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To Repel Netanyahu’s Onslaught on Democracy, the Israeli Left Must Find Its Inner Rage

Trump supporters and the Israeli right are driven by fury and resentment that burn intensely, even when detached from reality

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Right-wing protesters demonstrate outside the joint Jewish-Arab Memorial Day ceremony, May 7, 2019.
Right-wing protesters demonstrate outside the joint Jewish-Arab Memorial Day ceremony, May 7, 2019.Credit: David Bachar
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

Professor Harvey Mansfield of Harvard University is a conservative political philosopher who regrets that his field has been consigned to the social sciences. Classifying politics as a science, he maintains, has separated its research from the humanities in general and from classic literature in particular. As a result, the study of politics belittles the profound impact of the human spirit and its emotions, first and foremost anger and the lust for revenge.

“Politics is not about what you want but about what makes you angry,” Mansfield said in a landmark Jefferson lecture in 2007. He was pointing a prophetic finger at the critical rage factor that eluded the pollsters and experts in the run-up to the presidential elections held almost a decade later, in 2016. A fierce white fury, mostly male, which feeds on a perennial sense of being both deprived and mocked, propelled Donald Trump all the way to the White House.

The groundwork for Trump’s remarkable victory was laid by the right wing media, aka “The Rage Machine.” National networks, led by Fox News, along with scores of right-wing radio stations and hundreds of conservative commentators, all thrive on reckless inflation of alleged wrongdoing by the liberal left and on unconscionable cultivation of the resentments and fury of their consumers. Small wonder that Howard Beale’s immortal cry in Network - “I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it anymore” - is seen as the defining motto of the angry, Trump-supporting white man.

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The Israeli right, on the other hand, has always been Beale. It is incensed non-stop, infuriated 24/7, livid with no respite. It imbibes its fury, as Yitzhak Shamir once said in a different context, in its mother’s milk. Even after nearly four straight decades in power, right-wingers still feel marginalized, neglected and most importantly, ridiculed. And for good reason: Their leaders, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, have insisted on pouring ever more fuel on the flames, turning them into an eternal bonfire of malice and ill-will.

If politics were simply a matter of pursuing self-interest, Netanyahu and his cohorts would have focused the recent election campaign on the stellar achievements they credit themselves with. But satisfaction does not drive voters to the ballot booths, while rage and resentment are like two turbo-charged afterburners.

The right-wing’s list of enemies is both endless and eternal. It includes classic quarry such as Arabs, leftists, academics and journalists alongside new targets who dare challenge Netanyahu, including the president, the heads of the security services, judges, attorneys, policemen, Europeans, Democrats and whatnot. And the grievances of right-wingers are immortal: In their eyes, the battles between the detested Mapai leadership and their progenitors in the pre-State underground movements, Irgun and Lehi, are still raging, the Ashkenazi elite is still reigning and the maabarot shantytowns to which new immigrants were directed in the 1950s are still going strong. They are all “breaking news,” which the left, as it has since time immemorial, is trying to suppress.

Resentment based on a sense of discrimination and deprivation, Plato observes, tends to “boil over.” It creates a lust for “revenge with pain” that overwhelms self-interest and rational calculation. Other than the zealots who want to destroy Israeli democracy and replace it with a Jewish theocracy, no one on the right should be yearning for the emasculation of the Supreme Court or of the power of the courts to review government decisions, as Netanyahu is proposing. But the wish to “stick it to them” and “show them once and for all” trumps all.

Which is why the prospects of the Israeli left to rebuff the right’s onslaught on democracy are so dim. Unlike the American left, which is fed by the fury of deprived minorities, the Jewish left in Israel is sorely lacking in the underprivileged and in their contagious wrath, Israeli lefties will complain, grumble and warn of dark days ahead, but as long as the damage to their cherished values is theoretical, they won’t burst out in anger. Rather, they’ll continue to enjoy - and take solace in - the good life they lead.

This can change only when Israeli leftists feel personally threatened or when a charismatic leader appears who can harness their anger, channel their rage and ignite their fury. By then, of course, it will probably be too late.

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