Election Day In Jerusalem

Martine Gozlan (*)

It was election day in Jerusalem. A day in the recent past – September 17 – but it could be a near future because Israel is blocked. The Hebrew state fails to give itself a government. He voted in the spring, voted again at the very beginning of the fall and is afraid of a third election.

When the snow covers the city and the dream of impossible unity? For the New Year of the Trees, when does the almond tree flower? Go figure, rabbis and free thinkers look up to heaven with the same perplexity.

Israel, which is so often described as a nation that thinks, prays, decides in the same tone, in the same way, with the same momentum on the same rock, is in reality a river with waters mixed with a thousand alluvium. And I watched it flow, the other day, this colourful river, towards the offices scattered throughout the holy city. The elector walked a good step towards fulfilling his duty as a citizen. Tired, of course, but valiant: more than 69.4% participation, more than in April, despite the exasperation that we felt was building on all the stages, on all the microphones, on all the networks. However, this Israeli who was angry with the hair-splitters and the majority dividers in ten, could not get back on track. He himself is a growing minority.

It is noon at the corner of Emek Refaim Boulevard – the Valley of the Giants – and Emile Zola Street. The air of this beautiful district smells of seringa and secularism. The portraits of General Benny Gantz, the leader of the Blue and White Party, line the walls. Here, we are patriotic the old-fashioned way, like Ben Gurion rather than Netanyahu. The Prime Minister’s alliance with the ultra-Orthodox who refuse to be enlisted in the army does not pass. Everyone has or will have a child at the front – north, south, Lebanon, Gaza- even if the desire for peace is constantly being hammered.

A few miles away, it’s another matter.  In the streets of Kerem Avraham, or Bayit Vagan, old or new neighborhoods where the burning wind of faith blows, the voters of Shas, the party of the Sephardic Torah Guardians, fly to the polls, between the banners bearing the effigy of the late Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. As if his shadow was guiding them from beyond the grave to give the Shas the electoral weight necessary for the coalition with the Likud. With Netanyahu for whom we pray at the foot of the Wall. This world of bigots is dressed in black under the bright light of Jerusalem, women and men separated, of course, when it comes time to cheer on their guru Arié Deri, still Minister of the Interior.

Thirty years ago, Israel’s greatest writer, the late Amos Oz, who disappeared the other winter, wrote on his way back to Jerusalem’s childhood district on Tahkemoni Street: “I feel claustrophobic and I want to flee this district where nothing has changed for two centuries […] It is to reject this form of Jewish existence that writers and poets like Bialik, Brenner, Berditchevsky stood up at the beginning of the 20th century… we would not dare, in our days, to repudiate a world which has been destroyed by Hitler since. Nor can we give in to a feeling of secret admiration for the vitality of a form of Judaism whose rise and growing influence in the country threatens our own spiritual existence, for it aspires to take over from us”.

Today, the novelist Yishai Sarid, (“The Third”, Am Over), explains to me from Tel Aviv: “The conflict with the believers is the most serious one in Israeli society. This is a cultural war and I don’t want my children’s future to depend on it. In reality, the majority of Israelis are at the centre. It’s not an extremist. We all had a common background despite our diverse backgrounds. Alas Netanyahu plays the groups against each other..;”. Surrounded by three corruption cases, threatened with indictment next December, the Prime Minister was counting on the September election. There was no winner. On his way, he found Avigdor Lieberman, his ex-ally, now his worst enemy. In the Russian-speaking districts, vodka flows freely in honour of this strong man who refuses to join forces with the ultra-Orthodox. But also with Israeli Arab citizens. Yet they are now the country’s third largest political force. This is logical since they represent 20% of the nation. Aware of the stakes, they ignored the boycott instructions given by the ultras.  Their leader, Ayman Odeh, reached out to Benny Gantz in the hope of forming a coalition that would bring together all the voices of Israel. All of them… but what about the ultra-Orthodox? And finally Gantz and Netanyahu who don’t want to be either one? A real Rubik cube, this election. As the days go by, President Rivlin calls for national unity, wars are raging not very far away, towards Syria, towards the Kurdish tragedy.

Jerusalem is starting to shiver…


Journalist and essayist, editor-in-chief at the weekly Marianne, specialist in Islamism and the Middle East.