Jack Omer-Jackaman argues that this is a perfect opportunity to prove the truth of what progressive friends of Israel have long argued – that the bounds of acceptable criticism of Israel are capacious enough to contain all the stridency that is required, without resort to ‘anti-Zionism’. ‘Let us fight Ben Gvir as if there were no Iran, Palestinian terror, or BDS’, he argues, ‘and fight Iran, Palestinian terror, and BDS as if there were no Ben Gvir.’
AN INARTICULATE SADNESS
I recently attended the annual lunch of the UK Labour Friends of Israel, whose assembled throng was made up largely of those Jews indefatigable, courageous, or plain masochistic enough to have stuck with the party of the British left through the Corbyn interregnum (or who have returned since the unquiet fall of the ancien régime) and those outlier non-Jews whose leftism incorporates Zionism – foundationally so, for some of us.
I hope my hosts will not think me ungrateful if I observe that the occasion was marked by a rather jarring juxtaposition of moods. On the one hand, the giddy, self-congratulatory spirit of last year’s version was repeated, as were the multiple mentions of Sir Keir Starmer’s (partial) deliverance of the party from the influence of both his predecessor and his anti-Zionist allies and supporters. Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves was muscular and altogether more fluent and authentic in her simple liberal Zionism than Starmer had been from the same podium twelve months before. She also conveyed – I genuinely imply no more than this – a more acute sense of pain at the damage done to the party, the Jewish community, and to the lives of individual Jews by the Corbyn years. (It was perhaps appropriate that the lunch fell in the same week as David Baddiel’s Jews Don’t Count was both broadcast and then subjected to the inevitable online calumny.)
In sharp contrast, there was an accompanying and definite sense of wound-licking on behalf of the recently vanquished Israeli left and centre; a mood which, if it stopped short of the rending of garments, certainly approached sackcloth and ashes territory (though more in grief than repentance…) This was only intensified by the presence of Merav Michaeli, with the Israeli Labor leader greeted rather more as a heroically fallen comrade than, as per some in the anti-Netanyahu-bloc commentariat, as a blundering general. From Labour bigwigs Michaeli was subject to a combination of fulsome praise for her record in the previous government and plenty of ‘bad luck, comrade’ consolation. Even the attendant ambassador Tzipi Hotovely felt able to join in the general sympathy.
I note the discordant tones not to be critical; both moods were at least somewhat appropriate. It is fair to celebrate the internal revolution which has allowed Michaeli’s HaAvoda, and not Matzpen, to be once more considered the British Labour party’s natural partner, and Michaeli had, after a bruising campaign – and mistakes notwithstanding – earned at least a little fraternal consolation. Both moods were also, it seemed to me, accompanied by parallel leaps of faith: 1) that the sturm und drang of UK Labour’s last few years was largely over and 2) that Israel could withstand what was about to be unleashed by its new government and Israeli progressives rebuild from a truly disastrous electoral showing. While neither need, nor can be allowed, to be left to providence, there was rather more surety about the first proposition than the second. On its Jewish renaissance the party was bullish, though with assurances – and necessary ones – of an awareness that its retaining and regaining its Jews depended on its continued good faith and vigilance. (For some, it should be noted, the jury remains sequestered and the fat lady still mid-song.) But what of Israel?
Here, three things seemed uppermost on the minds of the speakers and, judging by the favourable reaction, of those present: Iran, BDS, and Itamar Ben Gvir. This, too, seemed a perfectly reasonable triumvirate-of-most-concern since all seek, in their different ways, to destroy the glory of the Zionist achievement, and as soon as possible.
On Iran, there was much outrage expressed at both the regime’s antisemitic aggression and nuclear aggrandisement on the one hand, and its brutal domestic misogyny and repression on the other. (More explicit connection could have been made, I thought, of these twin evils being two sides of the same hideous coin rather than distinct phenomena.) While the anti-Zionist left cannot lift itself to anything like a pitch of outrage over Iran, for those assembled it represented both good Israel politics and a moral necessity – Yiddishkeit and Mentshlichkeit in perfect harmony. The British public is waking to the unavoidable realisation – better late than never – of the true nature of the regime in Tehran; MI5 head Ken McCallum’s recent revelation that the security services had foiled (with the aid of the Mossad, we since learn) no fewer than ten attempted murders since the start of the year provided a further clanging of the alarm clock.
On BDS, too, there was universal acknowledgement that, far from a movement of heroic non-violence seeking a just solution to an intractable conflict, this is a campaign seeking the erasure of the world’s only – and near-universally internationally recognised – Jewish State.
