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The Israeli Left

Posted by Jew from Jersey
15 July 2003

A while ago I was watching “Godfather II” on TV with my wife. There’s a great scene where Michael confronts his brother Fredo for collaborating with members of the Hyman Roth faction behind Michael’s back. Michael, head of the Corleone family, had once been Roth’s business partner, but now their relations have gone sour after an attempt has been made on Michael’s life. Michael accuses Fredo of providing Roth’s men with inside information that facilitated the attack. Fredo provides three lines of defense for himself. First, he tells Michael: “I didn’t know it was going to be a hit.” Michael is incredulous. Then Fredo claims Roth’s men assured him that Michael had been “tough on the negotiations” and that Fredo’s help would be “good for the family.” “And you believed that?” asks Michael. “They said there was something in it for me!” Fredo replies. I said to my wife: “Fredo is just like the Israeli left.”

This wasn’t always my view of the Israeli left. Seven years earlier, I had just started college in the United States. Less than a year after having completed my service in the IDF, a political science major asked me over dinner in a university dining hall whether I thought Israel was ceding too much land. “It’s not Israel’s to cede,” was my answer. I certainly didn’t think it was going to be a hit. I thought Israel was being tough on the negotiations and that it was for the good of the family. And I really did think there was something in it for me. In fact, I could already feel my first down payment in the fuzzy warm glow of smugness that lingered after my reply. What Fredo Corleone did out of stupidity and cupidity, I did out of smugness and self-righteousness, we all did, and some of us still do.

As with all conversions, I started by repressing any facts that didn’t fit in with my vision. Then I experienced a new vision that made me remember every inconvenient fact I had ever repressed. The vision came to me in a state of semi-consciousness. I was lying on my couch listening to a record by the Israeli Left-wing poet Jonathan Geffen. Maybe listening is the wrong word. I was dozing and the record was playing. But I had certainly listened to the record many times before. I practically knew it by heart. In one track, Geffen is barking orders the way a sergeant-major does at troops in formation. “The company will bend its swords into ploughshares,” he barks, “Ploughshaaaaaaaaaare arms!” The sound of clanking metal is heard. Then Geffen reads a poem about a white dove. “The white dove has grown old, other birds her age already have grandchildren... Tell her that her time is up, that she is free.” At this point a choir of angels (actually singers David Broza and Yael Levy) burst into a chord of limitless heavenly joy.

I lay dozing hearing this chord of peace, like I’d heard it many times before. Then, suddenly, like an echo inside me, I heard another sound joining it. It was a sound I’d heard several years earlier, when I was a soldier in Gaza. It was the sound of a hundred thousand Palestinians chanting. They had been chanting slogans, I imagine, but from where we were it sounded like an incoherent drone. It struck me as a mere curiosity at the time. We were a safe distance away. Anyway, we had enough weapons to blast ourselves out if need be. In the end, tear gas sufficed. Besides, soldiers, especially young ones, are rarely scared of anything, even when they should be. But the sound had a certain quality. It was definitely in a minor key, a slightly dissonant one. I had forgotten it, but now it came back to me. It was the harmonic counterpart of the melodic major chord on the record. It was also the missing piece to the quasi-religious political scenario dreamt up by Geffen and his friends. Their vision of peace was for them alone. It had no room for anyone else, for anyone who refused to ploughshare their arms on command.

My comrades in arms and I left Gaza in a cloud of tear gas and a barrage of stones. In the not too distant background we could hear shots, fired in celebration, I imagine. I remember one soldier asked: “Why are they making it so difficult for us to retreat? Isn’t that what they want?” “They’ve been waiting for this day for 25 years,” I said, “you think they’re going to take it quietly?” I thought it was a clever answer at the time.

Something else that didn’t bother me until years later was the arrival of the PLO militia. The standing army had left Gaza city several weeks earlier. The ragtag unit I evacuated with, the last out of Gaza as far as I know, was a temporary assemblage of troops donated by other units in the area to make up a sort of skeleton crew that would hold down the former army bases in the city until the PLO arrived. I imagine most of the other soldiers in this motley outfit were to their regular units what I was to mine: expendable.

So for a few days at a time, we squatted in various deserted barracks. We explored the corridors and basements, scavanging for useful mementos. I found a book in the prison of the former Gaza division headquarters. It was an old economics textbook. It had the Red Cross emblem on the front page and someone’s name written in Arabic in pen. Most of our meals consisted of rice and tuna fish with onions. We joked about opening a restaurant called “Rice’n’tuna” when we got out. We had no idea when we were going to leave each base or the city. Then one day, we got an order to move to another base. Finally, we got the order to leave the city.

