20th year since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin- What should the Progressive camp Do?

Article by Rami Hod, SEA’s Director, and Mikhael Menekin, the director of “Molad”. Originally published in Haaretz

After the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin exactly 20 years ago, Israel’s two major political camps emerged with very different conclusions. Members of the left felt, as one of Rabin’s supporters famously put it, that the state had been “stolen” from them. The right, on the other hand, decided to become the state. The contrasting approaches explain much about Israel today.

The right wing, comprised of some secular ideologists and a large group of religious and messianic activists, was shocked by how close Israel had come to ceding territory to the Palestinians in the Rabin years. They realized that the only way to prevent the division of Greater Israel, and the rise of the next Rabin, was not to protest but to actively shape the state in their own image. “The eternal nation does not fear a long journey,” once a nationalist slogan sung during provocative marches through Arab areas of east Jerusalem, became the motto for persistent, daily work aimed at building a well-organized and broad political camp. The right did not tailor its positions to flatter the public – instead, it created mechanisms for influencing public opinion and joined powerful existing institutions. The public sector, the media, and the military, once the stronghold of the old elites, became seen by the right as tools it could use to impact the Israeli mainstream.

But that wasn’t all. The right also created independent institutions that began working together to promote shared goals. Research institutes such as Shalem College, the Institute for Zionist Strategies, and the Kohelet Policy Forum, were formed as intellectual hothouses for economic and political conservatism. Dozens of military preparatory programs appeared, aimed at training teens to think in terms of “us” and “them.” Small groups of committed religious activists known as garinim toranim (literally, “seeds of Torah”) scattered throughout Israel and began engaging in educational and community activities. All of these put down roots in Israeli society and grew to form the foundation of the political Right. The organized push to sign up new members of the Likud Party in order to affect leadership elections and policy from the inside, and the transformation of the old and narrow National Religious Party into an “all-Israeli” party with a new name, Jewish Home – these were the parliamentary expression of the same fundamental move. These moves, coupled with a clear ideology and pride, created an effective political camp.

The left, reeling from the loss of its leader in 1995 and the loss of power in the election of 1996, took the opposite approach. Instead of fighting for the character of the state and for the heart of the public, its activists turned to tapping the many business opportunities created by the Oslo Accords, and to founding well-meaning progressive minded NGOs that avoided institutional political affiliation. The left wing, lacking an effective leader, looked on as the Labor movement’s institutions crumbled before its eyes and slid into ideological stagnation. The left stopped establishing educational and social ventures, and spiraled into confusion about the way forward. Some parts of the left ended up adopting the basic premises of the right – that there is no partner for peace on the Palestinian side, that the Zionist project was messianic to begin with, and that the far-right approach to economics was best. Others parted ways with the Israeli public, sure of their ideology but contemptuous towards the rest of society.

As a result, the leading part of the left, Labor, repeatedly joined unity governments as the junior partner of the right, further speeding the left’s fall from grace as an ideological and governmental alternative. Many Israeli academics gave up trying to influence Israeli society. The intellectual hobby of deconstructing political positions, along with a growing conviction that the entire left wing in Israel, past and present, is neither worthy nor essentially different from the right, led to a drop in the number of publicly active left-wing intellectuals seeking answers for the fundamental questions facing Israeli society.

While the right built a political camp working to win over the public, the left built energetic civil society organizations with little impact on the mainstream and with an ethos of seeking compromise with the right. While the right adopted the classic modus operandi of Israel’s Labor movement – the gradual and persistent conquest of “one acre at a time” – in the public sector and in local and national politics the left had no plan at all.

Even the most determined of the post-Rabin left-wingers failed to consistently pursue long-term goals as the right was doing. A good example is Dor Shalom, “Peace Generation,” a movement founded hours after Rabin’s assassination, which engaged in educational projects and election campaigns. The movement evaporated within several years after its leaders took up private business ventures. Its core members, initially devoted to change, grew into caricatures of crony capitalism. Founding member Rafi Barzilay became an advisor to the hawkish Avigdor Lieberman, coining the anti-Arab slogan “No loyalty – no citizenship.” Tal Silberstein, another of the founders, became a servant to the highest-paying political master. Erez Eshel, who led a famous student strike in 1998, migrated to the far right.
When the left’s ethos of globalization and desire for reconciliation with its opponents met the right wing’s mission-driven ethos, the victory of the latter was overwhelming.

The silent majority in Israel – which, in contrast with the common left-wing assumption, is pragmatic and moderate – followed the camp that displayed more belief, confidence, and effort. It followed the largely religious, ideological right whose attempt to become synonymous with the state worked well enough to cause many to believe that was true.

In the last decade, and especially since the large social protests of 2011, change has begun to seep into the basic assumptions and activities of those wish to continue Rabin’s legacy. Essentially a generational shift, this subterranean movement has yet to be translated into a broad national and political force. Members of Israel’s third generation, and especially young supporters of the two-state solution, of a fair economy, and of civil equality, are realizing that political change takes place through institutions and policy making. These young adults are joining the public sector in larger numbers than ever before in order to shape policy; they are forming labor unions on an unprecedented scale, reviving organized labor as a crucial institution for minimizing social inequality; they are building new Zionist and humanist pre-military volunteer frameworks and preparatory programs; they are fighting to add a second teaching assistant in preschools and reduce classroom crowding, and have already won free state education from age 3, changing the face of public education; they are challenging security paradigms; and they are entering parliament, having gradually accepted that change requires political work. Although sporadic, all these steps are positive.

They indicate a shift away from the previous generation, which failed to oppose the right’s mission to change Israeli society, abandoned the “we” in favor of “me,” and gave up the struggle for the future of the Zionist project. Today’s young left-wingers understand that they must move on from the trauma of having the country “stolen” and fight seriously, every day, for the country they want.

Twenty years after Rabin’s assassination, it’s time to offer a real alternative to the discouraging claims that the right won because the public believes in right-wing ideas, because of Netanyahu’s campaign skills, or because of the personality of the current opposition leader. These arguments not only overlook the right’s skillful institutional work, but also evade the most important question: What should we do now?

The answer: We must rebuild Rabin’s political camp. The left needs to construct institutions spanning civil society and politics; it needs representatives in the public sector who know state systems from the inside; and it needs an appealing ethos and clear ideas. Only then can the left can regain public trust – and achieve political victory.

Rami Hod is Executive Director of the Social Economic Academy
Mikhael Manekin is Executive Director of Molad – the Center for the Renewal of Israeli Democracy