The unanimity continued when it came to the palpable woe at the elevation of Ben Gvirism, and the election results more broadly. Unlike on Iran and BDS, however, here the sadness and anger were rather inarticulate and imprecise. Indeed, beyond general lamentation and headshaking, there was a distinct inability to understand the phenomenon – a lack of language to suitably describe it, let alone a programmatic platform to counter it. If such a clutching at thin air were restricted only to my party – no stranger to such occasional fuzziness – then it might not matter. But I suspect it applies, more broadly, to leftist non-Jewish friends of Israel elsewhere; what exactly is the non-Jewish left Zionist, the progressive friend of Israel, to think now, to do now? If the shock of Ben Gvirism’s victory forgives a little paralysis, inertia cannot be allowed to linger long with the stakes this high. The dilemma is, of course, not confined to leftist friends. Liberals, conservatives, and those of no fixed political abode, who oppose extremism will be similarly discombobulated. It is perhaps particularly acute for the leftist, though, since it is from the purported left that the bulk of anti-Israel invective comes.
SOME INITIAL PRECEPTS
On which note, it might be helpful to begin by acknowledging the contrast in reaction with anti-Zionists. The left Zionist is far sadder at the results than the anti-Zionist, who so loudly and frequently proclaims his concern for Palestinian welfare. For, since the latter considers Michaeli and Ben Gvir to exist in an equal state of total and original sin, then what does it matter who wins? If Zionists are all the enemy, then better the one who wears his chauvinism openly than the one who conceals it behind a veil of professed liberalism. We left-wing Zionists, in both our love for Israel and concern for the Palestinians, know that it matters a great deal.
The non-Jewish friend and student of Israel is required to proceed from a bedrock of humility – with a recognition that the stakes of Israel’s rightward lurch are, just as with left-wing antisemitism, rather lower for us. No matter how important my Zionism is to me, it is neither existential nor personally consequential. I am not implicated in the destiny of Israel in the way that most Jews are, either through the spirit of Klal Israel or the perniciously automatic association with Israel of any Jew, anywhere, by the antisemite. Similarly, Israel has no obligation to please me, nor is my Zionism dependent on it doing so. That would be both fair-weather and narcissistic. The ascension of Ben Gvirism causes me great concern, and not a little sadness, but it cannot dent my belief in the necessity and righteousness of Jewish statehood.
But while, in the grand scheme of those affected, no violin is small enough for our lament, it is certainly true that, if the incoming victors are as good as their word in transforming Israel into what Netanyahu ally Victor Orban called, self-referentially, ‘illiberal democracy’, the task of explaining Israel is likely about to get harder than it has ever been.
ACKNOWLEDGING THE THREAT
These caveats notwithstanding, the left-wing friend of Israel must not feel overly inhibited in joining their Israeli and Diaspora comrades in first accurately assessing and then combatting the truly dangerous near future we face. A government in which Netanyahu and Aryeh Deri are relied upon to be the voice of progressive moderation is indeed – to paraphrase a much-noted headline from the UK Jewish News – the stuff of our worst nightmares. Everyone should know, by now, the threats the new government will pose – to the separation of powers, the rule of law, a free press, minority rights, gender equality, religious pluralism, a modern education, secularism. These are the building blocks of liberal democracy and the wrecking ball is being readied for each of them.
Each faction in the coming coalition, along with its collective priorities, present cause for deep concern, but it is the elevation of the Religious Zionist list which alarms most. The promise of master-inciter Ben Gvir as National Security minister is a gift for ironists but a nightmare for liberals and, especially, for Arab Israelis. Nor can one be sanguine about the prospect of Smotrich – the less spectacular but no less reactionary second heavyweight on the RZ ticket – as overlord of the West Bank, a fiefdom set to be included in his expanded finance portfolio.
Ben Gvir tells us he’s changed, that he’s outgrown the outrages of his misspent ‘Kahanist years’, but it would stretch credulity to breaking point to accept the plea of youthful exuberance when – to give but two examples from a truly long list of outrages – a portrait of Baruch Goldstein remained in pride of place in the Ben Gvir household after he had entered his fifth decade, and when he retains mutual friends (one of whom is soon to be his deputy) with Yigal Amir, Rabin’s assassin.
