Opinion

A Lesson From Weimar 1932: A Third Election Could Save Israel

Kahol Lavan needs to drop its policy of keeping it 'all very normal,' if it doesn’t want to be remembered the way history remembers Germany's Social Democratic Party

An illustration of a man placing a ballot in a ballot box.
Eran Wolkowski

Earlier this year, the BBC broadcast a television miniseries created and written by Tom Rob Smith, titled “MotherFatherSon.” In it, Richard Gere plays Max Finch, the billionaire owner of a media empire, who wields influence on British politics and can make or break prime ministers. The series centers around the relations between Finch and his ex-wife and their son. It’s a fraught relationship, rife with violence and intrigue, and the price is paid by the son, who buckles under the burden of his father’s expectations and becomes entangled in criminal deeds while serving as editor of the concern’s flagship newspaper.

The critics were not overly impressed with the series. They focused on the superficial development of some of the characters, the confusion surrounding the family’s story and the stereotypical presentation of the connections between big capital, government and the media. But the reviewers missed the series’ main message. Over and above the family saga, “MotherFatherSon” is a horrifying dystopian tale about the rise of a rapacious politician who comes to power with the aid of Finch’s media empire.

Angela Howard – a British politician cast in the mold of Benjamin Netanyahu, Donald Trump and Boris Johnson – wins the election following a populist campaign dripping with hatred and marked by acts of violence against those who are “different”: Muslims, blacks and Jews. Appealing to the emotions of the country’s beleaguered citizens, she promises economic stability, education for their children, sustainable housing and national pride. In return, they will be required to forgo the right, as Howard describes it, of spinning the roulette wheel every five years – that is, of having to vote. Because, after all, elections are just an illusion. Just as the gambler doesn’t get what he wishes for, in an election, too, the people don’t get what they believe they will get.

The most repugnant scene takes place in the seventh episode, the penultimate. Howard whips a crowd of fans into a frenzy, sending them into an ecstasy of shouts of support, as she urges them to get everyone possible to vote. Bring your parents, your friends, your children, your neighbors, your grandfather and your grandmother. Vote! Vote! Vote! she admonishes the crowd, which joins her in a rhythmic chant of “Vote! Vote! Vote!”

Everyone who remembers Benjamin Netanyahu’s hysterical appearance on Election Day, when he screamed at his supporters to drag everyone possible to the polling stations, understands how close Israel was last month to the reality depicted in this dystopian British TV series. But President Reuven Rivlin and apparently also some members of the Kahol Lavan party – who are willing to accept the solution proposed by Rivlin (whereby, if indicted, Netanyahu would be deemed incapcitated and be temporarily replaced as premier by Benny Gantz) in order to prevent a third election at any price – do not understand this. A third election may well have the best prospect of averting the liquidation of Israeli democracy.

The end of the Weimar Republic in Germany, which occurred officially on January 30, 1933, with the appointment of Hitler as chancellor, was preceded by three Reichstag elections within two years: in September 1930, July 1932 and November 1932. The situation in Germany in that era recalls that of Israel today: political instability, inability to form a stable government either of the left or of the center-right, intrigues and infighting among politicians, and a violent and sophisticated fascist force whose intention was to wrest control of the government and bury German democracy.

In Germany’s 1930 election, the left-wing bloc, consisting mainly of the Social Democratic and Communist parties, won 30.7 percent of the votes. That bloc maintained its strength in July 1932 (30.1 percent) and again in November 1932 (29.8 percent). The center bloc, whose mainstay was the Zentrumspartei (the Catholic Center Party), also evidenced stability: 12.1 percent in the 1930 election, 13.4 percent in July 1932 and 12.3 percent in November 1932. The most significant fluctuations in these elections related to the Nazi Party: From 14.9 percent support at the polls in 1930, the party surged to 31.2 percent in July 1932. However, a few months later, in the November 1932 election, the party lost about one-fifth of its strength, winning only 26.5 percent of the vote – and yet it was precisely then that power was handed to it on a silver platter.

Summer-fall 1932 was the peak of the political crisis in the Weimar Republic. Amid the tangle of machinations involving corrupt, power-hungry politicians, the president, aged and ailing World War I hero Paul von Hindenburg, played a central role. Hindenburg, who possessed far greater powers under the Weimar Constitution than the president of Israel does today, was instrumental in bringing about the eradication of the then-tottering democracy in Germany.

In contrast to Rivlin, who is a democrat to his core, Hindenburg loathed the party system and the parliamentary structure of the Weimar Republic, and aspired to put power back in the hands of the traditional Prussian elites. But he also loathed Hitler and the party of rabble that supported him. In November 1932, following yet another indecisive election, Hindenburg found himself in an almost Rivlin-esque situation: How was he to extract a stable government from all the chaos, and avert the collapse and anarchy that would bring to power the savage mob led by the little corporal with the moustache?

