Continuing our ongoing “Four Questions” feature, we talk with Dahlia Scheindlin an independent pollster and strategic political consultant based in Tel Aviv. Dahlia born and raised in New York and a graduate of Harvard and Mcgill Universities now lives in Tel Aviv. She has conducted research and strategy for four Israeli national election campaigns and works for a wide range of local and international organizations dealing with Israeli-Palestinian conflict issues, peacemaking, democracy, religious identity and internal social issues in Israeli society. She has also worked on both elections and public affairs campaigns in over a dozen other countries. Dahlia is currently writing her doctoral dissertation in comparative politics at Tel Aviv University, and is a founding member of +972 Magazine and a columnist at The Jerusalem Report.
1) Ameinu: You made an interesting point in a recent response you wrote in +972 Magazine to the New York Times editorial decrying the current state of Israeli democracy. There, you argued that while Kadima would like its supporters to believe it is a moderate force, in actuality it has done little to promote issues of peace and reconciliation. Coalition politics aside, if 94 Knesset seats are represented by parties doing little to advance the peace process, have Israelis simply been getting the government they deserve, as the old saying goes? In other words, are liberal Zionist voices fast becoming a tiny minority in Israel?
Dahlia I think the problem is less that liberal Zionist voices (which we call the Zionist Left) are becoming a minority and more that people who identify themselves as liberal Zionists are not confronting the political reality – or else they have confronted it and found themselves faint of heart.
These people firmly believed in a two state solution throughout the 1990s, and held out hopes for the two state paradigm through Ehud Barak’s term and mainly supported the compromises he put on the table, which were considered far-reaching at the time.
But when the second Intifada broke out in 2000 they were paralyzed by shock and disappointment. As the two-state solution has been disintegrating over the last decade, they were huddled in a sort of collective depression – unable to answer the accusations of the right that the Oslo process had led to terror and Intifada, or drifting right themselves.
Instead of calling out the right and offering alternatives, many clung to the old two-state, land-for-peace, long-negotiation approach. But they also internalized their erstwhile hero Ehud Barak’s “no partner” narrative and thus reconciled themselves to accepting the illusion of status quo.
The Zionist left and the many centrists who think like the Zionist left supported parties like Labor and Kadima on the condition that those parties propagate the myth of someday two-state negotiations or better yet, don’t address the conflict at all. Shelley Yachimovich, the current head of Labor, is the best example.
2) Ameinu: Israel watchers are paying close attention to the social protest movement, now in its second summer. What do you see as the major gains that can realistically be expected from it? And do you see that movement as ultimately distracting Israeli society from issues surrounding Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and peace?
Dahlia The movement could have been a major opportunity to revisit the conflict from a much broader-based portion of society than the usual left or right margins. The protest could have addressed the direct cost of the conflict to Israeli society through drainage of resources and budget burdens; it could have addressed indirect costs through the mentality of militarization, occupation and patriarchal norms that maintain many of the existing social inequalities.
The social protest did not do these things, for a combination of strategic caution and genuine lack of interest. You might say that those who saw these connections were afraid to speak out, and those who are so mainstream that they could have lent credibility to the linkage did not believe in such a link.
Still, I don’t think the protest is necessarily a distraction from the conflict. If the government really cared to solve some of the social problems, it would have to re-think its policy regarding the occupation whether or not people demanded it – simply for dollars and cents.
The only thing the social protest distracts us from is social justice. The government’s brilliant approach has been to let people blow off steam and feel great about their activism, while systematically pushing the boundaries of citizen abuse ever since.
This was the story of Manuel Trajtenberg. The government established a committee to respond to last summer’s protest, asking a well-meaning economist to head up the effort. In place of his recommendations, the government waited for one week after the one-year anniversary of the protest, and announced a new range of austerity measures that spit (or laugh) in the face of the middle and lower class: flat taxes (raising VAT and income tax across the board) and ongoing corporate tax breaks, rather than cuts in defense or any genuine effort to change the crooked timber of the Israeli economy at the roots.
At this point, the only thing we might realistically expect is that the public might demand greater accountability beyond the town square – in the voting booth.
3) Ameinu: The right-left debates within Israel and among Israel supporters worldwide have been well rehearsed. But increasingly Israel is facing harsh criticism from the far left which claims that an ethno-religious model is inherently non-democratic, particularly when it means that UN resolutions such as the one calling for full Palestinian refugee return are being ignored. How do you respond to the argument that the idea of a Jewish state is incompatible with democracy?
Dahlia In an ideal world, Israel would have total, surgical separation of synagogue and state if it wants to be a democracy. That means no parties based on theological platforms or groupings, and it means total withdrawal of the rabbinate from personal status law and a transformation to a normal civic system for all citizens – with religious involvement purely by individual choice.
However, I accept that every country has an identity that reflects the majority of its people. These must be unifying, largely civic symbols but it is reasonable for them to be drawn from Jewish tradition. I embrace the Jewish culture for informing the flag, the anthem, and especially the calendar of holidays. I see no reason why this has to be exclusive. The symbols of our native-born minority should be worked in organically, and there must be no question regarding the integral nature of Arabic language and Muslim and Christian holidays – that makes us into a richer country.
Regarding Jewish right of return, I believe that contradicts democracy mainly because there are unequal laws for Jewish versus non-Jewish would-be citizens (immigrants). That’s bad, but it’s not as bad as unequal laws for citizens. What’s really terrifying is the unequal law and enforcement for subjects who are de facto under Israeli control but have none of the rights of citizens. Those are by far the greatest toxins poisoning Israeli democracy.
How Palestinian right of return is to be defined and implemented can only be addressed when it is clear whether the country is headed towards a two-state or one-state reality.
4) Ameinu: You grew up in the United States and are very familiar with the Diaspora Jewish landscape. What role would you like to see Diaspora Jews play in more effectively supporting Israel, and how do you define “effective support”?
Dahlia I believe that supporting conflict resolution, strengthening Israeli democracy, exposing and addressing Israel’s flaws in a nuanced, sensitive and ultimately constructive way, is a good role for those who care about the country. The North American diaspora has a great responsibility, since it influences policy of the greatest regional and global power-broker.
Obviously I would like to see Diaspora Jewry to embrace the approach I believe is best for Israel. But I also understand that if I advocate such a role for the Diaspora, I must also accept that many N. Americans will take political action in ways that I disagree with, and I do.
However, in general, North American Jewry pours enormous resources into painting a warped, partial and artificially beautified picture of Israel – and clamping down on criticism in the most illiberal and undemocratic forms of social control. Therefore, I think that gaining a more complete understanding is probably the most important starting point for North American Jews. Whichever side you normally find yourself on, come to Israel and take a tour offered by the other. Then we’ll talk.