So, what to do? To protest, of course. For our defences of Israel to mean anything we must be publicly consistent. Having justly called attention to Israel’s record on gender equality and openness to LGBT culture – both regionally exceptional – we can hardly stand silent while proud and unreconstructed misogynistic homophobes sit in cabinet (where the number of women – which reached a record high under the previous government – will fall precipitously). Having championed her liberal democratic culture – also unique in the neighbourhood – we would stand justly accused of hypocrisy if we responded with a shrug to the coming assault on liberal democratic norms. And, having made capital in countering the charge of apartheid by pointing out the equal rights enjoyed by the Arab minority, we cannot sit idly by when Ben Gvir has them in his sights. Nor can we champion Israel as a refuge for beleaguered and threatened Jews worldwide when he and ‘Deputy Minister of Jewish Identity’ Avi Moaz join the Sephardi Chief Rabbi in a campaign which aims to restrict sanctuary – and the very right even to be a Jew – to those passing their own test of Halachic rigor. How much of Israel’s existing population would now not be Israeli – or, in too many cases, alive – had such a restrictive (and anti-Zionist) policy presided in the past? Nor – as its architects are undeniably aware – is the timing of this move anything less than cruel and unusual, and as an Englishman still ashamed of the 1905 Aliens Act and proud, by proxy, of the heroic campaign for Soviet Jewry, such callousness in the face of the latest iteration of Russian tyranny makes me shudder. We can stay silent on these issues, or we can continue to make Israel’s case to a hostile world: we cannot do both without making ourselves, and the cause, look foolish.
No, silence is not an option. This is a perfect opportunity, in fact, to confirm what we have long argued to anti-Zionist antisemites – that the bounds of acceptable criticism are capacious enough to contain all the stridency that is required. But let us be contextual, smart, and targeted in our opposition.
On context, the distinctly unholy but undeniably effective trinity of chauvinist provocation, obscurantist unreason, and savvy media exploitation is not unique to Israel. In fact, it is arguably the currently dominant trend in democratic politics. Across the globe, ethnic nationalism and reactionary religion are as reliable vote-winners as anything else right now; certainly more so, in too many places, than anything liberals and the left have to offer. We must recognise, therefore, both that Israel is not unique in its far-rightward lurch, and that in the Jewish State, as elsewhere, these forces speak to a powerful impulse among many in the country. And, since haughty disdain will neither defeat them nor wish away the role of our own failings in their rise, let us instead join our Israeli comrades – and the approximate half of the Israeli public who are devastated and casting about for answers – in the task of looking inward.
If those of us on the outside are to be useful allies, we must avoid nostalgia and make the choice to see Israel far more deeply and in all its complex variety – to broaden our own knowledge of Israel far beyond the bubble of cosmopolitan Tel Aviv, to its neglected peripheries from which the right draws much of its support. Some of us have dwelt a little too long in the Altneuland in our minds; Zionism and Israel have always had chauvinists and the ‘Jewish’ and ‘Democratic’ have always been in tension and battled for ascendancy.
We must, of course, amplify the voices of our beleaguered progressive Israeli brothers and sisters. For that reason, I have no problem with the lunch’s embrace of Michaeli. We might also abandon our tendency to evangelical purity and buttress the Lapidist centre and what we might call, entirely unironically, the liberal-democratic right of Benny Begin–Dan Meridor, too. We have a tendency to forget how hawkish some of our approved Israeli ‘left-wing’ heroes were, and that some of the biggest territorial concessions – and some of the most effective defences of the liberal democratic tradition – have been made or offered by rightists (See Begin, Sharon, Olmert). Israel is a complicated place requiring some special calibration of our leftist barometer.
Crucially, let us also engage in the mutual sharing of some home truths . The left cannot now indulge its predilections either for snobbishness or magical thinking. I take both the crisis in Israeli democracy and the rise in violent racism as seriously as anyone, but I would have us prevail, and not simply make ourselves feel righteous.
ACKNOWLEDGING PAINFUL REALITIES
We might start with an understanding of the battleground on which elections are currently fought and won. They are about policies and personalities, for sure. But here and now, in 2022, they are more about a basic national narrative – a vision of Israel’s identity as a nation and of Israel’s future. Herzl was a broad rather than a programmatic thinker, but one of genius, who knew a thing or two when he wrote of the public reduction of national platforms to the most elemental and emotionally satisfying level: ‘With nations one must speak in a childish language: a house, a flag, a song are the symbols of communication’. More particularly, elections are, tragically, about enemies, real and imagined. With all due respect to Hegelians everywhere, contemporary civilisation, and contemporary politics, show not an ever-increasing progression, but rather a return to the primeval. They are, tragically indeed, about the tiger in the brush, the rival tribe coming over the hill; the perception of far too many is that while we on the left would hide from the tiger and plead with the enemy, the Ben-Gvirs would shoot it and vanquish them. We can decry this; we can rationally defend the Bennett-Lapid government’s record on security and tut at the openness of credulous voters to the lies of snake oil salesmen. But fail to address it on its own terms and we really are history.
