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Election punditry masks cynicism toward democratic change

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

Polling place workers wait for voters, Feb. 10, 2009 (Photo: Ze’ev Zamir / Creative Commons license)

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.

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    1. Michael

      Translation. The voters in Israel are going to vote for parties the writer doesn’t agree with. The writer did no research in Israel and doesn’t have the ability to do research but just wants to see Israel destroyed as a Jewish state and replaced by an Arab state.

      There already is Jewish Arab partnership in Israel. As much as the Arabs will allow it. Arabs serve in all levels of Israel. There is an Israeli Arab Supreme Court justice, Israeli Arabs serve in the Israeli military and are leaders in parties like Likud and Yisrael Beitanu.

      Many Israeli’s want to see this expanded by including Israeli Arabs in either the draft or national service. Racists such as the Arab only Balad party oppose this because they want to see Israel turned into an Arab only Palestine where Jews are only allowed as subservient Dhimmi.

      Stop writing drivel. Act like a real journalist and investigate. Talk to other people not spout uneducated opinions that you hear from everyone else in college.

      Reply to Comment
      • Carl

        “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”.

        I can write it in crayon and post it to you if it helps, but I’d say it’s fairly clear as it is.

        Reply to Comment
        • The Trespasser

          There is more to Israel than Tel Aviv – Jaffa, silly.

          Extrapolating rather questionable data on one city onto entire country is a certain sign of a proper scientific research.

          And people like that become “doctors” and such.

          High education for all appears to be not the best principle…

          Reply to Comment
    2. XYZ

      We made aliyah to Israel 26 years ago and we have seen a massive change in the country, for the better. While it is true that the Knesset and the political parties have only a limited influence on economic policies, with the Bank of Israel and other major economic institutions having decisive influence determine most of the policies (this is true throughout the Western world and not just Israel), the fact is that that the standard of living has risen for the large majority of Israeis, both Jews and Arabs.

      Also, much of the ideological pig-headedness of early Israel has dissipiated. I am referring to habits like refusing to speak to a neighbor or co-worker who votes for the “wrong” party or because he or she is or is not religious. Young Isaelis are much more open-minded and tolerant than their parents were.

      Now, someone is going to throw out THE OCCUPATION The Palestinians had more than one opportunity since Oslo in 1993 to receive and independent state, but they refused it. What will happen is that since there is no chance of a peace agreement being achieved, an unofficial modus-vivendi will evolve It has already started.

      Thus, there is no basis for saying ” the more things change, the more they stay the same”, but those who want some sort of revolutionay change are going to be disappointed Practical solutions to problems are the order of the day. The old ideological struggles are finished

      Reply to Comment
      • The Boycott Law, the Citizenship Law High Court decision, the South Tel Aviv riot, spurred by MK’s present at a rally that night, as yet not brought to account, and the indictement of Leef’s hapless posting of a tent for incitement to riot suggest other processes are at work in Israel as well. Nor does the expulsion orders of the Land Authority against Israeli Arab citizens suggest a happy increase in the prosperity of all. Many people may be doing well, but the law is not among them.

        Reply to Comment
    3. As a far away outsider, the one thing I haven’t seen through my +972 window is serious election debate on specific events (except maybe direct support for the refugee camps), almost as though the political elites have a tacit agreement not to discuss, so create, real issues. Is voting more identity politics (“I am not that”) than anything else? I know everywhere label is primary, but usually there is a stronger sense of policy associated with the label. Probably, being so far away and not knowing Hebrew, I cannot see real party links to issues.

      Reply to Comment

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