The Silent Death of the Israeli Left

April 28, 2020 | Matti Friedman
About the author: Matti Friedman is the author of a memoir about the Israeli war in Lebanon, Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier’s Story of a Forgotten War (2016). His latest book is Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel (2019).

From Israel’s creation in 1948 until Menachem Begin’s 1977 electoral victory, the Jewish state was governed by the Labor party in its various incarnations, and its leaders thought it would ever be thus. For several decades thereafter, it remained one of two dominant parties. The most recent election, however, heralded Labor’s final collapse into irrelevance. Matti Friedman reflects:

When the dust settled after Israel’s last national election in February, the Labor party had a mere three members of Knesset out of 120. But that’s rosy compared to what it just got in a poll on April 13: zero. Just like that, the party of David Ben-Gurion and Yitzḥak Rabin no longer mattered. Because Israeli news coverage has been preoccupied with pandemic panic, almost no one noticed.

As Friedman notes, Labor’s end has been a long time coming:

By [1972], voters from the actual Jewish working class, who tended to come from Islamic countries like Morocco, had been alienated by Labor and were showing a clear preference for the right. The next year, 1973, came the earthquake of the Yom Kippur War, a surprise attack by Egypt and Syria which killed more than 2,500 Israeli soldiers. That led to fury at the Labor elite over its failure to adequately prepare the army, and four years later came the party’s first election loss to Likud after three uninterrupted decades in power. After that war, the old collective style lost ground to individualism. Israeli songs stopped using the socialist accordion and the word “we.”

But the kibbutz, [an institution central to Labor’s vision], like the country it helped found, is still very much alive, even if neither ended up following the path [their founders expected of them]. After the members [of Kibbutz Ma’aleh ha-Ḥamishah] dropped socialism, 100 families moved into the new neighborhood where the orchards used to be. Most were kibbutz kids who’d left. . . . They were drawn not by ideology but by life in a place that’s beautiful and good for commuters, near the highway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The population has more than doubled in fifteen years. The ideas went away, but the kindergartens are full.

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