While pundits recycle the same stale political issues and celebrities take part in almost-satirical get-out-the-vote campaigns, beyond the façade of Israeli democracy, true change lies beyond the ballot box.
By Fiona Wright
Commentary on Israeli elections is stuck in a depressing stalemate that masks deep cynicism toward a democratic process few believe can bring real change. Election after election, pundits weigh in on minor political shifts to the right, the effects of the latest war or the inevitable question of Palestinian-Israeli citizens’ ambivalence towards the whole process. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. What is conspicuously under-analyzed, however, is the cynicism of the Jewish-Israeli population, whose lack of faith paradoxically leads to the repetition of the same tragic cycle with each new Knesset.
It is not just the satire and disbelief of politicians that is striking: we see that elsewhere. Lurking behind the façade of Israel’s redeeming democratic features is the barely concealed message that it doesn’t really matter for whom, or if you vote at all. As recently deceased sociologist Stanley Cohen put it perfectly in his book, States of Denial, Israel is a country of ‘open secrets.’ Everybody knows about the occupation, everybody knows about the checkpoints, everybody knows about the detention of children. Perhaps the most open yet secretive secret of them all is that everybody knows that no matter whom you vote for, the familiar perpetuation of war and overpriced cottage cheese will likely remain the same.
Ironically, a series of promotional videos produced by various organizations interested in getting out the vote provides the clearest (and most entertaining) illustration of this political stasis. A short film featuring an eclectic mix of Israeli celebrities – from supermodel Bar Rafaeli to journalist Gideon Levy – satirizes election propaganda materials in a detached and ironic tone before asking citizens to forget it all and go out and vote. Actress Keren Mor reminds us of the ‘biggest clichés’ politicians roll out time after time; singer Zehava Ben offers an exaggerated rendition of Israel’s national anthem, Hatikva; and actor Yousef Said makes a rather forlorn plea for the possibility of Jewish-Arab partnership. With sublimated yet utterly unmistakeable despair with the state of politics in their country, these celebrities pay lip service to the same ideas they and the public long ago gave up on.
Another video plays on the notion that those who choose not vote lose their right to have an opinion on the state of political affairs. In the video, two Israelis who didn’t vote in the last election are portrayed lamenting the reality in Israel before being pounced upon by the ‘complaints police,’ who subsequently slap them with a four-year ban on complaining. Though Israelis would never accept such a bizarre proposition as that which says voting earns you the right to be dissatisfied with the world, or even talk about it, the entire political spectrum – from left, right and center – is parroting the same line: “Tatsbiu, tashpiu!” (Vote, make a difference!)
Israelis understand quite profoundly that all this talk of change, hope and a better future exists only in the realm of dreams, desires and fantasies. It is far from what they really expect to wake up to tomorrow. Everybody knows that change lies beyond the ballot box, and perhaps that is what those who really seek it need to hold onto.
Fiona Wright is a PhD student in Social Anthropology in Cambridge, UK. Between 2009 and 2012 she conducted research on Israeli politics and activism in Tel Aviv-Jaffa, and is now writing her dissertation in the UK.