Before we all sink into despair (5 thoughts on hope after the Israeli elections)

By Moriel Rothman-Zecher

Originally posted on The Leftern Wall on March 18th, 2015.

Let’s recall a few things:

1. The Joint List, a justice-seeking and equality-oriented list, led by Palestinian citizens of the Israel, in general, and by the dignified and brilliant Ayman Odeh, in particular, is projected to have won 14 seats. That is just one seat shy of the 15 seats that they had set as an ideal outcome of their campaign. This is significant, and worth celebrating. Ayman Odeh will not be Prime Minister this time around – but we knew that (and there is a small chance that he may end up as head of the opposition (?)). That is not the point, though. The point is that we already witnessed a successful unified, nonviolent mobilization of Palestinian citizens of Israel, with support from thousands (and maybe even tens of thousands) of Jewish Israelis, calling for equality, an end to the occupation, peace and actual democracy.

From Left: Yousef Jabareen, Dov Khenin, Jamal Zahalka, Ayman Odeh, Ahmad Tibi, Aida Touma-Suleiman.

From Left: Yousef Jabareen, Dov Khenin, Jamal Zahalka, Ayman Odeh, Ahmad Tibi, Aida Touma-Suleiman.

The only other party to have done as well, relatively, was the Likud.

2. Yes, the Likud won, and in a big way. It is projected to have taken 30 seats. But it was not a win filled with dignity or confidence. Whether it affected the vote or not, it is impossible to say, but Netanyahu’s tirade about “The Arabs are coming out in droves” will certainly be remembered by international (and, hopefully, national) observers of politics here. If he forms another government, which it seems likely that he will indeed do, it will be a government whose subtitled could be:

"The Likud: We Oppose Arabs.”

This is (obviously) not a good thing in and of itself. But it is also not new. Recall that this is the same Prime Minister who led a ferocious onslaught on Gaza this past summer that seems to have accomplished nothing, save for massive loss of life and staggering destruction. Recall that this is the same Prime Minister who sought to pass a Jewish State law that would codify in law the principle that Israel’s “democratic” character is subservient to its “Jewish” nature. (Scare quotes on both: Israel is neither democratic, nor truly Jewish). Recall that this is the same Prime Minister who has clarified, again and again, that he has no intention of allowing either Palestinians independence or equality (in other contexts, such a scenario has been summarized by an Afrikaans word that begins with “A” and ends with, well, “partheid.”)

Screen grab from YouTube. Face the Nation Indeed.

Screen grab from YouTube. Face the Nation Indeed.

Bibi’s win is a grim thing. But the reality here is grim. Now the terms of the debate have been sharpened: The two most successful parties, the Joint List and the Likud, ran on tickets of “We Support Equality” and “We Oppose Arabs,” respectively.

3. Some of the other fascistic parties did poorly. (I do not use the word fascistic lightly or hyperbolically). I don’t think that there is a major difference between Netanyahu (who invited Amir Benayoun to sing Israel’s National[ist] Anthem after his bizarre victory speech last night; Amir Benayoun is well-known for his recent hate songs such as “Ahmad Loves Israel“) and Avigdor Leiberman and Naftali Bennett and Eli Yishai. And I am disappointed that Avigdor Leiberman crossed the electoral threshold (the irony of the Joint List’s success and Leiberman himself not crossing the threshold he’d put in place to Keep The Arabs Out would have been story-bookish. Ah well).

With that, I do take some small comfort in the fact that the Far Rightist Camp did not grow, on a whole, from the 2013 elections: In 2013, the combined Likud-Yisrael Beiteynu took 31 seats; this time, a combination of the two parties, now split, grew to a projected 36 (30 and 6, respectively). But at the same time, Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home fell from 12 to 8, and Eli Yishai, who then led Shas with 11 seats, this time created a Kahanist breakoff party, Yahad, that failed to cross the electoral threshold. (Moderate Shas, led by Aryeh Deri, came in at 7 seats). Eli Yishai’s Yahad got only around 3.5 (which turned into 0, as he’d needed 4 to make it in, thanks to Leiberman). So we can approximate that around 4 of Shas’ 2013 seats were Eli Yishai seats.

In other words, according to my calculation, the Far Right took a net loss of two or three seats, falling from 47 in 2013 (approximating that 4 of the Shas seats then were Far Rightist seats, and the other 7 were not. If someone who knows more about Shas and Eli Yishai than I do thinks this is not a good approximation, let me know) to 44 in 2015 (Likud, Yisrael Beitenu and Jewish Home).

That is not a fact that inspires great hope, but nor should the results here lead us into great despair.

4. There are still a number of unknowns. We don’t know what is going to happen, yet, as a result of these elections. There are still some wildcards, like Moshe Kahlon, whose Facebook page last night was littered with “Just not Bibi” comments from his supporters, for whatever that is worth.

And it’s also worth paying attention to the fact that members of the Joint List (Ayman Odeh, Dov Khenin) have said that they would take discussions with Isaac Herzog seriously, which may be a way of signaling that if Herzog decides to actually differentiate himself from Bibi in terms of policies, and not just in terms of Not Being Bibi, which was the essence of the Zionist Union’s campaign, they would find ways to block Bibi from forming a coalition right away, without necessarily committing to sitting in a government. (Vox’s Zach Beauchamp breaks down one way this could happen here).

Ayman Odeh: We don’t promise you anything, except for the struggle.

Ayman Odeh: We don’t promise you anything, except for the struggle.

Not that I think we should get too caught up on either of these points. I assume, like most people, that Bibi will probably form the next government. But it is important to remember that there are still some unknowns. But much more importantly:

5. Despair is selfish; false. I’ve heard attributed to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel the teaching that “despair is the most selfish state a person can be in.” When you despair, you think primarily in terms of yourself (This is so hard for me; I’ve analyzed the situation and I don’t see any reason to hope). In doing this, Heschel teaches, we render ourselves unable to do what he calls God’s work, but what could also be framed in secular/humanistic language: Working with and for others. I’d also add to Heschel’s teaching one from Martin Buber: “At every moment, we are able to do something that will change the face of the next hour.” So not only is despair selfish and paralyzing: it’s false.

To make this more concrete: I doubt that the Sub Leban family, a Palestinian family who has been threatened with eviction from their home in the Muslim Quarter in the Old City over the last few days, placed their hopes in these elections. I also doubt that they Bibi’s victory has led them to despair. They don’t have the luxury of despair. They are facing eviction from their home; they have no choice but to do all that they can to change the face of the next hour. [For updates on that case, follow the Free Jerusalem page on Facebook].

So the question, then, becomes this, to those of us who do have a choice, and are burdened/blessed with the privilege of choosing to despair: Do we allow the terrible parts of these elections (and of this place in general) to deflate us, demotivate us, tear us down? Or do we take a moment to appreciate the victories won, especially by the Joint List, and then channel our frustration and anger with the terrible parts of the elections (and of this place in general) to increase our commitment to justice-oriented struggle? Yesterday, Ayman Odeh called on all of us “to believe that it can be better here and that we, Arabs and Jews, can build a better future for our children.”

His call should be heeded today all the more so, now that the polls have closed.