Moshe Feiglin, a far-right Likud candidate facing almost certain election to the Knesset, came this week to speak to my Mechina, an Israeli pre-army program where I am one of four pre-college Americans in a group of close to sixty.
Understandably, my 18-year-old Israeli peers are disillusioned by the prospect of peace with the Palestinians, and many paid little attention to Feiglin’s explicit racism. But Feiglin did manage to make them mad—he talked about religion.
In the typical white shirt, black pants, blazer and knitted kippah of the religious right, Feiglin spoke to our group for over an hour. He described the vision of the state of Israel as “beginning with our forefather Abraham and will end, with the help of God, with the building of the third temple.” And he mentioned that in political conversations he often “forgets how to call them [Palestinians].” Why? Because they don’t exist. He noted that some esoteric historians call them “Palestinians.” No one flinched.
At one point, I worked up the courage to ask about gay culture and its influence, a subject on which he’s notoriously outspoken. He lamented: “Tel Aviv has become a city that has erased masculinity and where being a man is considered a sickness,” and added that feminism has destroyed family values, something essential to Judaism. The implication: Feminism isn’t Jewish. Pressed further, he stated that “the man is the family while the woman is the home [literally ‘house’]” and that in our current culture we are forgetting “what it means to be a man.” And he took his “Jewish values” talk even further. My roommate asked Feiglin what he thinks “truth” is. He answered emphatically with one word: “God.” My secular friends were fuming.
But later, when he stopped one kid midsentence after he mentioned the word “Arab,” and sarcastically asked him to leave the subject alone as he has had quite enough of it, the room burst into laughter and Feiglin moved onto the next question.
What is scary about Moshe Feiglin is that he (and his pals) have succeeded in changing the fundamentals of the conversation in Israel. Many times over the course of his talk he made the point that Israel needs to engage in “nation building” and “collective questioning” of our Jewish identity before we can engage with others—and that what is important is ourselves, not other people. And for this generation of young Israelis, who grew up in the intifada and are not so fond of Arabs, his rhetorical justification for disengaging from questions of regional peace and preserving the Jewish and democratic nature of the state has become quite an acceptable answer, instead of a petty evasion.
So while my Mechina rightly prides itself on being a pluralistic program that brings together a group of future leaders of Israel from all corners of the country and represents the entire spectrum of religious and socioeconomic backgrounds, it has become abundantly clear to me that the political spectrum of such a group my age is in fact quite narrow.
After spending hours in debate and discussion with my peers during Operation Pillar of Defense, I realized it is no surprise that one boy from the Mechina jokingly proposed on Facebook that we should connect the water to the electricity in Gaza (leading to electric shock) instead of disconnecting both, and another posted a video that put the bombings in Gaza to music. While I grew up across the Atlantic, and the defining moment of my childhood was 9/11, the defining moment for this generation of first-time Israeli voters is the second intifada—suicide bombings at their doorsteps. They see no reason to trust their neighbors.
So the fact that Israel’s left is crumbling and the prospect of peace is dimming doesn’t bother them. Many told me that, come January, they will vote Likud—Feiglin’s party.
After Feiglin left, a friend told me that he had heard Feiglin speak two years ago and that this time his rhetoric was much gentler. He postulated that now that Feiglin is running for office, he has taken a turn towards the mainstream. And this could very well be true. While most of my friends were disgusted by much of what Feiglin had to say, he still stands out in their minds as a standard-bearer of the Israeli mainstream, laughing along with him as he mocks Arabs and barely batting an eye as he decries homosexuality. What I didn’t say to my friend is that if the xenophobia, homophobia and racism that Feiglin espoused this afternoon in just one hour can be considered mainstream here in Israel, then we’re in much more trouble than we thought when Feiglin goes to the Knesset in January.