in the streets near and around Beer Sheva and other southern towns; the constant fear of being killed in a shooting incident or driven off the road and killed or maimed; or having one’s house and/or car broken into; or of being guilty of being female and therefore, a constant target for harassment as a sex object in public space. This is a shared issue for Jewish and Muslim citizens. Did we hear that, from any party, as a central issue? It was for Ben Gvir. But of course, he did not focus on the shared aspect of the problem, preferring instead, the false god and phony solution of incitement.

The army does not guard its own bases. How many times have we heard horrific reports of looting, open, wanton, stealing of guns, ammunition, vehicles, seen videos of it from IDF security cameras, on nightly news! Years. And nothing has been done. There was just a horrific theft of a huge quantity of bullets last week. Normal people, Muslims and Jews, citizens in the country we share and will share, will get killed by those. Anarchy and the fear of anarchy are demagoguery’s best friend, its ultimate enabler. Go hand that to a manipulator like Ben Gvir and we’ve just witnessed the results, sure as in a well-worn chemistry lab experiment, explosion, to follow.

Residents of Tel Aviv and Givatayim and Ramat Gan and Herzliah and other Ashkenazi, upper middle class and wealthy towns don’t experience this and don’t fear it. But millions of others do. They, residents of what we call, appallingly, without even quote marks!– “the periphery,” openly calling those citizens Other, marginal, to the real “us” –are in Negev towns and other locations in the “periphery”. Why do residents of the north not have cancer treatment centers, MRI and CT machines, other critical, expensive medical services and the specialized staff to support their use — anywhere near them? Why is it self-evident that these exist, if there, too, in insufficient quantity, in “the center,” but not in “the periphery”?

I did not hear a single party make the woefully inadequate educational system, which fails precisely, the “periphery,” and keeps its residents safely working class at minimum wage jobs, to be exploited, a permanent under-class– a main campaign issue. Of safety in the streets and on the roads– not a word, when we have known for centuries that security– economic and physical– is what decides elections.

Avodah– Labor!– failed to make these issues their campaign focus, instead, promoting public transportation on shabbat, which will appeal to their Tel Aviv base, the one they already have, when what they need is to expand their base, appeal to workers in development towns, in Likud strongholds, about life and death issues there.

Meretz does not even pretend to address these issues, as if advocating two states is going to expand their base, preach to anyone but the converted. Are the have nots in this society less worthy of Meretz’s attention than that issue, which, unlike socio-economic ones, we all know is not going anywhere significant anytime soon, while socio-economic ones definitely do.

Lapid did not make this a central issue, trying to sell decency and competence, which he represents par excellence. Which, obviously, did not cut it.

I don’t know what Gantz and company did except showcase two generals when that, obviously, does not cut it and has not now for a long time (so many failed generals in Israeli political pretensions). Not to mention, Gantz and his utter lack of credibility. You make a fatal political mistake — and it is fatal. He had his chance and he used it to empower Netanyahu just when there was a real chance to be rid of him. Gantz betrayed his voters, not least the then-united Arab parties, who took the leap and recommended him to get the mandate to form a government. He took their support and empowered Netanyahu. That experience had much to do with them refusing to run together again, or even sign surplus vote agreements with one another, as in, how do you spell, “shoot yourself in the foot, and then shoot yourself in your other foot, and then, some bullets left, shoot yourself in the head.”

Ben Gvir, as Begin, lehavdil, before him, showed his finger on the public pulse, or at least, a significant and ignored segment of it. We all know that hok tel aviv has not been hok sderot—different rules for rocket and missile attacks in both places, one, the epitome of “center,” the other, the epitome of “periphery”. To their credit, Bennett and Lapid actually began changing that intolerable disparity but without enough time to have that sink in. That it was under twelve years of Netanyahu-Likud that this discriminatory reality—and that of the “periphery” altogether– was perpetuated, does not cut it. The parties that should have made this a central issue just now failed to do so.

To be sure, all this is not the sole reason for Ben Gvir’s appalling triumph. There is kahanism, real racism, taught in yeshivot and heralded in study halls and synagogues. No less important, there was the willingness by those who may not be out and out racists nonetheless, to support parties that are truly racist, because they were the only Zionist-religious option after Yamina imploded. Racism did not make Ben Gvir’s party tref in Givat Shmuel, or in Efrat, neither of them, centers of socio-economic distress. There is a real problem of racism breeding in and on religious Zionism. And in non-Zionist and even anti-Zionist religious circles. So much support went to Ben Gvir from haredi quarters. Will there be serious heshbon hanefesh there? I am not at all optimistic. They are celebrating their victory.

But addressing the racism breeding in our midst, while critically necessary, is not sufficient. The social and economic issues and the feelings of insecurity and grievance which underlie them are what give a dangerous, empty inciter like Ben Gvir traction.

Ben Gvir speaks to the losers in the current reality. And now the losers have spoken back. Netanyahu manages to get them to identify with him, the millionaire, serial abuser of money and means and privilege and power; they see him as they see themselves, as victims of the current reality.

There is much historical precedent for this kind of association and projection. It was the losers in the modern economy in Europe who responded to anti-Jewish incitement and fueled antisemitic movements. It was and still is the losers in the US, those who see themselves as being “replaced” in numbers and status by Blacks, immigrants, Jews, who respond to calls to the false god of racism, homophobia, nativism, Jew-hatred.

Moralizing will not help. It preaches to the converted. It does nothing to reach those who are this inciter’s supporters. Condemning ben gvir’s supporters just makes their complaint, their push back-Otherness, more potent.

Naming racism as the false god it is, with false, empty, prophets—coupled with programs to address the fears that underly it– we did not hear that when we needed to.

Want to don sackcloth and ashes? It should be about that. It also provides a road map to digging out of the deep mess we are now in. Am I hopeful that the parties will get this message? No. The mutual recriminations have already begun. A petty, self-absorbed conceit, under the dangerous circumstances in which we find ourselves on this dismal morning.

We do changing reality no service by moralizing, which leads to dead-end handwringing and self righteousness, rather than to assessments of policy change that could actually change things; major policy shifts, however much doing anything effective has now become infinitely more difficult.

A grim day. I had so hoped for hope. Every party that could have offered it in real time failed to do so. That’s what happens when you live in a loop and don’t listen.

Will some real learning come from this? On a day lacking in hope, we can only hope for hope.

About the Author
Shulamit S. Magnus Professor Emerita of Jewish Studies and History at Oberlin College. She is the author of four published books and numerous articles on Jewish modernity and the history of Jewish women, and winner of a National Jewish Book award and other prizes. Her new book is the first history of agunot and iggun from medieval times to the present, across the Jewish map. It also presents analysis and critique of current policy on Jewish marital capitivity and proposals to end this abuse. Entitled, "Thinking Outside the Chains About Jewish Marital Captivity," it is forthcoming from NYU Press. She is a founder of women's group prayer at the Kotel and first-named plaintiff on a case before the Supreme Court of Israel asking enforcement of Jewish women's already-recognized right to read Torah at the Kotel. Her opinions have been published in the Forward, Tablet, EJewish Philanthropy, Moment, the Times of Israel, and the Jerusalem Post.
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