When Amir Peretz was elected to lead the Labor Party, many of its Ashkenazi voters thronged to Kadima. Then, when Shaul Mofaz replaced Tzipi Livni as Kadima leader, they jumped ship and climbed aboard other vessels, some in Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid. Meretz’s MKs throughout the years have almost always been Ashkenazi, with few exceptions like Ran Cohen and Mossi Raz. Throughout the Knesset’s history, only four openly gay MKs served in it, two of them in the incumbent Knesset.
But all this doesn’t prevent Carolina Landsmann from worrying about the representation of heterosexual Ashkenazi men, and fretting that because of identity politics it will be hard to think of an Ashkenazi heterosexual man as leader of a left-wing party. The most hegemonic, most highly represented group in Israeli society is, according to Landsmann, in danger of exclusion.
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In this topsy turvy world, the very fact that Mizrahim and gays have meager representation means the exclusion of heterosexual Ashkenazi men. A little of their exclusivity has been taken away – and already they’re excluded. It’s amazing to see how a small representation of groups that have been excluded from political leadership for years, in the left as well, or especially in the left, has become an apocalyptic vision. The blame for this is placed on identity politics, which is portrayed as radical individualism and as a cancer in the left’s body.
It’s a pity that all this comes instead of a critical discussion, which is certainly necessary regarding identity politics. Granted, if each one fights only for the group he belongs to, the struggle for social justice will fall apart, marking a victory for neoliberal ideology. If the struggle is not for universal social justice but for a certain group’s rights, then we will not be advancing justice for all. Indeed, some versions of identity politics become one-issue politics, where in the name of one group’s rights people are willing to trample the rights of another.
But that’s a long way from describing identity politics as a cancer and turning things upside down, as though we’re on the brink of ousting the Ashkenazi man.
Moreover, Landsmann is ignoring the reason for the advent of identity politics. Identity politics of weakened, excluded groups developed because pseudo-universal politics didn’t include them. Identity politics exists because what masqueraded as the “left,” which pretended to advance a social-democratic policy, wasn’t really egalitarian and didn’t include everyone. The Israeli “welfare state” dispossessed the Arabs from their lands, discriminated against Mizrahim in allocating lands and designated the lowest rungs on the socioeconomic ladder for Arabs and Mizrahim.
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The Mizrahim’s culture was seen as inferior, same-sex relations seen as unworthy of recognition at best, when they weren’t persecuted. The members of these groups want equal distribution and equal resources on the basis of the identity for which they were discriminated and excluded. They want recognition of the equal value of their lives, culture and relations.
It would be wonderful if we could free ourselves of identity-based politics, which represents a segmentation of people in categories like man/woman, Jew/Arab, Ashkenazi/Mizrahi, straight/gay. But these binary identities are based on hierarchy, and the axis dividing them leaves privilege on one side and discrimination on the other.
Indeed, ultimate freedom must be reflected in liberation from these categories and from segmentation itself. But in a world where these classifications exist and discrimination is strong, it’s somewhat absurd to accuse those who want representation of destroying the left.