While a consensus rules in Israel, US politics becomes more divisive

Israel’s leading political parties used to exchange blood-libel accusations. Now, that’s what Americans are doing to each other.

President Donald Trump delivers an address to a joint session of Congress Feb. 28, 2017. Credit: Shealah Craighead/White House.
President Donald Trump delivers an address to a joint session of Congress Feb. 28, 2017. Credit: Shealah Craighead/White House.
Jonathan S. Tobin. Photo by Tzipora Lifchitz.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

It used to be that Israel and the United States represented two very different political paradigms.

The two major American political parties may have had their disagreements, but the difference in their worldviews was slight when compared to European counterparts. Seen from the outside, Democrats and Republicans were part of the same consensus about capitalism and American global power, and had far more in common than either was usually willing to admit.

By contrast, Israeli politics consisted of an all-out war between two main factions that not only harbored stark disagreements about economics, foreign policy and the national ethos, but also harbored sinister suspicions in which each saw the other as guilty of horrible crimes and blood libels against their opponents.

It’s clear that those assumptions about both countries political cultures are no longer valid. America is no longer a model of consensus and seems to have adopted the Israeli practice of viewing opponents through the prism of political blood feuds.

Israel may not yet be a haven for civility, but its political life has shifted to the point where the main disagreements between its two leading political factions—Likud and the Blue and White Party—are primarily about personalities.

Over the course of the last century dating back to the decades before Israel obtained its independence, Zionist politics was defined by the rivalry between two great factions and founding fathers: the Labor Zionists led by David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel, and the rival right-wing movement (initially called the Revisionists and known as the Likud since the 1970s) led first by Ze’ev Jabotinsky and then future Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin.

The argument between the two was about Labor’s socialism, as well as the maximalist nationalism of the right in which it asserted a claim to all of the historic land of Israel. While the ideological arguments were bitter, a willingness to think the worst of each other exacerbated the split. Labor Zionists smeared Jabotinsky as a fascist and accused some of his followers of the murder of Labor leader Haim Arlosoroff in 1933. The Revisionists believed that Labor was guilty of excluding religious and right-wing Jews from entering Palestine when they could have been saved from the Holocaust.

In the years prior to 1948, the two parties and their military wings—the Haganah and the Irgun Zvai Leumi or Etzel—were at odds. At first, the Haganah helped British forces hunt down Etzel’s activists, but then cooperated with them in the struggle against both Britain and the Arabs. But tensions exploded in the early days of the War of Independence, when Ben-Gurion ordered an attack on the Altalena, a ship filled with arms that volunteers brought into the country by the Irgun. Whether it was the result of a misunderstanding or a cynical political move by Ben-Gurion, the tragic episode in which Jews spilled the blood of their fellow Jews created a legacy of bitterness that lasted for decades.

In Israel’s early years, Begin’s followers felt excluded from Israeli academic and cultural institutions as Ben-Gurion’s movement dominated the country. The reason why current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spent his youth in the United States was because his father, historian Benzion Netanyahu, a follower of Jabotinsky, was unable to obtain a position at an Israeli institution.

Begin’s movement also became the home for outsiders in Israeli society, including immigrants from the Arab world (the Mizrahim), who felt insulted, ostracized and marginalized by the Labor/Ashkenazi elite.

Even after Begin led the Likud to an election victory in 1977 after 29 years in the opposition, the old grudges had an enormous impact on the way Israeli politics was practiced. Labor spokesmen looked down on the Likudniks as “riff-raff” and fascists. Some on the right answered the first “Peace Now” demonstrations with violence and charges of treason.

Israeli politics is still largely conducted with a tone of angry bitterness, and it’s easy to see that antagonism towards Netanyahu has its origins in those old vendettas. But the collapse of the Oslo peace process destroyed Labor and also narrowed the differences between the leading parties.

Netanyahu may accuse the Blue and White of being “leftist,” but it’s campaigning as if it lies to the right of the Likud on security, with its leaders vowing to crush Hamas in Gaza, and to hold the Jordan Valley and West Bank settlements forever. Israel’s major parties are part of a general consensus about the lack of a viable peace partner, as well as the need to support the country’s thriving “startup nation” free-market economy that replaced Labor’s failed Socialist model.

Yet as Israel’s parties draw closer, American politics are starting to mimic the way Israelis used to accuse each other of murder.

Both U.S. parties have become more ideological with conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans becoming extinct species in the last quarter-century. But as the GOP has embraced Trump, the gap between the two has become as much about culture and mutual contempt as it is about economic theories.

Trump’s provocations and coarsening of political discourse has provoked a corresponding avalanche of delegitimizing rhetoric from the left. Democrats have turned the debate about illegal immigration into one about race, in which the president—and, by extension—all those who vote for him are branded as racists and authoritarians. A few years ago, conservatives accused President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton of having the blood of four Americans who were murdered in Benghazi on their hands. In the wake of the recent shooting in El Paso, Texas, the left has accused Trump and his supporters of being “deplorable” accessories to the murder of 22 people, most of them of Hispanic origin.

No possible good can come from these kinds of debates in which Americans are, like Israelis of a previous era, lobbing blood libels at their compatriots.

Perhaps it takes a disaster like Oslo for people to rethink their willingness to see politics as a war between two tribes bent on each other’s destruction. Nevertheless, it’s time for Americans to step back from the brink and remember, as we once used to understand implicitly, that what we have in common is still far greater than our differences.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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