Opinion

Israeli Leftists Should Drop the Cynicism and Learn From Americans

To paraphrase Michael Moore's four-step plan to resist the 'Trump Era': Stop thinking that there's nothing to be done.

Hundreds of thousands march down Pennsylvania Avenue during the Women's March in Washington D.C., January 21, 2017.
BRYAN WOOLSTON/REUTERS

Three weeks ago I woke up with a revelation – a gut feeling I had never felt before. By then I had been following the Women's March on Washington's Facebook page for a few weeks, seeing it evolve into something that seemed impossible to ignore. "This march may be one of the biggest, most significant events in your lifetime," I thought. 

Within 24 hours I found myself with a plane ticket, an Amtrak reservation and accommodations in New York and D.C. When I told people in Israel I was going to the Women's March on Washington, they had no idea what I was talking about. I thought perhaps it is better that I keep the purpose of my trip to myself. Little did I know, the march would reverberate far and wide. 
 
In the wake of the march, Haaretz columnist Nissan Shor accused American leftists of starting to resemble their Israeli counterparts. “Our camp has been joined by a huge mass of men and women, depressed and despairing,” he wrote. “Is this what the world needs? Millions more leftists who feel that their country has been stolen from them? Couch leftists? Leftists who believe that justice is always on their side and that the other side is evil personified? Oh, no. Anything but that. If Trump’s rise to power heralds the growth of a new American left, we’re in big trouble. Because we’re experienced. We know how it ends.”

He’s right that we’re at the beginning of a new era. Our feelings in the wake of events – and especially in light of the speed and determination with which the Trump administration is implementing the president’s campaign promises – are confronting us with an inconceivable situation. Just days after the inauguration, Trump has managed to sign many executive orders that are affecting, and will continue to affect, masses of men and women all over the world.

But still, Shor’s article expresses mistaken conclusions, which to a great extent reflect the difference between the Israeli left and the American left. His first conclusion, “There’s nothing to be done,” is the saddest. It expresses the depression and pessimism that characterizes the Israeli public, and the left in particular. 

One week in the United States during these historic days was enough for me to understand that there are quite a few things that can be done. As proved, for example, by documentary filmmaker Michael Moore, who in recent months has been leading (together with great women and men) an admirable activist effort.

To paraphrase Moore’s four-step plan to resist the "Trump Era", one could say first, “Stop thinking that there’s nothing to be done.” There’s no clearer way to say it. And that leads to the rest of the principles: Turn political involvement into a daily routine. Yes, just like that. Moore says, “Get up in the morning, brush your teeth, drink coffee and call your senator.” How simple, how true. In Israel we’ll convert that to a phone call to our Knesset members. 

You can also take the principles one step further: Register for one of the parties that have primaries (Likud or Labor), regardless of the party you usually vote for in elections – indeed, it’s even preferable to choose one as far removed as possible – and begin to pressure your Knesset members. You’d be surprised how much they need your support, and the extent to which such criticism can exert influence.

Moore’s next principle involves humor: “Form an army of comedy.” If you wondered about Alec Baldwin’s claim to moral authority, well, he’s one of those who is more successful than anyone else at making Trump lose his cool – and when you’re talking about an overgrown child who gets upset when he sees a successful parody of himself, it’s impossible not to consider that a mitzvah. In Israel there are also quite a few people like that, such as Assaf Harel, a comedian with a satirical nightly talk show, who has managed to deliver sharper criticism on his program than most MKs and politicians.

Let’s move on: Support media outlets, websites or blogs that you believe in – preferably as varied as possible. The past weeks have proven that it’s impossible to rely on the media to work for us, as long as it’s financially dependent on business moguls. When you get something free of charge, you’re the product. So it’s preferable to pay and to support institutions that openly declare their viewpoint. Invest in something you believe in – whether it’s a feminist, ethnic, environmental or social initiative. You won’t believe how easy it is, like promoting an initiative at work or in the neighborhood.

Shor’s next conclusion was that what remains of large demonstrations is only the symbolism. True. But one of the best lessons the women’s anti-Trump marches learned from their predecessors is that organizers should draw up their document of principles before the demonstration. Surprisingly, the Principals of Unity include progressive views on a series of issues: from reproductive freedom to women, to immigrant rights, environmental justice and workers’ rights. Drawing up the principles before the marches helped in two respects. Everyone who participated in the march knew what she/he was marching for, and even more important – it helps to prevent opportunistic exploitation by groups that don’t serve the same goals, as well as internal differences of opinion that are liable to cause the protest to die out. 

The organizers were also well aware of one of the lessons of the Occupy Wall Street movement: It works only if everyone feels that she or he can be a part of it. The social protest in Israel failed because it served those who consider themselves middle class. The only way in which we will succeed in bringing about a change is if the protest addresses e-v-e-r-y-o-n-e (minus violent and racist people). What the protests by women, blacks, environmental groups, LGBT people and immigrants have in common is one thing: These are protests about power and the way it is distributed in society. When we fight for power, we have an obligation to fight for anyone who is powerless. That’s the only way to engender change.

Shor claims that “They’re all right-wingers.” To begin with – and this may be one of the things providing a strong tailwind for the American protest – Trump lost the popular vote: Hillary Clinton received about 3 million more votes than he did. Trump won thanks to the electoral structure in the United States, a controversial subject in itself, but undoubtedly that is of some consolation to people who feel they woke up in the morning and found out they were living among strangers. 

In Israel there’s something else that is important to remember: According to Molad – The Center for the Renewal of Israeli Democracy, of the 6 million people eligible to vote in this country, only 72.3 percent (slightly over 4 million people) actually vote, and 35 percent (about 2 million) vote for right-wing parties. Only 16.7 percent (fewer than 1 million) voted for Likud under Benjamin Netanyahu. So no, they’re not all right-wingers, and they didn’t all vote for Netanyahu. It’s true that the Israeli electoral system differs from that of the United States, but there’s still room for consolation, for hope and above all – for influence.

The bottom line in Shor’s article is that the American left is doomed to repeat the mistakes of the Israeli left. He writes: “But what’s to be done? Are we going to tell Americans how to behave and what to do? After all, we ourselves failed, and their failure is reflected back to us as a joint failure. We’re all stuck on the same luxury liner, on a glamorous cruise to nowhere. And in no time the cold, cruel iceberg will loom.” On the contrary. We’re the ones who should learn from them. We have to move our butts and start fighting on a daily and hourly basis for our values. Precisely on days like these, under these circumstances – forget your cynicism. There’s a different politics. Get on board. March on.