As some of you might have noticed, I haven’t been blogging much lately. This sort of blog-lag has happened a few times before, since I started this blog in 2012, and this time, it is not —thanks to family and and friends and community and running and my adorable medium sized dog et cetera— due to burnout from either writing or political involvement. I’ve been doing a lot of both, primarily in the form of these two projects. Still, I’ve missed the blog, and so, when I recently read an excellent, long, complex, and brilliant blogpost by an Israeli blogger named Idan Landau, I decided to translate it. While I don’t agree with all of the points he makes (although I do agree with most of them), I feel like I can honestly say I learned, or at least was challenged to think about what I believe and why, throughout virtually every minute of my reading (and then translating) of this post.
In my correspondence with Idan Landau —telling him I thought readers of this blog would appreciate his post, and asking his permission to translate— he expressed a measure of skepticism as to how much readers who are not actively engaged in the weeds of Israeli Left politics would be interested in the piece; I argued that I thought that they – you – would find a lot of it compelling, both those of you who closely follow the dynamics of the Israeli Left, and those of you who are involved and/or interested in the Left, in general. Maybe not in every detail —when Idan Landau wrote about the Left in this piece, he was referring to the Israeli Left, so some of the myths and analyses will thus be more and less relevant to other contexts — but in the general thrust of his arguments. I think that it’s well-worth reading. For those of you who are able to and enjoy reading Hebrew, the Hebrew original is here on Landau’s excellent blog, לא למות טיפש, or “Don’t Die Dumb.”
For the rest of you, grab a cup of coffee, find a comfortable chair.
6 Myths of the Left, by Idan Landau
You can relax: This is not another fiery tirade against about “the problem with the Left.” Even during the periods in which this blog was more active, “the problem with the Left” didn’t concern it. From my perspective, the major problem with/for the Left has been and remains the nationalistic-capitalistic regime of privileges in Israel. Denunciation and public crucification of “traitors to the cause” does not constitute a political agenda, regardless of the spiritual needs it may satisfy.
My goal in this piece, as such, is not to wag my finger at anyone; not to dictate, and not to admonish. My goal is more modest: to try to free the imaginations (and through them, the actions) of those on the Left who are chained by certain ways of thinking, among them— myself. Therefore, these ideas are directed not only toward you, but also toward me. In the practice of engaging in politics, and more so, in the practice of struggle, it is easy to lose sight of the bigger picture. It is easy to forget what is more important and what is less. What we want to work and what actually works. It can be said that I tried to answer [the Israeli rock band] Mashina’s piercing question, “Why should I deal with politics now?”, in a non-polemical manner, even as answers [to Mashina’s question] will be happily received. Experience shows that few will budge from their opinions.
And also this: I did not try to sew despair, or to inspire hope. These will be, at the most, byproducts of the analysis.
And so, the six myths that I will present here are aimed at the beliefs and behaviors of — let’s say cautiously — certain segments of the political Left in Israel, without committing to a singular meaning of “Left.” Toward those who are convinced that in order to fulfill the Left’s political goals…
1. “We need to achieve a political majority.”
This is the most basic and most damaging myth. There is no basis for the claim that ‘’only a camp that turns into a political majority can fulfill its goals.’’ Buried within this naive belief, taken directly from seventh grade citizenship textbooks, is a paradox: A camp cannot become a political majority as long as it cannot present to the public achievements that will convince them that it is worth voting for this camp. But if its impossible to achieve anything without a majority, then how is it possible to obtain a majority?
In practice, it is very much possible to achieve without a majority. It is also possible to maneuver the majority from the sidelines. The founders of the settlements of Kfar Etzion and Sebastia, Hana Porat and Moshe Levinger, did not stand at the head of any political camp when they created facts on the ground right after the Six Day War. It is doubtful if they had more than 100 people on their side. The “Gush Emunim” movement, which was founded after the Yom Kippur War, represented a tiny minority of the religious public, and certainly of the general public. On the subject of their achievements in the years that followed, to the point of no-return, there is no need to elaborate.
Many less dramatic examples exist, too. The Refusenik protest movement during the First Lebanon War, “Four Mothers,” social and ecological movements about specific issues — sexual harassment, minors’ rights, sub-contracted teachers, pollution on the beaches, oil shale, public housing — none of these struggles represented the “majority.” They represented small parts of the public, aware and informed about the ways in which politics impact their fates, dedicated and committed to their goals, in a long term sense, unafraid of personal sacrifices. These struggles reaped successes, despite the fact that large parts of the public were not even aware of them.
What, anyhow, is the “Majority” in modern society? Faceless, identity-less masses; clay in the hands of propagandists and creators of cheap entertainment. The Majority does not take part in the political process, either due to apathy or exclusion. The vote cast every four years does not create change for the future, but rather, at most, ratifies political change that has already taken place, if even that.
