Israeli Labor Lawmaker Calls Leftism 'A Stain,' Angering Fellow Party Members

A right-wing paper had asked him how he, a secular member of a left-leaning party, thought he could be elected Jerusalem mayor

MK Nachman Shai in Knesset, February 2, 2018.
Olivier Fitoussi

MK Nachman Shai (Zionist Union, Labor), who may be running for Jerusalem mayor, has raised the ire of some of his party colleagues by calling the term leftist “a stain.”

In an interview with the right-wing daily Makor Rishon, Shai was asked how a secular member of a left-leaning party thinks he can be elected mayor of a city with so many religious people.

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He answered: “I’m not left or a leftist. When the campaigns start, they’ll attach this stain to me and we’ll remove it.”

Shai’s Zionist Union colleague, MK Ksenia Svetlova, criticized his alleged attempt to curry favor with the right on the backs of Zionist Union voters.

“To call the left a stain is to cooperate with the inciters and the divisive extremists, with the worst of them,” Svetlova said, adding that Shai’s statement would “in the end bring about the opposite of the intended result.”

Referring to a right-wing group, the left-wing Peace Now tweeted in Hebrew: “It turns out that the Im Tirtzu movement has found a perfect spokesman who has adopted their talking points that are built entirely on incitement and the delegitimization of the left.”

Shai said he was surprised at the left wing’s response to the interview. The expression was not a good one, he said, “but I’m not the one who said it. It was the journalist’s question.”

Shai added that the main argument against his candidacy was “that I’m a leftist. I hear this from everyone in Jerusalem politics. They ask me: ‘How can a left-winger be mayor of Jerusalem?’ I tell anyone who asks me that I’m not a leftist. I’m in a center-left party. That’s its place in Israeli politics. It’s not bad to be on the left. It’s absolutely fine.”

Shai has declared an intention to run for mayor, but he is waiting to hear if his party will support him and allot funding for a campaign.

Shai was elected to the Knesset 10 years ago for the now-defunct centrist party Kadima. He signed the controversial bill that declares Israel the nation-state of the Jewish people, but backtracked soon thereafter.

He also enthusiastically supported Zionist Union’s inclination to join Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, though it never did. After Kadima crashed in the January 2013 election, Shai joined the Labor Party and now tackles social issues including improving the lot of seniors.

Shai is not the first Laborite to shun the leftist moniker; former party Chairwoman Shelly Yacimovich did so in the run-up to the 2013 election, telling the right-wing radio station and website Arutz Sheva that “to call Labor left wing is a historical injustice.”

The current Zionist Union chairman, Avi Gabbay, was taken to task by his party for criticizing Israel’s left wing and claiming that the left had forgotten how to be Jewish.

Last year he said in a speech: “In 1997, Bibi said that the left has forgotten what it means to be Jewish. Do you know what the left did in response? They forgot what it means to be Jewish.”

Gabbay apologized the next day to anyone who had been offended, saying he was merely trying to say that the left had let itself be painted into a corner by Netanyahu and that it had equal claims over Jewish identity.