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In America and Israel, the Ugliness of Politics Can’t Define Us

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Demonstrators gather to protest following Donald Trump's election victory in the Manhattan borough of New York, U.S., November 10, 2016.
Demonstrators gather to protest following Donald Trump's election victory in the Manhattan borough of New York, U.S., November 10, 2016.Credit: Lucas Jackson, Reuters

It’s three A.M., I’m drunk on Krombacher and fright. My son and I just stumbled back through stunned streets from the Brooklyn beer garden we chose to watch the returns and celebrate Clinton’s win. I asked the woman at the register of the all-night Duane Reade how her night was, and she said, “Folks be cryin’.”

It’s three A.M. and I am trying to puzzle out what just happened, how the most hateful political campaign in American history became its most successful. I am trying to dope out how things got this bad, how politics got this ugly and mean. And I’m trying to figure out what I can learn from it all, to make sense of it, order it, and draw from it lessons for the future. 

All of this has everything to do with Israel. Things in Israel, too, have gotten bad, our politics ugly and mean. One thing Trump showed us, is how easy it is to stoke rage, and how effective. He demonstrated that hatred mobilizes. 

These lessons were not unknown in Jerusalem. They were on display when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Trump-like on election day that Palestinian Israelis are being bussed in droves to the polls. And they were on display when the head of the coalition, David Bitan, called to revoke the citizenship of human rights activist and B’Tselem head Hagai El-Ad for criticizing Israel at the UN.  

Trump’s victory also teaches that it is easier to attack people than policies. “Crooked Hillary,” “Lock her up,” “Trump that bitch,” and “Drain the swamp,” are slogans of an ad hominem politics that drowns out any message by discrediting the messenger. The same politics have lately thrived here in Israel, as when the prime minister responded to an expose by journalist Ilana Dayan by dismissing her as a “member of the extreme left.” 

Trump’s election also demonstrates the payoff that comes from stirring up they-stole-our-country-from-us resentment. The same sentiment runs strong in Israel on the left, felt as strongly by Ph.D.s in Ramat Aviv as by laid-off assembly line workers in Detroit. In both places, people who used to think of themselves as the ones whose opinions mattered are dismayed by the rise of all sorts of others: minorities, immigrants, folks who see politics differently than they do. The potent feeling that your voice somehow matters less now than it did in the past is behind anger among voters in Israel just as it is in America. It is the soul of Erel Margalit’s insurgent campaign to replace Isaac Herzog as head of the Labor Party, and the reason why the viral video that launched his candidacy is called “Give Us Back Our Country, Dammit!” 

And Trump shows that, in the hands of careless and thoughtless politicians, politics can degrade to a war of all against all, in which disagreement is disloyalty, debate is duplicity and difference is debauchery. Trump won the White House with what Clinton once disparaged as “the politics of personal destruction” –  attacking politicians instead of the policies they hold – and the same impulse is evident in the failed efforts of many of our politicians to portray Netanyahu as a venal libertine driven by insatiable lust for power. Here, as there, we talk more about how corrupt our politicians are, and less about how correct their policies may or may not be.

The last time I stayed up through the night after an election was eight years ago, when I stood in a crowd of three hundred on a rooftop in Tel Aviv, waiting in the cool night-time air for the results of our city elections to come in. Most of us had hardly slept in two months of our quixotic campaign to elect as mayor Dov Khenin, a communist MK from the Palestinian-Jewish Hadash Party, whose middle name was Boris. 

On paper, Khenin had no chance, running in Israel’s most bourgeois city against a popular centrist mayor at a time when the city was growing, its rich getting richer. On the streets, though, Khenin found support in unexpected places: hardscrabble neighborhoods in the south that had long voted for right-wing and religious parties, the shuk, graffittied young neighborhoods in the center of town, college and university campuses. Campaigning through the city, I had sat in a thousand living rooms, balancing a glass of water on my knee, listening to people’s ideas for the city. 

Everyone had a plan: how to make their kid’s school better, rehab their neighborhood bomb shelter into an art center, help refugees from Eritrea, bring together Jewish and Arab children, and much more. There was grandeur and generosity of spirit in those rooms. And something like respect and decency. What the people that I met wanted for the city was for it to be a better city not just for them, but for everyone. This was politics in a different register; it erased the cynicism about politics I had accumulated through years of avoiding politics.

It was three in the morning when we learned that Khenin had done better than any past candidate challenging an incumbent mayor had ever done; still he lost in a three-way race. Our party had won more seats than any other, and would be the largest in the new city council. Two days had passed since Khenin last slept, but when he hopped onto a folding chair propped near a brick chimney, his voice carried strong into the Tel Aviv night. 

He said, look around you, look hard, and burn this moment into your memory. Look at how many of us there are, on this rooftop and in the city. Look at what we built, from nothing. Look and remember what it was like to talk to people in the street and in their homes and to find that we shared a worldview, that we shared a vision for the future. Remember how beautiful a thing politics can be. Because remembering how beautiful a thing politics can be is a political act. It is what allows us to keep going, when politics turn ugly. It’s what spurs us, when things are at their worst, not to give up.

Politics have turned ugly, in America and Israel both. Folks be crying. But I remember that things can be different, politics can be different. After the election hangover, I’ll wake up, sober and sad, and try to figure out how. 

Noah Efron, on sabbatical in New York, teaches at the Graduate Program for Science, Technology & Society at Bar Ilan University. He hosts the Promised Podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @noahjefron

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