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Right and Left: The Petrifaction of Israeli Society

Israeli society may be the only society in the world that keeps asking itself: “Who are we?” “What is Israeli identity?” “Are we still Jews/Zionists?” “Do we have a culture?” Left-wing and Right-wing supply a sense of identity, a superficial awareness of tribal belonging and a class consciousness. Identification with one of the two camps is our substitute for political thinking. As such, division of society into Left and Right prevents us from asking new questions, indicating new goals, and responding to changes in reality.

[As one example] Benjamin Netanyahu is the first Israeli Prime Minister who has agreed to call a government meeting on violence against women. Prior to that, the terminology which he used to describe the problem was common only among crazy feminists like me: He spoke of terror. Netanyahu has good reason to appear as the defender of women—public opinion polls indicate that his popularity among women is relatively low. In the past, both Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres were asked to be interviewed on violence against women and to mark it as a national problem. Both of them declined. Perhaps the subject didn’t seem important enough, or perhaps they failed to recognize the political gain they would reap.

However, Netanyahu’s commitment to fight terror against women (at present, only a verbal commitment, but that’s still something) stirred strange responses. With my own ears, I heard friends on the Left argue: “This is bad for us.” Why? Because it contributes to Netanyahu’s popularity and is likely to help his reelection campaign. This way of thinking says that the worse the situation gets, the better. It says that there is no point in helping Israeli women if we can’t help Palestinian women. It says that those women who are raped and beaten by their husbands will have to wait until Israel retreats to the green line. According to this way of thinking, the wounded of Shekhem have political significance, but 200,000 battered women do not. For the only politics we have is the politics concerning the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Neither Rightists nor Leftists will find it easy to give up the division of the world that is the basis of their strength, yet that division impedes the development of a different politics. When did we last hear of a new socioeconomic vision? What chance does a women’s party have? When shall we see the price of day care or the contents of the educational system on a party platform? Who knows what social and cultural aspirations the immigrants’ party holds? Why do the Sephardim represent themselves only through the ultra-Orthodox Shas party? What is the meaning of our indifference toward the way haredi children are educated? The limiting notions of Left and Right color the entire map and serve as instruments to preserve the power of the powerful.

The State of Israel is not cleft into two camps, or into “two peoples,” as we like to say these days. Regarding the Israeli-Arab conflict, most people are in the middle. Regarding everything else, we live in a multicultural society. Put a finger on the center of the map of Israel, and within one hour’s travel from that spot, you can find a neighborhood of immigrants where the children play in Russian and the old women roll blinis in the kitchen. Are they Rightists or Leftists, those old women? You can find neighborhoods where a third generation has grown up in poverty in a culture of poverty, mistakenly identified as “Oriental” culture. You can find a national religious yeshivah, find the children of foreign workers, and then find a high school on a kibbutz. From a haredi school for girls, you can leap to a cultural activities center in a yuppie district. When the children grow up, what will they have in common?

The melting pot no longer has many adherents, and that’s good; but relinquishing the melting pot raises difficult questions about the extent of cultural differences we can bear without losing a sense of social unity. Does multiculturalism mean absolute freedom for all cultures? If we allow the haredim to raise their daughters in ignorance, why don’t we let immigrants educate their children in Russian-speaking institutions? And if the haredim teach their own version of Zionism, why don’t we allow the Israeli Arabs to do the same?

The establishment of a multicultural society is a difficult objective. We’re not talking only about celebrating Maimuna, holding a military Seder or allowing Christmas decorations. Nor are we talking about the establishment of a Yiddish theater, a Russian theater, an Arabic theater with a Communist orientation, and a theater that produces imported musicals. All these are part of multiculturalism’s frills, not multiculturalism’s essence.

A new social unity can be created by forming new coalitions. I experienced something of this sort about a year ago when I participated on the Zemer Committee, which dealt with newspaper advertisements for prostitutes. During the Committee’s discussions, I discovered that Knesset Member Yigal Bibi of the National Religious party and I shared a view of prostitution as a moral problem. I was not surprised, but he seemed to be. Do pornographic street signs frighten only the religious Right? When will we finally gather together all who support conscription of yeshivah students? And here is a prophecy of the end of days: when the haredim sense that their educational autonomy is about to end, perhaps they will want to cooperate with the Israeli Arabs, who want a similar autonomy for themselves. Why not?

The division of the map into Right and Left petrifies society. A fictionalized society needs new political alignments that will allow groups whose voice has not previously been heard to advance their interests. If we succeed in creating such ad-hoc coalitions, some of the negative images that have stuck to our politics and our politicians will vanish. New coalitions will create new possibilities of identification as well as living connections between various groups in the population. By recognizing rather than blinding ourselves to reality, we can create a new vision for our society.

Gail Hareven, author, playwright and journalist, lives in Jerusalem.