Avraham Burg and a New Israeli Progressive Party

In today’s Ha’aretz, Avraham Burg apparently announced the formation of a new party. His description of it:

“The party Israel Equality (Shivyon Yisrael ) – with the acronym Shai in Hebrew, gift – will fight for a state that will be a total democracy; everything else will be either personal or on the community level. The party will wrestle with the sanctimonious internal contradiction of “a Jewish and democratic state,” which means a great deal of democracy for

Former Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg

the Jews and too much Jewish nationalism for the Arabs. It will be the party of those who are committed to the supreme universal and Israeli cultural values of human dignity, the search for peace and a desire for freedom, justice and equality.”

To be perfectly frank, that doesn’t just sound good, it sounds like precisely what Israel needs.

Over at Jewschool, the Kung Fu Jew expresses his skepticism. His concern is not with Burg’s ideology, but that the formation of another party will divide an already fatally divided Left in Israel. I understand that concern, but here it is misplaced.

The Israeli left is not just divided; in terms of political impact on Israeli policy, both foreign and domestic, it is non-existent. The extent to which the Israeli political system is responding to desires for peace or domestic justice and democracy can be measured by how much those desires are reflected in the mainstream parties. Meretz, Hadash, the Arab parties…none of them have the slightest impact on Israeli policy.

There simply is no progressive representation in Israel that matters. The causes of peace, democracy, human rights and universal values have been advanced, in any material sense, exclusively by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) for years now. Meanwhile, the forces that wish to continue to marginalize Israel’s Arab sector, that wish to maintain the occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, that consider the Golan Heights more important than peace, and that wish to eliminate those very NGOs are strongly represented not only by avowedly right-wing parties, but with considerable representation in Kadima and Likud.

In the face of those realities, my Kung Fu colleague’s concerns seem misplaced. The alternative strategy to a new party, he seems to imply, is to strengthen the existing progressive parties, Meretz, and most especially, Hadash.

I think KFJ sees that Meretz’s days are over. And, in any case, it does not represent the sort of break with traditional Zionist politics that Burg is pushing for.

Hadash does, but what I think KFJ misses is that Hadash cannot ever, despite its recent and stunning success in Tel Aviv’s municipal elections, win over the Israeli public. The reasons are numerous:

  • Hadash’s communist roots do not sit well either with the majority of Israeli Jews nor with some sectors (particularly religious ones) of the Israeli Arab public
  • While a peace party may well, after years of hard work, gain mainstream popularity in Israel, it will never do so if it’s perceived as being naïve about defense, as Hadash is.
  • They back recognizing Palestinian Arabs as a national minority within Israel, which sounds to many like a bi-

    Hadash MK Dov Khenin

    national state

  • Their stances on such issues as the Palestinian right of return are much more palatable to the European and American left than to Israelis, even progressives. Indeed, Hadash has, over the years, vacillated between embracing and backing away from Palestinian nationalism.

It’s too much for Hadash to overcome, despite the fact that it has undergone major revisions which allowed Dov Khenin to win 1/3 of the vote in the Tel Aviv mayoral race. Hadash tried to become “the new Left” in the last elections, but they failed, managing only 4 Knesset seats (more or less their average number over the years), despite a general recognition that they had organized a truly dynamic and inspiring campaign.

No, put simply, there is not a single political party in Israel that can do what Burg intends for his new party to do. That’s why this is an important development; but can it work?

Burg himself is the former Labor Party Speaker of the Knesset, which gives him credibility. His more recent criticisms of the Zionist establishment in Israel have certainly cost him a good deal of influence, but they also provide the foundation for the formation of this new party.

Two questions will need positive answers for Burg to have any hope at all: can the new Shai party come up with a credible platform that assures mainstream Israelis that the party takes security threats to Israel seriously and has the ability to deal with those issues? And does Burg still have enough of a relationship with at least some key Israeli figures that he can attract progressive Israelis who are also recognizable to and respected by mainstream Israelis? Just as an example, if Burg can attract David Grossman that would be a very hopeful sign.

Even if those things are answered in the positive, Burg’s attempt here is a long shot. He will need to harness the energy progressive Israelis have demonstrated weekly at Sheikh Jarrah, the enthusiasm Hadash generated in Tel Aviv and then put those forces into harmony with the Israeli Arab sector and create a viable political force from that mix.

That’s a tall order, and the number of things that can derail it is considerable. But I see no option. The rise of such a party is one of the very few things, outside of a cataclysmic event, that can rescue Israeli politics from the anti-

Burg in earlier years

democratic and anti-peace forces that have gripped it in recent years.

Burg understands that Israelis have, historically, swung much more forcefully between right wing and left wing politics than Americans can ever imagine doing, and even more than Europeans generally do. It is a country that lives in uncertainty, and the center is large and will try whatever it thinks stands the best chance of working at the time. He is right to believe that as far right as Israel has swung in recent years, it is capable of swinging back the other way as well.

Burg wants to transcend the Zionist establishment and get back to the sense of ethics that could be found among some strains of early Zionist ideology; strains which have dwindled too near disappearance over the course of state building, conflict, global politics, attacks and the rising influence of both a radical religious and a radical secular right wing.

He’s risking very little to do it. And anyone who cares about Israel should do whatever they can to help him succeed.

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