Power is built from below

Progressives will influence Israel’s political reality when they replace the ideologues in government

Illustrative: A tray of Israeli election ballots for March 17, 2015. (Renee Ghert-Zand/TOI)
Illustrative: A tray of Israeli election ballots for March 17, 2015. (Renee Ghert-Zand/TOI)

A year after Donald Trump’s unexpected victory, progressives in the United States have successfully elected representatives at the municipal, district, legislative and even gubernatorial seats. Though Trump still holds power, recent progressive electoral victories could be a harbinger of things to come. It reminded us, leftists of all stripes, just how fast things could change in politics, when progressives organize and connect with voters, knock on doors and hold living room events.

Yet the strategy that brought progressives to victory in the recent US elections has not translated to American Jewish understanding of Israeli politics.

The recent elections remind us that power is built from below. It shows that we need to keep our feet on the ground instead of fetishizing the White House. It proves that even under the clouds of a far-right agenda in Washington DC, we can effectively start building local networks of left leaning district judges, municipal and state representatives. All we need to do is return to the political basics: energize our supporters and invest in our constituencies.

Though American Jews are remarkably savvy when it comes to US politics, in Israel they still invest — their hearts, minds, and money — in swaying Israel’s prime minister without ever engaging the base of his support. Many American Jews fail to realize that pressuring Benjamin Netanyahu to do the right thing — negotiate peace, provide equal prayer rights in the Western Wall or respect refugees’ rights — is akin to convincing Republicans in Congress and the White House to reconsider their positions on abortion or gun control. It is obvious when it comes to American politics. Rather than waste time and resources on pressuring Republican ideologues, we struggle to replace them. But for some reason, when it comes to Israel, we maintain naïve notion that pressure — international or domestic — will move the political needle leftward, as if Netanyahu and the other Israeli rightists desire to represent us.

Ignorance of the complexities of political power in Israel keep many American Jews blind to potential shifts, alliances and opportunities for solidarity and support. They remain unaware that Israeli progressives have been constructing local alternatives to Netanyahu’s coalition. For many progressive American Jews political despair and left defeatism persists. The examples, however, are inspiring and hopeful:

  • After years of struggle Israeli progressive residents successfully forced Haifa Chemicals to close its ammonia tank, which had endangered the lives of hundreds of thousands of people living in and around Haifa.
  • Progressive Israelis organized residents and launched the “Shabus” initiative — a cooperative transportation service enabling its members to move around the city during the Sabbath. The service circumvents laws banning public transportation on the Sabbath and holidays by operating as a cooperative.
  • And perhaps most importantly, following years of advocacy orchestrated by Meretz Knesset member Ilan Gilon and disability activists, the Knesset is slated to raise disability pensions. This victory will improve the lives of 250,000 Arab and Jewish Israelis living on less than half the minimum wage.

These victories directly impact hundreds of thousands, if not millions of Israelis regardless of ethnicity or confession.

These crucial victories allow the Israeli progressive camp to take another step towards increasing its influence and building a strong political constituency. We must come to grips with a plain truth: the Occupation will never end until the Israeli Left wins political power. And Israelis build this power just like many around the world do: by forging coalitions, advocating, organizing and educating, and when in office representing their constituents. In Israel, where every Knesset seat equals about 30,000 voters, power is obtainable.

America’s recent November elections remind us that though Trump and Netanyahu have power, most Americans and Israelis still want better education for their children, influence over their workplace, affordable housing, fair employment, clean water and decent healthcare. And most of these fights for better services are local in nature. In lieu of political power above, the local serves as a locus for progressives to directly influence political reality from below.

We believe that left victories at the local level in Israel will remind Israelis that the future is not lost and that many are still receptive to a progressive agenda. It is time for American Jewish and Israeli progressives to form a united front and build power in Israel from the ground up, to win hearts and minds for the vision of tikkun olam we all hold dear. This is the only politically viable way to end the Occupation. It is time to finally declare that supplicating to a right-wing deaf to our appeals is a political dead end. Another political path is before us. All we have to do is take it.

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