Who Speaks for the Israeli Left?

To Israelis, 'leftist’ is associated with views like the Palestinians’ ostensible right of return and a one-state solution. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Hagai Fried

Former Meretz chairman Haim Oron, whose soldier-grandson was seriously wounded in Gaza while his pilot son was flying a helicopter overhead, says he’s angry that leftists are required to prove their patriotism. In an interview published in Haaretz this weekend, he disagreed with Gideon Levy’s excoriation of pilots for committing the “lowest deeds from loftiest heights.”

It seems, however, that when Israelis today think of “the left,” they think much more about Gideon Levy than they do about Haim Oron. To Israelis, the brand “leftist” is associated with pilots’ “lowest deeds” and similar stances, all the way to the “right of return” and “a one-state solution.”

Everyone knows that only a minority of spokespeople for the left express such opinions, but those who do so speak in the name of the basic values to which the entire left is committed. They purport to be the left’s voice of conscience, even if they are not its official voice. They are considered the most pure and consistent manifestation of the values that the left believes in.

This impression is unavoidable when the left’s leaders do not repudiate this interpretation of their values. They follow a consistent line on this subject: They usually ignore such views; here and there they criticize them mildly but they never repudiate them.

In the interview with Oron – despite his objections to Levy’s attack on the pilots – one cannot glean that, in addition to his principled argument with the right, he also has a serious dispute with those who interpret the left’s values in the spirit of “lowest deeds from loftiest heights,” the right of return and one state.

The right wing, naturally, does its best to link the left to such positions, but most of the work is done by the left — not the radical left, which simply expresses its opinions, but the establishment left, with its silence.

The public will always associate the left with the most radical positions expressed in the name of the left’s values, unless the left’s leaders and spokespeople make clear that these positions aren’t the radical manifestation of the left’s values, but rather a radical distortion of them. Fairness would require that the same rule apply to the right, but life isn’t always fair. The right also pays a political price for the words and deeds of its radicals – but it is not the full and proper price.

Either “lowest deeds” is the voice of conscience of the Israeli left or it isn’t. If it is, all is well – there’s nothing to repudiate, and one shouldn’t get too excited about a few rhetorical exaggerations if the general direction is right and just. But then one can’t complain that Israelis associate the left with these positions.

In terms of free speech, such opinions are legitimate, of course. But aside from freedom of speech, Israelis have another important democratic right: to freely choose their elected representatives. Israelis (or any other people in a similar situation) will never put their fate in the hands of a political camp that is identified with such positions, even if only partially. Even if the left persuades the people that it is absolutely right in all other matters, making “lowest deeds” part of the value system associated with the left is like multiplying with a zero.

If, on the other hand, Oron and his colleagues believe that these stances are not the true voice of the Israeli left, they must state this loud and clear, the way they can when they want to. For many years they have avoided doing so. The political consequences should surprise no one.