As I walked the deserted corridors, I imagined the new masters who would soon be occupying the formidable looking fortresses. I knew we wouldn’t be having tea and biscuits with them, but I thought we would at least get to see them. We never did. We would load our meager equipment onto the jeeps. We would stand at attention as our flag was lowered for the last time. One sergeant-major made us sweep out all the rooms we had been living in. Crowds would begin to amass outside the gates hours before we left. They always seemed to know about our marching orders before we did. I saw many strange things during those weeks. Anyone who’s ever been a soldier knows that sentry duty is sacred. A sentry never leaves his post until he’s relieved. But that week I saw the sentry close the gate behind him and hop on the last jeep. I saw this happen more than once.

But where were the PLO? Reading the news after I got back, I assumed they had made it to their new positions OK. I felt slightly cheated. I’d wanted to at least wish them good luck and maybe let them know I was proud to withdraw from Gaza. Years later I read an eye-witness account by a foreign journalist who said they had ridden into Gaza on their jeeps shooting in the air and hardly breaking for pedestrians. They had wanted it to look like a military conquest. They had marched all the way in from Tunis like Mao Zedong across the mountains of China and driven the evil occupiers out. We’d given them the city on a silver platter. We’d risked our lives to guard their future headquarters for them. We’d even swept the friggin’ floors. Even our ragtag skeleton unit could have taken them out if we’d wanted to. The standing army that had been there weeks earlier could have taken out them and all the Arab armies in North Africa.

Speaking of Arab armies in North Africa, an acquaintance who’s been to Cairo tells of a museum of the “October” (Yom Kippur) war that goes straight from the Egyptian crossing of the Suez canal in 1973 to the Israeli withdrawal in 1982. There’s no mention of the Israeli re-taking of the canal later in 1973, and the peace treaty in 1979. No, the mighty Arab fighters simply drove out the occupiers, minus a few unimportant details. The white dove is growing old, indeed.

The day after the withdrawal, our ragtag unit was camped out in the temporary barracks of one of the former Gaza units. This unit was now billeted in tents in the mud a kilometer or two from the Gaza strip. Bulldozers were all around. We were waiting for orders to disband so we could return to our respective regular units. Someone had a radio and told us Yasir Arafat had just announced in a mosque in South Africa that peace was a tactic to confuse the enemy, that he would never give up maximalist PLO claims. Other soldiers threw up their hands and shook their heads. “He has to say that,” I said, “It’s a tactic to keep the hard-liners in check.”

Did you ever notice the way Arabs are portrayed in Israeli feature films? They’re sort of cross between good Samaritans and lost puppies. They’re always apologizing, they’re never hostile, they’re always better than all of the Jewish characters and they’re so modest. In Fictitious Marriage (Haim Buzaglo 1986), Bashir the bellhop tells his Jewish employer Yehudit not to follow her plans to move to America, because he so likes working for her. She suggests he accompany her to America to be a bellhop in a hotel she’ll open there. “Thank you,” says Bashir, “but I could never leave our country.” But the most interesting feature of this film is that the Palestinian cause is not even embodied by an Arab, but by Eldi (Shlomo Bar-Aba), the Jewish schoolteacher who impersonates a Gazan laborer. Eldi (or “Susu,” as he is now called, taking his name from an Arab muppet from an Israeli TV show) befriends real Gazan laborers and shares their plight. They are all self-effacing and sweet as pie, but their story is told through the eyes of Eldi/Susu anyway. Apparently, this is less intimidating since the audience knows “Susu” isn’t really an Arab. But that’s not all: as Susu, Eldi is mute as well. This despite the fact that we see Eldi speaking perfectly good Arabic earlier in the film. It seems even a fake Arab can’t be allowed to speak if he is to represent Arabs the way Israeli filmmakers would like the Israeli public to see them.

Other movies are even worse. The all time biscuit goes to the Samir the cook in Life according to Agfa (Assi Dayan 1992). Not only has Samir been beaten by soldiers at a roadblock, but he tells his Jewish employers he hit his head on a door. He is then serenaded by Danny Litani, one of Jonathan Geffen’s old friends from the ‘70s.

TV shows repeated this pattern as well. One of the most popular programs in the 80’s and 90’s must have been zehu ze (“This is it”), a show as dear to my heart as any Israeli movie, record, or book. The show often dealt with cultural and political issues and in the early 90’s portrayed many Arab bellhops and janitors. One episode traces the 25 years relationship between an Israeli (Moni Mushonov) and a Gazan Palestinian (Shlomo Bar-Aba again). In the first scene it is 1967. Mushonov invades Bar-Aba’s house and is offered a cup of coffee. Later Bar-Aba is sweeping a street in Mushonov’s neighborhood in Israel. Later Mushonov learns that Bar-Aba has been arrested. His son was caught throwing stones. Bar-Aba is never less than the height of courtesy and good-neighborliness. In the final scene, Peace has prevailed and Mushonov brings his whole family for coffee in Bar-Aba’s house in Gaza, now newly renovated.