As such, leave the Majority alone. The Majority will never be in your pockets. The convergence of a developed set of values and mass political action by the Majority, is an extremely rare event. It is called a Social Revolution, and in the history of each nation, there are no more than two or three such moments. Most of them end in a bloodbath. Regular democracies, which celebrate “majority rule,” in practice actually function as brutal battlefields for united interest groups, each of which represents a minority, and each of which alternately succeeds and loses. The real majority, i.e., the population, yawns in apathy at the spectacle. In shaky democracies like Israel, in which large segments of the public are excluded, either economically or ethnically, from the centers of power, it can be ruled conclusively that “the majority does not rule.”
The most determined minority rules.
2. “We must win hearts and minds over to the values of equality, justice and humanism.”
Yes, for sure. Sometime. No doubt. Very important.
But actually, not urgent. In fact, in the short term — this goal is superfluous. “Values education” is not an easily-digestible kit distributed by the Pedagogical Center in the Education Ministry. Values, as a way of life and not simply as rhetoric, are something that is built over many years. What happens between the walls of the schools is just a small part of this process, which is, more than anything, influenced by the general public environment in a society, by conversations with friends, by newspaper headlines. And we must admit that in the current period, this environment in Israel is poisonous and the polar opposite of equality, justice and humanism. To reverse it would be a project that would take decades, just as bringing it about took decades of increasingly extreme indoctrination. If anti-black racism in the United States hasn’t evaporated decades after it was made illegal, there is no reason to think that Israel will turn into a progressive society in our lifetime. It won’t happen. Wake up.
These are hard truths to digest, but an open-eyed political struggle cannot allow itself to ignore them. Such a struggle must internalize their meaning, and divert its limited resources, growing smaller and smaller each day, to effective political horizons. What do we want to achieve? To eliminate the regime of apartheid in the Territories? To return to every Palestinian sovereignty over her life, her income, her place of living? These are difficult goals to achieve, but they are feasible. To create a value-change in a society in which half of its population supports the expulsion of Arabs? That is not a feasible goal.
Conclusion: We should adopt an approach that focuses on behaviors, and not on mentalities. We should try to shape deeds and not beliefs. Fortunately for us, the path toward changing behaviors need not run through altered beliefs. Criminals of every sort cease their crimes not because they have been convinced that they are wrong, but rather because they did a simple act of arithmetic: The price became greater than the profit. This basic ability, to calculate price versus profit, is much more widespread than are humanistic values. This is an advantage that we should not disregard.
To be clear, there is nothing wrong with educating for humanist values. My claim is that in the short term, it has no impact. It has supreme importance in the long term, in that every achievement obtained by the Left through “effective politics” will not last long in a society that is still tainted to its core with racism and xenophobia. Education professionals tasked with educating for values know this well. My argument is not geared toward them, but rather toward those on the Left who are still trapped in the illusion that in order to create meaningful change here, we need to “convince” as many people as possible that justice, equality and human dignity are more important than the sanctity of the Nation and the Land.
Effective politics, on the other hand, recognizes the sensitivities of the regime, and focuses its efforts on them. The boycott drives the government (and its media mouthpieces) crazy? Excellent. Exposure of the crimes committed by the Civil Administration embarrasses the “only democracy in the Middle East?” Excellent. Cross-Wall cooperation between Jews and Palestinians enrages the Commissars? Excellent.
How do we discern what is a sensitive point for the government? As in a body: when you press on a such a point, out comes a yell. We simply have to see what works. Here it is important to distinguish between a yell for the sake of propaganda, and a genuine yell. The government will frequently fabricate an enraged response to meaningless, fangless actions by the Opposition, in order to distract attention from real and severe crimes. Almost all of the Israeli political system, with its false dichotomy between “left” and “right,” is based off of this game. If so, how can we know that our action is effective against the regime — the system of apartheid and oligarchy — and not just against whoever is currently at its head? It is simple. If the Opposition attacks you as well, then your action has threatened something bigger than the distribution of political wealth between the two camps. In summary: If you anger [MK Isaac] Herzog and [MK Yair] Lapid (or whoever replaces them), you are on the right path.
Once again, this is not to argue against the importance of the dozens of organizations who act to minimize the suffering of the Occupation’s victims: in documenting, in helping with the olive harvest, in medical care, in escorting children to school, in legal representation. These victims cannot wait patiently for the Israeli boot, which has been resting on their necks for almost half a decade, to decide to remove itself. Humanitarian action, which disgusts the hearts of certain “strategic” radicals (some of whom blame it for the “eternalization of the Occupation”), is in fact the basic human obligation toward people who are injured, starved and impoverished at the hands of all of our emissaries.
3. “The Left needs to transcend all of its internal divisions and unite into a single political body.”
