In Praise of Populism

It is not those who seek tax shelters with whom Dr. Uzi Arad takes issue, but those who lack physical shelters in which to take refuge from barrages of rockets and missiles.

Populism has unfairly developed a bad reputation. In its most basic definition, populism means responding to the voice of the masses in an effort to win their hearts cheaply. Its opposite, at least here in Israel, is arrogance and alienation from the needs and aspirations of the public.

So successful has the effort to smear populism been that it has become an excuse for unreceptive leadership. Politicians can always scornfully declare that they are unwilling to be populist, and thereby earn credit for having chosen the more difficult path. But it is not that they have scorned cheap populism in favor of a difficult road whose goal is to answer the needs of the public for whose welfare they are responsible; they simply have no idea what those needs are, or else have no desire to satisfy them.

And when they are so busy fleeing populism - meaning, in this case, doing anything for the public - the natural next step is assigning responsibility for public welfare to the public itself: economic responsibility, social responsibility, and lately, even security responsibility. Upon returning from a visit to Sderot last week, the prime minister brimmed with pride in its residents and their stamina. It is a pity that they could not repay him in kind, even at the verbal level. The seven bad years of Qassam rockets have not yet even entitled them to the status of a "border community." Now, with assistance from the High Court of Justice, it appears that this may finally happen next week.

A typical example of this trend toward making the public responsible for its own welfare was an article by Dr. Uzi Arad of the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya, that appeared this week in Yedioth Ahronoth. For years, this center has served as the proud incubator of Israeli neoconservatism; among other things, it has given us Tommy Lapid as head of the Shinui Party, and the annual Herzliya Conference.

The title sums up the article: "Forever strong? The answer depends on us." But based on the article's contents, the real answer is not "on us" but "on them" - the grunt workers of our national fortitude. "The principal component of Israel's strength is the nation itself: its vitality, its identification with the Jewish state, its stamina in the face of the war of attrition being waged against us and its resourcefulness and creativity," Arad wrote.

Rousing words; the only question is for whom they are meant. The public that Arad entrusts with our national strength is comprised of one million residents of the North, who were abandoned to their fate during the Second Lebanon War; a million poor people; tens of thousands of university students whose lives were disrupted by the lengthy lecturers strike even as they await the next call-up order; reservists who are torn between their anger over the Second Lebanon War and their sense of national responsibility; and residents of Sderot and other communities near Gaza, who are refusing to abandon their homes with admirable determination.

They do not even threaten to abandon their homes, or the state - a fashion that is spreading among the country's rich and famous. It is not just Lev Leviev, who has already left; real-estate developer Alfred Akirov also complained in a television interview about the difficulty of living and working here, between the bureaucracy and the feeling of being persecuted by those who hunt down ties between business and government. He even hinted that his patience is wearing thin, to the point that soon, he may no longer be able to stay here, faced with these terrible difficulties. If he indeed diminishes his presence in our lives, we will view this as a personal blow to our national strength - since after all, this depends on our feeling of sharing a common fate.

There is no doubt that Leviev and Akirov fail to meet the standards that Arad set for "strength," but it is not them he means when he declares that our strength depends "on us." It is not those who seek tax shelters with whom he takes issue, but those who lack physical shelters in which to take refuge from barrages of rockets and missiles. That last sentence was undoubtedly populist, and even demagogic. But that does not make it untrue. The situation arouses nostalgia for leaders who at least knew how to pretend that they were connected to the people. After all, even pretense is a form of recognition of the public's expectations, and an internalization of mechanisms of shame that serve as important checks on behavior.