One of the most difficult transitions for a North American immigrant to Israel is getting used to the political system. Coming from the U.S., and more specifically New York where my family voted Democrat down-the-line, the definitions of Left and Right were clear. Left meant liberal, and Right meant conservative. A moderate would be a fiscal conservative who is a social liberal or vice versa, and the major political parties often had elements of both Right and Left within their ranks.
America is different from the world in the way it is structured politically, it was purposefully created to ensure that the true power always remained with the States that comprised the Republic. The responsibility for national defense, expansion, diplomacy and finance sat with the federal government while the welfare of citizens was managed locally. For the first 150 years or so as the country grew, it mostly ran accordingly. The notion that the federal government was to be the social caretaker of society came into being during the Franklin Roosevelt administration, and it began the current divide in political thought that is now plaguing America where the political discourse slowly devolved into bastions of extreme conservatism and liberalism. To be a true Republican these days is to be a passionate conservative, and to be a Democrat one must hold progressive views.
As an American, I understand the ideologies of both sides and according to this understanding, Israel was always a country on the Left. Israel did not identify as one or the other in their normal discourse. I do not believe the words Left or Right were even a part of the early Israeli political lexicon. Israel was back then and is to an extent today a socialized country, from the definition of an American, the country is a Left leaning country. This all changed though in the 1990’s when Benjamin Netanyahu came onto the scene, redefined Israeli politics and created the Right Left divide that will eventually tear this country apart as well. The problem is, the terms were bastardized and refer to something I find troubling.
Ask an Israeli on the street what it means to be Right or Left and you get very general explanations, “Meretz are the Leftists” or a variation of that was the one I heard most frequently on a recent train ride to Haifa. When I followed up by what makes Meretz Leftists, the answers usually had more to do with making this country not Jewish by opening the borders to asylum seekers and Palestinian refugees and less to do with any economic or social policy. The most common quip about Rightists I heard concerned the URWP, specifically how they will turn Israel into a “Jewish Taliban” state. There was nothing in any response from anyone I spoke with about any policies that impact the daily lives of citizens. Yet, interestingly when asked what the problems are here, the balance of people identifying as one or the other seem to all want the same thing; lower taxes, better services, less bureaucracy, less corruption in government institutions, longer school days, public lunch and afterschool programs, roads, infrastructure and public transportation.
Israel is in trouble internally, and it is a result of the perceived Right-Left polarization of the electorate. It is almost a crime to be labeled a Leftist, and yet few actually understand what the terms mean. During the past 15 years I have witnessed elections successively deteriorate on quality-of-life issues. Has anyone stopped to ask why no politician is talking about an income tax and fee rate over 50% and a VAT of 17%? Or if they are, why are taxes not an issue? Has anyone questioned parliamentary salary and benefit increases or the number of cabinet ministers we have in proportion to the overall parliament? You hear citizens on radio shows and in cafés complaining about the corruption of the Motor Vehicle department and the cost of obtaining a driver’s license; you hear them talking about the challenges of managing a job when their children’s schools end mid-day; you hear about how life is getting more expensive, but you do not hear politicians addressing it. Issues are what people should be voting on, and yet in round two of the 2019 Israeli elections, the only issue is an arbitrary label of Right or Left. So, what does it mean to be on the Right in Israel, what is a Leftist and why do so many feel it a curse?
The Right-Left divide in Israel is more dangerous than any social ideology, it is rooted in religion and that is what is alarming. History has proven time and again that no good can come from a country which adheres to a strict observance of an ancient text, specifically if a deity is involved. Successful countries allow for changes to the core laws in order to adapt to the realities of the times in which they exist. In America these are the 27 ratified Amendments to the Constitution since its creation in 1789. To root a nation in ancient law is to prevent that nation from evolving with the moral compass of the greater society.
The argument that Israel as a Jewish State should adopt Jewish law is prevalent among the right, but even in this ideology there are differences. Avigdor Liberman is considered a Rightist, and yet he believes in laws that follow Judeo-Christian values, but are tailored to the modern, secular reality of the world we live in. Whereas Bezalel Smotrich is an affirmed Rightist who would like to implement Jewish Religious law in Israel. They both share values of expanding the “occupation” of Palestine and building a greater Israel. Tamar Zandberg, the bannerman for the Left in Israel also wants the country to be a Jewish state but is concerned with civil rights and citizen welfare and ending the “occupation” through a peaceful negotiation. The common denominator here is the word “occupation”, the Right is for it and Left is against it. And this is why this game Netanyahu started is dangerous.
In the thirteen years I have called Israel home, I have not seen a national election cycle seriously focus on any truly meaningful issue to the citizenry. The governments Prime Minister Netanyahu have led have stripped the social nature of Israel without equally compensating for the loss. They have enriched a few at the expense of many with government sanctioned contracts for public land use that benefit only the parties involved. Monopolies and predatory prices are just considered “retail” in Israel now. The burden for supporting a massive bureaucracy lies on a few who pay extraordinary percentages of their income to a government that wastes much of it. There are Holocaust survivors in Israel who are destitute; single parents forced to only work part-time because there is no reasonable after-school option preventing them from being able to support their families adequately; the Motor Vehicle system is rigged to support a union of driving instructors and testers who collude for personal gain; the public services are overstaffed, ecologically unfriendly and archaic in philosophy. Israel has not modernized its system to meet the needs of the economic transformation from a Socialist agricultural centered country to global technology and emerging energy superpower.
I purposefully avoided referencing Yair Lapid or Benny Gantz earlier, they avoid both sides, although lean towards the right in many statements. They are trying and failing to position themselves in the center of this ideological battle and failing because they are not focused on the right things; real-life issues. The Israeli electorate is suffering. Even the seemingly upper-middle-class here struggle with the system. The cost-of-living and the quality-of-life in Israel are both unacceptable. Immigrants come expecting more, and we stay because it is our home and we will fight to make it better. This is what love-of-country is. That task is impossible though, when the immigrant attrition rate from developed countries is embarrassingly high and the ones from less-than-developed nations think this is a step up. On the street, everyone outside of politics is complaining about the real problems, but everyone inside politics is focused on sinister labels that reflect an even more sinister reality. The Israeli people are too smart to be duped by tribalism backed by allegation and not action, and yet here in 2019 it appears we will eventually succumb to it.