The Election Is a Sideshow to Our Real Struggle

The malaise in democracy and growing tolerance of xenophobia is not unique to Israel or the Jews. It’s a sickness running through the Western world.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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A burnt classroom at Max Rayne Yad be Yad School in Jerusalem. November 30, 2014.
A burnt classroom at Max Rayne Yad be Yad School in Jerusalem. November 30, 2014.Credit: Emil Salman
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

In this dismal year, during which attacks on Jews around the world surged in the wake of the bloodshed in Gaza, the only Jewish school to have its classrooms burned down was not actually in Europe, but Jerusalem.

Russian President Vladimir Putin.Credit: AP

Perhaps some readers are already protesting that the Max Rayne Hand in Hand bilingual school shouldn’t be considered a Jewish establishment, and the arson attack not be defined as anti-Semitic. After all, it was an attack carried out by Jews and the target was the only public school in the capital that serves children of all faiths.

UKIP leader Nigel Farage. An admirer of Vladimir Putin.Credit: Reuters

When the various organizations that collate anti-Semitic incidents around the world publish their annual reports in a few weeks, I will be surprised if any of them include what happened last Saturday night in Jerusalem on their lists. I will be happy to be proved wrong. Maybe one of these research groups will state the obvious, but I’ll be amazed if they do.

In the unanimous chorus of condemnation that followed the attack on the school, I failed to hear – perhaps I missed it – one politician state simply that the perpetrators are no different from those who have been attacking and vandalizing synagogues, and harassing and abusing Jews abroad. How hard is it to recognize that it is the same racial hatred and xenophobia that’s tainting societies around the world?

A 'fateful' election?

Naturally, the burning of the school was eclipsed by this week’s political crisis and the breakup of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s third government. This is going to be a “fateful” election, apparently, one that will determine Israel’s destiny for a generation to come. Well, yes, to a point.

Even before a date was set, the new Knesset election was being framed above all as a referendum on Netanyahu’s suitability to remain in power. That dynamic will continue to intensify, and this so-crucial campaign may well turn out to be about very little else.

But before we start to see Netanyahu’s political survival as an issue of survival for all of us, a bit of necessary proportion. Israel urgently needs a different government and fresh leadership, but it will still be worth fighting for if Bibi wins his fourth term. And even if, somehow, a new prime minister replaces him, it will only be the start of fixing what’s wrong in our society.

Allowing the people to vote for their elected leaders every few years is an integral part of democracy. But a democratic society cannot be defined only by the way it conducts its elections.

Six years ago, the world was spellbound by the prospect of Barack Obama’s election, and it was a significant moment. But whatever your opinion about recent events on U.S. streets, no one can still harbor the illusion that, by electing a black man president, the United States had made a major step toward solving its race issues.

The realization that Netanyahu is not what is wrong with Israel – but merely a symptom, or result – is important not only for Israelis but for Jews around the world, many of whom have a Bibi-fixation. They either see him as the Jewish people’s savior or the supreme reason for Israel’s decline. He is neither.

Netanyahu is no different to the politicians gaining prominence in other Western countries, trying to exploit and exacerbate people’s fears and prejudices in order to get elected – and, once in office, believe that nothing else matters in a democracy. But then, today’s autocratic dictators – Putin, Erdogan and Al-Sissi – have all been democratically elected as well.

The question of what kind of democracy we believe in, and the sort of society we want to live in, is not only focused on Israel’s future. Jews play central roles in the political lives of other important countries.

This year saw a clash between Jewish leaders in Russia and Ukraine over the direction that President Vladimir Putin is trying to take the Former Soviet Union. Putin’s Jewish detractors have accused him of manipulating claims of neo-Nazis and anti-Semites within the ranks of the pro-democracy Maidan movement in Ukraine, in order to justify his attempts to undermine the Kiev government and infiltrate and annex Crimea and other Ukrainian regions.

Surprisingly growing support

Putin’s Jewish supporters have praised him, portraying the new Czar as a bulwark against anti-Semitism and a staunch defender of Russian Jews (which may be true on a personal level, but hardly explains the preponderance of Holocaust deniers and proponents of insidious anti-Jewish conspiracy theories in the Kremlin-funded media).

Last week, it emerged that the Kremlin is now funding xenophobic, antiestablishment parties in Western Europe, including France’s Front National. The far-right party has also been receiving surprisingly growing support among French Jews, though the Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions (CRIF) and other official community bodies wisely continue to boycott all formal relations with the party.

In Britain, meanwhile, Nigel Farage – the leader of anti-immigration party UKIP, and a self-declared admirer of Putin – is gaining wider acceptance among Jews. Additionally, Richard Desmond, owner of the Daily Express group and president of one of British Jewry’s most respected charities, is reportedly preparing to instruct his tawdry newspapers to endorse UKIP in next year’s U.K. election.

Overwhelmingly liberal American Jewry is no better. Somehow, nearly all the prominent politicians and activists this enlightened community has contributed to Israel prefer to promote antidemocratic laws. And, of course, the most influential American Jew in Israeli politics is Netanyahu’s benefactor, Sheldon Adelson, who last month publicly dismissed the necessity of Israel remaining a democracy.

The malaise in democracy and growing tolerance of xenophobia is not unique to Israel or the Jews. It’s a sickness running through the Western world and, sadly, will not be a central issue in either the Israeli or British elections (in March and May, respectively). Though it is lurking beneath the surface. The Israeli election will once again focus on the credibility of tired political hacks and the power play between party blocs.

The battle for the soul of Israel and the Jewish people is not a dichotomous struggle between political groupings on the left and right, but, increasingly, a fundamental issue of commitment to democracy and civil rights. And while, for obvious reasons, it has particular resonance for Jews – and Israel has its unique challenges of reconciling its Jewish identity with its democratic character and finding a way to end the occupation – it is the same struggle that is being played out in every society in the West.

In recent months, the most powerful voice to emerge warning of these dangerous trends in Israeli society has been that of President Reuven Rivlin, the old-school Likudnik. Much of the secular left in Israel, meanwhile, is tainted with the same ills of its ideological comrades in the West – a pathological antipathy toward religious groups within their own societies, coupled with selective race blindness when it comes from the Palestinian side or Muslim communities.

The liberal camp in Israel and its supporters abroad have no blueprint for Israeli society save trying to get rid of Netanyahu. They may succeed, but what will happen the day after Bibi? Do they really think the new government – which will almost certainly include the likes of Avigdor Lieberman – will be geared up to repair the frayed relations in Israeli society?

The lesson we should be learning from a burnt school in Jerusalem is that the current crop of politicians, on both right and left, have no clue and little interest in confronting the intolerance and hatred eating away at our democracy. Until we find a way to address these issues, the election in the Jewish state will be little than a sideshow to our real problems.



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