Despairing Israelis, Remember That History Is Being Written Every Day

Noa Landau
Noa Landau
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Police and protesters during a protest against Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, last year.
Noa Landau
Noa Landau

The period of the national holidays always brings out the big national arguments too, and raises the intensity of the emotions that accompany them. But it seems that this year these holidays are awakening more despair than ever in the Israeli minority that still clings to the basket of liberal values, including watchwords that today are considered almost offensive, such as equality, rule of law and freedom of expression.

Beyond the danger of despair, which regularly threatens the left in a country that continues to march to the right, over the past two weeks an abundance of unusual events have taken place that demonstrate the trend: The successor of Rabbi Meir Kahane, Itamar Ben-Gvir, and the representative of misogynists and homophobes, Avi Maoz, were sworn in as Knesset members. The task of forming the next government was once again given to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – at the same time that he was being tried in court.

Rabbi Arik Ascherman, who battles the occupation, was beaten with a baton by a settler. Lawmaker Bezalel Smotrich called for the deportation of Arab citizens on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day. The Israel Prize was denied to Oded Goldreich because of his anti-settlement opinions. Joint List lawmaker Ofer Cassif was beaten by a policeman during a protest.

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Finally, as of now, the Independence Day edition of Israel Hayom newspaper stars Elor Azaria as a war hero. It is hard to keep up with the pace of the shock and outrage.

All this is happening as the center-left focuses all its hopes for political change on Naftali Bennett, who hasn’t been moved an inch by all these events – just like they haven’t moved Netanyahu – and who will give the “full-on right” a wall-to-wall coalition.

The picture of the innocent baker Azaria, holding a basket of baked goods and looking at the blue and white horizon with an embarrassed smile, is a reminder that radical national movements that fought against liberal values tended to speak in the name of the “common people,” whose “natural” instincts were not distorted by the human rights revolution. It is forbidden to call these movements by their names, because it is forbidden to draw comparisons, there are no “processes” and no fortress has fallen. That’s why there is a problem, mainly of methodology, in making comparisons to specific events, because attention is immediately diverted to comparisons instead of substance.

But the thing about “processes” is that that’s what they are: fluid and ongoing. Like in the saying attributed to Mark Twain: History doesn’t repeat itself, but often it rhymes. The historical “processes” from which some of those on the Israeli left are afraid of are not necessarily specific, but symbolize the ancient war over values between the particular and the universal. Radical nationalism, in all its many forms, against the values of liberalism.

What the liberals once mistakenly thought would evaporate with “progress” turns out time after time to be a significant reactionary movement that refuses to disappear – beginning with religion that did not vanish with secularism, through nationalism that did not pass with globalization, and through to Donald Trump’s voters who did not disappear with the inauguration of Joe Biden. Here too, the forces of reaction are here to stay.

Even if it doesn’t sound like it, all this is the good news. Unlike comparisons to the past, “processes” are dynamic, their end is flexible and not set in advance, and the thesis and antithesis could become the synthesis in the future. What is needed to survive these swings of the pendulum is mostly determination and patience.

Liberals must recover from their intoxication with the theories of victory at the end of World War II, and the Israeli center-left must recover from its memory of holding power. They must begin to understand that there is no “process” here with an ending known in advance. The story is not yet written; it is being written every day.

And this is the key to overcoming all despair, from the largest and most difficult struggles to the smallest. Historical “processes” are written every day, every hour, hill after hill. When the big picture is too despairing, it is worth focusing on the small gains that everyone can have a hand in achieving.

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