Israel from the Inside with Daniel Gordis
Israel from the Inside with Daniel Gordis
How Yair Lapid (accidentally) campaigned for Itamar Ben-Gvir

How Yair Lapid (accidentally) campaigned for Itamar Ben-Gvir

Watch the video below and see if you can figure it out ....

At this writing, Tuesday afternoon on Election Day, Israeli news is not yet allowed to publish exit polls, and what sort of coalition may emerge is anyone’s guess. One thing is clear, though—no matter what happens, no incoming government is going to make a breakthrough in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing to be done. This week when much is in question, but progress on that front is not an option, we are airing our conversation with Jason Silverman, who works with a non-profit dedicated to “shrinking the conflict.”

That’s a notion first made popular by Micha Goodman, one of Israel’s most important public intellectuals, in his book Catch ‘67. But others, like Jason and his colleagues, have picked up the baton and are working hard to make life better even in the absence of diplomatic progress.

Daniel Gordis and Jason Silverman (photo: courtesy)

That conversation about what they are doing and what kind of difference they are making on the ground will be posted tomorrow, for paid subscribers to Israel from the Inside. The link at the very top will take you to a brief excerpt of our discussion.

If you share our desire to forge a community of people engaged in reasoned discussion and respectful disagreement when it comes to Israel, please subscribe.

And now for today’s column.

As of this writing, late in the afternoon on Tuesday, November 1, election day, it appears that Israelis are voting in the highest numbers since 1999, though those numbers could certainly slip. That’s wonderful news, because on the fifth election in three and a half years, one could understand Israelis’ being burnt out, entirely cynical, deciding to stay away from the polls. Thankfully, that seems not to be the case.

Times of Israel screenshot

Whatever the final outcome, though, it seems clear that Itamar Ben-Gvir has made his mark on Israeli politics, at least for now. How is it possible that so many Israelis (apparently) voted for a man who seems so illiberal, or, in the eyes of some, actually racist and dangerous? Is that what Israelis have become?

I don’t think so. Without in any way suggesting anything but disdain for and worry about Ben-Gvir (voting for him is entirely unthinkable for me) it’s important, I believe, to understand why some level-headed, non-racist Israelis voted for him. Because his traction does not mean that Israel has become racist. Some Israelis have, as have many Americans and Europeans, but most have not. Among those who have not, Ben-Gvir still has other appeals.

To start that conversation, watch Yair Lapid’s campaign video below. It’s only 30 seconds long. I’ve posted it here in its entirety, the only change being that we’ve added English subtitles, which are not part of the original.

Watch the video, and ask yourself: Good ad? Something wrong with it? If so, what? I have an enormous amount of respect for Lapid, who I believe is a man of his word, deeply devoted to the state, untouched by even a whiff of corruption and a hard worker who has done much for Israel’s standing in the world, helped get a budget passed, got the gas deal with Lebanon through, has continued to hit Syria hard despite pressure from Russia, and much more.

And still, I was appalled by the video. Why? Watch it, and then we’ll talk. ….

It’s a perfectly fine, innocuous video. There’s not a platform there that I disagree with. The elderly living with dignity. Combat soldiers having their education supported by the state. Women’s rights. Caring about people with disabilities. Respect and protection for gay and lesbian couples. A liberal Israel. A democratic Israel. All the rest. What’s the problem?

The problem, for me, is that if you translated this video into French and substituted “France” for Israel, Emmanuel Macron could use it in his next campaign. Translated into English with “America” substituted for Israel, it would make a fine video for Liz Cheney or Amy Klobuchar. It’s a lovely video that would work for any modern liberal democracy.

But here’s the rub. I never intended to move to any old modern liberal democracy. Democracy? Of course? Liberal (in the philosophic, not political sense)? Absolutely. But “any old”? Definitely not.

I came here to live in a Jewish state, a state that while not imposing religiosity on anyone, would be Jewish in manifold ways, culturally, educationally, in values and much more.

And in this video, the words “Jewish” and “Zionist” are entirely absent.

