Shulamit S. Magnus
Jewish historian

Of “Tough Love”, Wooly Mammoths, And Winning Elections

There are some basic disconnects between reality as I see it and Peter Beinart’s position in his, “Time for Tough Love,” published in this weekend’s English Haaretz,.

Beinart’s premise is that Israel and its supporters have argued that the country needs a period of peace, without people being blown up on buses, in cafes, pizza parlors, nightclubs, and at Passover seders in hotels, to be ready to “take risks” for peace. He argues that this premise has been exposed as false since, “this election was not fought in the shadow of terror”– which even he quickly modifies to “at least not the kind that traumatized Israelis during the terrible second intifada.”

Some of what he says—certainly, that the PA has cooperated with Israeli security and that much of the relative quiet of the last few years is attributable to that cooperation– is true.

It is absolutely false that Israelis are not deeply, actively, and freshly traumatized by recent anti-Israel violence and that this was not a huge factor in the Netanyahu’s margin of victory in last week’s election.

We are just seven months– seven MONTHS– after the end of a war that went on for 50 days— and years of missile and rocket fire aimed at civilians which preceded it, never mind the unending shower of it during the war. The south, its development towns and communities within firing range of Gaza, got the brunt, but much of the country experienced that reality, day after day, week after week during the war: Tel Aviv, the entire densely populated middle section of the country, Jerusalem– Ben Gurion airport.

Since the end of this war, there have been horrific attacks on civilians, including the murders in the Har Nof synagogue and attacks using cars to mow down civilians as they wait for the train at light rail stations, and knifing attacks, on streets, in supermarkets– inside the Green Line, to keep things limited to just that geography. The kidnapping and murder of the three teens preceding the war is but one of the incidents beyond that line that have re-traumatized an already traumatized population.

If you look at Netanyahu’s margin of victory-– and that is what it was– he did not win a majority of votes, but a plurality– he got 30 seats out of 120– and the difference between the predicted number on the eve of the election and the higher 30 he eventually got– this margin was the result of votes he skimmed from other right-wing parties– Bennet’s Bayit Yehudi, in particular, which went from 14 to 8 seats, and Liebermans’ party. Netayahu’s racist get out the vote call on the day of the election, and his appeals on the days immediately preceding it to those who would vote for these other parties to vote Likud in order to prevent Labor’s win— are what gave him his victory.

Netanyahu won because he got the votes of the southern towns and communities that had been under attack. The economy in those towns is in terrible distress; factories are closing, a huge strike was looming on the eve of the election (it was averted by ever so timely government intervention, it would simply not do to have the south on strike as the polls opened). There is endemic poverty there—and despair, driven by economics and the too-familiar fear of something lethal falling out of the sky– go there and see the frantic efforts to get underground and bunker-like ganim (kindergardens). Among the last fatalities of this past horrible summer was a four-year old, who was inside his house and was killed by shrapnel from a rocket that landed outside it. That incident is burned in the psyches of his kibbutz—many of whose families with young children have left and are not returning– and into that of the whole southern region, and into that of broader Israeli society. All know this boy’s name, his face from videos showing him jumping happily in his favorite superhero costume. It is bad enough to bury adults, soldiers, one of his neighbors told me a few weeks ago. Four year olds is the limit.

Israelis on the whole, the polls show, wish peace and know there must be territorial compromises to get it, and are ready to make such compromise– if there were a real peace.

Those who voted for Netanyahu, Bennet, Lieberman, and some, not all who voted for Moshe Kahlon, whose main plank is economic reform but who is center right on security issues– do not believe “the Palestinians” want peace or can be trusted with a state. That is what Beinart and others need to get.

If Abbas held elections now, all know that Hamas would win, as it did in what all agree was a reasonably fair election in Gaza, last time there was one. That is why he does not hold elections—and much of the reason he cooperates with Israeli security– not to protect Israeli security, but his own. A state under the aegis of the PA would not hold its own against radical forces even if it wished to– this is the overwhelming conviction of many Israelis, and absolutely, those who voted for any of the above parties. ISIS and Hizbullah are right on Israel’s borders with Syria and Lebanon—we get stray and sometimes not stray rockets from them, too. Jordan is none too stable, bordered by Syria and Iraq, which are convulsed by various radical combatants fighting one another but all resolved to terminate Israel’s existence. Hamas is in Gaza, and very active in the west bank. This is not old news; this is today’s news.

To miss this is to miss the wooly mammoth at the table.

Netanyahu appealed to racist sentiments– and it got him votes– because enough Israelis fear “Arabs” and Palestinians to put him over the top. I am not offering a brief for racist expressions of those fears; I am saying that to miss the near reasons Israelis have them– not stemming from the second intifada though that is hardly distant, you see people with missing limbs, with burn scars, never mind those whose scars are not visible but who show them when they vote– to miss this is to be astonishingly and dangerously out of touch, given the conclusions Beinart, and others, are reaching, and preaching.

Only when the left in Israel speaks to blue collar and mizrachi voters will it win elections. To speak to such voters, currently Netanyahu’s secure base, even as his economic policies harm them and prevent them from climbing out of poverty, the left must speak with, not at them.

It must live with them, work with them, be them. How is no simple matter since demographically, these populations are vastly different: middle and upper middle class people with university degrees (“whites), and people who don’t have bagruyot (high school finishing exams—“minorities”), but that is what is needed. It is the votes of such people– who live in fear now, whose children will not sleep alone, who startle and run when there is thunder– that put Netanyahu over the top.

Fresh, live, ptsd trauma– not memories of it– are what allowed Netanyahu’s win. His scare tactics landed on these receptive fields.

To win elections here, the left must address security concerns as if Netanyahu were not exploiting them, and do grass roots organizing with socioeconomic groups they and their children have not gone to school and camp and foreign outings with, but who decide elections when the trauma button is pushed.

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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