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The strange American obsession with "the return of the Israeli left"

What is it that makes so many American reports on events in Israel end up with the question of “the return of the Zionist Left?” Ethan Bronner’s recent story on the cost of living protest in Israel is yet another example of this trend. By cherry picking a few comments and mixing them with the warm memories of Rabin’s government, the recent social justice movement becomes for Bronner the vessel of “a possible opening for the defeated left.”

I can’t help but think that those American who are so obsessed with this question recognize “their Israel” in a certain image that the Israeli left has projected, one which very rarely had anything to do with its actual politics. The result is a constant search for something that was never there. After all, you won’t see so many stories in American press about “a return of the revisionist Right” in Israel, or about Shas.

It’s time to face facts: Rabin’s second government was an historical accident, no more. This was the only time in 35 years that the left won a Knesset majority – and even then, it wasn’t even close to a majority of the Jewish public. Liberalism, in the American sense, never took real hold in Israel.

The current social protest is a unique event with tremendous potential, but if it’s a return to the Jewish democracy dreamland that Americans hope for, you are up for a major disappointment. There won’t be a “return” – all we can and should hope for is something completely new.

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UPDATE: And the always-sharp Dimi Reider adds (in an email he sent me):

One of Israel’s major problems is that a part of its policies and character are shaped as a projection of the ideas/fears/ideals of people living very very far away, in a different political context, who construct “Israel” as a kind of an imaginary friends’ world.

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  • COMMENTS

    1. gregorylent

      i don’t know left from right .. all i know is i am getting exTREMEly fed up reading the word “israel” in the paper every effing day after fifty effing years! Enough already. grow the eff up!

      Reply to Comment
    2. Americans in particular (regardless of political affiliation) seem to think their opinions carry more authority than the Israeli electorate that pays taxes and votes people in.

      That, combined with the unquestioned presumption that American hegemony is an excepted given (excepting maybe Ron Paul and far-left) means you’ll get this sort of projection of unrealistic political fantasy.
      It’s no wonder they are lost in fantasies of “their” Israel. They are already lost in fantasies of “their America.”

      Reply to Comment
    3. Ben Israel

      Remmember 1999? Bill Clinton sent Jim Carville to help Ehud Barak get elected Prime Minister. When he won Slick Willy said “I feel like a kid who has just got a new toy”. He could just smell that Nobel Prize Peace Prize that would supposedly erase everone’s memory of impeachment and Monica Levinsky. Then he went to Camp David to wrap things up.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Emanuele

      I live in the US and to tell you the truth, there is little or no information about current social protest on the “conventional” media. Nothing on the public radio (not FOX news), nothing on the newspaper. I discovered reading post on twitter and facebook. American media don’t want to “publicize” this uprising for sure.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Sol Salbe

      Can I ask the reverse question: why are Israelis so obsessed with the USA? [America is a continent (or two continent)]. As an Australian I find nothing uniquely American about the views represented here. I’d would argue that they exist in the entire Anglosphere at least, if not beyond. This has some some logical repercussions as for example one cannot argue US expectation in terms of subsidising Israel, if the same attitude is prevalent in countries, which are not subsidising Israel.

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    6. To follow up on Sol Salbe (who probably knows the Israeli left and other lefts better than 95% of us, due to his key role in translating much material from Hebrew).

      It has dawned on me that the Israel (that is the Israel of Jews, not the Israel of Palestinians) now being defended by the contemporary hasbarah league is the Israel of neo-liberalism and gleaming markets and profits; its a far cry from the (ideally) socialist Israel that many in the 50s and 60s were enamoured of, and perhaps, something that in fact frightened some American Jews–these Israelis are goddam socialists!