And then what? If we combined one one-thousandth and another one-thousandth and another one-thousandth, let’s say 100 times, what would we end up with? One hundred one-thousandths, a tenth. Still a tiny minority. Still far from “tipping the scales.” And anyway, what coalition would agree to the participation of Arab MKs, and what sort of Left can we have here without the participation of Arabs?
The entirety of the Left today — depending on how you define “Left” — is no more than one quarter of the population. And that is a very generous estimate, which includes many who hate Arabs, despise organized labor, and are just chauvinists. So what, precisely, will we gain when this entirety unites? What will we be able to do after the unification that we were not able to do before? Cut down administrative budgets?
The argument that “our power is in our unity” [Hebrew link to an Op Ed by former Meretz MK Nitzan Horowitz, which I couldn’t find in English – MRZ] rests on the illusion that “quantity creates quality.” Reality is much more complicated. Often times, quantity diminishes quality. The Left in Israel, minuscule and divided as it is, is struggling on dozens of difficult fronts simultaneously, and it’s difficult to see how exactly the unification of all of the Left’s bodies and organizations will advance these struggles, which demand expertise, Sisyphean documentation efforts, mastery of different public spheres (the courts, the media, Knesset Committees), and the building of trust and connections with oppressed groups. Large parts of these groups, by the way, are hostile toward one another. The demand to “unify at any price” ignores each oppressed group’s natural preference to firstly achieve its own goals, before fighting others’ battles, let alone the battles of the Others that they abhor. Is it right to sacrifice the just struggles of each community in the name of “education” toward universal rights?
Here is some startling news for those who are not meaningfully involved in the efforts: The Left is not “divided.” “The internal divisions” are not substantial. Members of Btselem do not spend their time engaged in battles against Yesh Din, and ASSAF does not put sticks in the wheels of the Hotline for Refugees and Migrant Workers. The good people active in these organizations understand very well that they are part of the same wide political-social-cultural front fighting for radical changes to the current regime. Everyone in his or her limited power is trying to chip away at the wall that is slowly closing around us all. Everyone is worried, and rightly so, that if she or he were to stop cracking away in her corner and would instead join some amorphous “unity” effort, the wall in that corner would grow thicker, and flourish, and the people she cares about would be crushed underneath it. Every day brings with it new injustices, new dangers; living as a Leftist in Israel today is like standing straight in a great muddy deluge rushing down a steep slope. If the Leftist stands with a few other companions, they may be able to defend those standing behind them. If they were to stand in a single, united front with all of their partners, they would be able to watch as the flood swept down all of the other slopes on which no one remained.
However you count the Left, it is small. So small that a thought of “how to turn into a majority in our time” is but a sad joke. When you are small and forced to struggle against forces greater than yourself, you do not waste your time on calculations of size and quantity, but rather focus your thinking and efforts on those action-horizons in which quantity does not matter. One camera in Hebron, one document leaking from a secret meeting between a Minister and an Oligarch: these can be “game changers” no less than a demonstration of hundreds of thousands (which is not going to happen anytime soon, at least not concerning the issues that actually matter).
4. “We must not cooperate with anyone who serves the existing regime.”
Nu, this sort of fastidiousness is a privilege reserved only for furious armchair-Leftists; and let’s be honest, if these armchair-Leftists were to take a look in any direction outside of their armchair, their gaze would fall upon someone who is serving the existing regime. The only logical conclusion of such a purist axiom is that no one should cooperate with anyone else, except for their own bellybuttons (and it wouldn’t hurt to be suspicious of your own bellybutton too, from time to time).
Here’s a recent example. After a long and Sisyphean struggle, the current Knesset passed The Amendments to the Public Housing Transparency Bill [Note: Landau again linked to a Hebrew Haaretz article which I could not find in English; I chose to link to Rabbis for Human Rights’ website, as the organization has been involved in the aforementioned efforts -MRZ] which obligates public housing companies to regularly update the tenants in regard to their rights, their obligations, and every process ongoing in their cases. The law also obligates the companies to update those who are eligible for public housing —who have been waiting for years [Hebrew] for housing— about every decision related to their cases. In a civilized country, such a law would not be thought of as an “achievement” [Hebrew]. After all, we are talking about the most basic obligation of a government toward its citizens; prior to the obligation to fulfill citizens’ rights stands the obligation to not hide from them the information needed in order to obtain their rights. But in Israel, as we know, the government has neglected its obligation for years, and exploited the tenants’ and eligible tenants’ lack of information in order to dispossess them of their legal rights.
The Amendments to the Public Housing Transparency Bill seems to be one of the most important achievements by the Left in recent years. Not incidentally, media coverage of this achievement and its implications was pushed into the margins. Behind this Bill stand two legislators: MK Dov Khenin and MK Orly Levy-Abekasis. The latter is known as a member of a radical right-wing party, which possess fascist traits (such as advocating stripping citizenship from Arab citizens of the Triangle). The Minister Miri Regev, not exactly a human rights warrior herself, advanced this Bill.
