Opinion

The Israeli Left Is Talking About Palestinians Only in English

Democratic Union's Shaffir is excellent on environmental affairs and corruption, but I’ve yet to hear from her any concrete plans to address Israel’s most existential issue

Stav Shaffir at a conference of her former party, Labor, June 2019.
Avishag Shaar-Yashuv

Many of the burning issues that are facing Israel barely got a look-in during the election campaign that’s mercifully drawing to a close: the ballooning deficit, the rising housing prices, the climbing cost of living, the burning need to integrate the ultra-Orthodox and Arab communities into the job market, to name just a few. And then of course, the lack of any prospect for a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and an end to the occupation got nary a mention, but you knew that already because you’ve been paying attention and that has become a cliché. (For the latest election polls – click here)

Another crisis that hasn’t gotten any attention is the growing rift between Diaspora Jews and Israel. That’s not surprising. Like it or not, the overwhelming majority of Israelis don’t care what non-Israeli Jews think about us. And while most of the time I think that’s a shame, I’m fine with that not being a major issue in an election. Israelis are going to vote about Israel’s future. Non-Israelis are welcome to their opinion on the desired outcome, but they don’t get a vote. Which is as it should be.

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I noticed only two oblique, indirect references to the Diaspora during the campaigning, and excuse me if I missed any others. One, in a video by United Torah Judaism, was downright insulting. It featured two sweet ultra-Orthodox boys playing various games, only to be disturbed every few seconds by a porcine secular man. In one sequence, the boys are coloring in pictures of the Western Wall, the Kotel, when the mean man prances in wearing a small multihued tallit scarf and an electric-blue kippa and, in an affected American accent, snatches their drawings and admonishes them: “The Kotel is not yours, you know [these two words in English]. Everyone and his Kotel.”

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The reference is clear, but if it needs to be spelled out: United Torah Judaism won’t let those gay American Reform fake Jews deprive the sweet children of Israel of an inch of their precious wall. This sort of homophobic and anti-Semitic demonizing of progressive Jews is of course par for the course for the ultra-Orthodox parties.

To be fair, in the fine print of the manifestos of four parties – Kahol Lavan, Labor-Gesher, Democratic Union and Yisrael Beiteinu – you can find a couple of lines about their support for the now abandoned prayer-area agreement at the Kotel. Kahol Lavan even added a few words about strengthening ties with the Diaspora. But who reads the parties' platforms?

None of the center-left parties’ candidates spent their valuable screen time on this, much less responded to United Torah Judaism’s disgusting video. But as I said, no surprises there. Defending the Diaspora simply isn’t an issue with Israeli voters.

Fellow democrats

But there was another Diaspora-related campaign message that was surprising. It was an anti-BDS and anti-Netanyahu video in English by Democratic Union’s Stav Shaffir, and though it didn’t relate directly to the election, it had her party’s logo on it. It wasn’t addressed to Diaspora Jews specifically but to “My Fellow Democrats.” It seemed to be addressing mainly the concerns of a specific constituency of young American Jews who feel that the occupation is the biggest stain on their collective Jewish conscience.

The message wasn’t that groundbreaking, either: “BDS doesn’t want peace. It wants an end to Israel. The boycott movement divides us and makes a two-state solution harder to achieve. Netanyahu gave a gift to BDS” by blocking the visit by two U.S. congresswomen, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib.

As Shaffir put it, “not all Democrats are the same, not all Israelis are Netanyahu,” the populist right around the world is bad and Democrats must join against them and “work together” “to create a brighter future for all of us,” “here for Israelis and Palestinians and around the world.” You get the picture (or you can watch the video for yourself).

Did Shaffir convince anyone? In recent years, nearly every time I’ve found myself talking with young, liberal and progressive-minded Diaspora Jews, at some point they ask “do you think there’s a chance that Stav [they feel on first-name terms with her] could one day become Israel’s prime minister?” So I hope for her, and them, that she didn’t let them down.

Then of course the video’s real target audience could have actually been Israelis, and its true aim to show them that Shaffir can speak English and has an interest in Israel’s foreign policy. Shaffir’s true intentions with the 83-second video are less interesting. Politicians make lots of videos on the campaign trail.

Virtue signaling

Anyway, it’s pretty standard fare, and what’s not to like about it? That is, unless you support the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, or like me, you know that BDS is a phantom menace, a harmless nuisance manufactured by a few Western keyboard warriors and a handful of crusties standing occasionally on weekends outside an Israeli soap shop in Brighton – and unless you’ve been following Shaffir and her party colleagues in their Hebrew-language campaign these past couple of months.

If you have, you will have noticed that the two-state solution barely featured in their appearances. Shaffir is excellent on environmental affairs and fighting corruption, but I’ve yet to hear from her any concrete steps on how she plans to address Israel’s most existential issue. Saying in English that you support the two-state solution may be a handy virtue signal to liberal Diaspora Jews, but as someone who will actually be voting for Shaffir’s party Tuesday, I’d like to have a better idea at least of how she and her colleagues are planning to convince Israelis that a Palestinian state is in their interest.

If the election result spells the eventual end of the Netanyahu era, it will not have been because the Israeli left wing won the historical argument over Israel’s future. It will be because Benjamin Netanyahu’s corruption and increasingly autocratic ways, and his alliance with the ultra-Orthodox parties, simply became too much for the majority of Israelis, including many right-wingers.

But even if by the end of 2019 there are new occupants in the residence on Balfour Street, Netanyahu will still have won. Because the new prime minister, Benny Gantz, and his artificial party Kahol Lavan will have won the election by being all but indistinguishable from Likud – just without Netanyahu, the corruption and the overt racism.

Netanyahu will have won because not even Stav Shaffir and her colleagues waste time on trying to sell the two-state solution to Israelis, and not because they’ve stopped believing in it. After all, it remains the only viable, if difficult and imperfect, path toward a better future.

But they’ve stopped talking about it because their old narrative of warning Israelis that if the occupation doesn’t end they will be poor and isolated and, yes, boycotted, has proved to be a bunch of empty threats. The world, with the exception of some young liberal Jews in America, has stopped caring about the occupation and the Palestinians.

So I’ll vote for Shaffir on Tuesday, mainly because the alternatives are worse, but I hope that with Netanyahu gone she’ll finally find the courage to talk about the two-state solution, in detail and with conviction. And not just in English.