Community BlogThe Israeli Election as a Teachable Moment

Regardless of one’s political preferences, next week’s Israeli election provides an auspicious teachable moment.

Israeli campaign ads are often hilarious, which makes them memorable for learners and ripe for analysis. Recent years have delivered everything from the bizarre to the sublime and everything in between! This cycle has already produced a bunch of chuckle-worthy ads this year, including this scene-setter from the Kulanu party, this interview with Zehut leader Moshe Feiglin’s grandma, and this Purim video from “HaRav HaTzadik” Avigdor Liberman.

In order to compete for the public’s attention, candidate parties must condense their sometimes-lengthy party platforms into bitesize portions. This means that campaign ads typically range from 20 to 90 seconds and employ simple language and visual cues to communicate one or two key messages, making them a very accessible source of Israeli political discourse. Even those videos which have not (yet!) been translated into English can still convey a message through tone, imagery, and the context provided by a dutiful teacher. (Plus the simple Hebrew used can make for great translation practice!)

The value of simplicity can be demonstrated by Benny Gantz, founder of the new Hosen L’Yisrael party, who achieved significant early popularity in the polls despite (or, indeed, thanks to) saying almost nothing about policy. Instead, Hosen L’Yisrael released this catchy jingle – following in the footsteps of UTJ’s obligatory campaign song, and prompting a rap battle challenge which has so far been met by Gesher, Meretz, and the New Right. (Gantz’s party has since merged with Yair Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid party, which had lost ground while campaigning on a platform of legislation reform, to form the Blue & White list that had been topping the polls with around 30% of the public vote.)

Gantz and Lapid’s main rival for the premiership is incumbent Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu, master of the political slogan, who is running for re-election while fighting indictments for fraud, breach of public trust, and bribery. While exchanging punches with Gantz (e.g. Likud; Blue & White), Netanyahu has been playing on the tropes of “fake news” by decrying the investigation into his conduct as a house of cards. In particular, Netanyahu has ridiculed the idea that he broke laws by offering political favors in return for “positive coverage” by Israeli news site Walla, prompting this piece of satire. (That video resuscitated the character of Netanyahu’s hapless aide from this 2015 ad, and prompted this meta-parody.)

Democratic elections by necessity expose multiple perspectives – articulations of diverse values and positions – as exemplified by multiple calls for change from outgoing opposition parties. Even a superficial survey of the upcoming elections highlights the willingness of Israeli Jews to criticize their government but a nuanced exploration can offer students the opportunity to connect deeply with multiple Zionisms, thus dispelling the notion that one cannot both love and criticize Israel. For instance, critical response to a controversial video featuring New Right co-leader Ayelet Shaked and a perfume named “Fascism” includes parodies from the Labor party and the Israel Democracy Institute. With a record 47 parties registering lists of candidates for this election, one never need look far for diversity of opinion!

Further to this point, since campaign materials are designed to influence potential voters, they provide us with an imperfect yet useful picture of the Israeli public through the eyes of their would-be representatives. This is especially clear in several videos, such as these, which cast their image of their target audience in a starring role. These can be tools for better understanding the national psyche – who Israelis are and what they care about – as a groundwork for the crucial work of empathizing with our fellow Jews and fellow humans, separated from us by 5,000 miles of ocean.

By tracing the development of campaign ads over time, we can track changes in Israeli political rhetoric. Recent years have demonstrated a shift away from narrow special interest parties (not withstanding Yisrael Beitenu’s attempt to capitalize on the Russian-speaking vote and Zehut’s courting of one million cannabis smokers) and towards the polarization of two blocs hoping to form a coalition, with smaller parties competing to outflank Netanyahu’s Likud party from the right (e.g. Tzomet; Union of Right-wing Parties) or Blue & White from the left (e.g. Meretz; Labor). This trend has even impacted Arab and Ultra-Orthodox parties who are increasingly wooing mainstream Jewish voters (e.g. Hadash-Ta’al; Shas; and even UTJ, who finally opened a Facebook account ahead of this campaign).

All of this is to say that, whatever your positions, this election season offers a gateway to deep and meaningful Israel education for all teachers and learners. There’ll be an abundance of campaign materials circulating as we draw ever-closer to election day, so keep your eyes peeled for more comedy, conflict, and teachable moments!

Excited to learn more about bringing Israel into your community? Consider the iCenter’s iFellows program (Master’s Concentration in Israel Education) on your way to an MJEd (Master of Jewish Education) at Hebrew College.  You can kick off in Fall 2019 with our brand new course: Teaching Israel in Our Communities! Find out more here.

Mikhael Reuven is Director of Online Learning at Hebrew College in Newton Centre, Massachusetts.