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What Israelis really mean when we talk about the Left

It is a shameful lie to make opposition to 47-year military rule an issue of supporters or traitors of Israel.

Palestinian and Israeil flags (Activestills)

Palestinian and Israeil flags (Activestills)

The war in Gaza yielded a large crop of articles about Liberal Zionism. Suddenly numerous authors felt an urgent need to reject, redefine, defend or deconstruct a term that the vast majority of Israelis have never heard of.

However, Israelis are familiar with the same basic concept, except they call it the “Zionist Left,” or national left. They embrace the label “Zionism,” but unlike diaspora-based writers, don’t spend too much time trying to define it.  I can’t recall anything like the floodtide of English LibZi articles in the Hebrew press any time recently.

That doesn’t bother me; as I’ve written, the term Zionism in Israel today has become a shell gutted of meaning, intended primarily to delegimize anyone who is not one. Finance Minister Yair Lapid took this to new heights when, in reacting to a kerfuffle this week over the cost of Israel’s beloved junk-food chocolate pudding – labeled those who sparked the protest “post-Zionists” and “anti-Zionists.” He was reacting to the (literal? figurative?) name of their Facebook group “Move [lit., ‘make aliyah’ – ds] to Berlin!” where the price of a similar product is lower. I wonder if the authors of the English LibZi articles are aware of this particular iteration of the concept in modern Israel as they search their Zionist identities?

Therefore, what I find more troubling is not the meaning Zionism, but the lack of clarity about what it means to be on the left in Israel.

What do Israelis mean when they talk about the “Left”?

In a lengthy Haaretz feature article about the less-savory aspects of Yitzhak (Bougie) Herzog’s political past, I noticed that Israel’s opposition leader was quoted discussing the constellation within Israel that supported Ehud Barak in the 1999 elections:  “This camp, the peace camp, which today they like to call Left…”

Whatever he was implying, I’ll take that as a step in the right direction. At least the person who is supposed to offer an alternative makes a rhetorical link between the Left and peace.

Otherwise, standing on a sidewalk in any given Israeli town, one might not know what many self-described left-wingers do stand for. Although about 15-16 percent of Jews describe themselves as left wing in surveys, the vast majority of Israelis supported the latest war in Gaza. At the height of the ground operation, only seven percent of the public (in a sample that included Arabs) supported a full ceasefire. Since the self-defined left is roughly 20 percent of the who Israeli public (not just Jews), apparently many of that group supported the war.

So how is the mainstream Zionist “Left” distinguished from the rest of Israel? This group commonly cites attitudes toward the conflict: support for a two-state solution, support dismantling West Bank settlements, and they say they would divide Jerusalem for the sake of peace.

But my general observation is that while many of them would dismantle outposts populated by wild-eyed settlers who beat Palestinians or burn their property, they are not prepared to touch Ariel, for example, if a two-state solution was riding on it.

Few are prepared to hear about compromises on the Palestinian refugee problem.

Some would consider dividing Jerusalem, but who wants to uproot over 200,000 Jews living in East Jerusalem now, many of whom dug in over the last 15 years?

Well, the Zionist Left would respond, we were out of power from the time Ariel Sharon became prime minister in 2001. We are against the huge settler population growth since then, but it wasn’t up to us.

But it doesn’t take much to know that Labor governments and ministers oversaw robust settlement expansion during their terms as well.

Those are the mistakes of political elites, says the self-defined mainstream Left. We did our part by voting. Anyway, the real reason that there’s no peace is that there is no partner. Barak and Olmert tried and the Palestinians responded with violence. Mainstream leftists repeat this many times a day, and conclude: we’ll just have to wait until the conditions are ripe, sometime in the future.

In frustration, some of them decide to take action. They say, blaming the Palestinians for all failures can’t be right – when in between rare genuine negotiation attempts, Israel perpetually expands its hold over Palestinian life and land. These people see the narrative of the mainstream Zionist Left as an excuse to do little; this subgroup wishes to break from sluggish defeatism and take action.

Four years ago, that subgroup joined others outraged after Cast Lead and contributed to a new wave of left-wing activity. The Right began frantically de-legitimizing such activists, calling them a bastardized version of the word “left.” Since that time, the Zionist Left became legitimate, the others were mukאsa, unkosher. Traitors who abandoned Israel. Post-Zionists and anti-Zionists.

Here again the label of Zionism is a red herring. It is a shameful lie to make opposition to 47-year military rule an issue of supporters or traitors of Israel.