The exception to this pattern is the Israeli Arab actor Muhamad Bakri. He is supposedly a great stage actor, but I don’t go to the theatre much. In the movies, he always plays the same role. He is more openly defiant than the other Arab characters, although his defiance is mainly expressed through stoic silence. Sometimes, he’ll voice a lone mysterious sentence. Apparently, he was not happy to play Nabil the kindly road-sweeper or somesuch, so he created his own cliché. In Cup Final (Eran Riklis 1993), he plays a gallant PLO commander in the Lebanon war who befriends his Israeli hostage, without compromising his own nationalist values or his dignity. No wonder the real PLO is so disappointing! In Beyond the Walls (Uri Barbash 1984), a film about a prison riot, Bakri is almost Christ-like. He has even portrayed this role in a European film, Hannah K (Costa-Gavras 1978).

Another interesting Arab actor in Israeli films is Makram Khouri. He is also supposed to be a great stage actor. But in Israeli films he usually plays these tough Jewish guys, usually officers of some kind. Israelis everywhere know him as “Ben-Shushan,” the Dirty Harry style cop who cracks the case (and a few skulls) in the cult crime thriller Under the Nose (Yankol Goldvaser 1982). His most ambitious role was perhaps that of the Jewish patriarch in the epic Michel Ezra Safra and Sons. He even plays the Israeli military governor in Wedding in Galilee (Michel Khleifi 1987), a movie often described as the first Palestinian feature film.

The Israeli Left has always been for peace. The trouble is that they’re for peace with Bashir the bellhop and Susu and Samir the cook, who don’t exist. How could they exist? They’re not even human. The PLO the Israeli Left negotiates with is commanded by Muhamad Bakri and Makram Khouri. Such artists would not survive a single day under PLO rule or under any Arab government, for that matter. They know that, just ask them.

I grew up in the Israel of Jonathan Geffen, Danny Litani, and Assi Dayan. They were the good guys. Even if I don’t buy their politics now, they still look friendly to me. I can’t say the same of the younger generation of Israeli Leftists, who seem alien and mean-spirited by comparison. Jonathan Geffen’s son Aviv is about my age. While I joined most of our generation in the army, Geffen the younger got a psychiatric discharge and proceeded to become famous writing songs about how people mistreated him because he hadn’t served in the army. He was such a sensitive soul, you see, and had been growing his long hair far too long merely to have it shorn in order to serve his country like most of his age-group. This bothered me, even back then. It seemed to me as odious as the draft-dodging of the ultra-orthodox, and to a left-leaning Israeli, nothing seems more odious than the ultra-orthodox. They refused to serve in the army on the grounds that they were too busy serving the Lord and that they couldn’t risk being subjected to less than glatt kosher food in some derelict mess hall. At least they don’t write songs about it.

I left Israel back in 1995, a time referred to now as the “good old days.” Like most good old days, they didn’t seem so “good” to everybody at the time. An image that to me characterizes a lot of what was not so “good” in those days of peace and prosperity can be seen in some footage from an Aviv Geffen concert. You have to see it to believe it, but it’s something like this: Geffen is prancing in front of a large audience of mostly teenage girls. He is deathly thin. To make him look even more like a corpse, he is wearing gray makeup and blue-purple lipstick. The only clothing he is wearing appears to be a burlap sack. Behind him on stage is a large, discolored Israeli flag whose stripes and star are made of barbed wire. He sings: “I’m crying on my mother’s grave!” I know for a fact that his mother was still alive at the time. The girls in the audience, who seem to know all the words by heart, scream out the lyrics in unison while they shake their fists in the air, also in unison, in what looks a lot like Nazi salutes. I don’t think the ultra-orthodox engage in this kind of behavior, although I have seen it in footage of Hamas rallies. And this is the Israeli “peace” camp.

I happened to be back in Israel in when Muki D.’s radio hit “Everyone’s talking about peace” first came out. They seemed to play it on the radio about every five minutes. Muki, formerly of the Israeli rap group Shabak Samech, had a new solo CD out called “Hear, O Israel.” Subtle, no? “Talk, talk about peace,” sings Muki, “but there will be no peace without justice.” On an excursion to the north during the same visit, I stopped at a falafel joint with some friends on the Tiberias waterfront. As we sat munching, I noticed a sticker on the falafel stand’s shutter. It said: “Keep the Sabbath and there will be no more terror incidents.” It’s sort of the religious version of Muki D., I thought. When we were little, we used to say you could avert danger to yourself and your family by not stepping on the cracks as you walked along the sidewalk. I don’t think we actually believed it though. It’s anyone’s guess if Muki D. and the falafel people do.

