How to Move Forward After Trump’s Victory? Look to Israeli Elections
By Eetta Prince-Gibson
At least three times, I’ve taken a brief nap on an election night, relieved and reassured that the leader I believed in was about to be elected, only to be devastated as the sun came up.
On May 17, 1977, the Likud beat out the Labor party that, in various incarnations, had led the State of Israel since its establishment. On May 29, 1996, the exit polls happily predicted that Labor’s Shimon Peres, a supporter of the (then-still-alive) Oslo Accords would win over Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu, a candidate who had run on the racist “Bibi is good for the Jews” campaign. This was only half a year after Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated, at least in part in response to the incitement in which Bibi had participated. And again, in 2015, I watched as my fellow countrymen and countrywomen elected reelected Bibi after he xenophobically warned that “droves of Arabs were flowing to the polling stations.”
I understand what it feels like to face the reality of the bigotry and hatred in my country. To feel so broken, unable to understand why people vote for a patently racist, vulgar, hateful, incompetent, ignorant and misogynist opportunist. To be repulsed by the victorious candidate and feel despair over his victory. I know what it feels like to grieve over what could have been and almost was: In 1996, Bibi won by less than 1 percent of the total number of votes cast, a number much smaller than the number of votes discarded for technical reasons.
I live in country headed by a man and a coalition that represent most of what I detest. Today, and at various times over the past few decades, I have felt marginalized, oppressed and hated in my own country. I know that no two historical situations are the same, and I am aware of all the differences in contexts and conditions. But over here, we’ve become sad experts on what to expect, what can be done—and, unfortunately, on what not to do—when the democratic process we believe in fails us.
So, humbly, I am going to share some of my thoughts.
First of all, prepare for the gloat. It’s already happening—the spray-painted swastikas in Philadelphia and middle school students taunting their Hispanic classmates with calls to “Build that Wall” are just the beginning. Hopefully, it won’t get more violent, but it probably will get nastier. Those who voted for Donald Trump out of anger aren’t likely to be generous in victory. They aren’t likely to remember that democracy of the majority doesn’t just mean rule of the majority, and they aren’t likely to feel much responsibility for preserving the rights of the new minority. Voters who have felt for a long time that “they stole our country from us” aren’t likely to be gracious when they feel they finally got it back.
Resist the temptation to gloat in return. When things go bad—and they probably will, and they probably will hurt some of the people who voted for Trump the hardest, just as they have hurt the people who voted for Bibi—avoid the temptation to be smug. Or, at least, if the bile is too difficult to swallow, be smug only in private. Listen to their complaints, empathize with their needs and try to think of a responsive political alternative. As the left in Israel knows only too well, “I told you so” is not a very effective political platform for change.
Make a distinction between Trump and his supporters. We don’t do that enough over here. Bibi is proving himself to be everything I feared and worse. But that doesn’t mean that everyone who voted for him is as bad. Some of the people who voted for Trump voted for Obama in previous elections; some of the people who voted for Bibi voted for more centrist and liberal parties in previous elections. They didn’t vote for an ideology; opportunists like Trump and Bibi don’t have ideologies. They voted out of anger, disappointment and loss of a self-respect and pride. That doesn’t make them rabid, foaming-at-the-mouth fascists.
Repeat as often as you have to: Francis Fukuyama was wrong, history hasn’t come to an end and Western liberal democracy isn’t the final form of government, not even in the west. History is not linear; it doesn’t only go upwards towards justice and peace. But it doesn’t only go downwards towards the dark ages, either. Bibi may still be prime minister, and a lot is very wrong, but a lot has gone right, too. And the great thing about a democracy is that it isn’t permanent.
Remind yourself as often as you have to that the future is not inevitable. Trump was elected on the eve of Kristallnacht, but neither the United States nor Israel is Weimar Germany. There are, indeed, frightening similarities, but they are warnings, not predictors. We can assert our rights, and fight for the rights of others. We can learn from why we lost and offer better alternatives. We haven’t done that here, so we keep on losing.
We may be a deposed minority—or at least, we feel that way—but that is not the same as being powerless. We have power, and know that power, even curtailed power, entails responsibility. We have the power and responsibility to engage—in government, in institutions and especially in civil society, which is one of the most effective forms of resistance. In Israel, even when successive governments failed us, we successfully built up a civil society that has kept progressive values alive and kicking and can take credit for remarkable social achievements.
Engage in civic education. Help develop critical thinking skills, among children and adults who haven’t benefitted from the years of higher education and training in the humanities. Help them understand what democracy really means, what basic governmental values must be.
Don’t be, as they say in Yiddish and Hebrew, such fineschmeckers (borrowed from the German, it’s a derogatory term for people who think they are too refined to get down in the fray). In the Knesset, feminist legislators have been willing to cross all sorts of party lines to work together for women’s advancement even if they hate everything else that the other stands for. But unfortunately, the left would rather be and set unreasonable standards for the purity of its coalition partners than win. It’s a luxury we shouldn’t wallow in. It hasn’t served serve us well. The same election tools that elected Bibi and Trump can be used to defeat them; we won’t ever be as dirty as they are, but we certainly can be as savvy as they are.
Seek sage advice that speaks to your heart and mind. In the Sayings of the Fathers (2:5), Hillel tells us that, in a place where there are no upstanding people, we must be an upstanding person. More recently, Michelle Obama said, “When they go low, we go high.”
Greek resistance fighter Chronis Missios wrote, “My generation failed to change the world, but at least I did not let the world change me.” We won’t let the world change our core values. We will listen thoughtfully, even when we vehemently disagree; we will make compromises that don’t compromise our values or self-respect; and we won’t let the opposition take us off message. We don’t do that enough over here.
We will engage with those who think differently than us. We will build communities. We will keep working to make our countries ones we can be proud of. We will have failures and successes.
We will hug our children a little tighter and try even harder to serve as examples of engaged citizens committed to what they believe in.
Here and there.