Image: Steven Turville
By Joanna Chen
The only sure thing on polling day in Israel this year was the holiday atmosphere. Even my village joined in, with a cozy open-air market that was just being set up at the entrance as we walked by that morning on our way to the polling station. Organic vegetables, gold jewellery, scarves from India, hand-painted wooden toys, all made locally. Polling day doubles as family day, as the grown-up kids throng home to vote, walking along with their parents to the voting hall. One of our daughters is still registered in the village, and she joins us on our stroll. We take the dogs, and they run ahead, happy we are all together today. Only my son, who is too young to vote, seems low-spirited this morning. He walks a little ahead of us, head down, in sandals and a dirty t-shirt. We go early, because we have two invitations to see friends today. It’s a holiday, after all.
The voting station is still quiet when we get there. My father, aged 85, refuses to tell me who he’s voting for. His Hebrew isn’t that good and my partner and I hover over him as he holds out his voting card at the table. “Don’t forget who you’re voting for!” I say to him cheerily as he moves towards the voting booth. By this time, both dogs are running wild in the hall and a thin line is forming behind us.
We’ve been living here for more than twenty years. The population has grown steadily over the years and I don’t know everyone any more, but all the regulars are there, smiling and happy, optimistic that perhaps this time, there will be a change. But what will change?
Final polls published three days before the elections predicted between 24 and 26 seats for the Zionist Union against 20 and 22 for Netanyahu’s Likud. But rumor had it that Labor might even win more seats than that in the 120-seat Knesset. Likud voters appeared sluggish, indifferent; most of the left shifted into an upbeat mode. Perhaps the most relentless and successful campaigns throughout the week were those run by clothing companies, supermarkets and electrical appliance outlets, all of which carried out a fierce battle on social media for my wallet. A fool’s paradise.
Netanyahu has yet to perform the formidable task of forming a coalition government. The original deadline has been extended; he has few more days left. . I know he will do it and am filled with dread at the result. In the run-up to the election, I felt, like many others, that change was on the way. We thought perhaps people had had enough, that the war last summer had taught us something. Even right wingers had a sour taste in their mouth. Seventy-one Israelis, most of them soldiers under the age of 22, were killed in the fighting. And let’s not forget, whoever we are, that about two thousand Palestinians died, many of them civilians, who have no part in this.
The weeks before the elections were infested with gossip about Bibi Netanyahu and his wife, Sara. Haaretz featured Yitzhak Herzog on the weekend magazine’s cover looking suitably serious, a dark blue jacket slung over his shoulder. “Is the man sitting next to me going to be the next Prime Minister?” correspondent Ari Shavit asked.
On the way back from voting that morning, I notice a stall set to the side manned by Women Wage Peace, a grassroots organization formed in the wake of the so-called Operation Protective Edge last summer. They are getting people to sign and giving out leaflets proposing the urgent need to reach a peace agreement.
I had been to an inaugural meeting of my area some weeks before in the home of one of my neighbors in the village. The room was packed with about 30 women and one man. The evening began with a woman singing a song about peace and encouraging us to join in. I felt embarrassed. I’m really not into joining hands and swaying in time to the music with people I hardly know, even if I see them every day at the local convenience store. But I do want peace, and after an explanation of why it is important for women to take a stand together (although men are invited as well, the speaker said, glancing at the solitary man in the room) I signed the form and escaped into the cold night. I have no intention of standing every Friday morning at the Ella valley junction near my house wearing a white t-shirt, waving an Israeli flag and handing out turquoise ribbons. What will I say if someone stops their car at the junction and asks me what kind of peace agreement I propose? After years of working in journalism, I do not know any more. So I smile at the ladies sitting in the sunshine and walk home.
The day unfolds. At 11am, the United Arab list issues a statement that 10% of Arab voters have already exercised their right to vote. In reaction, Netanyahu posts a video on Facebook warning that not only the right-wing but the entire state of Israel is in danger because Arab voters are being bussed to polling stations by left-wing NGOs.
