‘Israel’s left woke up to find itself backing a worldview it had rejected’

Coexistence activist Mikhael Manekin explains the impact of October 7 on the Israeli left


For many, October 7 was not just a brutal awakening about the vulnerability of Israel’s soft underbelly, normally hidden beneath the muscle of the IDF. There was a widely felt vindication of those on the political right and a commensurate hammer blow to those on the left.

From the socialist-Zionist pioneers who created the state to a now shrinking group of left-leaning voters, the violence and the horror unleashed by Hamas showed that perhaps the right had been correct all along: you can’t make peace with people who hate you that much.

But Mikhael Manekin isn’t giving up. It has been challenging time for the veteran Israeli left-winger – a director of Arab-Jewish political network Alliance Fellowship and a former executive director of Breaking the Silence – and he’s been shocked to occasionally find himself singing from the same hymn sheet as those he abhors on the political right.

However, this intellectual and deeply moral man – a rare religious Jew among the left – believes that victory can come only from fusing the pain and anger with a more equanimous approach. He also believes that peace with the Palestinians will require an internal fight – one he describes as a battle for Israel’s soul. “I don’t think any of us could have imagined the terrible tragedy of October 7, its horrific violence,” says Manekin, speaking to the JC shortly before appearing at a discussion event held by the pro-democracy NGO New Israel Fund in London last Sunday night. “And there is this frustration of this feeling of people saying, ‘I told you so.’ It took me a while to realise that we on the left were promoting an imagination of cohabitation that hasn’t really existed. That imagination has been very much hurt.

“But at the same time, we on the left also knew that the situation couldn’t go on as it was for ever; we feared something bad was going to happen.

“It’s an incredibly frustrating and depressing time, but as time goes by an increasing frustration for me has been both what this war is doing to Palestinians but also what it is doing to us as a people, as a community, what it’s doing to our ethics, our self-perception.

“There is an increasing fear that we are engulfed in what Netanyahu would call ‘living by your sword’ and that can turn you into something you don’t want to be.

“The terrible, terrible, terrible offensive of October 7 stopped us for a very long time from being in opposition to this government but at some point, you find yourself waking up and realising you are basically supporting a world view that you’ve disagreed with for decades,” says Manekin. “I don’t want to find myself supporting Ben-Gvir just because of October 7.

“I think this war could have ended many times over the last couple of months and I don’t think our government is doing enough to get there. And this isn’t just coming from an Israeli lefty’s point of view – but from the centrists too, such as Benny Gantz who left the unity war cabinet.’’

Manekin is emboldened in his work by his friend Rachel Goldberg-Polin, whose son, Hersh, was kidnapped from the Nova festival and who has become a global icon for her work in making sure the world doesn’t forget about the hostages. He is deeply involved in the movement to keep pressure on both the Israeli government and the world outside to negotiate for their release.

“Hersh used to sit in front of me at shul and hopefully he will return to sit in front of me soon,” he says. “The whole family really inspires me. Every time I hear Rachel talk, it is a wake-up call to stay not necessarily optimistic but engaged and active. If she can, with the immense amount of pressure that she has, remain deeply human and humanistic, it is not fair for me to give up on that.”

The global left – or at least the far left – appears to have abandoned Zionism post October 7 with Jews around the world being cast out of their “progressive” friendship groups. As an Israeli who does not hate his country, Manekin was perhaps more prepared for this than most.

“The good, decent people who were there before October 7 are still decent,” he says. “But ultimately I am focused on my community and my people and making us better.”

Through the Alliance Fellowship he works closely with Jewish and Arab Israelis all fighting for the same thing; a better existence inside Israel. He says that October 7 hasn’t changed their relationship.

He says that hope for a two-state solution he believes in is now dimmer – but not totally out of reach: “I am sceptical even about when this war will end. After that, what is hard to envision is not a two-state solution – that could happen – but seeing how we can ever even come to an agreement with the other side. But I do think the Israeli project can only ever be a moral one if it doesn’t come at the expense of others.”

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