Opinion |

Leader of Israel's Labor Party Is Seriously Damaging the Left

Anyone who questions the validity of the Jewish narrative of the Israeli left doesn’t understand anything about the political history of the Jewish people and the State of Israel

Rami Livni
Rami Livni
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Israeli Labor Party leader Avi Gabbay speaks during an interview with The Associated Press at the Labor Party headquarters in Tel Aviv, Israel, Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017.
Israeli Labor Party leader Avi Gabbay speaks during an interview with The Associated Press at the Labor Party headquarters in Tel Aviv, Israel, Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017. Credit: Sebastian Scheiner/AP
Rami Livni
Rami Livni

I’m sick of talking about the silly things that Avi Gabbay spews out. I’m sick of being pushed again into the position of the preaching and self-righteous leftist. It’s tedious to yet again be sour and cynical about the Labor Party and its leaders, and my soul has had it with the purist quarrels within the camp. My heart is desperate for good news, a generous, united spirit and a boost to our depressed morale.

But Gabbay’s comments cannot be dismissed as trivialities, anecdotes and transient political maneuvers that are merely words. These words, as part of a consistent approach that touches sensitive nerves and harnesses to it the spirit of the times, are changing the left.

These words are feeding into a profound process of ideological erosion – the same way Shelly Yacimovich’s sympathetic rhetoric as Labor chairwoman toward the settlers and against focusing on peace had a negative impact, and the same way the claim by Isaac Herzog that peace with the Palestinians isn’t possible in the coming years and his apologetic stance left a harmful legacy for the party and its supporters. The line being promulgated by Gabbay will also have long-term influence and his party colleagues understand this, which is why they remain silent in response to his statements, and their miserable silence confirms his words’ validity.

The most despairing of his claims is that the left “forgot to be Jewish” and abandoned its Jewish identity in favor of rootless liberalism. This was preceded by aggravating statements about belief in God and the Torah and his boasting of being traditionally religious and having a yarmulke in his pocket.

The problem isn’t Gabbay’s lifestyle; there have been senior figures in the Zionist left over the years who were traditional. The problem is that because of ignorance and opportunism, Gabbay is distorting the left-wing outlook on religion and state. He is creating confusion and uncertainty about the “Jewish identity” of the labor movement and is adopting the familiar right-wing slander that the political secularism of the left isn’t a cornerstone of its social-democratic national thought, but an expression of condescension and detachment. Gabbay is effectively saying that Theordor Herzl, David Ben-Gurion, Berl Katznelson, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres weren’t entirely Jewish because they were secular and sought to anchor the new politics of the Jewish people in a secular, rationalist worldview.

Anyone who questions the validity of the Jewish narrative of the Israeli left doesn’t understand anything about the political history of the Jewish people and the State of Israel. After all, the left’s ideological roots are in the Haskala (Enlightenment) movement and in Zionist thought, two branches that generated the largest and most relevant body of work dealing with modern Jewish identity and its meaning.

It’s more than what the religious right can offer. The left took from the Haskala the separation between religion and state, and from Zionism it established nationalism, not religion, as the new basis for Jewish collective solidarity.

Other than at the fringe, the Israeli left has never turned its back on its Jewishness, but based it on nationalism rather than on religion. That’s one of the defining ways it differs from the right, and is the basis for the gaps between left and right on the questions of the Land of Israel, the character of the state, citizenship and the attitude toward minorities. The left has no right to exist, in Israel or elsewhere, without the principle of political secularism.

Gabbay apparently thinks that this is not enough, and that distancing religion from the political public square creates a “Jewish deficit” on the left. When he is photographed at prayer at a public event as the Labor Party chairman, he does not do so as an expression of his personal beliefs, which should be respected, but is deliberately mixing religion and politics – like Naftali Bennett – and sabotages the fragile historic achievement of the secular left, which succeeded in separating the two.

Gabbay presents the Jewishness of the secular left as empty, in sad contrast to the founders of his movement, who believed that this was a full Jewishness and even more whole than that of the right, because it isn’t based on the meager crutches of religion and folklore, but on Jewish nationalism, which includes all elements of life. This worldview is the source of the left’s strength, not its weakness. Gabbay is doing serious damage. In a normal party, someone would get up and challenge him. He must pay a price for his actions.

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