On an earlier album, Muki rhymes: “It’s the same language from here to Bangladesh!” That’s right, it’s all full of little Bashirs and Salims who just want peace and justice. What’s the problem then? Following the rest of Muki’s lyrics, it must be the evil people who are over 30 and don’t listen to rap or smoke pot. Has Muki ever been to Bangladesh? I can’t warm to these artists the way I warmed to their parents. Maybe it’s because the old generation remind me of my parents while the new generation remind me of kids I went to high school with, most of whom I couldn’t stand. Another reason may be that I didn’t grow up with art made by the new generation. When I was growing up, the music of Shalom Hanoch, the films of Uri Zohar and the poetry of Jonathan Geffen, among many others, were Israeli culture to me, and hence my culture. I still react to their work in this way. It seems a man’s cultural identity can only be made once. Virtually all of these people had known left-wing sympathies.

Other popular Israeli artists were apolitical, like actor and director Yehuda Barkan or singer Zohar Argov, but they were viewed as low culture and were not taken as seriously. The only Israeli artist of note who was openly Right-wing was humorist and film director Efraim Kishon. Kishon’s heyday was in the 60’s when political differences mattered little in Israel. In the 70’s Kishon came to be sidelined by the critics, professors, publishers, and other artists (although not by audiences). In the early 80’s, he left the country. His work has now been translated into more languages than any other Israeli author. Once Kishon, one of the most popular Israeli writers of all time who remained unapologetically right-wing until after the end, had been purged, the ante was raised. While Kishon had to be gently pushed out of favor over the course of a decade, the late Meir Ariel, a singer popular exclusively on the Left, suffered instant ignominy after a 1999 interview in which he expressed the view that homosexuals were abnormal. To me and many friends in the innocent 80’s, Meir Ariel had been the confirmation of pot-smoking, long-haired cool, the Israeli Bob Dylan, a counter-culture icon. His concerts had been cult events. A quintessential tour of his is commemorated nicely in the film Meir Ariel’s Election Campaign. But now years of religious-bashing and Peace rallies were of no avail. Overnight, press publicity turned hostile, his concerts were picketed, and the streets of Tel-Aviv were plastered with hate-filled posters.

Finally, the older generation of leftists wasn’t so overtly megalomaniac as the current one. Sure they thought they were right and everyone else was wrong. They even thought that the public was stupid and had to be lied to so that it might buy the visions of “peace” that only the intelligentsia in their wisdom were capable of understanding. They had the same condescending view of Arabs that they had of the Israeli public. But they were soft-spoken and had a sense of humor. They were laid back. They sat in cafes and talked. They didn’t lead armies of teenagers in fascist salutes. If they thought of themselves as modern-day Jeremiahs, at least they didn’t, like Muki D., tell interviewers “Teach the children the truth!”

My parents’ generation of Israeli leftists were populists in the old sense. They addressed the public at large. Novelists like Amos Oz and Yizhar Smilanski, poets like Yehuda Amihai and Haim Guri wrote popular treatises in the major national newspapers. If their attitude was condescending, they did their best to hide it. But maybe the difference goes further than that. These people were a cultural elite in that they made a living teaching and writing, which most Israelis don’t. But they didn’t act like an elite. They used longer words than most people, but it was clear that this was a consequence of their professions, like a carpenter might allude more often to measurements and wood types than most people. They dressed the same as everyone else. At his wedding, Aviv Geffen wore a velvet robe and a peace medallion the size of a dinner plate (he was divorced less than a year later).

The old publicists addressed the public in terms of issues all could relate to. Now poet and novelist Yitzhak Laor writes columns in the weekend supplement of Ha’aretz, but they’re virtually incomprehensible to anyone who is not fully indoctrinated in the rites of Neo-Marxist Post-Modernism (to whom one hopes they are comprehensible). Aviv Geffen openly says in the 1990s that we can no longer live in this country with “those people,” referring to anyone religious or not left-wing. Muki D. is clearly attempting a form of populism by calling his album “Hear, O Israel,” but his tone suggests the corollary that “Muki D. is our God and Muki is one.”

