Rally Or Reunion?

The Israeli Left's Identity Issues

12.10.12 7:30 PM ET

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel held its 4th annual “March for Human Rights” last Friday. According to the ACRI website, somewhere between 2,000 to 5,000 people attended. Yet somehow the atmosphere wasn’t political—no one was angry; they had all given up before they’d arrived. So the ACRI march wound up feeling more like a family reunion than a rally for human rights.

The march was full of balloons (many in Meretz green). And strollers. And funny T-shirts (most of which also came in then size "12-18 months"). An impressively broad range of the fractioned Israeli left showed up: Arabs joined hipsters who joined old school communists. One man named Beni, marching with the Da’am Workers Party (0 Knesset seats), told me he’s been a Marxist for 40 years, since he was 17. They all came out to enjoy the sunshine and do what the Israeli left still knows how to do best: march from HaBima Square to Rabin Square.

Uriel Sinai / Getty Images

An Israeli youth flashes a peace sign on July 30, 2011 in Tel Aviv.

It’s worth noting that the word mitzad in Hebrew means both march (“March of the Living”, for example, is mitzad hachayim) and parade (the “Gay Pride Parade” is the mitzad ha’ga’ava). So yes, behind the balloons, there were some slogans. "Mubarak, Morsi, Bibi Netanyahu!” and “From Cairo to Tel Aviv—here comes the Arab spring!” blared Hadash megaphone. Amnesty International's, too: “Freedom—yes; prison—no!” or “Refugee rights now!” But these activists weren’t on a mission; they were parading. They were putting their identity on display much they way that, say, Dominican-Americans do every year in Washington Heights. None of the people I asked, of those who weren’t directly affiliated with a political party like Meretz or Hadash, thought that any real political change was possible. They had given up before they came.

The day was hot, and when I stopped for some fresh juice, I asked the woman behind me in line, a thirty-something named Ella, what had brought her to this march. Her answer was telling: “This is a kind of holiday,” she said. “It’s the one day a year when we can leave our house and see that there are other people out there [like us].” She spoke of being a “leftist,” like someone might speak of being gay. And she added something I’d heard from a lot of Israeli activists, always to be taken with a grain of salt: "The word ‘leftist’ in this country,” she said, “has become what the word ‘Jew’ was in Germany.” And, though she slipped in an apology for the analogy—the two are obviously incomparable—she left me with the sense that these folks, this slice of the Israeli left, feel like a persecuted ethnic minority. 

The trouble is this: when “leftism” becomes an identity element, it makes leftist politics involuntary. It turns marching with ACRI from a political act of free will into a necessary expression of self. It turns human rights activism from a fight for political victory into a fight for acknowledgement and recognition. And—most crucially—it turns the left from a movement of social change into a group of people who love each other, but have given up on winning and instead are just doing their best to preserve their community. Ella’s last comment to me was that “we need to feel that we’re part of something so that we can get up and go to work every day.” These ACRI marchers feel they’ve lost—and so they have. They’ve decided they’re content just to feel loved and appreciated by each other—and so they will be. 

But there are others on the left who will not be content. The best political slogan I heard was from a student wearing a T-shirt that had a picture of Herzl and a section of his most famous quote: “If you will it, it is no”—the word “dream” is left off.  When I asked why wear such a cynical T-shirt he answered: “Cynicism is always good. Cynicism is like spiritual Vaseline.” I’m not sure what he meant, I for one refuse to salve the wounded and distrustful left with just cynicism. This country deserves better.