And so, was it a mistake to cooperate with MK Levy-Abekasis and Minister Regev? Let’s recall that the role of Members of Knesset in such struggles is important but not central. Members of Knesset are the “finishers” of a relay race, those who translate the fruits of ongoing public struggle to an act of legislation. The struggle itself has been coordinated for years in the civil sphere, by the Public Housing Forum and other groups of dedicated activists, who were the only ones on the Left to show signs of life [Hebrew] during the last elections. These activists correctly identified their partners in struggle in the Knesset, and created an ad-hoc coalition with them. Do the Public Housing activists vote for Hadash or Yisrael Beitenu? An irrelevant question. From an ethical, political and economic perspective, their struggle was a Leftist struggle par excellence. The fact that the parliamentary Left in israel did not place public housing at the forefront of its agenda is a testament to the emptiness of the categories of “Left” and “Right” in Israeli politics.
In summary: In just, principled, correct political struggles, there is no place for taste and smell. A partner in struggle is tested only on the basis of his or her actions — not on the basis of declarations, political identifications, skin color, race or sex. This is all the more true in regards to a small, weak Left, which is not able to enlist a wide coalition with the stroke of an SMS, and thus does not have the privilege to rummage around the drawers of any potential partner.
This does not mean that cooperation on one political front should lead to agreeing with or forgiving the same partners on others. It certainly does not mean that the Left has to “soften” or “Centerize” its messages in order to suck up to the Center. This losing strategy has never given a thing to Leftist struggles, and one need to do no more than recall the names Haim Ramon, Benyamin Ben Elazar and Haim Herzog in order to illustrate this point.
We should struggle against racists when they advance racist policies, but there is nothing preventing us from working with them when the result is egalitarian policy (and even in cases in which this was not their intention; results are more important than intentions). This is not easy. Truly, it is easier to stay by ourselves in the playground and build imaginary friends in the sand. You don’t have to strain and make sacrifices for the sake of a just political struggle. There will always be other who will struggle for you. But you do owe them respect. Sit quietly, don’t interrupt, don’t disdain.
5. “The Left needs to reach out to … and not to …”
For example: The Left needs to reach out to an Israeli audience and not to an international audience. For example: the Left needs to reach out to the Periphery and not to the Center. To Arabs and not to Jews. To the heart and not to the brain. Truly, there is no end to such recommendations.
So perhaps one last recommendation: Enough of the recommendations of “this yes, that no.” Such recommendations undermine the most fundamental basis of the Left — the universal value of human beings, as they are. Political proclivities based on fences and exclusion do not advance the values of the Left. And they don’t work. Yes, it is extremely important to speak with Mizrahim and the Periphery, but how does this negate turning to international bodies, as the Israeli regime silences and foils all criticism? Must the just struggle of a handicapped Jewish person from Be’er Sheva for his right to housing —a struggle that has a chance of succeeding through intra-Israeli means — come at the expense of a no less just struggle of Bedouins in the Negev whose village is not recognized, and against whom the State has enacted policies of discrimination and theft for five decades, and for whom the chances of success without international support are virtually none?
Must solidarity with Jews exclude Arabs? Must solidarity with the LGBT community exclude the religious community? The accelerated of Israeli society, to the point of general fragmentation, is not a “natural” phenomenon; it is the result of an ethnocratic regime of privatization, based on the principle of “divide and conquer,” which advocates sectoral politics at the expense of the greater good. It is the result of the sacrifice of rights discourse — or, more precisely, discourse concerning the obligations of the State to its citizens — at the altar of identity discourse. Does the Left need to take these sectoral buffer-zones as facts, as the topography of the political field to which we must adjust ourselves, or can we challenge them? And is there a better way to undermine the “sectoral cages” than to adopt pluralistic, heterogenous, multi-dimensional politics, which lay wreckage to current orders?
Leftists, and also other general kibbitzers, tend to give out advice to the Left about how it should and shouldn’t carry out its struggles. The recommendation to avoid such advice-giving is not simply another act of such advice-giving: Simply, it is a call to return to goals and basic values their birthrights, and to recognize this: different are the pathways and methods and communities needed to get to to each goal and each value.
6. “The Left has already lost” / “In the end, the Left will win.”
Meaningless myths. Define “already,” define “end,” define “Left,” define “loss,” define “victory.” You can’t, and even if you could, you won’t agree with each other [Hebrew] about the definitions. So what can we agree on? That there is suffering in the world, that much of it is unnecessary suffering, and that we are responsible for a small part of this unnecessary suffering, and that we have the tools to prevent it. It is enough to know what to do in this life, without knowing how it will end, and who will win in the end.
Update: A version of this translation was published in the Australian Jewish Democratic Society’s newsletter, Just Voices, in July 2016.