Growing up in the 1980s, the choice between Left and Right was clear, or so it seemed to me at the time. A right-wing activist had thrown a grenade that killed a left-wing demonstrator in 1983. No one on the Left did things like that. I remember watching far right politician Meir Kahane’s election broadcasts in 1984. They featured close-ups of blood dripping. I didn’t know then that Kahane was an American who had fled the US facing charges for illegal possession of weapons, and that the paramilitary organization he had led, the Jewish Defense League, was modeled on the Black Panthers! I saw Kahane speak at a rally in my hometown once. He was a small and distinctly unpleasant man. He paced back and forth on a ramshackle stage, working himself up into a frenzy. I remember him saying that since Arabs didn’t serve in the army, they should be made to do “three years of hard labor on the roads!” A small crowd of young men began chanting “Kahane! Kahane!” That was the Right. Left-wing kids listened to Pink Floyd and David Bowie. The choice was obvious.

It didn’t matter much to me at the time, but the history of Israel’s Right and Left was not much older than I was. It doesn’t make much sense to talk about a Left or a Right in Israel before 1967. What was to become the Right first made its appearance in the early 70’s, spearheaded by two unrelated movements. One movement was the settler movement, pioneered by modern- (as opposed to ultra-) orthodox Jews who took the law into their own hands by settling in the newly acquired West Bank, against the wishes of the Labor government. The other movement was the rise of ethnic resentment among non-European Jews, who resented being frozen out of the Labor party leadership and the country’s new prosperity. It was then left to septuagenarian populist candidate Menachem Begin in 1977 to tap both of these wells of ire to break the Labor political machine and become the country’s first non-socialist prime minister. The name of the party he created to achieve this reflects his heterogeneous power base: Likud “alignment.” Despite the seemingly disparate make-up of the Likud constituency, loyalty to Begin’s lieutenants such as Ariel Sharon and David Levy and later candidates who echoed Begin’s populism, such as Benjamin Netanyahu, has outlived Begin and shows no sign of abating. Since 2000, in light of the failure of the Peace process and the growth of anti-Israel sentiment around the world, Begin-style (not necessarily ideological) populism seems like the only way any Israeli election can be won.

The Left surfaced in recognizable form as soon as the 1967 war ended, although its scope was at first restricted to intellectual circles. Journalists like Amos Keinan publicized accounts of Israel’s war misdeeds in the international press, while radical cells like MAZPEN spied for Syria. The Left’s influence spread after Israel suffered a humiliating and nearly devastating multilateral surprise attack in 1973, after which prime minister Golda Meir and defense minister Moshe Dayan resigned. Critics on the left viewed the Labor leadership as stodgy bureaucrats and insisted that they should have used Israel’s gains in 1967 to seek peace with their neighbors. They sought to capitalize on Israelis’ shaken sense of confidence after 1973 to advance these critiques. Playwright Hanoch Levin launched his career that year with a review titled “Queen of the bathtub,” a reference to Mrs. Meir’s war cabinet.

The rise of the Left as a mass movement occurred only after the 1977 election. Like the rise of the right, it was probably the result of two disparate trends. One was resentment among the old Labor constituency at having lost what they viewed as their God-given right to power. The official name of the labor party during these years was ma’arakh “the system.” The other impetus was Egyptian president Sadat’s unsolicited peace overtures to Israel, the first any Arab leader had made before (or has made since). Begin’s first reactions were cold, spurring the creation of a grass-roots movement called “Peace Now.” Peace Now took its cue from the older grass-roots settler movement “Bloc of the faithful” in staging mass rallies and acts of civil disobedience. After the peace treaty with Egypt, the Peace bloc moved to oppose the war in Lebanon, which ended with the resignations of both Begin and his defense minister Ariel Sharon. In the early 90’s they rallied to support the Oslo accord. It was this issue, opposed by the Likud, that finally succeeded in returning the Labor party to power in 1992.

In the early 90’s, with a Labor-left government in power, with the public supporting the Peace process and looking forward to a new demilitarized Middle East, with unprecedented economic growth and a record wave of immigration, it would seem the Israeli Left had achieved everything they had ever dreamed of and that it’s most fanciful promises were on the verge coming true. Not only that, but the collapse of the Soviet Union meant Israeli leftists were now free to join their colleagues celebrating Cuba as they had always dreamed. Ironically, it was precisely at this time that the intellectual mood turned sour and suicidal. It isn’t clear whether this was a pessimistic response to the Left’s new identity crisis, or whether it is was the logical outcome of its initiation into the international Left, which for half a century has been anti-Israel in ways that defy logic. Or maybe it was simply the result of the rest of Israeli society, which had previously not been Left-wing but that was now convinced of the vindication of the Left’s vision, trying to become leftists and not knowing how.

