The Wealthiest Israelis Have Abandoned the Left

זיוה שטרנהל
Ziva Sternhell
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Campaign signs for the left-wing Meretz and Labor parties.
Campaign signs for the left-wing Meretz and Labor parties.Credit: Gil Eliahu
זיוה שטרנהל
Ziva Sternhell

The extensive coverage in the Haaretz book supplement of the Sella Meir publishing house has drawn attention to the new Israeli right’s success at an ambitious cultural endeavor: driving a deep cultural wedge in intellectual life in Israel.

Sella Meir’s project of translating conservative and libertarian texts is not only meant to enrich Israeli culture with a range of worldviews. The publishing house is part of a multipronged project, awash in funding, that until recently operated under the radar, and whose goals are not solely cultural. Research institutes, scholarly journals and publishing houses are just part of a wide range of energetic activity whose ultimate objective is to penetrate the systems of government in order to institute a worldview that combines rightist nationalist political ideology with economic neoliberalism.

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But the new conservative right, composed in part by the Kohelet Forum, the Shalem Institute, the Mida organization and Sella Meir, is focusing not only on the current political reality. For a decade now, it has been consolidating a long-term strategy intended to change the fundamental positions that have characterized Israeli culture since the early twentieth century. The ultimate objective is to replace the “outdated” European heritage of the Israeli right with the American Republican heritage.

Nettanel Slyomovics’s recent investigative report in The Marker about the Jewish-American billionaires who helped Donald Trump get elected, and who are also providing generous funding for this move, made clear who is behind it and the danger posed by the marriage between Jewish-Israeli nationalist fundamentalism and those who aspire to inculcate libertarianism in Israel, or the most extreme model of American neoliberalism: a combination of the Wild East beyond the Green Line and the business towers of Tel Aviv.

The problem is, on the other side of the political map there is no awareness of the fact that we are at war over the country’s character for generations to come. The center-left has been asleep at the wheel, and the wealthiest Israelis have not adopted the American tradition of making generous contributions to society. It seems like it would never occur to Israel’s big high-tech success stories to allocate a fraction of their good fortune to preventing Israel from being turned into an unenlightened Trumpist province. Even if some of them – who haven’t delved much into sociopolitical theories – are keen on the idea of the free market.

But the problem is not just the gap between resources of right-wing organizations versus those of left-wing organizations. The people of the new right realized a decade ago that in order to create long-term political power, you have to build an intellectual infrastructure by means of research institutes, books and journals (the Kohelet Forum employs 140 scholars, for example) in order to groom an intellectual elite to infiltrate the corridors of power and influence the decision-makers. This approach has already yielded results, as with Nir Barkat and Yamina politicians, who were handed ready-made political platforms.

By comparison, the Israeli center-left has fallen into an ideological coma. Its resources and efforts are scattered among hundreds of organizations, which themselves hold important functions, with most committed to social issues and easing life’s daily hardships, while left-wing political organizations, which are doing holy work, are mainly fighting the injustices of the occupation. The left’s ideological fervor, which used to be expressed in theoretical debates and through publishing houses and journals, died out at the end of the twentieth century. Unlike Sella Meir, the publishers that are trying to keep the left-wing flame alive, like Hakibbutz Hameuhad, Carmel and Pardes, have to fight just to survive.

The good news is that there are some encouraging signs of late among the left, apparently influenced by what is being done and written overseas. At the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem, a pillar of intellectual life in Israel with no political affiliation, they have launched new initiatives aimed at opening up new ways of thinking. These include the online journal “Hazman Hazeh” and research groups dedicated to core subjects like post-capitalism and post-secularism. New nonprofit foundations have also appeared, such as IDEA – Toward a Liberal Democracy in Israel, which aims to groom leaders for senior public positions. The journal “Alpayim,” which is being published by Carmel, seeks to examine deep currents in Israel culture, and the venerable Berl Katznelson Foundation is in the midst of a renewal process and publishing a new journal called “Telem.”

Rami Hod, the foundation’s executive director, recently published an article in “Telem” that describes this new spirit well. The left, he says, stagnated and withdrew instead of fighting for its character. He lists the things that must be done to rouse it back to life, while adopting the strategies of the rival camp. The militant religious right, he writes, is a minority, but it is very fervent and focused on its goal. It was able to build up its power by means of a school system, pre-military academies, yeshivas and Garin Torani groups, with the objective of producing a united fighting elite that will enter the centers of political power. Meanwhile, the center-left lost its confidence, became preoccupied with self-flagellation, and underwent ideological privatization, now ignores its historic achievements and is scattered among a hodgepodge of organizations and foundations.

The solution, Hod says, lies in building a systematic strategy to educate a new political generation and to train a determined elite that will be ready to fight on the political battlefield, to offer a rallying ethos and to set a goal of entering the halls of power. This refreshing approach, which does not shy away from the term “elite,” faces two hurdles: The left does not have unlimited funds like those that are flowing to the religious right from the United States, from Jewish billionaires and from the extended Evangelist family. In Israel, the right also benefits from religious society’s tradition of donating to the community, and most importantly – from unqualified support from right-wing governments.

But even more problematic is the need to build a rallying ethos after a long period of decline. The Israeli left is not the first to commit collective suicide. The ideals that spurred people from all over the world to enlist in the Spanish Civil War, to fill the ranks of the Socialist parties, and in Israel to build kibbutzim and an admirable welfare system, were pulverized over the years by increasingly extreme theories.

The fact that a new awareness is growing in left-wing intellectual circles around the world that we must begin building an updated ideological, social and economic infrastructure, offers a glimmer of hope, which also deserves the attention of the occupants of the business towers and high-tech corridors. As was shown in the Balfour protests, the fighting spirit has not disappeared, but it needs someone to ignite it and also to pay for some new torches.

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