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The Meaning of Yair Lapid

[Yair Lapid. Image from Wikimedia Commons.] [Yair Lapid. Image from Wikimedia Commons.]

The 2013 Israeli elections produced a dramatic nothing. Yair Lapid, television anchor, writer of clichés, son of loudmouth celebrity and one-time politician Tommy Lapid, and famed for his hairstyle, entered the political scene to form a party of handpicked personalities which won nineteen seats in the Knesset, and became the second largest party in Israel. Lapid is now the kingmaker, positioned to determine the shape of the coalition that will form Binyamin Netanyahu’s next government.

What does Yair Lapid represent? Early analysis of voting precincts reveals Lapid voters come from both affluent and middle-class urban, predominantly Ashkenazi neighborhoods, linking directly with the social groups from which came the initiative for the protest wave that swept over Israel eighteen months ago under the #J14 hashtag. Paradoxically, Lapid came to represent the desire of his primarily middle class and white Jewish voters for both radical change and the preservation of current conditions.

No intelligent person expected these elections to produce a less racist or less belligerent Israel, or one that offers any substantial recognition of Palestinian demands. The outcome of the elections is a blow to Israel’s right-wing, and also to Netanyahu. However, the immateriality of the shift is captured nicely by Ha’aretz’s pre-elections coverage, which lumped Kadima, Tzipi Livni’s new party–spectacularly named “The Movement”–Labor, Meretz, and Lapid’s party in one broad camp: the so-called “center-left.” One can learn about the nature of this “center-left” from the new leader of Labor, Shelly Yachimovich, who early on took well-deserved credit for the settlement enterprise. She also, quite accurately, rejected the appellation “left” for her party. Given such a barren landscape, if it is at all interesting to “read” the results, it is only in relation to the depth of the long-term political trajectories of Israel’s tectonic plates.  

At least since the #J14 moment, popular disgust with the political class in Israel has been impossible to hide. But in truth, that popular disgust is not new. Even among Jews, the majority of Israelis have always felt alienated from the political class. The rise of Likud in 1977 was, to a large extent, the result of Menachem Begin’s cultivated outsider aura, and his skillful riding on the anger and alienation of Jewish Israelis—particularly Jews from Arab countries: Mizrahim. In turn, Likud, Shas, and Israel Beiteinu, Avigdor Lieberman’s party, have all mastered the modern right-wing art of minting popular support for inequality from resentment. And even in power, they have continually represented themselves as underdogs.  

It is correct to call Israel a settler-colonial society, and to use that paradigm to explain political choices. However, such explanations risk relying on an uneasy functionalism. How, exactly, does the establishment of Israel as a settler society compel present day politicians to invest in settlements and shortchange other constituencies? One mechanism, certainly in combination with others, is that the settlement enterprise provides the Right with a strategy for reconciling anger at the dominant class with the desire for recognition on its terms. “Redeeming the land,” the Zionist slogan for colonization, is both an expropriation and continuation of the settler ethos of the white Ashkenazi ruling class, which expelled the native Palestinians and established the state. For that reason, it is both a claim for recognition within the boundaries of the Zionist hegemonic discourse, and an ideological reversal through which settlements (and the politics that enable them) appear as subversive, outwitting the Ashkenazi elite in the same way that elite once outwitted the “Goy” ruler–the British Empire. This ideological and affective economy, one which inverts the alienation of the popular classes by “alienating” dominant social identities, and which works by representing bourgeois Ashkenazi dominance as alien, not Jewish enough, not patriotic enough, composed of “traitors,” and so forth, has been central to the three decades of Likud rule.

The strategy is not particularly Israeli. The US Right, for example, uses it as well–recall Sarah Palin, or how Republicans portrayed John Kerry as “French.” But in Israel it contributes directly to preserving the centrality of colonization in the national identity. Thus it has made the deepening of colonization the condition of possibility of the neoliberal transformation that has swept Israel towards its current position as the second-most-unequal developed economy.  

Although the #J14 phenomenon was unprecedented in numbers and spread of participation, it was not altogether without precedent. Some noted the similarity with the post-war protest wave that swept Israel in 1974. It is an apt comparison, particularly because it provides no reason to dismiss the 2012 protests as insignificant. Although it was not obvious at the time, the 1974 protest wave marked the beginning of the end of Labor hegemony. Like #J14, those protests emerged from bourgeois, Ashkenazi middle class circles, and were self-consciously “apolitical,” even though the anger captured was much broader and more popular protests have both preceded and exceeded it–most notably, the Black Panthers movement in the early 1970s. Like #J14, they were followed by the overnight success of a new center party, Dash. The new center, however, was short lived. It was Likud that eventually emerged to consolidate the new hegemony.