The results of this change of mood manifested themselves in a number of uncoordinated ways at the same time. In academia, manuscripts suddenly abounded proving that all threats to Israel’s security from 1948 to the present had been hoaxes fabricated by the Zionist leadership. The entire Arab-Israeli conflict had been an imperialist social construction. “New Historians” like Benny Morris of Ben-Gurion University offered up tome upon tome documenting the countless unprovoked atrocities committed by Israelis over the last century. Not only that, but this had been planned for years by the Zionist visionaries like Herzl, who had all been hopeless racists and the founding fathers like Ben-Gurion, who had all been war criminals; Israel was a nation born in sin. The old tales of fortitude and heroism that children were taught in school were all lies. Society was simply a text to be deconstructed and it turned out that every aspect of Israeli culture, from the TV test pattern to the design on a box of matches, contained hidden clues of racism and imperialism. Everything you knew was wrong and it seemed that every week, a new class of specialists joined the bandwagon. Biblical scholars offered new research proving that Abraham and Moses had never existed, while King David had been a sadistic tyrant. Archeologists showed that the numerous ruins that allegedly proved an ancient Jewish presence in Zion were in fact piles of stones of indeterminate origin. Paul Wexler, a linguist at Tel-Aviv University, even announced that the Hebrew spoken by Israelis bore no relation to the Hebrew of the bible, but was in fact a Slavic language! While research topics narrowed, instruction withered away. An entire generation of Israelis graduated from social science departments knowing of little except the evil of American corporations and the details of Roland Barthes’ early life.

In the popular culture, asexual adolescents like Aviv Geffen flagellated themselves on stage. Drug consumption shifted from the traditional hashish to the newly imported ecstasy, with its attendant culture of Techno and rave parties. The post-military-service tradition of seeing the world became disproportionately focused on India, and in turn disproportionately focused on drug-induced sloth. Several months of drudge work in Israel were enough to finance a year’s drug-fueled stupor at places like Goa. When the money ran out, the cycle would repeat itself. This was during Israel’s most peaceful years in its history. Trendy Tel-Aviv society sported cliques divided by their preferred Indian destinations. In cafes, after work, clique members would meet to discuss how much longer they had to work before they could return to the promised land. An imminent departure usually meant a party. At this time it was not uncommon to ask a young Israeli for a cigarette and be offered an Indian brand. There was a joke going around: An Indian asks: “How many Israelis are there?” and is told “6 million.” “No,” he retorts, “I don’t mean in India, in Israel.”

Even before this era of “Post-Zionism,” as it came to be called, something had happened to the Left on the way to Oslo. Despite the success of every one of their campaigns against Likud policy since 1977, their years in opposition had radicalized them. When Yitzhak Rabin became Labor prime minister in 1992, many Israeli Leftists viewed him in the same way American Leftists viewed Johnson in the 60’s. He was at best a populist compromise, at worst a bourgeois co-optation. When Rabin was murdered by a Jewish extremist in 1995, he was turned into something of a Leftist martyr. But this was mainly an anti-Likud, anti-religious appropriation. Leftists who had hated Rabin as much as his assassin now laid his memory like a slaughtered lamb at the door of their political enemies. When Shimon Peres, Rabin’s far more dovish second-in-command, became interim prime minister in his stead, the Left did little to support him and he lost the election to untested political newcomer Benjamin Netanyahu in 1996. In 1999, Labor’s untested newcomer, Ehud Barak, won the election on a populist platform, appealing to new immigrants and traditional Likud voters. It’s hard to believe the left will ever back any populist candidate again, even a center-Left one like Peres or Barak. Like radicals the world over, they3 make no distinction between center-left and far-right. No populist could be ideologically pure enough for their refined tastes. Leftists Yossi Belin and Yossi Sarid, both members of Labor at one time or another, are already engaging in contacts to form an Israeli “Social-Democrat” party, which will exclusively attract the votes of affluent secular radicals of European descent. This move, if successful, will most probably decimate the Labor party and bar the Left from coalition building for a long time to come.

In an effort to recapture their glory of the 70’s and 80’s, Peace Now and other Left-wing groups now hold rallies in the same city squares, often featuring the same celebrities. It bothers them not that the issues are different. The protesters of the early 70s fought in the 1973 war and waited until it was over to demand the prime minister’s resignation. The first generation of Peace Now activists in the late 70’s worried Begin would refuse Sadat’s overtures because of political pressure within his party, thus sacrificing peace with the largest Arab country for narrow political interests. This was an Arab president who had voluntarily sued for peace, who had even spoken in the Knesset to persuade Israelis of his intentions. His army was not attacking Israelis at the time. Peace meant more then than it does now. Subsequently, Peace Now means less now than it did then. The 400,000 who turned out in Tel-Aviv in 1984 to demand a withdrawal from Lebanon had seen their defense minister lie to them and to the prime minister about the scope of the war. But if Israeli voters feel they have been lied to recently, it is by the last two Labor governments, who assured them that territorial concessions would appease their enemies. Nowadays Peace Now is protesting globalization and the US embargo on Cuba and supporting draft dodging. Their international emissaries sign petitions to boycott Israel. Crowds are turning out in the same square in Tel-Aviv to demand unilateral, unconditional withdrawal to Israel’s 1967 borders. Meanwhile, Israel is under attack with the approval and financial backing of most of the Arab world. Few Israelis are likely to be convinced that their current economic depression is due to “globalization” or that their security concerns should be addressed by not serving in their own army or by boycotting themselves.