The distinction I see is between the passive and active Left. Here is what Israelis mean when they talk about Left.

The passive Left uses the term Zionism as a litmus test for who’s acceptable. Although distinct from centrists by self-definition, their votes break down anywhere on the range from Kadima, Lapid, Livni, Labor or Meretz. Its members read Haaretz, cancel their subscription in wartime, and some revive it again later.  To be clear: those parties may also be supported by centrists or the activist Left; other kinds of people read Haaretz, too. I am broadly characterizing the group under question, not the newspaper readers.

The passive Left frequently recalls the glory days of 1992 when Labor and Meretz were in government under Rabin, sighing for the great liberal values that dominated the country and longing for the Left (in their view, the parties above) to regain electoral power. The romanticization of a less-than liberal past carries blunt overtones of Ashkenazi elitism.

Many are ordinary citizens: when there was peace, they were for peace, when there is war, they went (with apologies to Auden).

The activist Left is either post-, non-, anti-, crypto-, indifferent or agnostic Zionist; some may still cherish it as an identity but struggle and question whether the label is worth the grave policies committed in its name.

Some have served extensively in the army and now question it. Some always felt themselves to be outside the mainstream Israeli justifications for the conflict.

What unites them is the shared sense that I, personally, can’t be part of this. Doing nothing is what allowed the number of settlers to nearly double in the last 15 years; entrench Israel’s military rule over 60 percent of the West Bank (Area C), keep Gaza imprisoned, tear the two societies apart and never mind acquiescing to injustices inside the Green Line.

So they take action: they protest in Israel and sometimes in the West Bank, write articles, make films, establish magazines (not only ours), join human rights organizations, create new social initiatives, think about different models for political resolution beyond the classic two-state solution that seems impossible now, cultivate relations with Palestinians and spend time in the West Bank so at least they can’t be accused of not knowing.

When none of that works, those who feel they contribute directly to military control over Palestinians can refuse. Some reject reserve duty, even during war time.

Israeli society – and often, the passive Left – dismisses them as crazed radicals (“just like the radical Right” is a common refrain) while embracing legitimate causes: the Milkie-pudding struggle. The power of citizens is amazing: a few days of internet noise and two large supermarket chains dropped the cost of the crap to one shekel or less. Three years ago, half a million Israelis took to the streets to lower housing costs. They consciously rejected addressing the conflict, Israel re-elected Netanyahu and brought in hollow centrist Yair Lapid as the change guy. Rejection from the mainstream? We’re used to that.

But still, nothing has worked and frustration drives the search for new approaches. If the idea grows among the activist Left that every Israeli must accept responsibility for the occupation, it will lead naturally to thoughts about civil resistance for all (among that group), not just soldiers.

Will it be a tax rebellion? Israelis calling for boycott? If civilians break the law, are they prepared to go to jail? Am I?

I’ll be very honest: I don’t know the answers. There is always the other option: the Israeli activist Left could fade back into the passive Left scenery.

The perennial dilemma of liberal Zionism
The many denials of liberal Zionism
Israeli peace activism: Same slogans for a different reality

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    1. Dave Kreiselman

      This is a lot of nonsense, all this noise about being the “rational center. What a load. The Israeli center-left are cowards who are afraid that if they don’t go along with the Kahanists, their Jewish commitment and Israeli “authenticity” will be brought into question by those they are afraid to confront.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Kolumn8

      I don’t associate the emergence of the extreme left in Israel to Cast Lead. I associate it with a new European policy to fund groups within Israel with a broadly pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli agenda which started in 2009-2010.

      Rather than splitting the left into ‘active’ and ‘passive’, the more appropriate split would be between organic and foreign-funded. The organic left has lived through the suicide bombings and the Palestinian rejection of peace offers, operates within the Israeli context, and it is concerned about security and stability while accepting that peace with the Palestinians is not something that can be had now. The foreign-funded left lives on oxygen provided by European funders and its policies and views are appropriately tailored for the European left which sponsors it.

      The foreign-funded left is very loud, the way that well-funded interest groups often are, but its support in Israel is marginal at best. People that hold similar ideas as the foreign-funded left simply don’t stay in Israel. The only ones that are around are those whose livelihood is underwritten by foreign money. There are just enough of them to make noise in friendly newspapers, and to have a demonstration or conference in Tel Aviv with attendance usually in the dozens or in the hundreds when there is nothing else to do. The rest of their labor is spent producing reports and articles in English to justify the salaries they receive. The entire ecosystem would go poof were donations by foreign governments and organizations hostile to Israel removed from the equation.

