JEWISH WORLD / The Shas version of Obama's 'yes we can'
The ultra-Orthodox party's adaptation of Obama's rallying slogan proves to have an entirely different message.
There can be no clearer illustration of the gap between American and Israeli political culture than the slogan "Yes We Can."
Barack Obama used it to get into the White House, and Shas, the ultra-orthodox Sephardi party, has recently "borrowed" it, translated it into Hebrew ("Ken anachnu yecholim!") and plastered it all over buses, posters, and bumper stickers.
On the surface, this just seems like political opportunism, a shortage of campaign ideas, or just plain Israeli chutzpah. But it masks a very real problem in Israel politics, and Israeli society as a whole.
That problem is the "we".
Obama's "Yes We Can" was a call to all Americans to join his mission. The "we" was a call to everyone. When Obama first used the slogan, in his concession speech following Hillary Clinton's victory at the New Hampshire primary, he spoke of "the destiny of a nation."
"Yes we can heal this nation," he proclaimed. "We are not as divided as our politics suggests... together we will begin the next great chapter in America's story."
For Obama, "Yes We Can" had nothing to do with the Democratic party, per se. It had everything to do with the American people as a whole. It was - and is - a call for unity, for a common vision, a path forward fo an entire nation, working together toward shared goals.
How different is Shas' sad appropriation of the slogan.
When Eli Yishai, the chairman of Shas, unveiled the slogan at a Shas rally in early December, this is what he said: "Yes we can win 18 seats in the next Knesset!"
How tragic, how pathetic. The Israeli nation is nowhere to be seen in Shas' "we". It is a narrow and parochial "we" - the "we" that refers only to Shas and its own specific sectarian goals.
Obama's "we" was open and inclusive, but Shas' "we" is closed and inward-looking. Obama?s "yes we can" was aimed at inspiring a young generation of American pioneers; Shas' "yes we can" is about the same old party-first, country-last politics that has plagued Israel for generations.
This bastardization of Obama's message is symptomatic of a much deeper malaise in Israeli politics.
Coalition negotiations following elections are rarely about who is the best person for the job, or what is the best cabinet constellation for the country?s present challenges.
They are about buying off successful parties with whatever parochial needs they can wrangle for their own constituencies.
And this is why Shas - and to an extent the other religious parties too - are so dangerous to the fabric of Israel's society. Shas is not interested in Israel as a nation; it is interested in paying back the particular constituencies who support it, with absolutely no sense of responsibility to anyone else.
Obama has made it very clear, both during and after his campaign, that even if you did not vote for him, he still considers you part of his "we".
If Shas does get 18 seats, God forbid, and uses those seats to blackmail control of the Interior Ministry or even the Education Ministry, we will see the parochialism of the re-interpreted yes-we-can slogan translated once more into policy and practice.
There will be no place in those policies for anyone who is not part of Shas' "we". There is no place for my Judaism in Shas' "we". There is no place for my worldview. There is no place for non-Orthodox Judaism, whether Israeli or Diaspora-based.
Most Jewish people outside of Israel are not part of Shas' "we". Shas' policies in the past have been daggers in the back of American Jews who have supported Israel and care for its people ? all of its people.
While American Conservative and Reform rabbis rally their communities around support for Israel, Shas insults their converts and ignores their teachings. While American Jewish leaders talk of peoplehood and unity, Shas makes it clear that they are not part of its "we".
But the great challenge for liberal Israelis is to fight Shas without lowering ourselves to its level.
We must resist the temptation to slip into an equally parochial approach to Israeli politics.
The left may not win this coming election, and we may find ourselves frustrated and furious at the policies that will emerge.
But we must not give up our dream of creating, setting forth, and inspiring passion about a vision of Israel and the Jewish people that is about the larger "we".
It can't be about just some of us. It has to be about all of us; even those who don?t see that yet.
We - the Jewish people - depend on the success of that vision.