Rivlin’s fear of a third election stems not only from the fact that the public is tired and longs for peace and quiet. He is apparently apprehensive that if Netanyahu – who in the September election subordinated the country’s fate to the fate of his judicial entanglement – succeeds, he will have behind him a broad coalition with one common denominator: the ambition to eradicate Israeli democracy.

Among the members of that coalition will be Miki Zohar, who believes in a Jewish race that possesses special qualities; advocates of apartheid and ethnic cleansing such as Bezalel Smotrich, who sees Israel’s Arab citizens as “guests” in the country; and others who do not hesitate to resort to verbal and even physical violence to preserve the purity of Jewish blood, such as the Lehava organization and the Otzma Yehudit party. All these will be joined by well-known enlightened democrats of the likes of Arye Dery and Yaakov Litzman.

It seems that an exhausted nation, disgusted with election campaigns driven by hatred and mudslinging, can be persuaded that it’s not so important to spin the roulette wheel once every four years, or at least that it can be turned into a merely symbolic ritual.

German President Paul von Hindenburg, left, with Adolf Hitler, at a Labor Day celebration in Berlin, on May 1, 1933.
AP

Josef Goebbels described what happened in Germany after November 1932 as a chess game for power. Hitler, though his strength was reduced in the election, refused to discuss a coalition with any party before being granted the authority to form a government. Netanyahu refuses to countenance a unity government unless he heads it, and only if all 55 members of his right-wing bloc will be at his side. And Rivlin, like Hindenburg some 85 years ago, believes it will be possible to block Netanyahu’s thrust to eliminate Israeli democracy by creating a suitable system of checks and balances.

In 1932, Hindenburg hoped to stage-manage the inexperienced chancellor with the aid of his allies from the parties of the traditional right and Germany’s economic titans. Rivlin believes that it will be possible to block a crafty, experienced political fox like Netanyahu in 2019 with the aid of the title of “incapacitated prime minister” and with the help of a political novice who will fill in for him as prime minister in practice. But the lesson of 1933 should light up thousands of red lights.

Netanyahu was contained in the September election, but to be permanently rid of the threat he constitutes, he must be denied any access to power. What’s necessary is to prepare properly for a third election – and Kahol Lavan and the parties to its left would do well to learn something from the lesson of Weimar. Kahol Lavan’s policy of keeping “all very normal” needs to come to an end, if that political body (it’s still difficult to term it a party) doesn’t want to be remembered the way history remembers the role played by the Social Democratic Party in 1932. The SPD was fearful of acknowledging the magnitude of the responsibility that devolved upon it, of taking a courageous stand and breaking the old rules of the game. The party controlled the large trade unions with a high hand, but worried that Germany’s working citizens would not go along if it called for a general strike should Hitler be appointed chancellor. Kahol Lavan, too, is afraid to depart by one iota from the consensual rules of Israeli state decorum and patriotism, for fear that the voters known around here as “soft right” will abandon it.

But above all, the SPD was leery of cooperating with the Communist Party, just as Kahol Lavan is leery of any cooperation with the major force that can avert the danger of the eradication of Israeli democracy: the Joint List of Arab parties. The differences between the communists and the Social Democrats in 1932 Germany were no less acute than those between Kahol Lavan and the Joint List.

The German communists were loyal to the idea of a Soviet-style Germany under the leadership of Moscow, and espoused the idea of class warfare, nationalization of the economy and other principles of rigid Marxism-Leninism. In the Joint List, too, there are some who advocate a fundamental structural transformation of the Israeli state – to that of a state “of all its citizens” instead of a Jewish state. But unlike the Communist Party in Germany, which found it difficult to shatter the hard-line Soviet doctrine, the Joint List is being led by a courageous and inspiring figure in the political arena. Ayman Odeh went far more than halfway to in attempt to arrive at an arrangement with a saliently Zionist political body and he is ready to cooperate with it – even at the price of an acrimonious confrontation with political power-brokers within the Arab public – in order to repulse the danger threatening everyone.

Labor-Gesher and the Democratic Union would also do well to learn something from the lessons of the terrible year of 1932. Between the election of 1930 and that of November 1932, the strength of the small movements affiliated with the liberal center was eroded to the point where they all but disappeared. For there to be a chance of forestalling a Netanyahu victory in yet another election, which he seems to be pushing for, these two small parties should enter into a bloc with Kahol Lavan, or at least unite and run as a single slate.

The anti-Nazi German jurist Sebastian Haffner, who went into exile from his country in 1938, described in his memoirs the final hours of the fall of the Weimar Republic: “There are few things as comic as the calm, superior indifference with which I and those like me watched the beginnings of the Nazi revolution in Germany, as if from a box at the theater. It was, after all, a movement with the declared intention of doing away with us… At about five o’clock the evening papers arrived: ‘Cabinet of National Unity formed – Hitler Reichschancellor.’”

The Germans did not spin the roulette wheel of a free election again for more than 12 years, after the vast destruction they brought upon themselves and upon Europe because of the political haplessness they showed in 1932.

Prof. Daniel Blatman is the head of the Research Institute of Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the chief historian of the Warsaw Ghetto Museum.