What went wrong? The Israeli Left started out demanding that their leaders not sacrifice long-term interests for short-term political gains and demanding transparency in government. They ended up assuming that all problems are caused by politicians seeking short-term political gains and that their own government is responsible for every problem. They used to talk of the “Peace of the brave,” meaning they recognized certain risks but had concluded that they were worth taking. This implied the possibility that such risks might also not be worth taking. It implied that reality still mattered and that policy-making was a matter of risks and trade-offs. Such thinking is inherently conservative, regardless of what you call yourself.

Now short-story writer Etgar Kerrett, darling of the 90s generation, has said in a 2002 interview with Ha’aretz: “I’m tired of hearing about the peace of the brave, give me the peace of suckers anytime.” Such thinking only makes sense if one accepts the Muki D. vision of the Middle East: the same language from here to Bangladesh. All those pot-smoking, rapper Bangladeshis and cute Arab bellhops are just waiting to have peace with us. The only thing keeping us from peace is the obstinacy of our own leaders.

I have never been a socialist, at least not since the seventh grade. If I thought of myself as a leftist in Israeli terms, it didn’t seem to have anything to do with the Soviet Union or Leftists in Europe and America. As far as I was concerned, it was a misnomer, a historical terminological accident. So the turn the Israeli left has taken in the 90s came as some surprise to me. It even seems they were using the same symbols seen on American college campuses, translated into Hebrew: yom lelo kniyot “ Day without buying.”

Didn’t the Israeli leftists know the term “Left” was just a historical accident? Since I’ve become better acquainted with other lefts, I’ve noticed there are a few traits they all seem to have in common. One is the belief in a vision so revered that it is considered justified and even desirable to lie in order that it might be advanced. Another trait is what has been called the localization of evil: the idea that some elite minority is responsible for all problems, which will go away once the group is destroyed. Without getting too emotional, the classic examples of the localization of evil are the role of the Jews in the Nazi worldview and the role of the bourgeoisie in Lenin’s famous dictum that they be “destroyed as a class.”

If you believe all Arabs are cute bellhops all the way to Bangladesh and there would be no problems in the Middle East if our own politicians were not causing them, it is a cinch to believe that poverty is caused by multi-national corporations and pollution is caused by capitalism, etc. It’s no wonder the Left in other countries has taken up the anti-Israel cause, and no wonder the Israeli Left has taken up every cockamamie bit of dogma spewed by leftists in the rest of the world.

It wasn’t always like this, though. Actually, it used to be much worse. Israel used to be an ally of the Soviet Union. The Soviets, fearing Israel would go American, voted for the partition of Palestine in 1947. Golda Meir was the first ambassador to the Soviet Union. She was both a native speaker of Russian and a life-long communist. Most of the Zionist leadership were communists in those days. They tended to view the young Jewish state as the vanguard of people’s republics destined to inherit the earth. Israel retained a one-party government under the labor party for its first 29 years. Its economy remained largely socialist until the early 1990s.

Leftists, including modern Israeli leftists, do not seem to know or care about any of this. To them, Israel is simply a capitalist lackey of international (American) business. This worldview is the direct result of Soviet policy in the 1950s when the cozy marriage of the Zionist state and the Union of Socialist Republics was ended abruptly and one-sidedly by the Soviets. It turned out that it aided the cause of Socialism more to enter an alliance with tribal elders and oil barons who took up arms against the only actual socialist state in the history of the Middle East. So history was rewritten, as it so often is in the Socialist world, with yesterday’s bourgeois becoming proletariat, and vice versa, overnight. It also turned out that Stalin had grown upset at Mrs. Meir’s popularity among the Jews of Russia.

