On Bibi’s Statement and Israeli Democracy

What was it that prompted the Rabbinical Assembly to issue a strongly-worded condemnation of Bibi’s 11th hour statement calling on right-leaning Israelis to vote Likud to counteract the ballots of the Arab hoards? The RA is, as the New York Times describes it “traditionally a reliable defender of the Israeli government”, but this was deemed beyond the pale. At first glance, it seems that it was the race-baiting “dog whistle” that caused the outrage, the implication that Arab citizens of Israel voting is intrinsically problematic. Gershom Gorenberg points the finger at the military terms used, which raise the spectre of Arab voters as an invading force within the State.

As serious and problematic as this all is, I think there is something deeper about Netanyahu’s pitch that repulses believers in liberal democracy, perhaps especially Americans (and perhaps especially Conservative rabbis). Despite the Republican Jewish Coalition’s attack on the Rabbinical Assembly for making this statement, I really don’t believe that a top-tier Republican leader would ever (publicly) say, “Black voters are being bused to the polls by liberal activists—protect the Republican-controlled House and vote now!” But why is that?

I don’t doubt that Republican strategists explicitly discuss how to get out their own supporters to counteract moves by liberal groups to encourage residents of African-American or Latino neighborhoods to vote. I understand that contemporary election strategy relies heavily on profiling and targeting based on many factors, including race. Certain ethnic groups do overwhelmingly support certain parties, and that fact has to be accounted for if you want to maximize your chances of winning an election. (And this is why Abe Foxman couldn’t see what all the fuss was about: “He was only expressing alarm that there were efforts to organize them [Israeli Arabs] to unseat him — and that is his political right. I would have used different language maybe, but it wasn’t racist and it didn’t violate their right to vote.”)

However, apart from the racial aspect, I believe that prominent American politicians will not use this kind of language for a another reason: their get-out-the-vote efforts must not undermine a more fundamental belief that their party represents the best interests of the whole country. Despite the fact that African-Americans tend to vote Democrat, leading Republicans deeply believe that everyone would be better off under a Republican government; so too, Democrats will never entirely give up on winning over rich Southern white men to their ideology. Bill Clinton served two terms, and Herman Cain was, albeit briefly, a favored candidate for the presidential nomination.

But the Likud should care about alienating Arabs?! And the Zionist left has also been criticized for failing to reach out to religious and other non-traditional supporters. Back in 2011, Yair Lapid identified what was truly broken about Israeli democracy: its tribal nature. There is no mainstream that dominates Israeli politics in the same way that Republicans and Democrats — or even Labour/Lib Dems/Conservatives — do. (Perhaps we should give Yesh Atid credit for their efforts in this regard, but 11 seats is hardly a revolution.)

The hope of winning the battle of ideas for a whole nation seems dead. This is the “democracy” that Bibi gave us an brutally stark glimpse of earlier this week. Even without its racist undertones, it is no surprise that it is unpalatable to the leaders of a religious movement that is grounded in America, in broad centrism, and in a passionate belief in the unity of a diverse people.

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