Letters to the Editor: We Need a Populist Left

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Furloughed Israel Museum staff protesting last week. "Crises bring out good or bad things from leaders. The coronavirus crisis brought out bad things,” says one worker. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Letters to the Editor

All in the same boat

Regarding “Flagship in trouble: What’s really happening behind the closed gates of the Israel Museum?” (Haaretz Hebrew Edition, June 28) by Naama Riba:

We are horrified by the scathing attack on the Israel Museum administration and take issue with the implication that the reported comments reflect the views of all the employees. Perhaps you hadn’t noticed, but there is a pandemic going on, which forced the museum to shut its doors. They have not reopened because doing so, including bringing all the employees back to work full-time, could very well bring the museum to the brink of collapse.

Unlike most of the museums in Israel, which are aimed at a local audience, the Israel Museum relies to a large degree upon foreign tourism and large groups and very little upon institutional support from the municipal and national government. The museum administration is making every effort to resolve the problems before it without jeopardizing the entire place and without causing layoffs.  

James Snyder did procure generous funding from donors, but as has been reported in Haaretz and elsewhere (and at length on the Hottest Place in Hell website), his management style – aside from his hefty personal salary – was characterized by aggressiveness and lack of transparency. Snyder surrounded himself with yes men, fired good professional employees and replaced them with his own minions.

The mass exodus of employees referred to in the article includes many of them. During this period, creativity was stifled, hierarchy was prioritized over professionalism and dialogue, and an atmosphere of silencing dissent, reminiscent of Soviet Russia, prevailed.

Since taking over the position, and long before the coronavirus crisis began, Ido Bruno has shared his view that the old-model philanthropy from the Teddy Kollek era belongs to the past. His vision, that the high-tech world and major financial bodies should be recruited to invest in culture out of recognition of its importance, cannot be achieved instantly, of course. It is natural to have disagreements with management and we trust the wise and dedicated workers’ committee to properly represent us, the employees. But unlike previous crises we’ve experienced, this time all the parties are in the same boat, and we won’t allow it to capsize. 

Six employees of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem (names withheld at the writers’ request)

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Say yes to leftist populism

Nir Hasson’s piece “Anti-Netanyahu Protests: Five Signs That His Supporters Should Be Worried About” (Haaretz English Edition, July 25), ends on a pessimistic note. He asks if and how the current protest can sustain its momentum long enough to culminate in the ouster of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The answer may be found in Chantal Mouffe’s book “Hegemony and Socialist Strategy,” which promotes leftist populism as the only cure for rightist populism.

As Ernesto Laclau so clearly described in his book, “On Populist Reason,” the populist pattern has appeared repeatedly throughout history. First a crisis erupts that brings into the political arena a variety of demands for which the establishment has no answer, then this variety of demands coalesces into a single movement under the rhetorical umbrella of anti-establishmentarianism. An excellent example of this pattern is the Podemos party in Spain, which evolved to become a significant voice in the Spanish parliament after the protests in wake of the country’s 2008-2009 financial crisis. (The party leaders drew inspiration from both books.) 

How is leftist populism built? The success of Podemos should be adapted to the protests in Israel. The current protest, like the one that erupted in 2011, is a result of legitimate democratic demands by a variety of segments of the public, exemplified by the young people whose future has become completely murky while the present establishment is unable to provide any solution.

This is Mouffe and Laclau’s definition of the start of a populist movement that can muster broad support a change of government. The next stage is the coalescing of a group, under a symbol and leader, which can be labeled anti-establishment and will oppose corruption, disconnection from the people and opportunism. The main point is that the symbols of the movement, including its leaders, cannot come from the establishment. 

Anti-establishment sentiment has carried the right to victory for years. This sentiment is the catalyst for its support. To counter an emotion you need a stronger emotion. The left already has establishment parties. A populist left is what’s needed. 

Pil’i Meir
Doctoral student in political theory at the University of Haifa

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