Why Idealist Anglos Voted for the Centrist Messiah

Did immigrants from the U.S. and other English-speaking countries 'save Israel from itself' by voting for Yair Lapid, Israel's Barack Obama, in an attempt to resurrect ideological moderation in Israel? It appears that Anglos felt drawn to participating in creating a new space for centrism - which may well still be a false dawn.

For many fearful observers abroad, as well as voters in Israel, last Tuesday’s elections symbolized the day Israel saved itself from itself.  Contrary to pre-election apocalyptic predictions, the Israeli right lost ground in a contest that seemed to threaten 'restoring' full Israeli sovereignty over the whole of the Land of Israel.  Meanwhile, Yair Lapid rose like a phoenix from the ashes of the Israeli polity, promising his compatriots that indeed “Yesh Atid” — there is a future — for democracy in Israel.  In this version of events, the messiah-like Lapid heralded the new age of post-(post?)-Zionism, the day when the old ideological Zionism ended and the new era of normalization began.

The problem with this narrative is two-fold.  First, the untested Lapid rose to power on a populist platform for yuppies, who are less concerned with the rallying cries of 'Tzedek Chevrati ', or social justice, and a resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, than a desire to see the standard of living in Israel improve enough to ensure their annual trip to Tuscany, with a little gratuitous bashing of the settlers and ultra-Orthodox per the convention of this social set.  (Lapid’s electoral dominance primarily in the upwardly-mobile Gush Dan and Sharon region, which includes Tel Aviv and the bedroom communities of the hi-tech belt, seemingly demonstrates the success of his pitch to this crowd).   

More significantly, while the election emerged as a victory for this one centrist party, the full renaissance of Israeli moderates seems like a remote possibility, given an election cycle that arguably introduced the most radical ideology into the Israeli mainstream in the nation’s history.  It suffices to note that Meir Kahane’s xenophobic transfer policies would appear rather middle-of-the-road in a campaign which saw the annexation of the West Bank openly debated and blowing up the Al-Aqsa mosque dismissed as blustering campaign rhetoric. Whether centrism is a real philosophy or an “anything but Bibi and how does New York sound in April?” blip on the political radar for upper, rather than middle-class, native Israelis remains to be seen.

Yet, if the Israeli vote for the “future” of Israeli democracy was a bit disaffected, for many Anglos - meaning North American and Western European immigrants, usually with an emphasis on Jewish-American immigrants - voting for the center was not just a default choice against the decay and decadence of parties on left and right. The real innovation in this election cycle was the power of the Anglo idealist at the ballot box. 

While an essentialized “Anglo voting bloc” does not exist in Israel, it is possible to suggest some significant trends amongst this constituency in the 19th Knesset elections based on the historical knowledge of political participation and voting patterns as well as the available geographic data from the election returns.  For the most part, Anglos in Israel are highly ideological voters, which is both a reflection and expression of the nature of their peculiar immigration experience.  Rather than the traditional migration of a refugee from political turmoil, economic collapse, or social persecution in their country of origin, Anglophone immigrants have typically chosen an optional relocation intended to maximize their Jewish and Zionist identities. 

Moreover, due to particular difficulties in assimilating into the Israeli political-bureaucratic complex in Israel, I have hypothesized that Anglos — both as activists and as an electorate — are particularly drawn to parties and movements that offer an enclave culture, often found in smaller, newer, factions that offer more face-to-face interaction and socialization that traditional networks which privilege native Israelis.  Therefore, this group tends to be politically active on either end of the political spectrum, and are often caricatured as political extremists on both the left and the right.

This trend continued in the current elections, including strong showings for Habayit Hayehudi and Likud-Beiteinu (and to a lesser extent Otzma LeYisrael) in heavily Anglo-populated and largely middle-class and suburban West Bank settlements like Efrat, Hashmonaim, and Karnei Shomron, as well as an uptick in support for Meretz and the Labor party in Anglo enclaves within the Green Line like South Jerusalem, Mevatzeret Zion, Ra'anana, and Zichron Yaakov. [NB: Data derived from the official website of the Knesset elections is only broken down by municipality, so these suppositions represent the best conclusions from existing information in the absence of statistics that track ballots cast by the voter's country of origin.] But the truly surprising — and perhaps promising — development was the emergence of an Anglo ideological vote for the center.

While to some extent, Lapid’s unabashedly yuppie vision also appeals to Anglos. After all, many might admit that their Zionist dream would be to live in Israel with the standard of living of the countries they left behind.  Yesh Atid not only represents bourgeoisie values at the ballot box, but a platform for real reform.  While fiscal concerns may have drawn both Anglos and Israelis to Lapid, I was struck by the sentiment of friends and pundits alike (notably Yossi Klein Halevi’s manifesto) — including those who were the traditional constituency for parties further right and left and had voted that way in the past — that a line had been crossed in an assault on their liberal values and that that the time had come for Anglos to take part in an agenda to create a new space for centrism.  While the Anglo vote for Yesh Atid was likely more about ideology than about the party itself (though the urbane, professional-class and highly-educated list of candidates surely didn't hinder), this vote was intended to signal a deep desire amongst many within this immigrant class (as much as any other constituency in Israel) that the future of Israel must remain with the moderates.

Back in 1977, in the election that brought Menachem Begin and the Israeli right to power, a new centrist party called Shinui [Democratic Movement for Change], later led by Tommy Lapid (the current party leader's father) rose to power with the heavy support of the Anglo community at the time. Yesh Atid carries this torch to a new generation of Anglos in Israel. 

Today, his son Yair may best be analogized to Barack Obama, a symbol of hope and change who may well not be able to deliver on the lofty rhetoric of campaign promises.  Yet, as elections across the world have demonstrated, a reinvigorated public can do more than any single leader.  While Lapid may turn out to be a false messiah, Anglos in Israel may have helped resurrect the value of ideological moderation in Israel in a fraught political climate.  Jaded native Israelis voters would be wise to pay heed to their immigrant counterparts and not miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity to save themselves from themselves.

Dr. Sara Hirschhorn is a graduate of Yale and the University of Chicago and is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University, researching the Israeli settler movement, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the U.S.-Israel relationship. Her dissertation, '"City on a Hilltop: The Participation of Jewish-American Immigrants Within the Israeli Settler Movement, 1967-1987,"is now available on Proquest.

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