Israeli Election: Who Cares?

Israeli voters go to the polls on May 17 in what could be the most critical election in the young nation’s history. But many American Jews, perplexed by the ever-shifting lineup of personalities, parties and positions, are reacting with a collective yawn, according to community leaders around the country.

The recent debate between Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Yitzhak Mordechai, the former defense minister and now centrist party candidate, was riveting theater in Israel, with most pundits giving the contest to the challenger; the daily outpouring of polls showing Labor Party candidate Ehud Barak leading Netanyahu are breakfast-table reading for countless Israelis.

But, in this country, the attitude seems to be a collective “who cares?”

“There’s almost no enthusiasm and very little interest, except for small groups of activists on the right and the left,” said American University political scientist Amos Perlmutter. “There’s been almost no effort to mobilize most American Jews who are not on the extremes.”

The result, he said, is epidemic indifference here about a political battle that could determine the fate of the faltering peace process and shape the character of a nation still trying to determine what it means to be a Jewish state.

Jewish leaders cite a long list of likely causes, starting with the fact that few Jews here see compelling reasons to invest their emotions in the bruising contest half a world away.

“People don’t see a threat to Israel,” Perlmutter said. “If it’s not in the news, people here think it doesn’t exist. On the peace process, people here are just resigned. They think it will end one way or another, and they don’t see how they’re part of it.”

The pluralism battle and the treacherous line the candidates have to walk through Israel’s religious minefields have also sapped interest among the non-Orthodox.

“The issue that, rightly or wrongly, concerns the American Jewish community the most is pluralism,” said Marshall Breger, a professor of law at the Catholic University of America and a consultant for the Israel Policy Forum, a pro-peace process group. “Since none of the three major candidates is dealing with that issue, interest in the election is declining among American Jews.”

Mordechai cast the deciding vote for recent Knesset legislation that bars Conservative and Reform Jews from serving on local religious councils, disappointing some potential American supporters. Barak, some Reform and Conservative leaders here say, has been far too timid in standing up against Orthodox forces in Israeli politics.

Many Orthodox activists look through the opposite end of the telescope, but see a similarly fuzzy image.

“In my own congregation, people are very interested in what will happen,” said Betty Ehrenberg, director of international relations for the Orthodox Union, a group that is generally critical of the Oslo process and opposed to the effort to reduce the power of Orthodox authorities in Israeli life. “They’re very worried about territorial compromise. But they don’t attach enough of a clear-cut policy to any of the candidates. Maybe they’re feeling a little cynical; they seem to feel that things will fall where they will fall, and there’s not much anyone can do about it.”

The increasing Americanization of the campaign, she said, is also a factor.

“People see that, in Israel, the focus isn’t on the big issues, but on personalities, on name-calling and finger pointing. The big issues are getting lost in the shuffle. So the imaginations of American Jews have not been captured. There’s a lot of concern about the issues, but not that much about the election.”

Michael Kotzin, director of the Chicago Jewish Community Relations Council, pointed to another factor: the rise of a new generation of leaders who are not part of Israel’s founding mystique.

“In the past, there were historic connections to the candidates — Golda Meir, Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin,” he said. “But this is a new generation, and they don’t resonate with American Jews in the same way.”

Jews here, he said, are increasingly baffled by Israel’s complex political system — democracy, but in a barely recognizable form.

“There are so many parties, so many candidates, it’s hard to understand what the system is,” he said. “Most people still don’t understand about the runoffs, about the Knesset elections. And as the Israeli commentators have pointed out, sharp differences between the candidates’ positions have not been rendered.”

Disillusionment with the candidates themselves is another factor. It’s no surprise that pro-Oslo activists loathe Netanyahu. But with Mordechai and Barak threatening to split the anti-Netanyahu vote, many are frustrated with their unwillingness to unite to unseat the prime minister, said Seymour Reich, former president of the American Zionist Movement and a former chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations.

“There’s clearly confusion and disillusionment,” he said. “The multiplicity of parties Balkanizes the electoral system, which creates great danger for Israel as a democracy. We’re concerned, but we feel impotent.”

Barak’s lackluster campaign style and his status as a relative unknown to American Jews has added to unease among Jews here who typically support Labor candidates.

On the other side of the political divide, some hard-liners are unhappy with Netanyahu’s performance even as they continue to support the basic policies of his government.

“Look, he’s done a lot of the right things, but he’s inconsistent and unpredictable,” said a leading Jewish conservative. “Many feel that supporting [Knesset member Benny] Begin is a waste, since he can’t possibly win, but that Netanyahu has not proven a particularly effective advocate on behalf of those who put Israel’s security and integrity first. There isn’t the enthusiasm for him there was four years ago.”

But the problem may run deeper than simply the upcoming election. Numerous observers, including some prominent Israeli officials, have noted a pulling away from Israel among American Jews over the past decade; the 1999 campaigns may just be accelerating that process.

“The real problem is a diminished interest in Israel overall,” said Rabbi Seymour Essrog, president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the central group of Conservative rabbis in this country.

He said the “turnoff” is the product of a number of factors, including the current government’s position on religious pluralism and the sagging peace process, as well as more positive factors — including Israel’s economic successes and indisputable military superiority in the region.

“The average Jew is just totally removed from it,” he said. “There’s relative peace and prosperity in Israel, and people have their own issues to deal with at home.”