Opinion | Is the Left Israel’s New Lost Tribe?

The numbers conflict with what the media portrays.
By | Jan 14, 2019
Israel, Winter Issue 2019

I googled it, just for fun. You can try it too. “Right,” “left,” “Israel” produced the following news items (among many more, of course):

—“Right-left rift tops ethnic tensions as biggest source of polarization in Israel,” reported the Times of Israel based on a survey by the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI) (Dec. 13).

—“The left wing shouldn’t get too excited” about a possible peace plan, wrote an activist in Haaretz (Dec. 11).

—In Ynet News, a columnist wrote about “the great tragedy of the center-left camp” (Nov. 18).

These items suggest several underlying assumptions. There is a “left.” And it battles the “right” (hence, a “rift”). But what if these assumptions are wrong?

In politics, and even more in journalism, a debate is a necessary ingredient. Without debate, there is no story. But when does something count as a debate? Consider a theoretical situation: A survey finds that 98 percent of Belgians oppose polygamy and 2 percent support it. Does this count as a Belgian debate about polygamy? And if the 2 percent supportive of polygamy feel strongly about it, would you say there is a “rift” between pro-polygamy and anti-polygamy camps?

The example is made up, but the question is real: When is a “debate” worthy of coverage, and what is the minimum share of people required to form a group whose opinion merits the title “debate”?

Here is a not-made-up example: Among religious Jewish Israelis, 99 percent believe that a Jewish state is needed, while 1 percent believe that Israel ought to cease being “Jewish” and become a neutral civil state. I know this because I co-wrote the survey with Tel Aviv University Professor Camil Fuchs and analyzed the data for a Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI) project on Israeli Judaism. So is there a group of religious Jewish Israelis who believe that Israel should not be a Jewish state? Yes. Is there a public debate about this issue? No.

If you agree, let’s up the ante: If you include all Jewish Israelis, not just the religious, then 9 percent support a non-Jewish Israel. Would you call a 91-vs.-9-percent disagreement a “debate” among Jews?

Back to left and right. About a third of all Israelis consider the right-left tension to be stronger than religious-secular, Jewish-Arab, Ashkenazi-Mizrachi or rich-poor tensions. These Israelis have a perception. Is it based in reality? Let’s go back to the Belgian example: If one-third of Belgians said the strongest tension in their society was between pro- and anti-bigamy forces, would you accept that assessment if you knew for a fact that only 2 percent of Belgians supported polygamy?

Based on these questions, I propose that Israel’s self-defined left has vanished. It barely exists. The IDI survey—that’s the one claiming that left-right tension is the strongest—found fewer than 10 percent of Israelis self-identify as “left” when it comes to state security issues. Among Jewish Israelis, it’s about 8 percent. In the much larger survey of Israeli Jews by JPPI, we found 5 percent describe themselves as on the left and 11 percent on the center-left. That’s somewhat more significant, yet still quite small—16 percent—and on many of the main issues the “center-left” looks much more like the “center” than the “left.” When only three options are offered—right, center, left, as a Pew Research Center survey did in 2016—the left gets less than a tenth.

Can there be a politically significant “rift” between 8 percent of the population and the rest of us? How about 5 percent? How small does the smol (left) need to be for one to conclude that its views are not widespread enough to merit discussion? That’s not an obvious question in Israel, a country with a parliamentary system that sometimes gives small parties oversized influence. However, Israel’s left is not just small; it is on the very edge of the political map. Thus, unlike small ultra-Orthodox parties, it can very rarely play the parliamentary game as a kingmaker who can make or break potential coalitions of both political camps.

The question of size is of course bound up with the second issue: What does a “left” even mean? Historically speaking, the left was the camp believing in compromise with the Palestinians. If that’s still the case, no wonder the left is so tiny and the “rift” imaginary. According to the November Peace Index (another poll by IDI), only 5 percent of Israelis “truly believe” that negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians could lead to a peace agreement in the coming years.

Now let us combine these two established facts: Israel has a very small “left” and a very small camp of people who still believe that peace is currently viable. If “left” means “believe-in-the-effectiveness-of-peace-negotiations,” we can be comfortable declaring there is no significant “debate” and no “rift” between the left and the rest.

So on the eve of another round of Israeli elections, in which a “right” is supposedly battling a “left,” we have to ponder two options. The first is to agree that most of what Israelis argue about is either relatively unimportant (should we pass a nationality law?) or strictly tribal (do you belong to this or that segment of the population?), or just personal (do you approve of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu?). The second option is to change the definition of our political camps and what they mean. Do not contrast the small, vocal and largely irrelevant minority of people who still call themselves a left with the majority—because it skews the real political picture. Do not even call it a left—it’s confusing. Do not pretend the major debate in Israel is about the peace process—because it’s not. What is it about then? Hmmm. Good question.

Shmuel Rosner is a writer and editor based in Tel Aviv

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