The social protests, the shrinking of the traditional parties, the widespread sense of revulsion at the political class, the loss of faith in politics, and the very repetition of the seventies’ pattern raise the question: have we entered the twilight of the Great Likud Pact, that combination of neo-liberalism for the upper classes and rampant colonization in the occupied Palestinian Territories for the Israeli-Jewish masses that has defined hegemony in Israel for over thirty years?

Perhaps, but with the provision that we are at the very beginning. The international situation in the 1980s, marked by the exhaustion of post-war social democracy, the emergence of neoliberalism, and the evolution of total US dominance in the Middle East after the defeat of Arab nationalism facilitated the development of Likud hegemony. The global configuration is today markedly different in a way that exerts pressure on both wings of the pact. American power is in slow decline. Neoliberalism is in a global cul-de-sac with profitability unable to recover, anemic growth and financial instability in the core countries, and rebellions and civil wars in the periphery.

In Israel too, it was the end of neoliberalism’s ability to provide upward mobility to the Ashkenazi middle classes that prompted the Rothschild encampment. On top of the persistent civil resistance of Palestinians themselves, the upheavals in Egypt and Syria are also exerting pressure on the occupation: even if, thus far, the risk has remained theoretical, they raise doubts about the long-term viability of Israel’s military strategy, which links the unhindered repression of Palestinians to the security cooperation of autocratic and Western-dominated Arab regimes. Just as ominous is the erosion of Israel’s international status. Whereas in the South support for Palestinians has never wavered, majorities in Europe now consider Israel as much a threat to world peace as North Korea and Iran. The “peace dividends” that Israel received during the long Likud reign, from the US-imposed peace with Egypt and Jordan through the Oslo process, are petering out, returning Israel to the status of an international pariah. At the United Nations, various figures, from Roger Waters to General Assembly secretary Miguel d'Escoto Brockmann openly advocate boycott of the state–and the growing BDS movement has reached the point that it is the thing to attack.

Furthermore, the growing alienation of US Jews from their decidedly illiberal co-religionists – a development which many in Israel consider an “existential” threat – is increasingly noted, and various attempts have recently emerged to capitalize on it, such as J Street, and also Peter Beinart’s call for a “Zionist” boycott. In Israel, Livni sought to build her image as the leader who could restore Israel’s international respect. Indeed, it was the main theme of her 2013 campaign. Nevertheless, for some time Israel has enjoyed a certain grace period, primarily because its location as a Western outpost on the frontier of “asymmetrical” wars and its insecurity industry allow it to cash in on the global difficulties of neoliberalism, and also because its own settler-colonial structures provide a cushion against radical social movements. But global processes will not remain external to Israel for long.

Quite rightly, few have missed an opportunity to criticize the “apolitical” nature of the #J14 phenomenon, especially the refusal to address the occupation and the delusional desire to eschew political choices and the inevitable confrontations and decisions that follow from them–although too facile a dismissal had its own problems, too easily reproducing the perspective of the elite instead of recognizing the social roots of the protests, as well as the real, although not central, participation of Israel’s Palestinian citizens.

But political mistakes are always rooted in concrete experience. While the “apolitical” current which frequently dominated #J14 reflected both the consensual racism that pervades Israel as well as the shallowness of the political consciousness of the majority of the people involved, the rejection of the political was also rooted in a particular experience of politics–that of thirty years of Likud hegemony. During that span, “right” and “left,” instead of being expressions of real political divergences, have operated as two sets of racialized clichés that co-produce the same regime and the same social order–Jewish, white, Ashkenazi, capitalist. In this co-production, the Right, depending on whom you ask, is either “warm and authentically Jewish,” or “stupid and backward,” and the “Left” depending on whom you ask, is either “enlightened and civilized,” or “detached, foreign-funded and rootless.” It was to the extent that #J14 was able to suspend for an hour this political spectacle that it posed an epochal challenge to the hegemonic order.

Ultimately, however, such a suspension must be temporary. Without the articulation of another political matrix, it produces nothing. Put to the test, it produced Yair Lapid–nothingness made flesh.

If a key foundation of Likudism is the identification of “the Left” as an alien threat to Israel’s existence, the 2013 elections were notable by the relative unimportance of the question of security. One can read that–correctly–as another proof of the general, racist banality of the occupation, something which no longer bothers Israelis. But another thing that must be noted about Israel’s recent murder spree in Gaza, undoubtedly also an elections stunt, is that it did not seem to have worked. Appearing “tough” on security neither stopped the bleeding from the ruling coalition nor set the agenda for the public sphere. The “social issues” dominated, although in profoundly centrist formulations.

