Shimon Peres, Binyamin Netanyahu, Donald Trump, and Hillary Clinton - all images via WikiCommons
Israel, Politics

When Demagoguery Trumped Experience in Israel

[pullquote align=right] There are eerie similarities in how Netanyahu came to power with how Trump may do the same next Tuesday.
[/pullquote]Outside of the DC bubble I live in, I hear of many liberals, including many millennials, who would prefer to stay home on Tuesday than vote for Hillary Clinton.
This post is not to convince anyone on the policy merits of her candidacy. Or even her character. The internet is awash in that already.
This post is to remind of the consequences of not making a choice at all, of believing that the most important thing to do in a key election is make a personal statement through a protest vote or non-vote. Because it isn’t. It’s just dangerous and we have an example that should speak to many of these voters.
This generation of millennials and liberals is doing more than maybe any other to fight the occupation of Palestine and extremism in Israel. This generation knows what a racist and divisive demagogue looks like, and they fight him and his policies harder than most have. I am proud every day when I read about a new bold stand they are taking that my generation of activists in the late 1990s/early 2000s simply could not take.
[pullquote align=left] He did so by exploiting fears about “security” and making bedfellows with a religious-extreme right.
[/pullquote]This generation knows what this looks like. His name is Benjamin Netanyahu and what people may not realize is that there are eerie similarities in how Netanyahu came to power with how Trump may do the same next Tuesday. I was there in person for the first time as an election volunteer on the streets of Tel Aviv — and the pain still sticks with me.
See, twenty years ago, another eminently qualified, respected, and dignified leader had trouble connecting to and earning the trust of voters. To be fair, he was not perfect and had said and done some problematic things in his career of public service. And he, too, was trying to follow a far more popular leader who had been able to bring about unprecedented change with perhaps a greater degree of authenticity.
On the other side of this leader was a demagogue talented at propaganda and manipulation who had made his name for many through television appearances. He was supposed to lose to this more qualified leader, but he was able to close a fairly sizable gap in the last weeks of the election.  He did so by exploiting fears about “security” and making bedfellows with a religious-extreme right that he was not anything like in the way he lived or worshipped, but could embolden. Just as there are real threats here, Israel experienced a wave of violence around the election, but the demagogue was able to take that real violence and create even more perceived violence from it.
[pullquote align=right] It had seemed unfathomable just weeks before that the demagogue could win. But he did.
[/pullquote]There was a lot of hand-wringing leading up to the election, the first and only time Israelis voted directly for Prime Minister, rather than just for the party. People were torn about whether they could vote for the more qualified candidate and there was some admittedly weak campaigning from this more peaceful front-runner. Energy was spent by many Israelis on movements focused on issues, just as now happens through Black Lives Matter. And there was a lot to be said for the bold promises being made by the demagogue about security and strength for Israel.
The demagogue won.
And it happened in no small part because some of the key voting demographics who actually opposed him decided to stay home in protest. It had seemed unfathomable just weeks before that the demagogue could win.  But he did.
[pullquote align=left] Once in power, they never really go away.
[/pullquote]The demagogue then lost a few years later after scandals and doing a terrible job, but he came back — once in power, they never really go away. In a subsequent election, as you may remember, the demagogue stirred up voter turnout fears by literally getting on TV and warning that the minorities would be out to vote “in droves” and the majority needed to protect itself. (He apologized after he won — he, too, was willing to recognize the election only if he won.)
The result, as we know all too well, is a terribly divided country that is increasingly isolated on the world stage, boasting about plans to violate international law in a more massive way than ever before, targets civil society in aggressive ways, and where, just this week, women looking to peacefully pray at a holy site were violently attacked by the emboldened extreme right.
Yes, we are looking at our own version of Bibi Netanyahu, the demagogue I refer to here, but so, so much worse. The world recently mourned Shimon Peres, who Bibi beat in 1996, but a majority of Israelis voted against Peres and his hopes for peace at a critical moment in their history because they were stirred to fear and hatred. They thought that somehow they would demean the power of their vote by casting it for him.
[pullquote align=right] I was a volunteer for Peres in 1996 and I still feel the pain of that loss.
[/pullquote]That was a mistake. I was a volunteer for Peres in 1996 and I still feel the pain of that loss. He had a massive lead when I arrived in early April, and voters told me as I drove around the country that Peres could not lose this one. They thought their vote didn’t really matter because others would cover it and they would then feel better if they sat out.
I have talked to my kids often about this and how Israel’s painful journey toward a deeper and stronger Occupation hinged on less than 30,000 votes. Every vote counts.
History does repeat itself. So please – if you have the franchise, you have to use it. And if you can’t get to supporting Hillary Clinton on her own merits, then just think about your view of Bibi Netanyahu and the politics of Occupation, and realize that is actually what is happening here, right before our eyes, and the result could be so, so much worse.
This generation is doing so much to change history in Israel – we have to make sure that happens at home as well.

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