A few reflections on last week’s Israeli elections are in order.
I don’t recall experiencing an election in which everyone claimed victory. From the parties that barely scraped by the electoral threshold to the largest party, everybody wins in this country. Every campaign headquarters featured raucous celebrations. To be sure, in the United States, we were accustomed to losing candidates putting the best face on their defeats (“I may have lost this particular race but this election was not about me but about the movement that we created together, and that movement can never be defeated.” Whatever.)
It did not matter whether parties did better than expected, worse than expected, or as expected. Everyone feigned happiness, understandable as Israelis regularly register as one of the happiest groups of people on earth. Wasn’t the goal not merely entry into the Knesset but leadership, or at least involvement in leadership? It is as if participation trophies were being handed out. Victory was claimed by all, even if the country is no closer to having a stable government that it was a week ago. Maybe the glee is attributable to the vagaries of the system in which even the smallest party can play an outsized role in forming the next government – even if it just earned 4% of the total vote.
Watching the election analysis on television, it became clear that Itamar Ben Gvir is living rent free in the heads of most journalists and not a few politicians. His name was mentioned almost as frequently as that of PM Netanyahu. Gilad Kariv, self-styled as the first Reform rabbi to be elected to the Knesset (fourth on the leftist Labor Party list) trumpeted the significance of his own election, claiming his new position entitles him to “represent world Jewry” (despite the miniscule number of votes his party garnered) and declaring that his election is a “clear sign that non-Orthodox Judaism is becoming part of the Israeli mainstream.” Really?
By that reasoning, does the election of Ben Gvir prove that his ideology is also “part of the Israeli mainstream?” Well how can that be, since Kariv asserted that only his election proves that Israel is “not Netanyahu” and Israel is “not the successors of Kahane”? It is because Israel is also not Gilad Kariv. His conclusion is a leap of faithlessness, especially when one considers that undoubtedly more Israelis voted for the Religious Zionist party because Ben Gvir was on their list than voted for Labor because Kariv was on that list.
Certainly the lexical archeologists can dig up phrases that Kariv, Ben Gvir and other Knesset members have uttered in the past to which people object. So be it. Ben Gvir’s biggest “flaw” can be summarized as an ideology that, in the Jewish State, “Jews come first.” One can quibble with a policy or statement here or there, but would be hard pressed to explain why such a philosophy renders a person categorically unfit for service in the Knesset.
Listening to the obsessive references to his name – even terming any government in which he might serve “the Ben Gvir government” – it occurred that Israel’s left has always needed a demon on the right, and even the right wing has embraced the utility of having someone to demonize on their right. It started with Menachem Begin, who for decades was ostracized by the establishment of David Ben Gurion and even called horrible names, including likening him to a certain genocidal Nazi dictator. Eventually Begin was (obviously) vindicated, but his place was taken by Meir Kahane, Michael ben Ari and now Itamar Ben Gvir. Perhaps it would be instructive to note the irony that many nations across the globe view Israel (as a racist, bigoted state) the same way that many Israelis view Ben Gvir. Both are gross falsehoods.
Perhaps we should take a deep breath and realize that there is a place in a democratic Knesset for a Kariv and a Ben Gvir, and for a handful of others who even aspire to leadership of the Jewish State. It is mindboggling, at least to me, that aspirants for the prime ministership of the State of Israel should hold political discussions on Seder night. (It is almost as distasteful as the Jewish owner of the New York Mets negotiating a contract with one of his star players on seder night, at a restaurant, and complaining about the ravioli that was served. Perhaps, and regrettably so, even the seder has lost its attraction among assimilated Jews.)
The other media bête noire was the Noam Party, whose representative won the sixth seat on the Religious Zionist list. Noam was repeatedly described as the “homophobic” party. I searched their party platform and found no overt references to this hot button issue. Their platform focuses on the sanctity of the Jewish family and the need to strengthen it. That sounds reasonable. What clearly grates on the activists is that they have not updated their definition of the Jewish family to include any and all configurations that the human mind can conjure. They seem to be stuck in the ancient past, somewhere, oh, around the year 2010.
That they embrace policies that are not only normative Jewish law and thought but also were normative in the general society just a decade ago shows not how benighted they are as much as it shows how Western morality has utterly collapsed in the last few years and taken not a few Jews along for the ride. Thus their platform calls for strengthening Jewish identity in the land of Israel (how outrageous!) and determining Jewish status based on the prescriptions of the Torah (how novel!). It perceives the IDF as a holy army that should focus on defending Israel and not inculcating Western, post-modern norms. It wants to foster the observance of Shabbat throughout Israel and eliminate the pernicious influence of certain European NGO’s on the curriculum of Israel’s schools. Most controversially, they regard the ideal family as consisting of a father and a mother. Only in the most rabid, partisan and anti-traditional circles is that considered “homophobic.” Only those whose solitary goal in life is the complete breakdown of the societal norms that have shaped civilization from time immemorial would take offense at that. And only those with complete ignorance of the Torah teachings of Rav Zvi Tau would conclude that the political interests of radical, fringe groups in society are a paramount concern of his teachings.
Surely, Noam supporters also deserve representation in the Knesset. Their treatment by the media is nothing less than “virtue-shaming,” castigating decent people for adhering to traditional morality. That is disgraceful and unacceptable.
It might stun the activists and their journalist water-carriers to know that most people do not really think about these agenda issues all that much, differ widely on how certain needs can or should be accommodated in a Western or a Jewish state, but do not want to be lectured to. You can listen to 1000 shiurim or drashot and perhaps one will obliquely refer to these issues by which narrow-minded but passionate individuals define themselves and their life’s purpose.
And here is a wild idea. There should be a law (passed by referendum, as the Knesset never would) that any election that does not result in the formation of a government that lasts at least one year serves to bar any member of that Knesset from running in the next Knesset election. All 120 members, from the Prime Minister on down to the backbenchers, would have to sit out one election cycle. We would be pleasantly surprised how quickly governments would be formed and how long they would last.
Finally, it should be obvious that as long as Binyamin Netanyahu runs for the Knesset – notwithstanding that it is his right – there will be no stable government in Israel. But there is a way out of this morass in the short term. You can take any five or six parties and they will agree on roughly 80% of how this country is to be governed. The other 20% is the flavor in the gum – sometimes contemptible, like hatred of a particular group; sometimes noble, like advocating for traditional morality. If some amalgamation of parties could set aside its passions and prejudices, even for one election cycle, and focus on what we share jointly – security, defense, the Iran threat, the economic recovery, help for the disadvantaged, and an educational curriculum that instills Jewish pride – than a stable government is possible.
Indeed, that would make all of us winners.