What a strange week it has been in Israeli politics. Two new contenders for the Knesset, Yair Lapid and Noam Shalit, drew criticism because they have platforms that make them somehow unfairly likable to the people – one as a newscaster and one as the father of a former captive whose story won the people’s hearts. As if to say, the Israel has its own set of rules about popularity, and if the people like you too much, the Knesset is not the right place for you. That just says so much.
And speaking of the absence of likability, MK Rajeb Majadle, an Arab MK from Labor who is not generally known for his gentility, was the victim of a new form of violence in the Knesset – the water-throwing kind, courtesy of Yisrael Beitenu MK Anastasia Michaeli. I have to say, no matter how gruff and obnoxious Majadle is – and it’s easy to see how, after Majadle spent the previous few minutes telling Michaeli to shut up, that the urge to hurt him might come up – nevertheless, pouring water on him is just idiotic. It’s like a slapstick nightmare that is unfortunately real life in Israeli governance. Yes, these are our elected officials. Michaeli is going to be hearing about this little tantrum for the rest of her career, I think.
But it gets worse. Because when she was defending herself, she said, “This will teach him to respect women”. Huh? First of all, his attempts to shut her up were not overtly gender related. Second of all, throwing a little glass of water on his fancy silk suit will not get him to respect her or anyone she’s associated with at all but will only get her laughed at, and slapped with a dry cleaning bill. To wit, as she was leaving the hall, he and his colleagues could be heard speaking in Arabic calling her “mejnuna” – crazy. So much for respect for women. Please, MK Michaeli, leave the rest of us out of this. Your poor judgment here is purely your own. And anyway, the last thing feminism needs is to be used as a justification for slapstick politics. As if we don’t have enough of an image problem.
I do think, though, that there is an important subtext of Israeli politics here. I don’t know if the general public realizes just how much some Russians and some Israelis hate each other. It runs very deep to the core of identity, and has a lot to do with the Zionist narrative, with each group questioning the narrative of the other, around who has the more authentic and ancient connection to the land of Israel. If only some splash of cold water could make this all go away. Not looking likely.
Meanwhile, just as every politician tried to disassociate from Michaeli, in another corner of Israeli society, another subtext is starting to gain some momentum: inequality against Ethiopians. In a protest in the north this week, Ethiopians dressed up in the old racist “blackface” make-up to protest socio-economic inequality of their community. They complained, among other things, that while the exclusion of women in Beit Shemesh is suddenly hot news, the country is completing ignoring the exclusion of Ethiopians. “I wonder how my life would be different if I were white,” one woman told the Israeli press, explaining the symbolism of the make-up.
And just as Israelis were starting to gain some sympathy for the plight of Ethiopians, our elected officials surprised us once again with their perspicacity, as Absorption Minister Sofa Landver said, with the sensitivity of a piece of sandpaper, that the Ethiopians should be grateful to the State of Israel for what they’ve got. (Would OMG be the correct reaction here?) I think Landver should go stand in a corner for a month with Michaeli.
As I said, it’s been a strange week in Israeli politics.
How distressing that two of the most embarrassing parliamentary moments this week were handed to us by women. As if women in politics don’t have enough problems.
We need better Knesset members – and apparently better women Knesset members. Maybe Lapid and Shalit will help change the culture of governance. Until then, we don’t need comedy television in Israel, or tragedy for that matter, because the political news is currently supplying us with both.
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Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman is an award-winning author, and leading Jewish feminist thinker, educator and activist. The former the Executive Director of JOFA, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, Elana writes and speaks all around the world about gender issues in Jewish life, in education and in Israel.