Secular Shinui Parties, While Leftists Taste Sour Grapes

By Noga Tarnopolsky

Published January 31, 2003, issue of January 31, 2003.
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JERUSALEM — The left wing was never very big here in the Holy City, but these days it is very small. Most days, you can find much of it ensconced at Gaffen, a wine emporium-cum-coffee shop on Emek Refaim Street, the main drag in the trendy German Colony.

On Tuesday, Election Day, wine was being served as of 10:00 a.m. and an exact reproduction of Israel’s low-tech voting booth — small pieces of paper with party emblems, and a stack of envelopes — was sitting near the cookies. Patrons of all ages and persuasions were loudly encouraged to vote.

By Tuesday evening, a significant chunk of the usual Gaffen crowd could be found at Mishkenot Sha’ananim, where the left-leaning New Israel Fund was holding a subdued soirée.

The evening began with standard-issue lefty laughs at religious coercion. Shai Petel, a young, dark, stocky, pony-tailed computer expert on the fund’s staff, told a small crowd what he had had to do to replace his lost ID card that morning. He was initially refused entry to the Interior Ministry. The ministry is controlled by the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, and no “seculars” were being allowed inside on this day. Two goons behind the metal doors nodded to permit the entry of religious people, and slammed the doors shut if they saw a secular face.

“I shove my way in past the bullies and get upstairs,” Petel related. “And when no one will give me a number, I finally say, ‘I don’t get it! I’m newly religious, and Rabbi Hirshzon told me to come here and everything would be OK. What’s the deal?’” Within minutes, a 12-year old boy had placed a number in his pocket, and he was given a new ID card, enabling him to vote.

“Its Iran here!” Petel told his audience, to much rueful amusement.

As he left the ministry, Petel said, he had asked the guard downstairs, a Russian immigrant, how the system worked. “How much do you think I earn?” the guard asked him. “Seventeen, eighteen shekels,” Petel guessed, naming a figure equivalent to about $3.50. “I make 70 shekels,” the guard replied. “For that kind of money, I’ll even keep my mother out of here.”

Petel told his anecdote at about 9:55 p.m., as fund staffers and board members entered an auditorium to see the first exit polls appear. By 11:00 p.m., the room was mostly vacant.

In fact, the streets were mostly empty, and Gaffen, which often remains open until 1:00 or 2:00 a.m., had its doors shuttered. One pane of glass displayed the results of an informal poll conducted by Gaffen which had 40 seats going to Labor, 30 to Meretz, 11 to Green Leaf, the party that favors legalizing marijuana, and only 10 to the Likud.

In contrast, Jerusalem voters in the real election gave the Likud 27.8% of their votes, Labor 9%, Shinui 6.9%, Shas 12.9%, and Meretz a mere 4.8%.

Not much was said at the New Israel Fund gathering, although grief was expressed at Meretz’s defeat and sour comments could be heard when it came to the massive electoral victory of Tommy Lapid’s Shinui.

“I am not terribly disappointed or devastated,” said Eliezer Ya’ari, director of the fund’s Israel office, glancing at a massive projected television screen of Shinui supporters reveling. “When the lights are turned off, those who are dancing will have to come up with solutions.”

Yoram Peri, head of the Chaim Herzog Institute of Media, Politics and Society at Tel Aviv University, who chairs the New Israel Fund’s international council, was even more dismissive of Shinui.

“What do we know about them? They are a one-man party of anonymous people. A protest party, and in Israel, protest parties never survive. Look at Tzomet, Dash, the Center Party. All gone.”

Anticipating just such remarks, Shinui head Yosef “Tommy” Lapid told the Forward a few weeks ago that his party’s growth is “integral” to Israeli society and not a function of national pique.

Peri was having none of it. “All it is, “ he said, “is an ethnic Ashkenazic party masquerading as a representative of the ‘middle class.’ Basically, people are fed up with the power of the Sephardic block.”

In this crowd, Shinui is seen as Meretz’s right-wing, economically free-market, evil twin. But Perry’s comments failed to account for one undeniable fact of Shinui’s success: with the breakdown of the Oslo peace process, and as the Israeli populace has shifted rightward, it is the only party that has provided the army-serving, tax-paying bourgeoisie a vent for its anger. Shinui is today the only outlet for those desiring to remain secular, “normal,” in Israeli parlance, while moving away from the premises of Oslo.

Meretz has repeatedly joined left-wing governments crippled by their commitments to religious parties, most notably the same Shas apparatchiks that Shai Petel had encountered in the morning.

Just before the New Israel Fund crowd dispersed, outgoing Shas minister Shlomo Benizri appeared on television, interviewed by Israel’s most durable news anchor, Haim Yavin. Tommy Lapid can “return to Orthodoxy,” Benizri glowered, or he will pay the price for “acting the way those who pursued him acted.” The accusation was implied but clear: Benizri was comparing the Hungarian-born Lapid, a Holocaust survivor, to a Nazi.

On screen, Yavin recoiled physically, then asked the minister to moderate his tones. But the point had been made: Shas’s escalation has made real the very golem they had for long conjured before their masses, a radicalized secular movement that seems, at least for the moment, unwilling to compromise.

By the evening’s early end, Meretz leader Yossi Sarid had resigned, and his nemesis, Shinui chairman Lapid, had issued a call for the “secular unity government” of which Meretz voters have always dreamed.

“They busted our faces,” Peri said.

At the tail end of another gathering later still, a veteran left-wing literary scholar, Menachem Brinker, who currently holds the Henry Crown Chair in Modern Hebrew Studies at the University of Chicago, offered another view.

“The people do not buy our explanations. They think the left isn’t relevant, that the Palestinians will come to peace, if they do, only the hard way, after strife. Our view has been completely, justifiably delegitimized, because the left isn’t offering anyone a solution they can grasp.”

“We all made a deal with the devil. From the first moment, neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians observed Oslo. Each side went soft on the other. Israelis saw that Arafat couldn’t disarm the militias, and Arafat saw that Sharon couldn’t dismantle the settlements and let him get away with it. From this ‘understanding’ each side ended up mollifying the internal opposition of the other.”

What is left for the left, Brinker said, is “despair, exhaustion, fatalism, and some cynicism.”

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