Israel's Labor Leader Is the True Face of the Right

The moment Avi Gabbay declared that his party will effectively boycott 20 percent of Israeli's citizens, he lost the legitimacy to present himself as the Labor Party's leader

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Labor Party leader Avi Gabbay, Tel Aviv, September 14, 2017.
Labor Party leader Avi Gabbay, Tel Aviv, September 14, 2017.Credit: Ilan Assayag

It didn’t take long to discover that behind Labor Party Chairman Avi Gabbay’s warm smile and inclusive language lies a right-winger with latent racist and xenophobic tendencies.

His statement on Saturday, at an event in Be’er Sheva, that he will not sit in the same government with the Arab parties’ Joint List because Labor has nothing in common with them, doesn’t merely disqualify him from becoming prime minister. It also denies his party the right to define itself as a social democratic one (though, in truth, it’s been a long time since anyone other than opportunists and cynics has been able to believe in the authenticity of Labor’s “social democratic” message).

Gabbay, a politician who lacks a clear ideological spine (after all, his belief in effective management – which he brought with him from the wealthy private sector – can hardly be defined as such) can prattle as much as he likes about a more egalitarian society and social justice during his long campaign trips through the outlying areas of Israel. But the moment he declared that his party will effectively boycott 20 percent of the country’s citizens – since most Arab citizens of Israel see the Joint List as their political representative, even if they have some criticisms of it – he lost the legitimacy to present himself as leader of the “labor” party.

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That’s because, from now on, he can utter his empty talking points about the need for social equality and peace with the Palestinians only in the Jewish-majority town of Upper Nazareth, not in Arab-majority Nazareth; only in Carmiel, not Sakhnin; only in Tel Aviv, not Jaffa.

Even worse than the fact Gabbay made this statement is the ignorance and lack of understanding he demonstrated about the enormous importance of political and social organization by an ethnic or national minority in a democratic society. In a democracy, a minority’s political party, social organization or any other framework has a supremely important role in creating channels for civic involvement and increasing such involvement among members of that minority.

Such organizations – parties, social welfare organizations, religious institutions – improve civic skills, and these improved skills are then reflected in other parts of the social and political system. Minority political and religious institutions generate social activism and serve as an important incubator for developing civic skills, civic norms, community interests and proficiency in civic mobilization, which are useful both to the minority and society as a whole.

The Joint List isn’t just a political vehicle for collecting Arab votes to promote particularist, oppositional political interests – which is how Gabbay understands it. Obviously, every political party’s primary interest is in advancing issues that affect its electorate. But the Joint List is, first and foremost, an Israeli political party. The fact that its voters are participating in the state’s social and political life – whether merely through voting on Election Day or through other activities – makes a huge contribution to inculcating the values of civic engagement among the Arab minority.

National minorities have always tended to keep themselves apart and refrain from participating in the political system of the country where they live, because they are suspicious to what extent the state desires to integrate them and address their problems. This is true of the black population in the United States, which always voted at lower rates than whites (prior to Barack Obama), and of Muslims in France.

Gabbay is effectively saying this is a desirable situation. After all, if the minority’s representatives aren’t fit to sit with him in the cabinet and participate in making decisions that affect all Israelis, why would they bother to, or even want to, participate in the civic democratic game?

The Joint List, like any political or social organization by a national minority, is positioned as a unique, multipurpose structure and serves as a source of inspiration for the Arab minority – one that has political, communal, social and other types of significance. For the Arab public, it represents the values of civic participation and group consciousness.

It also constitutes a source of identity that amalgamates joint battles that unite all segments of Arab society. The vast majority of Israel’s Arab community sees it as an expression of their civic participation in the state, but also as a very important expression of their collective identity.

Political and religious institutions create a psychological effect that strengthens the minority’s consciousness of its group identity. This group consciousness is grounded in the understanding that the group in question is discriminated against compared to the majority population by the state’s key institutions. A democracy’s strength is measured by its ability to contain such institutions, from parties through religious institutions to student organizations.

Had Gabbay been familiar with, for instance, the history of Jewish political organization in Poland between the two world wars, he would have realized that, alongside its unceasing concern for the Jews’ interests, it sought with all its might to create channels of cooperation with the system as a whole. Yet the Jewish parties almost always remained outside the system, precisely because Polish politicians from the left and center said what Gabbay is saying now: The national minority has nothing in common with the Polish majority.

In that case, the Labor Party chairman would undoubtedly have said such behavior constitutes anti-Semitism, and he would have been right. In his own case, it constitutes racism, plain and simple.

Prof. Daniel Blatman is a historian at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.