      The other silly thing about the article is that it suggests that Zionism is empty of meaning and yet it is sufficiently defined for the majority to delegitimize the foreign-funded left while sufficiently defined for the foreign-funded left to reject it.

      Reply to Comment
      • Mlechha

        Kolumn8: Isn’t ALL of Israeli life underwritten by US taxpayers money? Does that qualify all Israelis as foreign-funded (particularly the more rabid ones), and thus unworthy of your attention? Or would that disqualify your patriotism as well?

        Reply to Comment
        • Kolumn8

          No, only the American built weapons are underwritten by US tax-payer money, mostly for the benefit of the American arms industry.

          What disqualifies these Israelis from my respect is that they knowingly accept foreign money from hostile governments and organizations for the express purpose of demonizing and undermining Israel. They serve a foreign master.

          Reply to Comment
    3. Brian

      Sorry but this is a lot of empty verbiage and solipsism. A passive left (the only true, plain English you use) that thinks Ariel is staying inside permanent Israeli borders is delusional. As Avrum Burg and others know, the various shades in the political spectrum have all been tacitly redefined rightward. The “Center” is Right. The “Right” is fascist. Ariel is not going to be Israeli in any realistic and just settlement. Take some aspirin and Valium, lie down, and say the Serenity Prayer three times. You’ll get used to it. Otherwise prepare for One State and start looking up the definitions of “apartheid” so you’ll know what you need to do to avoid that. It’s a hard rains a gonna fall.

      Reply to Comment
      • Gustav

        Ariel is going to be part of Israel. So will the other major “settlement” blocs.

        Israel will remain a Jewish majority state for as long as humanity will remain in existence.

        Burg is just another idiot with an opinion. I have never known a Jew without an opinion. He is just another Jew amongst us and his opinion, or Gideon Levy’s or Amira Haas’s opinions are not worth more than our opinions.

        Get used to it Brian dear. But you don’t need to if you don’t want to. Either way, the above facts won’t change. But you will be an unhappy little man.

        Reply to Comment
    4. CigarButNoNice

      The Israeli Jewish Left was done in by your Arab friends, Dahlia. Years of Arab verbal and practical message-sending that leaving the post-1967 territories wouldn’t be enough for them have wrought their effect. Although the foreign-funded Leftists of the world (and +972Mag) may not like it, the pre-1967 Israel is a consensus; the “Zionism as European colonialism” narrative finds no acceptance among native Israeli Jews.

      If the ethnic cleansing of the post-1967 territories of all their Jews returnees gives nothing but the promise of moving the conflict to the remaining pre-1967 Israel, most Israeli Jews simply don’t see the point. We’re tired of land-for-nothing deals. Sure, for years there have been a striving to be smart rather than right, but today even the former staunch Leftists are cottoning on to the fact that, in our region, if you’re not right (if you don’t believe you’re the rightful owner of the land) then you’re not smart either.

      What do you call unarmed Israeli Jews? Iraqi Yazidis, Assyrians and Kurds. The Israeli Jewish Left has been decimated because the local Arab colonists have made this fact all too clear.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Tomer

      The Israeli Left includes a bunch of self-delusioanal morons with mental issues. eg The everblinking Gideon Levy, the Cuckkoo called Zahava Galon and the highly confused Shlomo Sand.

      Another distinct group are traitors like Ilan Pappe. These people have built a lucrative career by writing & speaking against Israel.

      Both groups are unpopular and lack support within the Israeli population.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Richard

      The boundary between the passive left and activist left changed as the driving forces behind Palestinian politics and Palestinian tactics changed. When it seemed possible for Palestinians to have a state without also having the motive and opportunity to disrupt daily life for Israelis at a time of their choosing, the passive left held views now found only among the activist left. Once Iran made it clear that Hamas will veto peace until forever, and that Hamas could strike Tel Aviv while the world denied Israel the right to stop them, the boundary shifted. Now that Palestinian sovereignty is, at least for now, incompatible with Israeli sovereignty, under the leadership of Hamas and influence of Iran, the passive left understands they cannot afford to be as generous as they might have been in the past. So only the activist left, the ones who believe that Palestinian sovereignty is worth MORE than Israeli sovereignty, are the only ones making a coherent (but morally repugnant) argument for ending the occupation.

      Reply to Comment