It’s Jews against Israelis, and the Israelis are losing
A week and a half before the vote, one competition, for the buzzword of the 2013 election campaign, has been won. It is without doubt yehudi - Jewish. Jewish home, Jewish ideals, Jewish people, Jewish state.
The most poignant message in the campaign ads that started airing on Tuesday was hidden in a spot produced by United Arab List-Ta'al. It featured Bedouin MK Talab al-Sana in an unrecognized village in the Negev.
Naturally he spoke in Arabic, which made him unintelligible to most Israeli voters, and to make things worse, there were no Hebrew subtitles. This may have been for budgetary reasons; after all, the party isn't making an effort to attract voters outside its natural constituency.
But I suspect there was something intentional about it. United Arab List-Ta'al is saying to its voters, and perhaps also defiantly to those who would never dream of voting for it - we are here for you, our Arab brothers, and we really couldn't care less what the Jews think about us. We're not like the other Arab parties that are willing to make concessions and talk about coexistence, we're just for the Arabs.
Maybe it's only me, but I find this extremely frustrating. Maybe other political junkies are happy to use the short break in the televised propaganda to grab a drink, but I pull my chair up to the screen, strain my ears and my limited Arab vocabulary in a forlorn attempt to understand what they're saying. And when the ad is over without one word of Hebrew, I feel a bit insulted. Why don't they want to talk to me? I'm also a voter.
But then comes a Likud spot and I realize that despite the fluency of nearly all Israeli Arabs in Hebrew, they feel just about estranged as I do from the broadcasts by parties representing the majority of Jewish voters. A week and a half before the vote, one competition, for the buzzword of the 2013 election campaign, has been won. It is without doubt yehudi - Jewish. Jewish home, Jewish ideals, Jewish people, Jewish state - that's the word being used constantly by Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu in its campaign broadcasts, in its last-minute attempt to claw back voters from Naftali Bennett's Habayit Hayehudi.
Benjamin Netanyahu is shown talking about Jewish history and destiny at the United Nations; he's then seen wearing a kippa, pressing his face against the Western Wall and piously peppering his stump speech with b'ezrat hashem (God willing ). Meanwhile, Shas aired its scandalous chuppah sketch, accusing tall blonde Russians of trying to sully the purity of the Jewish nation.
Using and abusing
Last week I tried to explain here why I feel uneasy about Bennett's ascendancy. A friend who spent long years in both ultra-Orthodox and national-religious yeshivas and today works in an interfaith NGO offered me the reason for his misgivings. "I don't like the way he has made the name Habayit Hayehudi such a central part of the political discourse," my friend says. "Just imagine how Americans or Britons would react to a party called The Christian Home, but now everyone here is using and abusing the word yehudi in a way that both excludes anyone who's not Jewish and totally distorts any meaning of Jewishness."
All this is very true, though to be fair to Bennett, he didn't invent the party's new name. In fact, when they renamed the National Religious Party in 2008, many felt it was a lame brand that didn't say very much, and the last election results, the worst ever for the NRP, seemed to prove that.
But now, four years later, Jewish is all the rage. The three main parties expected to form the next coalition and which in recent polls will control at least half the Knesset's seats - Likud, Habayit Hayehudi and Shas - are trying to convince us they'll keep our home safe and Jewish. They may be winning for now, but this isn't the victory of a concept or an idea, it's simply a matter of mathematics. Add up the number of seats each party is expected to win and you get a majority.
But as these parties are adopting the name of Jewishness, they're doing so in vain, without presenting a vision of what it means to be Jewish in 21st-century Israel. For Likud it means to support a strong leader who believes his destiny is to ensure the survival of the Jewish people. If you want to know the secret of Netanyahu's success, it's that deep burning belief that has infected so many Israelis.
Shas' Judaism is one of hidebound tradition and xenophobic suspicion of any foreign element. Habayit Hayehudi in its Bennett version presents us with a watery mixture of folklore, chauvinism, nostalgia and militarism. It's an identity of one size fits all, as long as you're Jewish. None of these are very Jewish and are certainly not Israeli in its original sense of an ancient nation building a modern Jewish and democratic state.
Oh yeah, the two-state solution
Where have the Israelis disappeared to in this election? They've scattered in every direction. Each party opposed to the Likud-Shas-Bennett bloc clings to just one element of the Israeli ideal. Labor wants social justice, Meretz struggles for civil rights, Tzipi Livni's Hatnuah offers a vague message of hope and peace through the resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict, and Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid is championing the cause of Israel's ill-defined middle class, the illusion of "normal" Israelis in a splintered and polarized society.
None of them are even trying to offer an alternative to what it means to be an Israeli Jew or a Jewish Israeli. Maybe that's why they're all doing so badly. Back in the day, Lapid was still a talk-show host, ending his interviews with the identical question - "what is Israeli in your eyes?" Usually the guest's response was some silly cliche, and now Lapid is trying to answer that question himself in the Knesset. He isn't doing a very good job of it. Neither Lapid nor any of his rivals in the center-left bloc seem capable of defining an Israeli or a Jewish identity.
Last month we had two more surveys that yet again showed what we have known for years. Two-thirds of Israelis are in favor of a two-state solution and are willing to contemplate even sharing Jerusalem as a capital with the Palestinians. So why are they voting otherwise? Israelis may be willing to split the land into a Palestinian state and a Jewish state, but they want to be sure first that there is a Jewish state to begin with.
Netanyahu and his colleagues are at least offering a semblance of a Jewish identity. Theirs may be a false Jewishness, but they have no shame in marketing kosher snake oil to the masses. As long as their opponents are incapable of presenting a competing vision of an Israel that can be inclusive of its non-Jewish citizens while not being ashamed to call itself a Jewish state, the Israelis will continue to lose to the Jews.