This sudden divorce was replicated in a rift in Israeli politics and society. Ben-Gurion, ever the pragmatist, decided to realign Israel’s international position accordingly, leading to the now proverbial “special” Israel-American relations. Like a true socialist leader, his word was the law. True believers would have none of this, and insisted on remaining loyal to Stalin, even after being told in so many words by the great comrade father himself that their services were not needed. The Socialist movement in Israel, which is to say all institutions of any significance at that time, were torn apart at the seam. Many kibbutzim physically separated in two. Family members ceased speaking to one another. The mood of the era is evoked in the movie Noa at Seventeen (Isaac Yeshurun 1982), where young Noa is pressed by her parents to sever relations with her favorite uncle who is one of “them”. The hard-liners can look with a sense of vindication at the Americanization and privatization that overtook Israel in subsequent years. All that’s left of their attempts at resistance are signposts on Israeli roads, pointing to two separate access roads for some kibbutzim: one for the Ihud (unified movement) kibbutz and the other for the Meuhad (united movement) kibbutz of the same name. One of these movements was Stalinist, the other Ben-Gurionist. You’ll have to stop at one of them and ask which was which.

And so, when the sixties arrived, Israel was on the “pig” side of the fence. Israeli New Leftists wanted so to join the anti-USA crowds in Berkeley and Paris, but were turned away, just as Ben-Gurion had been turned away by Stalin. Amos Keinan, an Israeli journalist of the era complains of wanting to attend a pro-Castro conference abroad, but being denied admission because of his nationality. “I am for Cuba,” he writes in a 1969 article for the now defunct Jewish Radical, “I love Cuba. I am opposed to the genocide perpetrated by the Americans in Vietnam. But I am an Israeli, therefore I am forbidden to take all these stands. Cuba does not want me to love her. Someone has decided that I am permitted to love only the Americans... This situation drives me slightly out of my mind.” Poor Amos.

The collapse of the Soviet Union allowed for the re-admission of Israelis to the ranks of the international left. The difference was that the old Israeli left and even the new left of Jonathan Geffen and Amos Keinan’s generation, had been brought up on real socialism, cold showers and all. Aviv Geffen and Rona Keinan, who lives in a trendy Tel-Aviv commune, one of whose members is a monkey, are strictly leftover left. The difference is of significance not only to us connoisseurs of the history socialist factions.

The Israeli New Left were a rebellious reaction to the old left. There reaction was even stronger than that of their New Left counterparts in America and Europe, since they actually grew up in a Socialist country. J. Geffen was raised on a kibbutz and served as an officer in the paratroops. Many of his early works are critical of his austere, disciplinarian upbringing. One of Amos Keinan’s early publications was a gourmet cookbook, specializing in fatty and expensive foods. The book was clearly meant to be an affront to the ideological frugality of the times. This kind of leftism, perhaps the only true example of “leftism with a human face” to ever actually exist, is dead in Israel now. It is dead because of the collapse of the Soviet Union and because my generation of Israelis have no experience of what Socialism was actually like.

In a 2002 interview with The Jerusalem Report, veteran Israeli painter Ivan Schwebel, on the subject of why his work is no longer displayed in Israeli museums, opines: “their curators have gone for the ‘international style’ — minimalism or whatever’s in vogue in Germany, France, America.” This may be a case of sour grapes, but it jibes with the noticeable Post-Zionist trend in the Israeli art and intellectual worlds since the 90’s. The Israeli intelligentsia’s rejection of Zionist identity was not followed by an adoption of allegiance to any kind of new Israeli or other national identity. Rather, they have become a local franchise of the intelligentsia in other countries, in particular Europe and America. This same blind obedience described by Schwebel in the art world extends to all aspects of intellectual life. When Jean-Pierre Baudriald posts a missive on his website to the effect that “American society is dead,” Israeli intellectuals can heard repeating this, whether they can explain what he is talking about or not. When Academics in Europe sign a petition calling for severing all relations with Israeli academics, some Israeli academics sign a petition calling for European academics to sever all relations with them (not the same petition, of course). This growing disconnect between Israeli intellectual discourse and life in Israel was driven home to me in October 2000, when I received e-mails forwarded from Israeli friends, warning me of presidential candidate George W. Bush’s horrendous record on the death penalty and school vouchers. What a far cry this is from Amos Keinan and his generation who saw themselves as distinctly Israeli leftists.

If there is anything uniquely Israeli about the new generation of Israeli leftists, it is only their per capita production rate of documents discrediting Israel. Keinan, in the same 1969 article in which he expresses his undying love for Fidel Castro, laments that he can not take the anti-government stances he would like to as long as the world, and especially the leftist world, opposes him as an Israeli: “when I try to call on you and tell you that I am against Dayan, against Eshkol, against Ben-Gurion, and ask for your help, you laugh at me and demand that I should return to the June 4th [1967] borders, unconditionally... Why were the June 4th borders not peace borders on June 4th but will become peace borders now?... Even the most leftist of men will not consent to be slaughtered when a sword is pointed at his throat. Even when the sword is a progressive one, it does not make it any the pleasanter.” It seems that, like many other things, Keinan was wrong about this, too.

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