Lapid’s slogan of “defending the middle classes” set the tone. Even Netanyahu tried to impress the electorate with his social consciousness. Yet the old “left” parties that had expected to capitalize on the prominence of social issues raised by #J14 mostly failed to do so. Labor, despite the leadership of Shelly Yachimovich, who is identified with “social” issues, the inclusion of two of the leaders of #J14, Stav Shafir and Itzik Shmuli, and despite dumping the “peace” issue and making nice with settlers, fell way short of expectations. Hadash, which in contrast really is a left party, gained nothing. Only Meretz grew significantly, but not in a way that changed the broad balance of forces, and probably mostly at the expense of Labor. That the centrality of “social issues” damaged the Right but largely failed to benefit the “Left” reaffirms the critical and so far enduring aspect of #J14’s rejection of politics.

It was Yair Lapid’s new party, promising undefined “change,” that benefited most. Lapid echoed the rhetoric of the summer protests, but his basic frame of mind is neoliberal. Thus his actual political leanings cannot explain his success in benefitting from the agenda set by the protests. Rather, his greatest assets are two that contradict each other: his empty and strongly apolitical record as a brand-name and celebrity–which makes him the personification of the rejection of old politics and the political class as a whole–and his whiteness, which represents the continuity and the stability of the social order and of the same political class. In Israel, the electoral dog whistle of the latter is attacking the alleged “parasitism” or failure “to share the burden” of the orthodox religious parties, and in turn the need to compel religious Jews to work and cease subsidies to them. That rhetoric is also dosed with a good deal of “equal,” and doubly racist, demands that Palestinians “share the burden,” as well as racism towards Mizrahim–some of it quite nakedly obvious.

That ticket is not new. Centrist, un- or under-acknowledged “white power” parties in this vein have periodically emerged on Israeli electoral territory. Other centrist parties, such as Kadima, Labor and Meretz, also occasionally fish in the same waters. No party in that vein, however, has been as successful as Lapid’s, if only because of the weakness of the established parties. It is not his emergence, in and of itself, that is remarkable, but the conjuncture that allows him to capitalize on the growing hollowness of the existing hegemony and simultaneously to express and preserve it.

Beyond the appeal of whiteness and anti-religious bigotry, Lapid is a purveyor of fantasy solutions to all that bothers his voters. His foreign policy is “peace,” based on building walls so that Palestinians stay separate and invisible. His economic policy is to provide social justice and welfare through increasing market “competitiveness,” to close the revolving doors between wealth and political power by recruiting to his party a Shabak head who is also a former bank CEO, and to lower the prices of apartments while strengthening the Israeli banks that speculate in real estate. In short, he stands for the promise that Israel’s deepening crisis can be healed painlessly, and, in particular, without upsetting the structures of class and race domination. As fantasy, the party has nowhere to go except to crush and burn. Unlike the Likud it seeks to replace, it does not yet represent a working hegemonic project. Instead, it represents a denial that the difficulties of Likud’s hegemonic project require new political choices. It speaks to the fears of the white Ashkenazi middle class that it courted, but provides no workable way to bring their interests either into conflict or into collaboration with other social sectors. In that, it is faithful to #J14, both to its yearning for a new common ground, one that ditches the “security” based distinction between “left” and right–a distinction that was not a real political difference but the identitarian underpinning of Likud hegemony—and to its failure to actually offer one, primarily because of the limitations of that movement’s leadership’s whiteness.

As the very emergence of the Likud Pact in the wake of social protests reveals, there is no guarantee that the sunset of Likud’s hegemonic project will lead Israel in a more progressive direction. The inherent weakness of the Left, a legacy of settler-colonialism, points in the opposite direction. On the other hand, the direction of worldwide trends, and the growth of social movements globally and in the region, could be a backwind to any social movement that manages to break the mold. It would therefore be a shame if we let the elections’ results dictate that we only speak of nothingness. So I want to end with two proposals on the margins of Israel’s electoral map, possessing exactly that which #J14 lacked: clear ideas for a real, political common ground, for a real rather than imaginary basis for new political formation and subjectivities. It should not be surprising that both proposals come from the Palestinian sector in Israel, and both find their best articulators in Palestinian women. It should also not be surprising that these proposals have few followers in Israel. But unlike Lapid’s, that negativity is positively charged.

2.

Asma Aghbaria-Zahalka is the Yaffa-born head of a tiny radical-left party, Da’am, with its own trade union. The party drew less than 4,000 votes in the 2013 elections, although she was prominent enough to be featured in Ha’aretz. She started attracting wide attention, however, at least within the small circle of the Left in Israel, when she made an angry impromptu speech after a working class Palestinian speaker was kept off the stage by the organizers of a “social” protest last summer.

Aghbaria-Zahalka proposes a united workers’ struggle against the ruling class. It comes close to sounding simplistic, even naive. It comes even closer to sounding like pandering to Zionism and to her Jewish-Israeli, mostly Ashkenazi, supporters–particularly since she sometimes expresses her criticism of other Palestinians in ways that seem to make light of the critical importance of national and racial identities in the context of Israeli racism and colonialism. Part of this impression can be ascribed to sentences being taken out of context. But another part is undoubtedly an expression of the perils of the strategy itself, which includes within it a voluntaristic élan that rhymes with the ethos of Zionism itself.

