Shulamit S. Magnus
Jewish historian

Orphans After an Election. Is There a Leader in the House?

It is over a month since an election whose results, it is fair to say, have traumatized half the country – including some of those who voted for Netanyahu’s bloc and are now shocked to hear just what that means. Extremists whose views are not representative of the majority of voters but who, in Israel’s proportionate electoral system, get disproportionate power, are suddenly power brokers. Avi Maoz’s faction, running on a platform of theocratic homophobia and misogyny, has exactly one seat out of 120 in the new Knesset but, through a major restructuring of the education ministry, has just been given authority and a huge budget to direct Jewish content in the country’s main educational system. Smotrich and Ben Gvir combined have 13 seats (not including Maoz), yet have been given major appointments through a refashioning of the defense and security ministries, and huge budgets, for an agenda of extreme nationalist chauvinism and neo-fascist authoritarianism which, if implemented, would change the character of the country fundamentally.

All the above openly advocate for a theocratic state and the end of constitutional democracy; that is, the people’s will, expressed within the constraints of basic law ensuring civil equality for all, regardless of ethnicity, religion, race, or gender, as Israel’s Declaration of Independence, our founding document, proclaimed was our State’s character; in a system of checks and balances between the branches of government, and a Supreme Court acting to ensure that Knesset laws adhere to the country’s foundational principles, including its Basic Laws on Human Dignity and human rights.

In the dismal weeks since the election, I and many have waited in vain for a leader to arise who would address the nation and articulate a vision and a plan going forward from this moment of existential national crisis. Instead, we were subjected to the petty, self-absorbed blaming from the heads of parties that either failed to pass the electoral threshold or performed poorly, with no din ve’heshbon—accounting and responsibility-taking from them– for the woefully tone deaf, ineffective, campaigns they ran. There was no indication that these parties—or Yesh Atid, which, obviously, did not get the requisite seats for its leader to get the mandate to form the new government—took any real lessons from the election. When parties speak to their converted and do not hear or respond to needs beyond their respective bases, the result is that demagogues, who do listen broadly, and yes, have very sharp political skills, win elections. When parties perpetually address and win the votes only of their bases, they are single-issue parties, even if they list multiple causes they support, or oppose, like public transportation on shabbat, a sure winner in Tel Aviv and pretty much nowhere else; or an end to the occupation and protection of LGBTQ rights. Single issue parties, identified with their leaders but not with policies that resonate with a broad cross-section of the country, are vanity parties. And they got wiped out or severely dressed down in the recent election. As they should have been.

We have known for as long as elections have been studied scientifically—over a hundred years now– that voters vote their fear. If their economic or physical security, let alone, both, are threatened, voters vote for those who promise security, a “tough hand,” resolute policies, even if those making such promises have no record of delivering results or even basic experience in these areas. They vote for those who project that they hear the pain of the voter, identify with it, and will address it. They vote for protection, reassurance. Enter Ben Gvir, Smotrich, and Der’i, the latter, handing out shopping coupons to the economically stressed voters his party’s policies keep economically depressed, systematically unable to rise out of poverty.

Lawlessness in the south has been in the news for months. Videos of cars careening at high speed on highways there, outside and against lanes of traffic, guns often ablaze, terrorizing other motorists, are on nightly TV news again and again. Women and girls accosted, harassed, openly on streets, fearful to be out. Home burglaries. There and in the north, massive “protection” terrorism of agricultural sites, with destruction in the hundreds of millions of shekalim, again and again. The high cost of living, of housing, of basic food. Overcrowded classrooms, which have long been incubators and sites of violence, directed at students and at teachers. Underpaid teachers; a profession hemorrhaging younger educators and not attracting qualified new ones because of inadequate pay and traumatizing conditions. An educational system so short on qualified teachers, that this year, it openly sought and hired people with no teaching qualifications. A severely overburdened health care system, with a chronic shortage of nurses, doctors, and lab staff, all of whom are underpaid and overworked. A chronically understaffed professional police system, also suffering a hemorrhage of personnel in the ranks because of low pay and terrible work conditions in a job that is inherently stressful.

These issues affect us all, Jewish and non-Jewish citizens equally. We did not hear, and of course, will not hear the demagogues say that; they would rather set us against one another. But the Bedouin citizens of the Negev and Arab and Druze citizens in the north and elsewhere are crying out for better policing and physical security, an end to the crime that devastates civilians and makes women particular targets, no differently than are Jewish citizens of Beersheva.

We did not hear about any of this from the parties that got wiped out or underperformed in the recent election. But we did hear about it from the extremists, and from Shas—the only party that ran on a platform of social and economic issues, posing, despite its policies, as the ear that listens and the hand that responds.

Some of us actually research what politicians and parties have done and not, their records. But the average voter– and again, this is hardly news– listens subliminally; listens for code words of solidarity, of empathy; of that which we all seek in our personal lives—someone who “gets us,” who cares; someone protective. That’s who wins elections.

The parties that fared poorly did not get this and, since none of this was new on the scene, that is unforgivable. Because their loss is the one we now bear.

Here and there, we have started to hear some figures declare a red line: Moshe Yaalon about the professionalism of the army and its position above Knesset politics; Gadi Eizenkot, about this and against debasement of education with theocratic religious agendas. Lapid, against theocracy in the schools, the threat to anathematize women in public space– which would mean the end of “public” space– and in defense of LGBTQ citizens.

But it is all scatter-shot and, above all, reactive. The system sets up winners of an election and an Opposition. But we need far more than just opposition to what this new government portends.

We need Leadership. People with a vision and a long-term plan, because only the smartest planning now, and implementation of programs on the local level that address real needs for security and basic services—child care, education, health services—will make a difference in the next election.

The public is sick of dog fights on the Knesset floor. We tune those out in disgust and wonder, when will someone serious do something serious?

It is surely too much to ask. But what we need is a Churchill. An FDR, preferably female, with the equivalent of fireside chats.

The educators and municipal and regional heads who have come out publicly and said that they will not implement Maoz’s agenda, even at the cost of losing badly needed State funding—perhaps hope resides there. It would, indeed, be refreshing, to see leadership on the national level emerge from the ranks of educators.

Of reaction to egregious threats to our society, of Opposition —we have plenty.

What we really need: Leadership.

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, the first history of agunot and iggun across the map of Jewish history, with a critique of current policy on Jewish marital capitivity and proposals for fundamental change to end this abuse, is entitled, "Thinking Outside the Chains to Free Agunot and End Iggun." 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. She opposes the Kotel deal, which would criminalize women's group prayer at the Kotel and end the site's status as a "national holy site," awarding it instead, to the haredi establishment. Her opinions have been published in the Forward, Tablet, EJewish Philanthropy, Moment, the Times of Israel, and the Jerusalem Post.