Israel’s Election Is a Culture War

Every ethnic, religious and political group fears that if it will not dominate all others, it will itself be wiped out.

Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger
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Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger

A few days ago my wife and I once again watched The Gangs of New York, Martin Scorsese’s magnificent epos about the struggle between Irish and Natives in 19th century New York. Scorsese was inspired to do this movie when he realized that Little Italy, where he grew up, had previously been the home of totally different ethnic groups.

He realized that the story of these ethnic struggles in New York was an important chapter in the history of American democracy: “This was the America not of the West with its wide-open space, but of claustrophobia, where everyone was crushed together It was chaos, tribal chaos. Gradually, there was a street-by-street, block-by-block, working out of democracy as people learned somehow to live together. If democracy didn’t happen in New York, it wasn’t going to happen anywhere.”

Scorsese’s description very much reminds me of Israel, because it doesn’t have a “West with wide open spaces”: It is an immigration country in which people are perched together in a very small space surrounded by borders than cannot be crossed. Unsurprisingly, all groups feel threatened and the upcoming election is sharpening the profound rifts in Israeli society.

It is fascinating and unsettling to see that there are very few ethnic or political groups who feel naturally at home in Israel, and that most feel threatened in their identities. Eastern European Ashkenazim feel disenfranchised, Sephardim feel humiliated, Russians disadvantaged, the ultra-Orthodox threatened by assimilation and secular Jews overwhelmed by anti-liberal trends. And we haven’t even begun to speak of Israel’s Arabs, who are the archetype of Israel’s "ethnic demon."

The current election campaign is bringing all these tensions to the fore: Aryeh Deri has lately called Likud Beitenu a "party of Russians and Whites." He apologized for that a few days later, all the while continuing to promote Shas as the only party that will stand up for the Mizrahim. Deri’s statement was triggered by Lieberman’s announcement that he wanted to take the housing and interior ministries from Shas, the party that has held them in a number of governments.

Lieberman has a tangible interest to say this: Shas is perceived as allocating disproportionate amounts of new housing to ultra-Orthodox couples through the Housing and Construction Ministry. And Lieberman’s constituency includes many immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are not Jewish by halakha. Whoever controls the Interior Ministry can either make their lives difficult or easy, depending on how strictly he adheres to halakhic standards.

Shas’ spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef has now stepped up the rhetoric in crying out that if Israel’s next government will draft yeshiva students, they will have to leave the country. Of course his statement is primarily an election spin by which Shas is trying to attract voters by claiming that it will save yeshiva students from the terrible fate of serving in the IDF. But this call also shows how deeply at least parts of the ultra-Orthodox community feels that they need to live in total segregation from the rest of the country to maintain their identity.

Beyond tangible interests, these statements show the level of distrust and at times straightforward hatred between different groups, not necessarily along ethnic lines. Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party defends the interests of Israel’s middle class that took to the streets in the summer of 2011 to vent its frustration at carrying most of Israel’s economic and security burden while getting very little in return.

This frustration runs even deeper for Israeli progressives who feel profoundly alienated by the country’s policies and mentality. They see their representation in the Knesset dwindle, and have good reason to think that Israel’s demographic evolution will further marginalize them. And progressives simply do not believe that they should participate in a battle of wombs against the ultra-Orthodox and the settlers with their high birthrates. Hence it is not surprising that many of them consider leaving the country, as has recently been reported.

Left-leaning journalist Uri Misgav has therefore complained that his fellow liberals are defeatist, that they should stop talking about leaving the country, that the war for Israel’s identity is far from over, and that we need to pick up the fight against the nationalist right and orthodoxy. Itamar Handelman-Smith, a writer and journalist who left Israel four years ago, has retorted that the rhetoric "I don’t have another country" is empty. Many progressives no longer feel this is their country, and can no longer stand what he calls Israel’s fascist and fundamentalist discourse. Handelman wonders how exactly Israel’s progressives are supposed to fight back given that they compose about 20 percent of the population.

The problem in Israel is that every ethnic, religious and political group fears that if it will not dominate all others, it will itself be wiped out. The solution to this problem is the basic principle of liberal democracy: to agree that the polity must be able to contain plurality, and to develop such a mentality is difficult. As Scorsese says about 19th-century New York, Israelis are still learning, city-by-city, sometimes block-by-block, how to live together democratically. This learning process is tough under the best of circumstances, and Israelis have to go through it under very harsh conditions: with Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood in the southwest, Iran in the east, Hezbollah in the north, and a crumbling Syrian regime arming chemical warheads in the northeast.

Unsurprisingly, Israel’s right wing profits from a situation in which Israel is under real threat from the outside. Like all right-wing movements, it tries to resolve Israel’s inner tensions by trying to impose unity around common fears and an ever-more nationalist discourse that further marginalizes both Israel’s Arabs and its Jewish progressives. And like all right-wing movements, it will fail, for in the long run Israel has no choice but to be a pluralist, multicultural society.

Liberalism in the classical sense as it has evolved since the 18th century, i.e. a polity based on individual rights, the protection of minorities and the separation of religion and state, is nowadays seen as a “sectorial” position of detached, elitist leftists by many Israelis. We liberals (not necessarily leftists) have not succeeded as yet to make clear that this is not a sectorial view, but an existential, political and moral necessity for a modern country. Unfortunately it seems that it will take Israel a long time to find such a liberal, tolerant modus vivendi.

Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, right.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

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