Yes, I understand that Lapid doesn’t wish to offend the Arabs, who though likely to be under-represented, might be critical to any attempt to make a coalition. Yes, I understand that a backward, radical chief rabbinate has turned many Israelis off to religion in general and Judaism in particular. But that is the point of leadership—to lead, not just to reflect. I didn’t move to this country so we’d have a Prime Minister whose ads say nothing about the Jewish people, about Zionism or the Jewish state.

The first time I watched the video, I felt like I’d been sucker-punched.

Again, I know that personally, Lapid is deeply committed to the Jewish people. His father, Tommy Lapid, a noted Israeli politician decades ago, was a Holocaust survivor, and that defines much of Lapid-the-younger’s worldview. He is a member of a liberal synagogue in Tel Aviv, the first Prime Minister ever about whom that can be said. He is deeply respectful of the tradition and Israel’s Jewishness matters to him a great deal.

But are the tradition and the Jewish dimension of Israel part of what Yesh Atid is committed to?

Forget platforms. What did the party choose to say?

That, in short, is why some of Ben-Gvir’s voters voted for him. Many young ultra-Orthodox voters apparently voted for him as their way of breaking bonds with the Haredi parties, while still supporting a candidate who’s visibly religious. Yet many more moderate Israelis, without question appalled by some things that Ben-Gvir says (though listen to our conversation with Einat Wilf, where she predicted that being in office would moderate him), just want to know that there is someone in the room reminding everyone that they are in the business of leading a Jewish state.

Jerusalem Post screenshot

Israelis read that, and they are appalled. Of course there’s freedom of speech here. But who’s condemning those students in no uncertain terms? Today, some voters have an idea of who probably would, given the chance.

These voters may or may not want public transportation on Shabbat, but they want Jewishness in the state. These voters may or may not be in favor of civil marriage, but they want a Jewish voice in government meetings. They may or may not want many things, but what matters to them is that this state not be like France or the United States, that its leaders be mindful that they are at the helm of a Jewish state, the place to which the Jewish people has returned to reconstitute itself.

When they see that Yesh Atid (Lapid’s party) ad, some of them are going to be reconfirmed in their sense that not only the Left, but even the Center, has abdicated that sort of discourse. And then they head to the polls.

I went to the polls early today to get it done before the lines got long. The polls opened at 7:00, and I got there at 7:25. But the polling place was a disaster. The people running the station were missing envelopes, couldn’t find forms, and as the line grew, they told us “just a couple of minutes.” I left and walked home.

An hour later, I walked back. Things were working, but the line was crazy long. So I left and walked home again. Which has given me all day to think.

What do I want? Someone who has at least a chance of winning. Someone who is not corrupt. Someone who is not a racist. Someone who can be trusted to guide Israel in an era in which Iran, Russia and Ukraine, American isolationism and other issues are likely to be real challenges. Someone who will be as minimally toxic as possible for European capitals and for moderate American Jews. Someone who appreciates how critical the Abraham Accords are, and who won’t screw them up with cowboy policies on the West Bank. And someone who, like Menachem Begin of old, even if not punctiliously observant, oozes care for the Jewishness of this still-emerging state.

On the surface, we have a lot of choices. Here’s what our ballots look like when we get into the polling booth.

Israel Elections: Vicious campaigning, mudslinging ramp up as vote nears -  The Jerusalem Post

But take my shopping list to the polls, and you quickly realize that all those choices notwithstanding, there really aren’t any choices that meet them all. So you have to give up on something that matters—and that matters a lot.

Which is why it’s good, I guess, that when I head out soon to try once again to vote today, I’ll still have a few minutes’ walk to make up my mind.

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Israel from the Inside with Daniel Gordis
Israel from the Inside with Daniel Gordis
Israel from the Inside is for people who want to understand Israel with nuance, who believe that Israel is neither hopelessly flawed and illegitimate, nor beyond critique. If thoughtful analysis of Israel and its people interests you, welcome!