As an outside observer, the right, in all its guises, offered a strong and compelling vision of Israeli realities. The left and centre, with the exception (at least in my estimation) of Lapid, did not. Its central gambit – we are not Bibi – was sorely lacking and misjudged. In the race to find the pulse of the heartland, the right deployed a reliable satnav while the left resorted to the same old celestial navigation – and the night was cloudy.
WHERE TO GO
And so, our goal should be to aid our Israeli comrades in the soul searching required to form a new covenant with the Israeli people – no easy task. Yossi Mekelberg, always a humane and astute observer, put it succinctly: ‘[the renewal of the left] requires that these progressives develop a program which embraces left-liberal-progressive values, but in a manner which does not feel threatening to certain segments in society that adhere to traditional values, and also is not susceptible to populism in its nationalistic, or religious or messianic forms.’
He is right, and neither contempt for the periphery nor can’t-we-all-get-along kumbaya homiletics will get it done. The fears and hatreds of those who voted right and far-right must be taken seriously and, yes, to a certain extent respected. Comrades might shudder, but this is simple pragmatism. I hope we might also be bold enough – and not just in Israel – to address the rage and ennui attendant to free-market capitalist inequality; populism feeds off such despair, while doing nothing genuine to lessen it. This is the task of Social Democrats everywhere in stemming the nativist tide. For, either the number of organically incorrigible racists has increased exponentially and globally, or else nativism answers an acute need in societies at this stage of late modernity – a need we have singularly failed to satisfy and now must find a non-nativist way of so doing. Thankfully, the only option which holds intellectual water is also the one which allies itself to remedial action.
Meeting the right partially on its own terms does not require anyone to acquiesce in the dangers I have described above – in the relegation of Israel to a ‘small, orthodox, and illiberal’ mess (Herzl again, with a capital ‘O’ implied). Far from it; as Mekelberg demands, it is only required to fit a ‘left-liberal-progressive’ agenda to the actual lived experiences and in many cases perfectly legitimate concerns of the heartland. A good start might be to finally, decades too late, acknowledge the disparities between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim and actually offer something substantive to the latter; ‘levelling up’ may not now be faring too well in the UK, but should be a focus of a re-energised centre-left in Israel. Similarly, the world over the left surrenders to the right concern for crime and its effects, implying from its ivory tower that such worries are parochial and divisive. They are not, and indicating to voters whose lives are blighted by this scourge that you care only for the crimes of Aryeh Deri and those of which Benjamin Netanyahu stands accused is poor strategy and worse politics. Combine a tough approach with an ambitious and humane programme for addressing its root causes; walk and chew gum simultaneously.
With religious observance now a reliable voting indicator, embark on a serious programme to recruit a new generation of centre-left leadership from amongst traditional religious Jewish youth; this constituency must see something other than secularists when it looks at the centre-left slate. And, in the pursuit of Israeli-Palestinian peace, be firm in stressing its necessity but also recognise that current public scepticism, on both sides, reflects material realities. It may be depressing to have to start at the beginning with exercises in ‘trust-building’, but that is where we are; promising a separation from the Palestinians, imperative as it is, looks utopian, and with good reason given the terrorism of the last year. Lapid’s recommitment to two states at the UN was good and laudable geopolitics, but won him no voters who were not going to vote for him anyway; the ends must stay the same, but the means and presentation need more careful thought. True leadership – Rabinist leadership – certainly involves exhorting your compatriots to risk in the pursuit both of justice and what you believe to be in the truer Israeli interest. But to lead one has to win; and to win one has to have an acute sense of public’s tolerance both for change and to an alteration of the risk calculus.
It may be, as some of the tired and cynical voices suggest, that not only is Israel closed to any talk of an accommodation with the Palestinians, but has also outlived its capacity to accommodate Orthodox religiosity and the corrosive effects of conflict within a Social Democratic framework. If there is, tragically, evidence for the former, then I think the case for the latter far weaker. Nor do I think Israelis – and Palestinians – can afford the luxury of such fatalism. I certainly see resolution in Lapid, in whom the fire still burns and whose gimlet eye remains undimmed. (And whose Yesh Atid, let us not forget, had, in isolation, a truly impressive election result.) The left must venture out to meet him on the ledge.
