The Israeli Left’s Defeat Had Nothing to Do With Ashkenazi Arrogance

Apologizing for past sins and flaunting our social sensitivity won’t win us any more votes either.

Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger
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Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni on Election Day, March 17, 2015.
Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni on Election Day, March 17, 2015.Credit: Moti Milrod
Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger

Nehemia Shtrasler argues that the results of the last election, along with those of the last 35 years, are the result of Ashkenazi condescension toward Mizrahim.

Shtrasler’s argument is important because it conflates a correct empirical claim with a wrong-headed explanation.

The empirically correct claim is that much of Israeli politics is not really about the two-state solution or about social justice, but about resentment between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim [Jews who hail from Middle Eastern or Arab countries]. In some cases, as in the politics of Shas, this is explicit, whereas in other cases, as in the high percentage of Mizrahim who vote for Likud, it is implicit, since Likud’s leadership is mostly Ashkenazi.

But Shtrasler’s claim that Ashkenazi disdain for Mizrahim is the cause of the left’s defeat is wrong. Mapai, the early predecessor of the Labor Party which governed Israel for its first three decades, indeed behaved despicably toward immigrants from Arab countries from the 1950s onwards. But the Mizrahi lurch to the right was the result of Menachem Begin’s stroke of genius in 1977 in which he mobilized Mizrahi resentment against the Mapai establishment to draw that population overwhelmingly into the political camp of the right.

Since then Mizrahi voting patterns have reflected a phenomenon known for much of the second half of the twentieth century, in which socioeconomically lower classes tend to vote for the far right, particularly when a country is under some form of threat – which Israel constantly is.

The explanation favored in the literature of political science and political psychology is that the weaker classes seek a form of self-respect in nationalist ideologies, particularly when those ideologies are tainted with racism.

This holds true for many of Likud’s voters (including some Ashkenazim) no less than those who vote for Marine le Pen in France or Geert Wilders in the Netherlands.

Much of Mizrahi voting patterns are therefore due to the fact that Mizrahim constitute the overwhelming majority of Israel’s lower socioeconomic percentiles and of Israel’s periphery. The more Mizrahim live in the center, and the more educated they are, the more they vote to the left.

In other words, voting to the right has very little to do with Mizrahi identity in itself (after all, there are many Ashkenazi right-wingers), but exemplifies a pattern that can be observed in many other countries.

Israel’s left has tried to tackle the animosity of socioeconomically disadvantaged Mizrahim in the wrong way. It has desperately tried to show how socially minded it is, implicitly trying to ingratiate itself to the lower socioeconomic classes.

But this strategy has never worked anywhere. Disgruntled white men in the American south will not vote for Democrats, even if the Republicans’ policies deprive them of social benefits. Disgruntled Christians in who live in outlying areas of France vote for Marine le Pen, even though most of them live in places where there are almost no Muslims. Voting is ultimately more about asserting one’s identity than it is about economic interests.

Israel’s liberals must therefore stop trying to ingratiate themselves to anybody. We cannot undo the mistakes of Mapai towards Mizrahim from the 1950s to the 1980s, and apologizing for them, as Ehud Barak did in 1999, won’t win over those who do not believe in liberal principles, be they Mizrahi or not.

If we want to convince voters, any voters, of our views, we should not hide those views behind concern for social justice. If anything, efforts to hide our core principles behind the call for social justice is in itself a form of condescension.

Voters should know clearly what we stand for: We want separation of religion and state, full equality for minorities including women, gays, Arabs and other religious groups.

We should speak our truth loud and clear: More than anything, we care about Israel’s remaining a liberal democracy, and our deepest concern is that Israel’s political right is undermining core liberal values like equality before the law and freedom of the individual.

We believe, for good reason, that it is in Israel’s existential, moral and political interest to remain a Western country. We have strong arguments behind our world view, and we believe that our moral beliefs coincide with Israel’s long-term existential interest of being part of the Western World.

No amount of political correctness will cover up the fact that we are now fighting a political and cultural war for Israel’s identity. Only by standing fully and firmly behind our principles do we show genuine respect for voters, and might possibly convince them that our position better ensures Israel’s future.

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