On Tuesday, after voting, my fiancé (a fresh oleh of less than two weeks), and I took our much-needed time off to walk around the center of town and enjoy watching the various political campaigns in action while discussing Israel’s future. At the time, we had no idea how the elections would go. We predicted (wrongly) that breaking up Bayit HaYehudi into two factions would increase the number of seats for the group by giving both the secular Right and the religious Right a voice. We also thought that Zehut, an up-and-coming party with a ubiquitous campaign modeled (perhaps too closely, to a cringeworthy degree) after Donald Trump’s Make America Great Again campaign that led him to beat a whole slew of establishment Republicans in the primaries and go on to get elected president of the United States, would finally be on the Knesset map. We also predicted (rightly) that Bibi will remain Prime Minister but that Blue and White would make huge gains, taking a lot of votes from disillusioned Labor voters who sought a party that shared their secular values and social liberalism, or who just wanted a fresh new PM, without naively selling ourselves out in a stagnant peace process or compromising our security, as the three IDF generals who were part of the quartet who spearheaded the nascent party insisted.
All the theorizing and chatter couldn’t have prepared us for what was to come:
Israel’s election results spoke volumes. Here’s my take:
1. The Israeli Labour Movement Has Lost Its Relevance
First, the results showed that the original Israeli brand of leftism is outdated and doesn’t reflect the climate of the country after two intifadas and an unsuccessful Gaza pullout that backfired in our faces. It represented an extinct, anachronistic idealism that was important – if not necessary – in infusing the country’s founding with a youthful fervor that enabled us to destroy six Arab armies with a kind of zeal seldom found on the Right or even Center-Left.
This dwindling Labor Zionism represented, to much of the younger generation, nothing more than an oligarchy with a racist legacy that controls academia, the media, the higher ranks of the army where who you know becomes more important than performance and dedication, the Supreme Court, and other institutions that rely on appointments and “old boys’ clubs” rather than merit. As such, Labor Zionism became mostly the realm of senior citizens with hearts full of nostalgia and pipe dreams. Or, the aforementioned oligarchs themselves.
2. The (Still Not Yet Legal) Grass is No Longer Greener on the Other Side
Much of the youth that used to gravitate toward Labor, which won a meager six seats (a historic low), favored Blue and White and Meretz. Meretz, the far Left party, maintained its hold on much of the idealistic youth that want to take Israel’s socialism even further and constantly flood Israeli university campuses with fliers and events that talk about how horrible Israel is to the Palestinians. Fortunately, these “testimonials” directly contradict most of the students’ own army service and lived experience, and the party, while receiving disproportionate support on university campuses due to their sheer presence, prolific campaigning, and nonstop guilt trips, remains fringe even in that milieu. Despite their increased activism and greater effort, they in fact lost a seat this time around.
3. The Blue and White Wave Shows that Much of Israel Wants Change, But Are No Longer Willing to Move Left to Get It
The big winners, despite being behind the Likud by two seats, were the Blue and White Party, who have done a great job at poaching a large chunk of seats from the more left-wing parties, and are a large part of why the Labor Party went from 22 seats in the last election to 6 seats in the current one. They were the biggest hope of unseating Bibi by his detractors, so they used this commonality to rally for this party, which is a great win for the right relatively speaking, in comparison with Labor and Meretz, parties that have clearly become less relevant and are far more left-wing. The combination of right-wing security measures and economic policy, and left-wing social programs and promises to help curb corruption and help solve the housing crisis provide, in my opinion, good checks and balances against an establishment with a storied history of corruption and collusion with the rich at the expense of ordinary Israelis. They are a much more rational, centrist alternative to Labor and Meretz, and, despite being pegged as “Center-Left” are living proof that Israelis are moving to the Right, because they are not as Left as the Likud’s usual opposition.
4. The Haredi Sector is Growing, Which Should Surprise No One
The increase in the Haredi parties comes to no surprise to me. Two years ago, I would have been extremely upset, but due to a multitude of experiences and exposures since, I have since learned that the strengthening of the Haredi sector not only reflects the needs of the fastest growing population in Israel, with an average of a whopping SEVEN children born to each Haredi women, but also ensures that the Jewish character of the state of Israel remains intact. The strengthening of these parties should remain in check by the other parties, however, due to a known history of corruption, especially among Shas. However, given my fiance’s chosen career (he is in rabbinical school), a stronger Haredi sector could only be good for us. One thing secular folks fail to realize is that the Haredim are the ones keeping traditional Judaism alive; without them a lot of our traditions would be lost. Moreover, what people may not realize due to the skewed media coverage is that more and more Haredim are joining the army and interacting with the modern world, and that those who aren’t more often than not just want to keep to themselves and would rather remain undisturbed than force everyone to also be Haredi. Most Haredi women with husbands who learn Torah full-time serve as breadwinners rather than mooching off the government, working jobs ranging from hairstylist to nurse to IT person to business owner and everything in between. Much of the additional income comes from children’s stipends, so a secular family with ten kids would also get the same amount. Yes, these Knesset members cater to that small subset of the population, but those who say the Haredi politicians don’t represent them or speak for them – does Meretz represent a right-wing resident of a community in Judea and Samaria they want to give away to the Arabs any less? Do the Arab parties represent the six million Jews in Israel? Different parties often represent different constituents. That’s democracy.
