American liberals in despair over the presidential election would do well to look at Israel, where setbacks at the ballot box brought left-wingers together and drove them to think bigger.
By Matt Duss and Dahlia Scheindlin
As the initial shock of the presidential election fades, American progressives are left struggling with disturbing implications beyond the mere fact of being on the losing side. We ponder the apparent declaration that America rejects its religious and ethnic minorities, LGBTQ community, the immigrants who have made this country great, its independent women, and even its equality-supporting men. What looked like a historic march toward greater equality and inclusiveness seems to have ground to an angry halt. Our thinking, activism, and writing apparently reached only “ourselves,” insufficiently at that, and failed to win over enough of “them.” Despair is a looming option.
Sadly for the world, but luckily for us, this isn’t our first time around. The two of us are both deeply involved in Israel, professionally and personally. For Israeli progressives, Netanyahu’s fourth re-election in March 2015 also felt like a local version of a grand-scale collapse. Just over a year later, with the Brexit vote, a slim majority of British voters said to hell with that massive structure symbolizing the values of the interconnected world we desire.
So why are we lucky to have lived this bitter reality before? Because we have one distinct advantage in facing America’s new reality: experience. We’ve had time to absorb the blow and think about what to do next. And these experiences can only lead in one direction: More commitment to the values of openness, more progressive engagement, more assertive leveraging of the tools necessary for those of us who have been kicked out of the ring and into the back rows of opposition.
This brings us back to 2009 in Israel, long before Benjamin Netanyahu’s infamous 2015 statement about Israel’s Arabs “voting in droves.” In 2009, Netanyahu made his great “comeback,” returning to the political scene and becoming prime minister a decade after he was first routed by voters with no small amount of disgust in 1999. Netanyahu’s return was seen by many as a deathblow to the progressive, outward- and forward-looking vision of peace and equality already eroded by the violence of the aughts. Many were left shattered — and scared.
But, then, a strange thing happened. The election, along with the Gaza war that had preceded it, drove left-wingers into an activist frenzy. People began finding each other, grouping and coalescing, developing bigger, more ambitious ideas that had never seemed worth pursuing before. Human rights organizations, perhaps feeling they had nothing more to lose, fell on the sword of public opinion and defied their government to support international investigations into war crimes. Lone bloggers with a few hundred followers noticed those few others like them and established new media outlets; some, in desperation, even wrote for free. Attitudes and issues were being expressed that simply didn’t exist in the mainstream press before. Ideas began to percolate. Within two years, in the summer of 2011, Israel saw the biggest ever social protest in its history: Half a million people, about 6 percent of the population, took to the streets.
It turns out that, in an era of creeping power consolidation, discriminatory legislation, and heightened nationalism, the country of Israel needed civil society activism — from NGOs, the media, academia, even professional guilds and cultural figures — more than ever.
The story does not end in easy triumph, however: Two subsequent election cycles have only strengthened the Right. But there have been some quiet gains for marginalized communities too, even Arab citizens, in part due to such thankless activism. As right-wing governments have pushed for nationalist and sometimes undemocratic laws, civil society pressure and vigorous debate has helped stave off some of the worst of these measures, or at least dilute them. That may be only small comfort, but it’s meaningful for those who have to live under such legislation. And sharpening the goals and strategies of the progressive camp, building infrastructure and community, has its own eventual payoff.
Years earlier, American progressives experienced a similar awakening in response to the George W. Bush Administration. Demoralized after the Supreme Court’s theft of the presidential election and cowed by the Right’s relentless exploitation of the 9/11 attacks, progressives began to fight back. The Left blogosphere produced a new, more aggressive brand of reporting and analysis; DC insiders and activists established a network of organizations and institutions to develop and promote progressive ideas, including the Center for American Progress, Media Matters, and others. These efforts helped to carry the liberal camp through eight long years, producing, in the process, fresh ideas and nurturing exciting new leadership that bore fruit for two terms following the lean years.
To be sure, newfound activism will not prevent the dangers that right-wing domination of government in our two countries poses to the liberal order. In Israel, it not only unleashed the mean-spirited ethno-racist environment, but also the trend of delegitimizing, rather than arguing — turning opponents into enemies, and flirting with political intimidation and suppression (distinct from the decades-long direct military occupation of the Palestinians). We have already seen this poisonous environment spreading in America.
The political earthquake not only highlights parallels between the United States and Israel, it calls their relationship with each other into question. We must recognize that the Israeli Right and American Right have long worked together to support exclusivity and ethnic privilege. Populists and ultra-nationalists in both countries recognize each other — they have helped elect like-minded governments. Now Israeli and American progressives need to catch up, and develop stronger networks and relationships toward a more positive, inclusive vision of both our societies.
American liberals can’t fight for their society at home while betraying their values in Israel by supporting occupation. It’s time to reconsider the DC cliché that U.S. policy toward Israel must be “bipartisan,” a pretense — observed mainly by liberals, rarely by conservatives — that has obscured genuine policy differences between the Right and Left in both countries and, by constraining criticisms of the occupation (let alone real pressure), given effective cover to the rise of the pro-settler Right in Israel, whose leaders have in turn regularly voiced support for a right-leaning agenda back in the United States. We saw this demonstrated most explicitly in Prime Minister Netanyahu’s agitating against the Iran nuclear agreement in a speech to Congress. Progressives must develop our own networks of mutual support and policy development with allies to counter our mutual ideological adversaries, offering political cover to each other when necessary.
Learning from the toolbox of others and re-thinking global partnerships for progressive change aren’t just for the two-country club of Israel and the United States, but for progressives globally. “Bremain” supporters, French voters worried about the rise of the National Front, Germans who feared the rise of AfD in September’s regional elections, Middle Eastern colleagues who still yearn for democracy despite the setbacks following the Arab Spring — progressives in each of those places can draw on communities of ideological kin for new ideas, experience, and moral support.
It’s essential that we work more closely with them to develop a common vision based on human dignity and freedom. This sounds lofty but it has clear policy implications: let people move and travel; give them the opportunity to work where possible, while supporting those who have been left out of globalization; treat people as individual equals rather than formulating policies to alienate religious, ethnic, racial or gender groups. Reject stereotypes, respect religious and romantic choices; expect people to take responsibility and treat their fellow citizens according to these principles stated above. Build civic identity and avoid nationalism. Remember that majorities of people who live in diverse urban environments where they actually see the so-called “other” invariably vote in support of parties and policies that advance more diversity. Also, bring compassion into policy grounded in painstakingly constructed conventions on human rights. More than anything, be proud of cleaving to values our detractors dismiss as naïve.
This was, and is, life in opposition. The main levers of political power are not ours. We are in the resistance. There is a freedom in knowing that big ideas are worth expressing without euphemism or restraint; bold political risks are worth trying because we have already lost everything. Fear and loss have a way of focusing the mind. There can be newfound activism, there can be a clearer vision on policy, concepts, and terminology.
Finally, for the sake of this vision, we must commit to reaching out within our own societies to those who have supported the political forces of anger. Progressives can admit that this wasn’t our strong point in the past. It’s time to start making amends by explaining that Jews in Israel and conservative white Christians in the United States have nothing to fear from the loss of ethnic and political hegemony, or from a future of greater equality, tolerance, and inclusivity. Forging a new and bolder vision, and expanding the number of those who support it, must be our shared agenda as progressives in Israel, the United States, and beyond.
Matt Duss is president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace in Washington, DC. This article is reprinted, with permission, from Democracy Journal.