      I’ve been looking a photos on various Israel archives sites recently . When I see them, and the May Day parades and dignitary platforms with BG, Golda and co., it might as well have been east Germany. In fact, I heard speaking Amos Oz tonight and while I was not too impressed with his continuing idealization of the ‘dream’, to titters from the audience, what did amuse me was a story about old left kibbutzniks wishing that Stalin would visit just to show him how true socialism was done! ( and I do have a copy of a Stalinist Kibbutz Artzi haggadah)

      To get back to the point. Israel as it now exists is very much part of the neo-liberal global economy, and that helps to explain why so many American (Jews) are so enamoured of its productive qualities–its just like Us, but at the same time, it’s ‘Jewish’. Contemporary Zionism is very much part of the neo-liberal script as well. Likewise, Israelis are so obsessed with the US because well, it is partly dependent on the US and unlike Israel and Australia, there are a huge number of Israelis in America and vice-versa and there is much more trade and ideological and religious connection between the two. Many of Israel’s innovative bourgeoisie (secular and working religious) are Mediterranean traders, particularly in the information and knowledge economy. And politically, Israel has always depicted itself as the outpost of democracy and American’s strong ally.

      Meanwhile, the traditional Israeli left comes out of a pretty, well, doctrinaire background and state-capitalist practice (histadrut, state corporations etc) and that model for society failed, whether in the kibbutz or the cities. The institutional ‘left’ was as much part of the politics of occupation (Rabin the bone-breaker) and the bifurcated society and it has also been incorporated into the social-democracy wing of neo-liberalism, but it has no other agenda.

      Left oppositionalists have always been a relatively small, though at times influential group in Israel (Sol, I hope I am not way out of line with my reading of the history here). Their fundamental critique of Israel’s core ideology while appealing to some people, does not appeal I am sure to the majority of the current protesters whose concerns are much more individualised. I suspect they all wish they could be shopping at Ikea for their new apartments as well. If in fact, 500,000 people head ‘home’ from the Occupied territories, then Israel is going to have the mother of all housing shortages, and traffic jams at Ikea, but then, perhaps many of the settlers will head back to the US and wreak havoc in the NY boroughs, demanding repatriation rights.

      I don’t have any answers here, I am just making some points, perhaps supporting Noam’s contention that there is an American idealization of something that never really existed, or it was something very limited —or it it that they wonder why the US has never had an equitable health care system when Israel, Australia and many other countries have?

      On the neo-liberalism argument, there is a very interesting editorial in New Left Review in which Israel’s place in all of this is raised in places. It is well worth reading through, though it is not easy. See http://newleftreview.org/?page=article&view=2817.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Ezra

      “One of Israel’s major problems is that a part of its policies and character are shaped as a projection of the ideas/fears/ideals of people living very very far away, in a different political context, who construct “Israel” as a kind of an imaginary friends’ world.”

      So so true! But this applies basically to … everyone. Everyone from Islamisits, the right, the left, Americans, Queer activists and beyond use Israel to expand on their whatever. For some weird reason the world is obsessed by this lame conflict.

      Reply to Comment
    8. directrob

      @Ezra,
      The world is not obsessed by this lame conflict, were the world obsessed its leaders would know about the conflict and would not support Israel. It is so strange to hear people vehemently cite Hasbara sources without knowing the most basic facts about the conflict.

      Reply to Comment
    9. A call for a Constituional Convention will be, in process, inherently Israeli. Your 1948 founders intended a constitution. Such a call potentially opens up Israeli process and returns to the Declaration. It is risky, for you shall have to face yourselves.

      What else can oppose the possible Knesset supermajority supporting such things as the Hebrew only language bill? Help the Courts now. A political call for a convention can be made in many venues; no one owns the call.

      Reply to Comment
    10. A call for a Constituional Convention will be, in process, inherently Israeli. Your 1948 founders intended a constitution. Such a call potentially opens up Israeli process and returns to the Declaration. It is risky, for you shall have to face yourselves.

      What else can oppose the possible Knesset supermajority supporting such things as the Hebrew only language bill? Help the Courts now. A political call for a convention can be made in many venues; no one owns the call.

      Reply to Comment

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