If the results are seismic (they are) and if I argue for a reformulation (I do), then it is essential to note that in other, more profound senses, absolutely nothing has changed, either for Israel or its progressive friends. Zionism remains – though not in the Ben Gvirist interpretation – a righteous but maligned cause worthy and in need of a vigorous defence. Israel remains acutely vulnerable; its enemies are no less inflexible or formidable, nor are they of less murderous intent (the bombs arrived in Jerusalem right on cue if we needed a reminder). The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, meanwhile, remains in need of a just and as equitable-as-possible solution. Ben Gvir has not fundamentally altered this state of affairs. He has given us another front on which to fight, and one requiring subtlety and sound judgement. Let us, then, follow a Ben-Gurionist principle and fight Ben Gvir as if there were no Iran, Palestinian terror, or BDS; and Iran, Palestinian terror, and BDS as if there were no Ben Gvir.
In fighting for an end to international delegitimisation campaigns, for a robust response to Iran and other eliminationist threats, for the outlawing of the IRGC, for a recognition of and solidarity against the terrorist menace, we not only do what is right, and not only serve Israel; we also play a (small, for sure) part in diminishing the appeal of Ben Gvir. For, while we probably can’t assume responsibility for voters who seek a halachic kingdom, to the extent that we have allowed a world in which Israelis who don’t desire theocracy have felt compelled to turn knowingly to such a coalition, the global community of the outraged might at least contemplate its own culpability.
ON THE NEED FOR OCCASIONAL RETICENCE
A word or two on the necessity of caution: the unique campaign of delegitimisation targeted against Israel means, I think, that this government must be critiqued in a subtler, and occasionally more circumspect, way abroad than by the left in Israel, and than we might apply elsewhere. No progressive lover of Italy would feel any tension between their friendship and public condemnation of the incumbent Meloni administration: the distinction between government and people (and national legitimacy) is implicit and, while I wish the world could be trusted to apply the same standard to Israel, it cannot. Relative strength applies too: when the leftist friend of America condemns Trumpism, loudly and unfiltered, it is not that America has that many more friends on the ‘anti-Imperialist’ left, or in Europe more generally, than does Israel – simply that it has far less need of them; it has the luxury of rather broader shoulders than the tiny, embattled Jewish state. Our zeal, then, must not alienate potential allies, especially amongst the young, already predisposed by the zeitgeist to follow the anti-Zionist herd. None of this is to recommend a self-imposed omerta which neither our conscience nor the enormity of the situation can sustain – only to counsel care and sobriety in our words and actions.
We must be calculated in our public interventions for other reasons of pragmatism, too. Given that Ben Gvir and (more importantly) his voters have shown a quite unprecedented disregard for the sensitivities of the Diaspora – consequences be hanged – it is fair to assume that gentiles arguing that his is a blasphemous deviation from both Herzlian and Jabotinskian Zionism will not go down well with his voters.
After the praiseworthy, all-too-brief period of the Change Bloc coalition, Israel has emerged as the latest front in the worldwide battle against populist demagoguery. A successful counterattack will require renewal, fresh thinking, and difficult self-analysis. In aiding our Israeli partners to begin this process in earnest, and in combination with continuing to fight the tide of international delegitimisation, progressive friends of Israel can accomplish far more than by succumbing to a tempting, but ultimately only self-gratifying, recourse to despair and anger.
 While the Corbynites will tell you its now-leader Sir Keir Starmer is Tory-lite, that designation – party of the left – is still accurate enough.
 Geographical-cultural distinctions frankly make a mockery of terms like ‘progressive’ and ‘liberal’, and I use them knowing their limitations. In the US, and elsewhere, ‘liberal’ is used (pejoratively as often as not) to refer to someone of broadly left of centre views. In the UK, ‘liberalism’ is associated with a very different and more centrist philosophical and political tradition. I certainly admire much of this tradition, but I am not a liberal; I am of the left. Similarly, ‘progressive’ is a slippery and perhaps uselessly imprecise term, except that, again, it offers some vague sense of a ‘leftish’ caste of mind. Radical critics will also scoff at my classifying Israeli Labor as ‘left’. I do, nonetheless, and include it, along with what remains of what was once Meretz, in my discussion of Israeli ‘progressives’ or the Israeli Zionist ‘left’. And this, bearing in mind that, for diverse and often excellent reasons, many Israeli voters subscribing generally to the leftist platform may have cast their ballot this time for other parties.
 Polling shows a decline amongst Jewish-Israelis in support for the two-state paradigm, with attitudes amongst Palestinians even more pessimistic.