Published in The Jerusalem Post on, April 12, 1998
Labor party leader Ehud Barak has introduced legislation to draft the ultra-orthodox (hareidim). In a central television interview last week he also blasted them for many of this country’s ills, and warned that the hareidim will take over the country unless the “forces of democracy” act to stop them.
Putting Barak’s exaggerations aside, and the draft-dodging question too, what does Barak’s broadside against the hareidim tell us? That we’re in for one of the most divisive, negative election campaigns ever in our history. And that the political leaderships concern themselves very little with the fraying fabric of our society, and the deleterious impact of their demagoguery; the key is to win, no matter what.
Several months ago, Labor MK Nissim Zvilli gave me advanced warning of the impending Labor campaign against the hareidim. It’s like this, he explained. Polling taken privately for Labor shows that the opposition stands little chance in the coming years of breaking the bond that has developed between the right-wing and the religious publics.
So how can Labor hope to recapture the premiership? Only by drawing away from Likud secular voters who can be scared into voting Labor “in order to save themselves from the ultra-orthodox takeover”.
In other words, Zvilli lamented, basic election strategy will force Labor to run a Meretz-style anti-hareidi campaign: “They’re coming to take over your neighborhoods, your schools, your shopping malls, to steal your kids. Oy vey, watch out! Vote Labor to preserve your secular independence.” Negative campaigning, much like the “Labor Will Re-Divide Jerusalem” campaign that Likud can be expected to run again.
Expect a viscerally dirty, bitterly divisive, mud-slinging election campaign.
Of course, this situation has developed because Labor has almost no other flags to fly; no symbols left, Zionist or otherwise, to pitch the public. Settlement and security, the traditional Labor-socialist-Zionist themes, are symbols now associated with Likud. Socialism and social equality are a hard sell for Labor. The party is associated with the increasingly-wealthy capitalist elites of Israel, and itself took apart the trade unions.
Aliyah? There aren’t many Jews left to bring, the Labor-dominated Jewish Agency is bankrupt beyond imagination, and Labor won’t win any veteran Israeli votes by promising to do more for the very unpopular Russian olim.
And peace? Well, no-one ever really bought into Shimon Peres’ “New Middle East”, and Barak has offered no clear alternative peace strategy. At most, Barak can argue that he’d do a better job of ‘managing’ the peace process than Bibi. But no vision here.
Just who is most negatively affected by the ongoing de-mythologizing of the army, Shin Bet, and Mossad? Labor. These national security institutions were traditionally its preserve, and lent Labor the aura of establishment superiority. And the post-Zionist deconstructing of Ben-Gurion, Golda, Dayan and others — which the leftist intellectual elites have fed us in the ITV series “Tekuma” — only further weakens public perceptions of Labor as the senior, patrician political party born to rule.
Mr. Barak, a nation needs “myths”, national symbols, in order to survive. You need some positive Israeli symbols and values with which to wrap yourself in order to win. Don’t peddle us anti-hareidism either. We know that as prime minister you’d need the ultra-orthodox to govern, and would never implement what you propose.
And stay away from the post-Zionist advisors. As the outcry over “Tekuma” proves, the public resents the demythologizing of Israeli society. We still cherish the familiar, comfortable self-image of Israel as Zionist and idealistic (even if we’re * not * completely).
“We are poorly served by a cultural and media elite who are alienated from the mainstream public”, affirms the well-known political scientist Prof. Charles Liebman of Bar-Ilan University. “This elite, which is busy atomizing the Zionist world-view, has no appreciation of what the broad public needs or wants”.
So, Mr. Barak, seek a vision and some positive ideals. How about playing up the kibbutzim? A Bar-Ilan University poll on Zionism released last week surprisingly demonstrates that the kibbutz still resonates as a very positive, Zionist value for most Israelis. Talk about a real battle against crime and violence in Israeli society. Everybody is worried about that, yet no political leader has truly addressed himself to the issue.
Try relating to our traditional sense of ‘community’ and the lingering desire for ‘commitment’. I think Israelis are hungering for leadership that occasionally will make their hearts soar and intellect go into overdrive. “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country”, intoned President Kennedy, and no-one considered him phony or melodramatic.
Israel of the nineties may be more centered on self-fulfillment than ever before, but is still fitted, I think, for moral leaders of perspicacity, capable of evoking the spiritual or Zionist or whatever we might still believe in – every once in a while.