Yet in the speech that has come to define her there is none of that. Her argument, directly addressing the organizers of #J14, cuts to the essence: without working-class Palestinians and working-class Jews at its very political center, no protest movement in Israel will amount to much. Palestinians are the key, not only to Palestinian liberty, but to the liberation of Jews in Israel and to their future in the Middle East.

Aghbaria-Zahalka is not “joining” Jewish protests against the cost of living. She asserts the necessity of her leading them and articulating their demands, and in the broadest, most universal way possible precisely because she is a Palestinian woman and not the “universal,” bourgeois subject of the cottage protest.  For example, in taking the originally Arab, appropriated in Israel, revolutionary slogans such as “the people want...” and inflecting them with her own Palestinian, female subject of the enunciation, she subsumes a critique of Israeliness–as exclusionary, white, Jewish, and privileged–within a queering of it that posits a new political entity-to-be, a “people” that can emerge from the struggle for equality, instead of being torn apart, manipulated, and ultimately defeated by the inequalities each sector in it wants to preserve. In that she offers the widespread anger brewing in Israel the vision and the political language that it lacks, but also a mirror of its limitations. For the paradox is that to successfully meet the conditions for joint struggle, Israelis who wish to change their society need to overcome the barrier of accepting the leadership of a woman and a Palestinian. And Aghbaria-Zahalka’s undeniable charisma has only got her so far. So far.

In the run-up to the elections Ha’aretz presented Aghbaria-Zahalka as the very opposite of Hanin Zoabi from Balad. There are significant differences between them which I do not wish to minimize. But despite appearances, there are some similarities worth noting in Balad and Zoabi’s strategy in defining their relations to the dominant Israeli identity, and therefore also in the implicit and explicit ways they propose common grounds. One can start with the election clip that got a lot of attention.

In the clip, Israel’s most racist Knesset members are singing and dancing the Zionist national anthem of Israel to a popular Arab tune. Israel’s elections committee censored the clip, describing it as “insulting” the national symbol. It is a reading that has the virtue of pigeonholing Balad in the discursive slot that most serves Israeli politicians, the position of the Arab who is “disloyal,” offensive, hating Jews, whose very outrages serve to define the boundaries of the community. But at least a few Israeli spectators read it differently, as an intervention in an Israeli-Jewish field. And it takes a moment’s reflection to see why. Rather than insulting, the content of the clip can be read as utopian. It can be a proposal for an Israeliness that is at home in the Middle East–no longer colonial, no longer based on the domination of European culture, less pompous, and crucially, no longer illegitimate. And what is more, it is “Hatikva” sung to music that is also the music of a plurality of Israeli Jews. Is there a more visible – or perhaps more audible–way to bridge the gaping disconnect between the symbolic realm of the state and the lived experience of the citizen that #J14 laid bare? Instead of reading it only as biting satire, and without denying its literal and essential meaning as mocking the politics of the Israeli right, I suggest that the image of the Moldovan Lieberman moving to the tune of an Arab dance party is also the stuff of comic denouement. It is, in that respect, akin to the marriage scene at the end of comedy, in which social contradictions are resolved, but here with the original hierarchy subverted.

Let me preempt complaints that this is too strong or willful a reading by quoting from Zoabi’s pre-election profile in Ha’aretz. In it, she makes the point that

Israelis do not know what loving one’s homeland means... To love one’s homeland is to love and respect its history and its native people. Those who love their homeland do not uproot trees and do not construct ugly walls and do not destroy the natural landscape. This isn’t love. This is a project of domination that comes to say, “we are the masters and we want to erase the other entity that is here, and has been here earlier.” I think most Arabs accept and are fine with the fact that Jews live in the country. The problem is the Jews are not fine with the presence of Palestinians. Those who don’t accept Palestinians as part of the place and don’t embrace the fact that here is not Europe, let them go back to Europe.

...In the platform we stress the place of the victim because that is where we are coming from, not because we want to eliminate the other side whose place is safe anyway and does not need to be redefined. We believe in the self-determination of the Jewish collective that was created here, and that has unique cultural attributes, language and identity.

To be more explicit: there is a real but deeply flawed Jewish national collective in Israel, which suffers from a congenital inability to belong to the land it claims as its homeland. The implication is that its only hope to overcome that inability is the mediation of Palestinians. Palestinian nationalism is not the enemy of Jewish-Israeli nationalism, but in fact, through decolonization, the condition of its becoming.

If there is a future for social movements in Israel, it will be on the bass of proposals such as these, coming from Palestinians. The alternative is Yair Lapids all the way down—or worse.

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