5. When BY May Have Said Bye to Bennett
The two parties that form HaBayit HaYehudi (BY) – Union of Right Wing Parties (with National Union and Jewish Power parties) and the New Right (which to my utter shock, is still flirting with the threshold at press time and may not cross it), still have 4-8 seats in the Knesset, half as many at worst and the same as last time at best. This surprised us given the rising tide of the right-wing. The Union of Right Wing Parties also almost didn’t make the threshold. Perhaps The Jewish Home should have kept the family together to have avoided such a close call?
6. Not Even An Indictment And A Hostile Press Could Stop King Bibi
The Likud Party, seen as a “safe bet”, or the “the devil we know”, among the more skeptical voters to downright messiah among the more enthusiastic #רקביבי (#onlyBibi) fans, also made huge gains this election, gaining 5 seats from the last election. This victory was in the wake of an indictment, a press that hates him, allegations of corruption of various Likud MKs, and his major opposition being three IDF generals who allegedly know a thing or two about national security. Whether this victory is a testament to Bibi’s enduring popularity or to national complacency remains to be seen, but Bibi’s status as Israel’s longest serving Prime Minister (or borderline Monarch) starting in July despite many hurdles, detractors, and vitriolic opposition, strikes me as nothing short of a miracle – or, as some more cynical pundits say, due to Bibi’s impeccable skill of sabotaging potential opponents before they get a chance to rise up. Believe what you may, love him or hate him, he’s here to stay, and diplomacy will only flourish as a result (perhaps at the expense of ordinary Israelis who just want to be able to afford rent).
7. When Increased Anti-Israel Sentiment Ends Up Being…. Good for Israel?
The Arab Parties, which separated from Joint Arab List to Hadash-Taal (ultra-leftist/communist, supported by the only mildly anti-Israel Arabs and some fringe radical Jews who don’t find Meretz left-wing enough) and Raam-Balad (the union of the right-wing Islamist and Arab Nationalist parties) were also big losers in all this (thank goodness). The anti-normalization “I’m Palestinian not Israeli Arab” movement has hit an apex due to increased communication with other Arabs across the Green Line, in Gaza, and elsewhere, who have been raised on a steady diet of genocidal hatred towards Jews, thanks to the Internet. Unfortunately, this phenomenon means that acknowledging the existence of the Jewish state they are living in is taboo among an increasing number of Israeli Arab youth, fortunately leading to low voter turnout. So, ironically, their protest has been very good for Israel, and the Arab parties lost three seats this election.
8. Zehut Gets the Boot
Finally, the wildcard, Zehut. They ran a ubiquitous, aggressive, but somewhat cringey campaign in its appearance as a blatant Trump knockoff, appealing to populist sentiment and Trump’s popularity in Israel due to his pro-israel policies Israelis found refreshing in the wake of Obama, hoping to cater to the younger generation of religous Jews who enjoy the concept of freedom but also want a strong Jewish state. Unfortunately for Zehut, this platform seemed contradictory to many, since Judaism isn’t exactly a religion where freedom and libertarianism is an important tenet (it is a very specific and structured way of living whereby all Jews are indeed accountable for each other as well as God). He had candidates from the far Right and the far Left, striking some as exactly the “out of the box” party Israel needs to enter the 21st century and “get with the program,” and others as a mess of contradictions. At the end of the day, people are more cookie-cutter than party leader Moshe Feiglin may had hoped, and the party didn’t cross the threshold.
So, What Does This All Mean?
There are two take-home messages: First, a strong Centrist opposition party can help bolster accountability against corruption without pressuring Israel to “sell out”, and second, that the tide is turning towards the Right, and the Left needs to stop whining and start learning what the Right is actually about instead of relying on crazy conspiracy theories and unsubstantiated, outdated emotionally-driven idealism and character assassination.
At the end of the day, with the overwhelming popularity of the Nation State Law and the surge of a new “Identity Zionism” that mirrors the increase in nationalism seen in America, Europe, and elsewhere, and support for Jews living in Judea and Samaria, it is clear that Jews in Israel are looking to strengthen their Jewish identities and learn more about their roots. The Holocaust is far enough away that the desperate need for a safe haven is no longer felt, with millions of Jews living safely in other countries. In order to keep Zionism relevant, it is essential that we help meet this need to reconnect with Judaism, perhaps via collaborative projects between religious and secular Jews, and increasing Torah education and Jewish Studies in Jewish Israeli schools (even the secular ones). We need to give Israelis who take our strength for granted something to fight for again. It is through learning Torah that I became even more resolute in my Zionism, something I never thought possible. As such, handing down our 3800 year-old tradition, that millions of our people chose to die rather than transgress, that was lost over the last 100 years through assimilation and secularism, may possibly be the best gift we could give our children to regain a sense of purpose and build a strong Israel. The tide is turning, it’s time to start riding the wave.