I never saw any of this; we were already en route to lunch with friends. Two kids in the back, and the third we pick up in Tel Aviv. The radio plays Depeche Mode’s “Freedom” and we all sing along. It’s been ages since we were last together in the car like this. My son is in boarding school; my two daughters already live away from home. A real family outing. Our friend, Yisrael, has promised to cook an Indian meal, although I tell him I hate spicy food. “You’re going to love this,” he said. “It’s not what you think it is.” We’ve been invited several times but weekends are very short in Israel and there is never time. But now, with the whole day ahead of us, we are going.
We clink wine glasses at the table. We toast the incoming left-wing government, or at least the new current of optimism that seems to be flooding Israel. We talk about cut-price supermarkets and the future of our children. My three sit in a long line at the table, eating and rolling their eyes at the adults. A couple join us for desert – one of them an Israeli woman now living in Canada who seems happy to be out of Israel and settled in her new life. We are all a little jealous. Living here is not easy. She’s leaving in a couple of days and says this visit has been a whirlwind of family visits and a trip down memory lane in the land of falafel and war.
I help stack dishes in the kitchen and Yisrael’s little daughter comes up to me, tugs my sweater with her hand and pulls me down to her own height. “I love you,” she says, breathing heavily into my ear. I lift her up and hug her to me. “I love you too,” I say.
I go back to a meeting I had last summer with one of the nuns at Bet Jamal, the church near my house. At the time, the sound of booming coming from Gaza filled the air day and night. “What should I do?” I asked the nun in desperation, unable to reconcile myself to the fact that I have remained here, in spite of everything – the religious hatred, the growing discrimination between Arabs and Jews, the gap between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews that bubbles to the surface over the elections. A little more trust on all sides wouldn’t hurt. Back then, she gave me an answer that I later repeat in my head like a mantra: “You are already doing it. Be here,” she said in the shady yard of the church. “Be here.” Running back to the UK, where I was born, is not a solution, it’s merely a way out. Staying here, facing up to the people around me, looking them in the eyes: this is the way I choose.
After lunch, as more people arrive, we leave, piling back into the car. I’m feeling good. I want to buy ice-cream cones for everyone and go to the beach. This is what we used to do when the kids were small. Instead, as dusk falls, we drop my son off at the train station and my daughters at their respective houses, then head for home. The first exit polls are announced on the radio. We fall silent in the car, just the two of us now, driving home through the traffic. I glance at the billboards on the Ayalon freeway advocating the death penalty for terrorists and the need for Israelis to stop apologizing for what they believe in.
We decide not to continue to the open house invite in Tel Aviv. Suddenly, the thought of sitting with others during the countdown to midnight does not feel right. I prefer to get the election results in the privacy of my house, like preferring to have the doctor tell you what ails you in the office, not in the hospital corridor.
And now Netanyahu is forming a government and I wonder what it will mean for Israel. A right wing government powered by fear, bolstered by the ultra-religious parties, a government which will push ahead with the nationality law that will degrade Arabic to a “special” language when almost half the people living here speak Arabic as a mother-tongue, drastic changes in the court system, and a neo-liberal economic policy that will further increase the gap between rich and poor.
I have stopped listening to the radio because it makes me sick to my stomach to hear all the political commentary. When I worked at Newsweek, I was plugged in all day, every day. But this morning, on my way to Jerusalem, I turn on the radio and hear a story about a project of albeit small proportions that encourages Jewish teachers to work in Arab schools and vice-a-versa. Today, I learn, there are more than one hundred teachers like this who endure hostility from their neighbors – but they still do it. One teacher has formed a choir of Jewish and Arab children and I listen to the song they recorded as I drive through the Israeli checkpoint that divides Jerusalem from Bethlehem. As I hear the sweet voices of kids singing in Arabic and Hebrew together, my optimism returns. I turn the volume up a bit. With good leadership like that of the lone teacher who organized the children, perhaps peace is possible. The song finishes and I exit the checkpoint.