Trumpistas Stumping for White Privilege? In Israel They’re Called Leftists

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Donald Trump at a campaign rally in Las Vegas, June 18, 2016.
Donald Trump at a campaign rally in Las Vegas, June 18, 2016.Credit: David Becker, Reuters

The concert hall was really a big tent — an open area at the end of Jerusalem's First Railway Station with a wide canvas roof rippling in a cool evening breeze. On Monday night I was there, feeling blissed and blessed, among a couple hundred people listening, and swaying, clapping and dancing, to Firqat Alnoor, a leading ensemble in the renaissance of classical Middle Eastern music in Israel. 

Some of the musicians wore black kipot. Their guest vocalist was Amal Shahin, an Arab woman from northern Israel with a clear, soaring voice. There was a faint smell of arak in the air. The audience was partly Arab, mostly Jewish, including young guys with off-blond dreadlocks and a gray-haired guy with a velvet kipah who sang out Arabic lyrics to ask for the next song, and women with their hair covered and women with their shoulders bare. David Menahem, known both as a rising Sephardi rabbi and Middle Eastern vocalist, was sitting in a back row and was invited up, impromptu, to sing one piece in Arabic. 

Honestly, I'm sorry to treat this as politically relevant. We live in the Middle East; the music is part of the country's cultural heritage; so is a Middle Eastern stream of Judaism that embraces the wider world rather than withdrawing from it. But I have to mention it as a moment of light, in contrast to the latest eruption of Israeli culture wars — secular versus religious, but particularly Ashkenazi versus Mizrahi.

The spark, so it seems, came from the release of the Biton Report  — the product of a government committee led by poet and recent Israel Prize winner Erez Biton on bringing Mizrahi culture and history into the Israeli mainstream. Among many other things it recommends putting Mizrahi poets into the literature curriculum and producing a television series to balance the classic Pillar of Fire on the creation of Israel, which presented a history devoid of Middle Eastern Jews. I'm cherry-picking, but the report is 350 pages. 

From there, the chain reaction of scandalized responses and counter-responses led to a Facebook post by Gidi Orsher, the film critic for Army Radio, addressed to "all the Cahalilis and Zubidas," all the Mizrahim with their strange last names, with lines like, "Next time you curl up in a sealed room because missiles are falling on your head, ignore Iron Dome and recite psalms." Orsher's screed made Mizrahim into bundles of religious superstition, and Ashkenazim the sole source of modernity in Israel. 

Politicians, especially on the right, denounced his racism, and Orsher was suspended from his radio gig, raising the usual question of whether a person's social media persona is his employer's business or is protected free speech. But he also had his share of defenders, such as poet Agi Mishol, who won the Prime Minister's Prize back in 1995. On Facebook, she wrote that Orsher's had violated "the political correctness tightening around our necks" but was a reaction to the "Mizrahi incitement against everything Ashkenazi" and the "rejection of education, of science."

I want to be careful. When you're looking from the outside, it's easy to mistake the most extreme, strident voices for the entire sector they claim to speak for. Orsher, Mishol and Yair Garbuz, who gave a similar rant at an election rally last year, don't represent all secular Ashkenazim, just as Yigal Levinstein, the prominent right-wing rabbi whose anti-gay comments have caused a simultaneous storm, doesn't represent everyone religious. 

But then, it's also true that Levinstein has maintained his status because, at least until now, too few people in the religious public challenged — loudly, consistently and enough — his right to speak and teach in their name. And despite Mishol's claim of suffocating political correctness, anti-Mizrahi prejudice has been acceptable and normal, even "politically correct," in a piece of our comfortable, Ashkenazi, secular class. 

On occasion, I've been lectured by colleagues, speaking with what I'd call complacent ferocity, on how Mizrahi immigrants were never pressured to give up religious observance in the early years of the state. (When I've disagreed, I've been told that since I've only lived here 40 years, I don't understand.) Just as there's a great gap between white and black Americans on whether discrimination still exists, Ashkenazi and Mizrahi Israelis tend to have very different views on whether prejudice still permeates Israeli life.

What's different in Israel is that the people with those dismissive attitudes, and who think that the country has slipped out of the hands of its rightful owners, tend to think of themselves as being on the left. They support full acceptance of LGBT people. They are for two states — though for some, the attraction is an airtight border between them and Palestinians. When it comes to celebrating diversity within Israeli society, especially Jewish society, they start sounding like Trumpistas. 

Yes, some politicians on the left denounce the racism. But for the most part, they've failed to push for the necessary correction in how Israeli history is written, how its literary canon is defined, how being truly Israeli is defined.

The right long ago stepped into that vacuum. The camp that tramples Palestinian rights and seeks to repress criticism of the occupation casts itself as the defenders of Jewish cultural diversity. This is a travesty, but the left should never have created the opening.

This isn't the only reason the right holds on to power, but it's a one important reason. As long as parts of the self-defined left are more interested in making secular, Eurocentric Israel great again than in peace or economic equality, the left will remain a minority.

I have no idea of the politics of anyone who was on stage at that fabulous concert Monday night, or of anyone in the audience. I do know this: If the Israeli left wants more people singing its melodies, it needs to learn, at last, to build a big tent. 

Gershom Gorenberg is the author of "The Unmaking of Israel" and "The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977." 

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