August 19, 2019

A Wonder Woman’s Naiveté

Rotem Sela; Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Should a prime minister debate with a model online? Maybe not. And yet, during election seasons, strange things happen, including a short and fierce debate between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Rotem Sela, an Israeli model, TV personality and actress. She said, then he said, then “Wonder Woman” actress Gal Gadot defended Sela, then Netanyahu’s backers piled on Sela. If the right-religious coalition wins the upcoming election, the Sela moment could serve as a guide to the perplexed observer as to why the right-religious coalition rules and why the other side keeps failing.

The exchange, and even more so the aftermath, is based on a misunderstanding. Sela was upset, and rightly so, by the fact that so many politicians regard the Arab vote as semi-illegitimate. “When the hell will someone in this government let the Israeli public know that this is a country for all its citizens and that every person is born equal. And also, that the Arabs are human beings,” the model wrote on Instagram, on which she has close to 1 million followers. 

Netanyahu sensed an opportunity. Maybe this would be his 2019 “Garbuz moment.” Four years ago, Yair Garbuz, a well-known Israeli artist, unified the right by being condescending toward traditional right-wing Israelis during a leftist rally just a few days before election day. Living in his silo of secular leftists, Garbuz might not have realized that looking down at “mezuzah kissers” is not a good way to connect with, well, Israelis who like their mezuzahs. Sela, apparently, has a similar problem. She thought she was stating the obvious, when in fact she pushed a red-alert button. What did you just say? A state of all of its citizens?

This is where misunderstanding begins. Of course, Israel is a country in which all citizens have equal rights. And when they don’t, this should be corrected. But — and this is why Netanyahu was quick to zero in on Sela’s comments — in the Israeli context, a “state of all of its citizens” is not a technical description of a desired legal situation. It is a political statement. A “state of all of its citizens” is the code term used by those wanting to eliminate the character of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. 

In a response to Sela on Facebook, Netanyahu reaffirmed that all Israeli citizens have equal rights. However, he added this distinction: “According to a basic law we passed, Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people — and the Jewish people only.” I must admit, when The Washington Post publishes such statement without context, this sounds awful. It sounds as if Israel doesn’t want to treat its Arab citizens equally. But to the trained Israeli ear,  what the prime minister wrote is quite obvious. Israelis, by and large, don’t want Israel to become a “state of all of its citizens.” Not in the way most proponents of this slogan mean it. Not in a way that will make Israel nationally-neutral.  

That’s the misunderstanding. Sela was trying to be sympathetic to Arab voters — a noble intention — but was tone deaf to the way her words are interpreted by Jewish voters. She thought that she was defending a minority, when in fact, she was attacking the majority. 

“Israelis, by and large, don’t want Israel to become a “state of all of its citizens…” Not in a way that will make Israel nationally-neutral. “

Netanyahu wants to make her the poster girl of the left. He wants her to be a Garbuz. He cynically uses her to make the same argument that he famously made in the mid-’90s, as he was whispering in a rabbi’s ear that “the left forgot what it means to be Jewish.” You think Sela had won this short battle when Gadot defended her? You think a supportive story in The Forward or Haaretz proves that the prime minister finally botched it by going against a popular figure? (“Israeli politicians, beware: Don’t mess with Rotem Sela. The woman knows how to look good while discussing public policy and nursing a baby”). 

Think again. Arab Israelis support Sela’s views. Jewish Israelis — except for a tiny minority on the far left (4 to 5 percent) — vehemently oppose her views. Not because these Israelis are racist. Not because they don’t want Arabs to have equal rights as citizens. Many of them do. But they also want Israel to remain a Jewish state. They insist that Israel must remain a Jewish state. And they understand that Sela, unintentionally, goodheartedly, naively, was speaking the language of Israel’s most cunning enemies.


Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain at jewishjournal.com/rosnersdomain.