Israeli Politics and the Metaphysics of the Shtetl

 BY GILAD ATZMON

shtetl.jpg

by Gilad Atzmon

The ongoing political stalemate in Israel brings to mind an old recycled Jewish joke that reads as follows:

Q: How many synagogues are needed in a village with one Jew?

A: Two, one to go to and one to boycott!

Self identified Jews, and especially non-religious one, are hardly defined by what they are but mostly by that which they oppose. They are basically defined by means of negation: the list of ideas, thoughts, philosophies and people whom they reject, contest and boycott.

This unique state of being describes accurately the political paralysis in Israel. Roughly two-thirds of Knesset members are hard-core right wingers. They agree with PM Benjamin Netanyahu on pretty much every crucial political matter including the most radical chauvinist interpretations of Jewish nationalism. In a normal civilized democracy this would be enough to form the strongest possible government.  But in Israel they are already preparing for their fifth consecutive election, as they have failed to form a stable government in the last three years.

Like in the old Jewish joke they boycott each other. Netanyahu’s past allies such as Avigdor Lieberman and Gideon Sa’ar, who are actually to the right of Netanyahu, are committed to one goal: stopping the most popular Israeli right-wing politician. They prefer to join Netanyahu’s bitterest enemies in the vanishing Israeli ‘left’ just to make sure that Netanyahu finally disappears from the political arena. They will use every political maneuver to topple the man who, more than anyone else, transformed Israel into a right-wing regional superpower. Not many can deny that it is Netanyahu who reduced some world decaying powers into Israel’s obedient remote colonies.

How are we supposed to interpret this animosity within Israeli politics? How is it possible that right-wingers are determined to destroy their political twins? The genius philosopher Otto Weininger observed in his book Sex and Character that what we hate in others is that which we despise in ourselves.  According to Weininger, this is why the most dedicated homophobes are often latent gays themselves. Similarly, according to Weininger, the most devoted Jews-haters are themselves Jews. 

It was Otto Weininger’s brilliant observation that helped me grasp that it was me whom I hate the most. It was Weininger who helped me realize that the most profound study of Jewish ID politics may be achieved by means of self-reflection. It was Weininger who explained why it is that the Jews who contributed to humanity the most (such as Jesus, Spinoza and Weininger himself) were often described by fellow Jews as ‘self-haters.’  It is more than likely that those who despise Netanyahu within the Israeli political realm actually hate in Netanyahu that which they despise in themselves. They are all deeply compromised; Netanyahu is just slightly more gifted in being compromised. He harnessed this gift into an astonishing political career.  

Netanyahu, in the most peculiar way, has brought to light everything the state has tried to conceal and suppress. It is Netanyahu that transformed Israel into a ‘Jewish State,’ understanding already in the 1990s that it is actually ‘Jewishness’ that unites Israeli Jews, as opposed to an ‘Israeliness’ that means less and less as time goes by. It was this realization that created that most resilient bond between Netanyahu and the Israeli orthodox parties. But Netanyahu is an elastic political character; when he realized that a coalition of ‘the Jews’ is not enough to win him the election he successfully bonded with the Islamic Party (Ra’am).

In a very short time ahead of the last election, Netanyahu managed to break the Israeli-Arab’s rising political power, with Ra’am separating from the United Arab List.  If Netanyahu manages to form a government at this stage, it is almost certain that he will do this with the support of the Islamic Party. Some Jewish nationalist parties on the far right of Bibi’s ‘potential’ coalition have declared that governing with the Islamist party is unimaginable. Yet the Jewish orthodox party Shas announced that the possibility of uniting with Ra’am isn’t at all a remote option. Again we see a repetition of the synagogue joke above. The Jewish Orthodox prefer to sit with pious Muslims rather than with Jewish LGBTQ enthusiasts of the pseudo-Left type.  

The Israeli Left is obviously made of the exact same material as their orthodox twins.  The so-called ‘Left’ party Meretz already signaled that it is willing to sit in a coalition with the ultra-right Sa’ar and Bennett just to make sure that Netanyahu is ousted. They will join one Synagogue just to boycott the other.

One may wonder at this stage whether this absurd theater is a manifestation of some tribal irrational behavior. I don’t believe it is. The entire Israeli political establishment benefits from the current political chaos. Netanyahu knows that his lawyers will manage to postpone his trial indefinitely as long as Israel is heading towards elections. His Likud Party members also know that without Netanyahu at the helm, their party would evaporate into dust.

Netanyahu’s enemies in the Right know that the public do not believe in them or their abilities, and with good reason. Centrist parties are also a vanishing political power. The disappearance of Netanyahu and the rise of a wall-to-wall right-wing coalition is a death sentence for them. The Israeli Left doesn’t even deserve our attention as it is nonexistent by now and what is left out of it is treacherous to every recognized left value. Israel’s Left is more concerned with Identitarian matters and LGBTQ fights than anything that is remotely working class-related, labour and social oriented or concerned with Israeli-Arab reconciliation.

The truth of the matter is that everybody around Netanyahu expected him to win this election and form a coalition. The image of ‘success’ in the ‘fight against Covid’ was orchestrated by Netanyahu in the most profound manner and even this didn’t translate into a victory. The truth of the matter is that for Netanyahu and the rest of the Israeli political world, the continuing paralysis is a survival strategy.  

This detachment between the masses and their oligarchs is not new to the Jewish universe. This is exactly how the Shtetl, the Diaspora Jewish town, was run. In the Shtetl, the rich and the oligarchs married their daughters to the young rabbinical protégés just to form a very successful bond between wealth and authority. Consequently, the history of the Jewish Ghetto is a story of a great divided society of a cognitive and social partition between the people and the elite, between the ‘Rothschilds,’ so to say, and the rest: “hewers of wood and drawers of water.”

Israel was born to amend the Jewish fate and correct the Jewish Diaspora’s destiny. It was made into a reality by left-leaning Zionist ideologists and agitators who vowed to equalize Jewish society, to make Jews ‘people like all others.’ They tried to defy capitalism with labour, agriculture and new ethics. But the reality of the Jewish State proves the complete opposite. In just a few decades Israel has morphed into the worst shtetl of them all.  It manifests every aspect Zionism vowed to eradicate. It is corrupted, divided and run by an aloof society that cares for itself and itself alone. 

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