Elections 2006, Up Close and Personal

An especially festive parlor meeting was held last week at a home in Herzliya. Tea, coffee and soft beverages were served, as well as assorted nuts in candy dishes, a chocolate cake, an apple cake and two kinds of cheesecakes. More than 20 men and women sat in a circle on the sofa, armchairs and plastic chairs in a bright, spacious room with a light marble floor. The room was furnished with bookshelves lined with sacred books and silver, and a piano and flat-screen television. It was the archetype of a religious-bourgeois salon.

The guest was Zvia Greenfield, who holds the sixth place on the Meretz Knesset list. The hosts, Aryeh and Yoelit Bieger, are an accountant and the owner of a Judaica business, respectively. The parlor meeting was attended by their friends: residents of Herzliya, mainly religious people like themselves in their forties and fifties, or older.

Cracks soon formed in the cheerful and genteel atmosphere. The host told Greenfield that everyone in the room agreed that the "human being is in the center," which is the Meretz election slogan, but that "not everyone would agree with you that the homosexual, for example, has to be in the center." He also expressed his reservations about the statement made by Greenfield, an ardently ultra-Orthodox woman, that she would work in the Knesset to separate religion and state.

From that moment on, a turbulent and fascinating debate developed. The people in the room spoke angrily and emotionally against the ideas that Greenfield champions. They repeatedly described their greatest fear: "The Jewish people will disintegrate and fall apart; two peoples will come into being here."

One person asked: "What will happen if my son goes to university and meets a girl, and has no way of knowing if she is a kosher Jew, if her parents have married according to religious law?"

This sentiment was taken up by others. "We will have to open up the books of the communities; otherwise we will have no chance of knowing," said one.

They would not leave the issue alone. The host argued that Greenfield's position on the subject was impertinent (at the end of the evening he apologized, saying that his words were uttered in the heat of the argument). He also demanded that she "answer yes or no" as to whether she believes that the Jewish law should be changed. The guests shook their heads at Greenfield in dissociation and admonishment. They shushed her several times.

Not persuaded

It is unclear just what Greenfield and Meretz gain from such parlor meetings, even though she has attended more than 20 like it in the past few weeks. Greenfield summed up the meeting by saying, "I see that there are not many people here who will be voting for Meretz next week." She spoke about her core principles, and explained to her religious counterparts that according to the Jewish faith, the human being is born in the image of God, and that this includes the Palestinian and the homosexual and the Russian whose parents are not kosher Jews - everyone was born in God's image. ("The fact that I have to stand here and explain these things is the oddest thing of all," she said). She explained that she is active on behalf of Meretz out of a deep faith in humanist values, which she drew from her ultra-Orthodox Jewish education, as well as from philosophers like Spinoza, Kant and Hegel. She repeatedly explained that in her opinion the fundamental principle of democracy is that you must not force your beliefs on your fellow man.

She spoke persuasively, brimming with charisma and abundant knowledge about life and the world of Jewish law. But it is doubtful that she persuaded a single person in the room to vote for her. The parlor meeting at the Bieger home looked more like an interesting "political salon," an event at which major issues of concern to middle-class, left-leaning religious Israelis were aired. Not an especially effective instrument for enlisting voters.

This is certainly one of the more impressive phenomena in the current election campaign, which ends tomorrow: The old institution of parlor meetings, meetings of citizens in their private homes with high-ranking representatives of parties, is alive and kicking. Some Knesset members and party representatives who take part in these meetings feel that it is an obsolete institution - they feel they are wasting precious time and energy. Hour after hour, day after day, they go from door to door without any certain achievement to show for it.

But that is precisely what is so charming about the parlor meeting in the mass-media era. Usually, its value lies in its mere existence: It is an opportunity for citizens to talk about what bothers them and to get to know their political representatives up close. At parlor meetings, tough questions are often asked, profound discussions evolve, and concerns are exposed that at times evade the camera and microphone. This is activity that cannot be measured by statistical values, viewer ratings or voter turnout. It is done almost for its own sake.

And sometimes the representatives also manage to persuade someone - at least one or two per parlor meeting. In the living room of artist Michal Ne'eman in Tel Aviv, in the middle of a room filled with books and works of art, one such low-key parlor meeting was held last week with Asma Agbaria, who heads the Arab-Jewish worker's party Da'am (the Democratic Action Organization). There, the little party notched a success.

