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Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

What Israel’s Left Gets Terribly Wrong – and What to Do About It (Part 1)

With Israel’s Left recently suffering an electoral debacle, the knives are out, and punditry is running riot. The problem with almost all the analyses is that they are working under a misconceived assumption: either that Left-wing policy has to change and/or its leading personalities have to be replaced. But that’s not what drives most voters – in today’s politics, GROUP IDENTITY is king. And when I say “in today’s politics,” I am referring to the entire democratic world, as clearly emerged in a massive survey last year (https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2021/nov/17/voters-in-west-divided-more-by-identity-than-issues-survey-finds).

There are two central “identity” axes for those on Israel’s Right-wing: 1) Antipathy to Socialist Zionism and its myriad founding “Labor” parties; 2) Jewishness (not necessarily “religious Judaism,” and for most Right-wingers certainly not very “Orthodox”). To a large (but not total) extent they overlap, given the strong secularism and anti-clericalism of early Socialist Zionism.

Israel’s Left, by and large more highly educated, have trouble understanding that politics is driven more by emotion than personal interest. That’s because at the ballot box (and in general) they are driven more by rational policymaking through intellectual and academic research and analysis.

This explains why lower and middle class Likud supporters continue to vote for “their” party despite Netanyahu’s explicit “low tax, market-oriented” policies that work to the detriment especially of blue collar (and lower level white collar/small business) workers. Bibi is a master at playing to their fears as well as their antipathies born of historical memory (i.e., what Socialist Mapai “did” to their immigrant parents).

The same “intellectualism” versus “emotionalism” plays a central role in their respective attitude towards religion. Whatever one thinks of religious belief and practice (Jewish or otherwise), it certainly is not based on “rationality.” Indeed, most rabbinical commentators through the ages (with a few exceptions such as Maimonides) explicitly stated that many Torah commandments (“Khukot”) are “unexplainable” and that we simply have to take God’s word that they serve some sort of positive function. Reinforcing the Left’s anti-religious perspective is the fact that as science progresses, more and more religious “truths” are brought into question if not completely disproven (e.g., the Earth certainly is not 5783 years old!). This doesn’t sit well with “believers” (or those with great respect for Judaism) who in such a development don’t see Truth winning out; rather, they come to view an entire “modern” way of looking at the world (Science) as the enemy, or at the least to be ignored (when possible; see “anti-vaxxers”). As a reaction, the Left moves ever further away from Judaism.

In short, as a gross generalization – but still true – the Left and Right are playing a different electoral “game.” For the Left, it is a matter of “what works best”; for the Right, the central question is “who do I belong to?” To be clear, this does not render “Right-wingers” unintelligent boors, just as it does not mean that “Left-wingers” are emotionless robots. To a certain extent, the Left is also “tribal” (mainly Ashkenazi, college educated, living in the country’s center – what’s euphemistically called “The State of Tel Aviv”). And as noted above, the leadership (political and intellectual) of the Right do have a relatively coherent socio-economic policy position (albeit at loggerheads with many of its supporters’ interests).

Thus, both sides are locked into their own tribal identity – including a very different, socio-psychological way of looking at Israel’s “world.” Those in power (the Right) have the luxury of staying put; those in almost perpetual Opposition (the Left) are the ones who have to change. (An acquaintance recently related to me a vignette from several elections ago: as he approached his voting venue a campaign worker gave him a flyer for Meretz. “Do you have someone doing the same thing in Kiryat Shmona?” he asked the campaigner. “No,” came the quick reply. “What about Dimona and Ofakim?” The campaigner again answered in the negative. To which my acquaintance retorted: “Why bother giving such flyers to people like me who support the Left? We’re already convinced. If you want to increase your support, you have to go where they don’t support you… yet!” The Meretz fellow shrugged and walked away…). One way for the Left to change is to moderate its hyper-principled approach to politics and join a “Unity” government with the Center, as it finally agreed to do in supporting the Bennett/Lapid “Change Government” in 2021-22, but in the end this too failed to crack Right-wing identity politics and it lost the recent election.

The necessary conclusion: the Left has to learn how to fight fire with fire – or to put it more prosaically, how to begin “talking politics” in the language of the dominant electoral majority. Learning a new “language” is not easy for any individual to do – and certainly difficult for an entire “tribe” to change its semantic stripes. Yet, short of this newly elected government causing a major catastrophe, not much is going to change in coming elections. And that is certainly true once Netanyahu leaves the field, for Saar and Gantz have both clearly stated that they have no problem joining any future-led Likud government sans Bibi, adding another twelve Knesset seats to the Right-wing. That leaves Israel’s contemporary Left-Center with one of two choices: sticking to their (failed) electoral guns, or “if you can’t beat them join them” – in this regard not “coalition” joining but rather starting to speak in the language of “identity” that many Right-wing supporters want to hear.

What does that mean in practical terms? Stay tuned: next Friday I’ll offer what is a “radically new” approach for the Center-Left.

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published three books and 60 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. His new book is VIRTUALITY AND HUMANITY: VIRTUAL PRACTICE AND ITS EVOLUTION FROM PRE-HISTORY TO THE 21ST CENTURY (Springer Nature, Dec. 2021): The book's description, substantive Preface and full Table of Contents can be freely accessed here: https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007/978-981-16-6526-4#toc. For more information about Prof. Lehman-Wilzig's publications (academic and popular), see: www.ProfSLW.com
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