Israel 2015: Pluralistic, Right-wing, and Religious All at Once

Liberal lefties in Israel mistakenly assume that once a disenfranchised group is empowered, they will become like brothers. News flash: Successful Mizrahim are Likudniks and Israeli Russians still loathe Labor.

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Netanyahu - with campaign propaganda in Russian.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Unless Bibi is engaged in an elaborate bait and switch and surprises us with a national unity coalition, sometime early next month Israel will find itself under the rule of a right-religious government, of the kind that many people have good cause to be worry about.

If worst comes to worst -- which it probably won’t, but you never know -- we will enter an era of unimpeded settlement building, an assault on civil rights and the independence of the courts, bickering with the White House and an embrace of the American Republican Party, and threats (or worse) against Iran. There won’t be any Tzipi Livnis, Ehud Baraks and Yair Lapids in the cabinet to deter Netanyahu & Co. from their worst excesses.

For those of us on the left, it’s easy to say that this new government isn’t really Israel. It’s a Frankenstein created by the quirks of the electoral system that awards too much power to smaller, ideological parties and has kept the Arab minority permanently in the opposition.

That's all true to a degree, but there’s no escaping that the next government is the real Israel of 2015.

We’re not talking about politics, we’re talking about people. The new cabinet, insofar as can be predicted based on the direction of the coalition talks, will have its usual Ashkenazi males – Netanyahu as prime minister, Moshe Ya'alon in defense and Yoav Galant in housing.

But it will also have quite a few Mizrahim – Moshe Kahlon as finance minister, Arye Dery, Silvan Shalom, Eli Alalouf and Ayelet Shaked (she is half and half). It will have at least one Russian immigrant (Avigdor Lieberman) and any number of religious members, ranging from the modern orthodox Naftali Bennett to the ultra-orthodox.

There will also be several women in the cabinet. But actually you don’t have to go far into Israel’s power establishment to find women in power. The governor of the Bank of Israel, most of the top officials in the treasury and the CEOs of three out of the five big banks are women. And the biggest bank of all, , Hapoalim, is headed by Zion Kenan, whose family endured the classic hardship story of Mizrahim of living in a ma’abarah (transit camp) after arriving in Israel from Morocco.

Five of the last 10 chiefs of staff, including the current one, trace their roots to the Middle East and North Africa, not Europe.

As this informal survey of the establishment suggests, Israel is not the dead end for social mobility and equality it is conventionally perceived as being.

Mizrahi and well-to-do

The representation of Mizrahim in the top 10% of income earners in Israel is today proportionate to their share of the population. High school matriculation scores are the same for both groups, after discounting for parents' income and education. And a 2013 study by Momi Dahan of the Hebrew University found that among second-generation Israelis, the income gap between the average Mizrahi and Ashkenazi household had dropped to 26%, from 40% in 1995.

For women, the change has been more dramatic: All across the spectrum of higher education, they outnumber men in studies, from bachelor degrees up through doctorates. It is inevitable that in Israel’s knowledge economy, that will translate into superior earning power and career opportunities compared to men over the next generation.

Likewise, modern Orthodox men and women are increasingly mainstream, and Russian immigrants, on average, out earn native-born Israelis.

The worldview of the Israeli Haredim, who reject the notion of working for a living, scientific reasoning and women’s rights, and the stubborn tendency of Mizrahim to vote for parties like the Likud and Shas that do nothing for them, can maddening to observers in other camps. But a society that aspires to be open and democratichas to be open and democratic for everyone.

'Multicultural' does not mean 'like me'

It’s not that the left has forgotten this, but it makes the same mistake that advocates of multiculturalism make in Europe: They don’t really believe in deep cultural differences, and assume that given the opportunity, everyone will be like them.

Islam, for them, is a mantle for political grievances. But once those are addressed, Muslims will become democrats, civil libertarians and feminists, just like all the other Swedes, Germans and French.

In Israel, the left likewise assumes that after the yoke of repression has been lifted Mizrahim will listen to Arik Einstein, read Haaretz, vote Labor or Meretz, demand a Swedish-style social welfare state and make peace with the Palestinians. It’s only the downtrodden and uneducated who believe in amulets, endless war and free markets, and even they should listen to their betters till they get it right.

What has happened in that the many Mizrahim who have made it have joined into the great Israeli cultural melting pot – which includes Einstein side by side with Mizrahi pop stars. But they tend to bring with them their political values and a more traditional approach to religion.

The same faulty wisdom is applied to Russian immigrants, who would surely learn that their visceral dislike of socialism was wrong. Right? And to women, who would only make it in a male-dominated world by employing doctrinaire feminism - and then use their power to create a new agenda of peace, equality and freedom.

But wouldn't you know, Israel’s Russians succeeded and still don’t like Labor, and the women at the top rungs of Israeli society run their banks and bureaucratic fiefdoms no differently than their male counterparts.

Betrayed by the Neanderthals

The left’s anger welled up at this Mizrahi betrayal in the days after the elections. A Facebook campaign urged people to stop giving money to the Latet food bank on the grounds that if its impoverished recipients were too stupid to vote for leftist parties that would restore the welfare state, there’s no reason for anyone to be giving them money from their pockets. The artist Yair Garbuz griped about a “handful of amulet kissers that have taken over the country” and the writer Alona Kimhi called them “Neanderthals.”

The rage was aimed mainly at the Mizrahi poor and religious, but it could just as fairly been directed at the Mizrahi middle class and wealthy, not to mention Russians and women. A survey taken on International Women’s Day just before the election found that two thirds of women would vote for a party based on issues like security rather than women’s issues, or the number of female candidates it was fielding.

There are one-and-half major exceptions to the rule that Israel has, indeed, empowered the once-disenfranchised.

The one exception is Israeli Arabs, who remain second-class citizens by every measure other than the letter of the law. Israel owes them more, not just as a moral imperative but because the economy badly needs them.

The half exception is the Haredim, whose leaders have learned how to adeptly operate the levers of political power, but whose masses remain uneducated and isolated on the margins of society. Israel’s economy needs them as badly, too, to be wage earners and taxpayers, instead of schnorrers.

Integrating Arabs and Haredim more completely presents tougher challenges, which involve not just overcoming racism but in many ways, overcoming higher cultural barriers than Mizrahim, Russians, the religious or women faced.

But Israeli society has demonstrated its ability to be more inclusive and open than its critics give it credit for. Just beware, Ashkenazi leftists, and Mizrahim now at the top: if it happens, your Israel will be a different place than the one you know now.