Thank You Shlomo Sand, We’ll Take It From Here

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Shlomo Sand
Shlomo SandCredit: David Bachar

“The social-democratic left is dead,” says historian Shlomo Sand in an interview published Friday in Haaretz. Sand’s eulogy is in such sharp and surprising contrast to the actual political situation, that when we read his words it’s hard not to imagine a comic funeral scene (Sand specializes in film as history), in which someone delivers a moving eulogy over his friend’s grave, but a moment before the body is lowered into the pit the dead man stands up, starts to dance, and leaves the eulogizer and the audience in shock.

The role of the dead-living person can be played by one of two people – U.S. President Joe Biden and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern – who perform impressive social-democratic dance steps in front of the various eulogizers.

Sand’s words are characterized by major mistakes: Where he describes an ideological wasteland, as though nothing has changed in the left camp since the golden age of the French Communist Party in the 1940s, unprecedented ideological innovation is taking place. And where he describes painful political defeats, without mentioning where and when, in recent years there have been impressive victories.

In ideological terms, the coronavirus crisis, the economic crisis of 2008 and the looming climate catastrophe have led to dramatic changes in the political ideas that are fostering research, party platforms and public policy. Inequality was the most widely discussed issue in the previous decade, after being totally erased for three decades by those who, like Sand, declared the victory of capitalism.

The climate crisis will probably be the main issue of the next decade or two. Ideas such as taxing wealth, debt as an investment, a universal basic income, climate justice and egalitarian family policy are attracting tremendous interest and are at the center of the contemporary public policy discussion.

These ideas, which offer a saner and more decent life for human beings, and are giving renewed relevance to social democracy, have been erased from Sand’s thesis, in favor of a superficial description that begins with the 1930s promises to the international working class and ends with the victory of capitalism, as though nothing happened between these two events and can’t happen after them, since the agent of change has died.

In terms of politics, after years of crisis, social democracy is once again winning. In the United States Biden is leading the most daring and comprehensive social investment policy since President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. According to the polls, about half of young Democratic voters have a favorable opinion of the word “socialism,” and in Germany the Social Democratic Party has just won, after many years during which former Chancellor Angela Merkel took the conservatives leftward in terms of economics.

In the four Scandinavian countries the government is led by a social democratic party, as is true of Spain, Mexico, Portugal and New Zealand. So who exactly is that social-democratic left that died? Apparently the (socialist and anti-Zionist) Matzpen movement, of which Sand was a member in the 1960s.

And finally, the words written by Sand, who presents himself as an authority on the social democratic left, are simply infuriating. Because simply put, Sand is not a social democrat. That is not his field and never was. Just as the history of the Jewish people was never his field of study until he published his book “The Invention of the Jewish People.”

Sand’s ideological-political world, as it is reflected in the interview with him and in his academic work, is rooted in the modern intellectual history of France. But with all due respect to the bitter arguments between Jean Paul Sartre and Michel Foucault in the cafés of Paris in the mid-20th century, and to the rift in the French left surrounding the Soviet regime and the Khomeini revolution, they have no relevance to the social-democratic left in the 21st century, whose death Sand has declared.

The absence of prior expertise in a certain field certainly does not disqualify Sand from studying it. But that requires refraining from decisive and melodramatic assertions. These may be good for selling books, and for interviews in newspapers, but they make no contribution to understanding the reality and how it has changed.

And above all, the interview with Sand attests to a masochistic addiction to despair, which characterizes a considerable number of left-wing intellectuals. Despair is expressed in accusations that the left-wing ministers in Israel’s new government, and in all the previous governments, are fake leftists, that the victories of social democracy worldwide are only a sham, and that an intensification of inequality is predestined.

And my favorite assertion, which Sand repeats: The social-democratic left in Israel – yes, the group that established one of the best health care systems in the world, whose performance has benefited us in the past year – was never left-wing. Such statements are common in a substantial percentage of the so-called “radical” intellectual environments, which eulogize the left on a daily basis, and are mired in despair up to their necks.

In recent years a new red-and-green left is being established all over the world. This is a left that understands that ultranationalist populism has grown where the liberal center-left preferred moral fury about “the end of democracy” to politics that deals with life itself, that inequality is the greatest challenge of our generation, and that the only way to deal with it is a welfare state that redistributes wealth.

This is a left that is responsible for the Biden revolution in America, that is forming new coalitions in Spain, Germany and Denmark, and that has turned the climate crisis into the most talked-about issue in the world. This is a left that does not as yet really have a political presence in Israel – where dealing with education, health and welfare is still sacrificed on the altar of the tribal politics of the Benjamin Netanyahu debate between “only-Bibi” and “anyone-but-Bibi” – but like any global phenomenon, it will arrive here too.

Along with a commitment to an updated social-democratic agenda, which is not afraid to challenge its well-to-do electoral base, this left is in need of answers unique to Israeli problems, headed by the conflict with the Palestinians and the challenge of building a welfare state with a large ultra-Orthodox minority. It also requires strong civil institutions and parties that will know how to translate its ideas into power and policy.

But like every political camp that wants to survive, this left is also in need of a committed and active intellectual class. Reading the interview with Sand and the words of other eulogizers and people in despair, teaches us how it shouldn’t be built. Thank you, we’ll take it from here.

The writer is the executive director of the progressive Zionist Berl Katznelson Center, which published Telem - Journal for the Israeli Left.

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