Like U.S. President Donald Trump, Israeli Labor Party leader Avi Gabbay needs to keep instant explainers in tow. Out of cold calculation or sincere belief, Gabbay has been making controversial statements that are meant to engage the right, but in the meantime have mainly succeeded in angering the left. That’s when his crew of clarifiers steps in to defend him on the grounds that he was misunderstood or that his words had been taken out of context or just hold your nose and then shut your mouth because this is the only way to take votes from the right and beat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
But even in its unadulterated and fully clarified form, Gabbay’s latest provocation is both outrageous and unfounded. The recently-installed Labor leader told a group of students at Ben-Gurion University in Be’er Sheva on Monday that “the left” reacted to a 1997 statement by Netanyahu that “the left has forgotten what it means to be Jewish” by turning, in fact, less Jewish. Gabbay is ascribing to Netanyahu magical powers that he does not have and is exhibiting a distinct lack of understanding and empathy for the political camp that he may not identify with exactly, but still purports to lead.
The main reaction to the Netanyahu statement – caught on a hot microphone twenty years ago during a meeting with the late Jewish mystic Rabbi Yitzhak Kaduri – was personal, not theological. Coming less than two years after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the incident showed that even though he had since been elected prime minister, in terms of incitement Netanyahu had learned nothing and forgotten nothing. The context of Netanyahu’s statement was the peace process and the Oslo Accords, and not Judaism per se, so it didn’t induce any leftist to stop making Kiddush or lighting candles on Friday night or to forget the biblical underpinnings of Zionism. What it did do is magnify fear and loathing of Netanyahu, who was seen as delegitimizing the left in an effort to curry favor with his base, an assessment that still holds true today. Perhaps Gabbay is unaware that the public outrage over Netanyahu’s remark contributed to growing public disenchantment of his first term, fueling the fury that led to his dramatic loss to Gabbay’s predecessor Ehud Barak in the 1999 elections.
Gabbay’s statement is baseless in a historical sense as well, even if one does not bother going back all the way to the pronounced anti-clerical rebellion that motivated the Zionist founders of the Labor movement, who were fed up with the stifling and debilitating rule of rabbis in East European shtetls. A century later, the reasons for the growing secular disdain for organized religion, if it exists at all, are essentially the same. It does not stem from any divisive whisper by Netanyahu but from a natural reaction to ongoing Orthodox hegemony, Hareidi control of successive coalitions and the toxic fusion created by the Gush Emunim settler movement and Minister Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi party between religious beliefs and nationalistic, anti-democratic and partially racist messianism. Far more than leftists have forgotten what it means to be Jewish, as Netanyahu alleged, Israel under his leadership is forgetting what it means to be liberal. In this crucial battle, Gabbay seems to coming down on the wrong side.
The come-from-nowhere outsider confounded widespread expectations when he took over the Labor Party in July, so it is not inconceivable that the future will vindicate him once again. Perhaps he has mastered Trump’s winning formula of creating constant scandals that keep him in the headlines and home pages and ultimately lead him to victory. At the same time, his efforts to curry favor with potential swing voters on the right by alienating hard-core supporters on the left could also backfire, because Gabbay is playing double or nothing. His resentful voters could defect to Meretz on Gabbay’s left or to Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid on his right, leaving him like the proverbial army commander who shouts “After me,” only to look back and discover that his soldiers have left him alone on the battlefield, on the way to certain defeat. Even before that, if he continues on this path, Gabbay’s voters might simply stop taking him seriously.