Elections In Israel

Welcome To The Suck

Natasha Roth on the unpleasant choices facing Israeli liberals and progressives.

Although not quite reliving the electrifying, wondrous night of four years previous, the U.S. elections last week were once more a sophisticated, if tense, paean to the revolutionary power of democracy. If you are a woman, gay, or simply a firmly-established Democrat who enjoys kicking back and relaxing with a particular blend of cigarette, November 6, 2012, provided a firm rebuttal of the illiberal window-dressing Republicans insisted would sweep all aside at the polls. The overriding reaction among progressives to the election result was relief, yes, but also a sense of vindication. Democracy triumphed on a night which could easily have fallen foul of revenge, tubthumping and cynical bankrolling.

Israel, by contrast, is once more girding itself for a contest of shameful inevitability. The prevailing mood here among those not ensconced in the ever-widening ideological camp of Likud and Yisrael Beitenu (who recently merged and hatched a political chimera) is one of resignation. Liberal, progressive Israelis are faced with a bitter choice: do we register our protest and abstain or spoil the ballot, or do we accept that our progressiveness renders us de facto disenfranchised and vote with our heart anyway? Even more distasteful choices lurk elsewhere; Shas's MK Aryeh Deri, fresh from serving jail time for corruption, is considered a positive choice as head of the party simply for not being as throat-tighteningly unpleasant as Eli Yishai. Self-appointed scourge of Israel's African population, Yishai has meticulously cultivated a climate of such scalding hatred that even right-wing stalwarts such as Avigdor Lieberman and Danny Ayalon are criticising his wantonness.

The prospect of parties like Shas and United Torah Judaism (whose leader, Yisrael Eichler, in March referred to Reform Jews as "anti-Semites" for authoring a report on the exclusion of women) once more being bolted on to consolidate a Likud electoral stitch-up is engendering not only a sense of pointlessness, but also increasing question marks over the country's future complexion. In the ever-rising tides of severe conservatism, the area of dry land on which we can perch recedes apace. Outside the relatively safe high ground of Tel Aviv—itself not immune to the virulent racism which has incubated around the country—it is hard to see how January's elections will emulate those in the U.S. and roll back the restrictions and prejudices which continue to creep up on the victims of discrimination here, including women, Palestinians, Africans, and non-halachic Jews. Like joining the Marine Corps, when taking part in Israeli democracy, one is required to adapt and homogenise, or suffer—or quit.

Nearly 65 years ago, David Ben-Gurion and his contemporaries weaved a vision of what the country could be in Israel's Declaration of Independence; tragically, it is being unpicked stitch by stitch as our political highways become increasingly gridlocked by reactionism and self-interest. As our turn to vote comes around, we may be forgiven for gazing wistfully across the Atlantic at what a real democracy looks like.