Opinion

How Israel's Resurgent Right Wing Killed Politics, Silenced the Left, and Pushes Autocracy - or Theocracy

In Israel's Orwellian elections, national 'unity' means no Arabs, self-censorship is rife, 'freedom' is vague and fear is a core political asset

A woman walks by a Likud billboard
Emil Salman

There's no law in Israel preventing public servants disclosing, off the record, which party they're intending to vote for. But the interviewee was determined not to divulge her choice.

"Are people you know scared about talking politics?" I asked her. "Of course," she replied. "Things have gotten too contentious. You’re quickly labeled as a traitor or a radical. So we just keep silent and keep busy with everyday life.”

I was in Rehovot, the "Ohio" of Israel, along with Haaretz reporter Judy Maltz, to understand how people would vote in the upcoming elections. I had already been struck by the uncharacteristic silence of the public square.

>> Traitors, Trump, Annexation and Arabs: Key Reads on Israel's High-stakes Elections

Walking around the central city, you couldn’t really tell elections were happening so soon. No billboards, no big posters hanging from peoples' apartment balconies, no bumper stickers on the cars. Of course, this could be due to the migration of political debate from the streets and physical walls to digitized forms of expression and online advertising.

But asking people who they'd be voting for proved to be a tougher task than I remembered from past campaigns.

The interviewee said that it wasn't only potential intimidation that prevented people from speaking out; half-smiling, she said they simply didn’t want to ruin the atmosphere by discussing politics.

I couldn’t help but feel somewhat disturbed by her comment.

On the way to another city neighborhood, I thought about the many times I myself had refrained from saying who I’d be voting for, about the constant feeling that a Facebook status could one day mean I'd be encircled and shamed on social media or on the street for voicing my political opinions.

Looking back at my behavior during the campaign, I realized my fear of being delegitimized, of being excluded, even expelled, from the political and social discourse had had a chilling effect on me, too.

Furthermore, my feeling - that this year's election was less about politics, but about different factions of Israeli-Jewish society fencing themselves off and delegitimizing anyone else - grew stronger as we spoke to more people on the street.

>> Israeli election's dangerous surprise: Pro-pot Jewish evangelist who wants a holy war | Analysis

I soon realized that the feeling of factionalism and policing difference was more widely shared than I had imagined – and that it was having another, paradoxical, effect on certain voters.

Supporters of Moshe Feiglin's Zehut party at the party's election rally in Tel Aviv. April 2, 2019
Meged Gozani

On a beautiful, sunny agriculture studies campus we met a young woman who declared she was voting for the up-and-coming Zehut ("Identity") party, which is sweeping the votes of a generation of young voters who - according to most media accounts – were attracted by their promise of cannabis legalization. The party’s leader, Moshe Feiglin, a religious right-winger, has said openly that he wants to rebuild the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem "right away." 

But the young woman we met had another explanation for her choice. The most pressing issue in Israel, she said, was the lack of unity within Israeli society and its growing fractiousness. Zehut is a party that has both secular and religious Jews together, she said, and that's what our society needs.

Another acquaintance of mine explained he is debating whether to vote for Zehut or Kahol Lavan (Benny Gantz’s party, the leading contender to replace Netanyahu), but was leaning more towards Zehut, because he saw it as "less divisive." "We have no left or right," Feiglin has said, repeatedly, in interviews.

Others reference the "live and let live" approach that attracted them into the party’s ranks. Though its manifesto was published in a 300-page book authored by Feiglin, the definitions of the  general concepts that many party supporters back so enthusiastically - "freedom” and "unity" - are kept - frustratingly, or quite deliberately - very vague.

Moshe Feiglin, leader of Zehut party, in Jerusalem
Olivier Fitoussi

Is "freedom" liberalism, or libertarianism? Infamously homophobic in a previous political incarnation, does Feiglin's "freedom" now include LGBTQ rights, beyond his party's intangible promise that the state should not "meddle in citizens' lives"? On whose terms is "unity"? Who's included?

Clearly, Feiglin's much vaunted "unity" doesn't extend to the Arab citizens who constitute 20% of Israel's population. But it's not just him: In this election campaign, more than ever, it has become clear that the body politic most Israelis recognize is Jewish-only.  

The "depoliticization" of Israel's election campaign should first and foremost be attributed to the constant, years-long delegitimization of left-wing politics and of opposition to Netanyahu's continued rule, from human rights activists to teachers and journalists.

Add to that the excessive personalization of Israel's political discourse, exemplified by the campaign's main theme: Are you for or against Netanyahu? And by the explosive nature of Israeli social media and its weaponization by right-wing activists, where a single Facebook post can lead to a deluge of threats.

Fear and depoliticization are two sides of the same coins in this round of Israeli elections.

It's more than ironic that a candidate who positively declares Israel's non-Jewish minorities' illegitimacy, whose illusive "unity" is fundamentally exclusive, who seeks "one land, for one nation, with one God," who sets up a regressive, theocratic version of Judaism as a condition for civic belonging, is set to reap the election harvest under that now-emptied slogan of "unity."

Hagar Shezaf is a Haaretz journalist focusing mostly on video reporting and investigative projects. Twitter: @hshezaf