Bibism Is Bigger Than Bibi

Carolina Landsmann
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Netanyahu receives the latest shipment of Pfizer vaccines at Ben Gurion Airport, January 10, 2021.
Carolina Landsmann

These are strange times, politically speaking. Haaretz Editor-in-Chief Aluf Benn crowned Yair Lapid the leader of Israel’s left. Leftist icon Gideon Levy supports Benjamin Netanyahu. The political movement threatening Netanyahu’s continued rule is to the right of the prime minister. The anarchist torch is wielded on the street by the Haredim, important partners in the coalition. The Joint List is splitting up over a new grouping of Arabs who seek an alliance with Netanyahu. Netanyahu and his government are “tossing money out of helicopters,” while the left – parroting Netanyahu’s economic policy circa 2003 – is beside itself over the handouts to the Haredim.

The sense of directional confusion is mainly a product of sociopolitical circumstance, of the “significant correlation between the bank account and the ballot box,” as Benn showed when he cross-referenced voting patterns in the September 2019 election with the economic ranking of communities.

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“The rich and the Arabs are on the left, the Haredim and the middle class are on the right,” and the movement within the bloc is within the upper middle class.

The 'Bibist' right today speaks the social-class discourse. In Israel, as throughout the world, it is always correlated to ethnic and racial divisions as well. This is what Channel 13 news analyst Avishay Ben Haim keeps saying. This is what Likud MK David Amsalem screams at the “masters of the land” from the Knesset podium and on Twitter (“Are you letting me talk, or should I leave? Are we allowed to be Knesset members?”) This is what drove cultural elites crazy when then-Culture Minister Miri Regev appropriated their ethno-class discourse and used it against them.

Bibism has become popular among the lower classes, opening doors and offering them legal ownership of a political home, and through it of the state. From this perspective, the first signs of growth of a political Arab Bibism is actually organic. As a disenfranchised group, their natural place is with the lower classes who are, to generalize, lower-class Mizrahi and Ethiopian Jews.

In this sense Bibism must be understood as a movement that goes beyond Bibi and is greater than he, just as Peronism thrives in Argentina, nearly 50 years after Peron’s death. The possibility of Arab Bibism and even of leftist Bibism (Gideon Levy) calls for a deeper look at the comparison to Peronism.

It’s hard to find two people who will give the same answer if asked to define Peronism, which was home to groups on both the right and the left. From pro-fascists to pro-communists, they could all be Peronists.

What I was taught when I tried to understand what happened in Argentina is still engraved in my memory. When the left saw that the “people” – el pueblo – were with Peron, it felt it must be together with the people and part of Peronism. So simple and yet so complicated.

When you think of Bibism you think of Bibi. In the left that means you think of opposition to the Oslo Accords, of incitement, of Yitzhak Rabin’s murder, of hatred of the elites and of the Palestinians and, in recent years, you think of government corruption. But after so many years in power and so many political changes, Bibism should not be seen merely as a party, but as a movement that can contain opposites.

As we have seen, Bibism isn’t congruent with Likud (see Gideon Sa’ar and Zeev Elkin), nor with the right (see Avigdor Lieberman and Naftali Bennett), nor even with the Jews (see Mansour Abbas).

The question is this: Is the center-left’s counterreaction to Bibism stuck in an attempt to shoot down a scarecrow from a different time, when the real target is already elsewhere?

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