The displays of nationalism that are spreading in Israel have awakened the left from the coma it has been in since the summer of 2011. In the days of the social protest, it went into the streets with determination, erected tents and composed important slogans. Its spokespeople issued an appeal to the Israeli collective to show up “anonymously” without parading any affiliation. People turned out in droves and the public was finally talking about social justice. But peace, the occupation, discrimination, the Arabs and the Palestinians were stuffed deep into the movement’s back pocket.
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The driving force behind the summer protest (the middle-class, Asheknazi soft left) and its massiveness lent the movement its uniqueness and gained it the sympathy of the elites. But as the voice that touted the identity-less collective grew louder, the center was able to improve its position on the city’s boulevards. In the name of “the middle class,” it pushed aside the silenced voices of the protest: the periphery, the poor, the Arabs and the haredim.
Nearly everyone cooperated in dulling the movement’s edges. Labor chair Shelly Yachimovich did her part by extending a trusting hand to the consensus and in so doing helped not just to strengthen the center. but also to grant legitimacy to Naftali Bennett and Avigdor Lieberman. Thus the protest aroused the desired anger against the flaws in the economic method and power structure, but ignored other flaws in Israel’s democracy and our ongoing identity crisis.
The damage caused by the left’s silence, precisely when public consciousness was ripe for change, is visible today in the wave of nationalism and racism before which the left stands distressed and bewildered. It should ask itself why its voice did not stand out in recent years, because its timidity during the time of burgeoning social protest reflected one of its most striking shortcomings: its distance from those anonymous groups that were urged to come out to the public square.
These days, too, as the left “rewrites itself” in its promotional literature, it appears still to be entrenched in its opposition to any social or identity particularism that goes against liberal universalism – to religious tradition, for instance. The uncompromising grip on “the liberal secular truth” denies other outlooks that have the right to exist in a common democratic arena. When push came to shove, the elimination of God and the exaltation of secularism failed, and most Israelis are turning their back on it.
The Mizrahi left did well at challenging the Ashkenazi left’s vulnerable points, although it also contains voices that support a utopian vision of Mizrahi-ness that will dispossess Mizrahim of national sentiment when the new political awareness fully develops. But this feeling is not exclusively related to the oppressive cultural structures. These certainly influenced the rightist Mizrahi tendencies, but Mizrahi patriotism should be seen over time as a complex and autonomous entity that is not dependent solely on ethnicity.
The Mizrahim will not give up their national sentiment, and they shouldn’t have to. At the same time, more than any other identity group, they have the potential to contribute to shaping an intercultural Jewish-Arab exchange and to solidarity between the peoples and religions.
The Mizrahim are not anti-peace, and unlike Bennett and his disciples, they won’t stand in the way of reconciliation. The fascist ideology in Israel is not a Mizrahi phenomenon but a multi-identity one with a variety of sources. The way to counter it is to strengthen the moderate, traditional and peripheral religious forces that will challenge messianic and authoritarian religiosity.
If the left wants to thrive it has to create a new kind of public square so it can attract groups that wish to defy the secular liberal monolith. The negation of particular identities will not increase support for the left; it will only help fuel extremism and nationalism.