The Spirit of Benny Gantz's Party Is a Bit Too Viennese

Benny Gantz, Blue and White party leader, speaks during an election campaign event of his Blue and White party in Haifa , Israel, Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020.
Sebastian Scheiner, AP

“Miserable utterances that would better not have been said and don’t in any way reflect the spirit of Kahol Lavan.” That was the reaction of MK Ofer Shelah of Kahol Lavan to the words of his party colleague Yoaz Hendel, who unleashed a hurricane when he divided Israel’s Jewish population into two categories: the Viennese and all the rest.

Hendel committed a serious political offense. He said what he thinks and added insult to injury when he described the culture of the Arab countries surrounding Israel as “a jungle.”

On one side, Shelah was apparently referring to those who listen to the Voice of Music classical music station, members of the “white race.” But on the other side, it’s hard to know precisely which of Hendel’s statements Shelah was referring to. Was it lovers of Mizrahi-Jewish music, most of them dark-skinned, or the culture of about 350 million people living in the Middle East, the origin of the Mizrahi Jews who came to Israel?

Kahol Lavan MK Yoaz Hendel in Mevasseret Zion, December 2019.
Emil Salman

In any case, the real riddle is the nature of “the spirit of Kahol Lavan.” Shelah is a master wordsmith. Usually he leaves no room for interpretation. His words are precise and the language is rich.

But suddenly he's struck dumb. For example, he could have said that he rejects Hendel’s distinction between lovers of concerts and drummers of darbukas, those popular Middle Eastern drums, but agrees with statements regarding Arab culture. He could have said the opposite, or even rejected both distinctions. After all, Shelah’s vocabulary is rich enough to find expressions to explain his view of Arab culture.

It should be noted that Kahol Lavan has a platform but lacks a spirit. If it had a spirit, we could assume that its leaders Benny Gantz, Yair Lapid and Gabi Ashkenazi would also have cried out in protest. Its only spirit is the cold wind that spins the party around like a pinwheel. Its goal is to remove Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, not propose an ideological alternative.

We shouldn’t complain about Kahol Lavan’s objective, which is crucial and even existential for Israeli democracy. Every statement, utterance and act should be aimed at achieving this goal. If the adoption of Donald Trump’s Mideast plan will get it a few more votes, if annexing settlements and the continued blockade of Gaza will give it an additional Knesset seat or two, it should go with it.

If you have to oppose letting Joint List candidate Heba Yazbak run in the election, or you wash your hands with disinfectant before approaching the Joint List, no problem. Everything of course in a pleasant manner, because Kahol Lavan is a polite party – until someone spoils the air with something that destroys its Viennese image.

That’s the reason for the anger at Hendel’s words. He didn’t upset the spirit of the party, he harmed its marketing policy and caused a dilemma. After all, a shrug isn’t enough to reject his words. Instead, one must espouse the culture of darbukas and respect the culture of Israeli Arabs, a culture that belongs to the “jungle.”

But this means active condemnation of the right-wing members of the party, those whose job it is to smooth the way for hesitant right-wingers to join the ranks of Kahol Lavan. The penultimate paragraph of the party platform (the last is culture and art) is full of promises to improve the economic woes of the Arab minority, to allocate budgets that will end discrimination, to promote this minority’s integration into Israeli society – in other words Jewish Israeli society – to take care of the Druze and the Bedouin (to whom separate paragraphs are devoted, as if they weren’t Arabs).

Political partnership? National rights? The spirit of Kahol Lavan’s members simply can’t bear such a crazy idea. For them it’s like eating strudel with hot sauce.