No more than a dozen artists and writers gathered in the small, intimate salon. Ne'eman served soft drinks and fresh bourekas, and the young Agbaria spoke charmingly and persuasively about her party, which is also a labor union - the party of Arab construction workers and female agricultural workers. She spoke earnestly about the difficult position of Arab women in Israel, only 17 percent of whom work. Those who work usually are paid less than minimum wage, a difficult situation she claims is perpetuated partly by the economic system and Arab social tradition. She promised that her party is committed to getting these women out to work, in the belief that this is the first step on the path to liberating women from the yoke of tradition and poverty.

Those in the room more or less agreed from the outset with Da'am's Marxist values but feared that their votes would be wasted, because the party's chances of passing the minimum vote threshold to enter the Knesset are practically nil. Agbaria managed to convince several of them that in this event, their votes would be a declaration of support for the working class. In the last election, the party received approximately 2,000 votes. If it receives 10,000 this year, it will not be possible to ignore the demands of these workers. A vote for Da'am is preferable to a blank slip.

'I am Zionist'

Shelly Yachimovich also managed to gain a vote or two for the Labor Party at a parlor meeting this weekend. The event was held at a branch of the Mahanot Ha'olim youth movement in Kiryat Shalom, the South Tel Aviv neighborhood.

About 30 young people from the neighborhood, most of whom are active in social movements, came to hear her. They made do with mineral water and sat on plastic chairs. The audience politely listened to her speech and then launched into a series of probing questions. One of the women present, who introduced herself as a teacher and a "real resident of the neighborhood," said that she wants to vote for the Labor Party due to its positions on education matters ("I went to the trouble of comparing Yuli Tamir's program and Reichman's") but is afraid to vote for Labor because of its economic positions. "I want you to convince me that all the protection of the weak and the welfare state ideas will not hurt the worn-down middle class to which I belong," she said. And another young woman expressed doubt regarding the ability of Amir Peretz to lead and to implement his ideas.

Yachimovich spoke adroitly, dispelled some pre-conceived notions, furnished data and recited a few catchy lines, such as, "For your information, I am Zionist - and actually, Netanyahu's neo-liberal policy, his attitude toward the state as if it were a business, is post-Zionist." Or, "I say to you - there will be no revolution. The social-democratic worldview is a central view of the world, of the consensus, in the majority of Western European countries."

Yachimovich says that she has taken part in 40 parlor meetings or more in this campaign, mainly in private homes. "Every so often, people called me after a meeting like this and told me things like, 'You convinced my sister, who had intended to vote for Kadima.' They speak with emotion, as if I were a social worker who managed to save the family children from going to seed."

She says that the meetings usually take place in the homes of Labor activists or their friends from the building or neighborhood who are inclined to vote for Kadima. At best, one or two are persuaded.

Most of the parlor meetings held by the National Union-National Religious Party bloc take place only with activists. MK Zvi Hendel relates that he himself has been to dozens of meetings. "These are effective meetings only if they encourage the activists and give them the tools to persuade other people," he said. Hendel does not believe in the power of parlor meetings for their own sake.

Nor do the powers that be in Kadima and Likud put great store in the parlor meetings as a mechanism for gaining votes. Neither party trumpets any major accomplishments in this area.

Labor has invested prodigious human resources in these encounters. Colette Avital was placed in charge of parlor meetings and high-ranking MKs, not only Yachimovich, were sent to dozens of homes. "In an era of a profusion of channels, the power of public assemblies and of television commercials is blunted," says MK Isaac Herzog, "and the power of the Internet has strengthened. Somehow, the parlor meeting maintains its traditional strength."

Herzog thinks that precisely because of the profusion of channels and stages, personal meetings with the citizens, without intermediaries, still retain a certain power.

Usually, the talk at parlor meetings is not about political matters, the occupation, terrorist attacks or disengagement - subjects that are in the center of television news coverage. Most discussions are about society and economy, another good reason to continue to hold these meetings. And like other Knesset members who have trudged from salon to salon in recent weeks, Herzog believes in the principle of infectiousness - if he manages to persuade one woman at a parlor meeting, maybe she will go home and bring her husband and children and neighbors to the ballot booth. Hardly a trivial matter.