Why definitions of left or right wing make no sense in today’s Israel
All of a sudden, it is election season in Israel again. Our troops are dying, innocents are suffering, families are awash in fear and longing and yet the sounds of campaign speeches have nearly replaced the sirens as the soundtrack of the moment. The unity we found in the flames of the South is disappearing like smoke. Many of us in Israel, and friends I’ve spoken to around the world, share the disbelief that we are being pulled back into the civil war of 2023. “Hearing the war briefings become campaign speeches,” one friend told me, “has crushed me.”
With all the pain and trauma of the past few months, we’ve learned Israel still knows how to wage war. Israelis know how to mourn across ideological and political lines. We know how to go to funerals of people we have never met, pay visits to the families as they sit Shiva. What Israelis do not do well is to wage peace. While ideological schisms have always been a feature of Israeli politics, in the past few decades the divisiveness, the intolerance, the open sectoral war has become a feature of Israeli politics, not a bug. With judicial reform and the war in the background, this year’s campaign promises to feature some of the most divisiveness and sectoral warfare yet.
I believe those of us dedicated to building Israel anew out of the debacle of 2023 have the opportunity, during this election season, to try another path. That path begins in supporting a politics fundamentally different than that which we currently know, a politics fundamentally different than what the current leadership represents. As we gear up for the campaign and decide who to back, we should clearly call upon our leaders to break with past patterns of top-down campaigns and instead reflect a new set of bottom-up, civil society led politics that leaves the old Left-Right dichotomy behind.
I believe now is the time because, over the past two decades, Israel has simultaneously become more Left and Right simultaneously. Most Israelis believe in equality for all of Israel’s citizens, regardless of gender, sexual preference, or cultural origins. Most Israelis believe in the social welfare state and the importance of basic economic rights. Both of these reflect the core aspirations of the Left. On the other hand, most Israelis believe Israel’s economic growth depends on unleashing the innovative potential of the private sector, and want to include tradition at the core of our national identity, reflecting the core aspirations of the Right. Even the classic Left and Right positions on the Palestinians are not the defining wedge: despite gaps, there is a strong core agreement that the conflict must be solved through separation.
Where Israeli political parties do differ is on whether or not the State should impose on the life choices of its citizens. On who to trust and how much trust to give. This spectrum is not defined by Left or Right, but rather by Authoritativeness versus Independence.
The Authoritative parties are all easy to spot: they are the ones with clear leaders, clear hierarchies, and a captured electorate that believes authoritative culture is right and good. The Ultra-Orthodox, the Religious Zionist messianists, today’s Likud, all are openly and proudly authoritative parties. They value leaders who are strong, resolute, parochial – who care for their flock before caring for anyone else. These make up the grand majority of the Knesset.
The Independence parties are more fluid, by their nature. They reflect a vast array of ideas, voices, values, and cultures. They have constantly shifting leadership and constantly shifting membership. They value leaders who speak their values, who represent consensus, who set up structures and institutions that enable people to have the support they need to realize their potential. Unfortunately, we don’t currently have many parties championing independence.
The collapse of the public sector in the days and weeks after October 7 showed us how brittle Authoritative government can be. Because authoritativeness relies on a leader who happens to be a fallible man. It would be a mistake to simply replace one man with another. Instead, we should make it our mission to build a blueprint for an Israel that is less authoritative, less parochial, and more independent. That begins with the campaign.
Here are three practical suggestions for how our emerging leaders can avoid the authoritativeness trap:
- Less party platforms and more party principles: We are in a period of radical uncertainty. Not only does the electorate not read party policy platforms in a calm year, but one cannot expect policies developed under today’s pressures to be relevant to the post-2023 world. Instead, leaders should present a short list of clear principles and invite the public to join in translating those principles into policies to break with the authoritative tendency to tell people what’s good for them.
- Less newsroom speeches and more public assemblies: We’ve lived through election cycle after election cycle and have yet to see deep engagement of our leaders with the public in open and unbuffered discourse. Instead of sticking to newsrooms and speaking from stages, leaders should work with groups in the field to create public forums where all are welcome and where the leaders do more listening than speaking, more deliberation than debate.
- Less I and more we: One of the hallmarks of today’s politics is Yitzhak Rabin’s phrase, “I will decide. I will navigate.” Despite personally agreeing with his politics, I would argue that Rabin’s authoritativeness left a deep fracture that following leaders only widened by focusing on the I as opposed to the We. Leaders who advance independence should create the opportunities for members of the public to take up the obligations of citizenship, to participate in both the definition of public priorities as well as enacting the policies that will determine their lives.
Now is the time for political movements to generate a new type of politics. One that celebrates independence. One that supports leaders to build a system that works for all Israelis, without preference to special interest groups. One that does not seek to impose their group’s cultural values on the whole. Since we will not be able to escape the politicization of the moment, we must use this moment’s momentum to support those who will work for a fundamental realignment of our politics. Leaders who will do what they can to ensure no future government will be so authoritative, so brittle, ever again.