The Slow but Certain Waning of Ethnic Politics in Israel

The same ethnic demon that previously boosted Lieberman and Deri to power is now turning against them, which is good news for Zionism.

Israel Harel
Israel Harel
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Israel Harel
Israel Harel

The two big losers of the municipal elections, as repeatedly noted, are the pals Aryeh Deri and Avigdor Lieberman. This analysis is probably correct, but the loss of their candidate Moshe Leon in the race for mayor of Jerusalem is negligent compared to the duo's overall weakening of political power. The main reason is their position as ethnic leaders. And despite the recent fanning of the flames, the ethnic demons are dissipating, however annoyingly slowly.

Lieberman founded Yisrael Beitenu about 20 years ago. The movement's goals, as dictated by the founder, are classical Zionist aims: "Aliyah, protecting the homeland and settling it." But the true agenda was that of a narrow interest group: solving the special problems of the "Russian community," such as conversion to Judaism, marriage and divorce issues, housing, pensions, recognition of education diplomas from their countries of origin and other problems related to health and livelihood.

Despite cases of discrimination against this wave of immigrants (among others), the attempt to perpetuate a social grudge, or create a chronic class of "professional (Russian) victims of discrimination," has failed. True, most Russian immigrants did not manage to -- and some had no wish to -- assimilate culturally and socially into the native Israeli community. Yet this fact did not deter them; on the contrary, it only reinforced their ambition to educate themselves and improve their economic standing, and, consequently, their social standing. This was the "Russians'" answer to discrimination – existing or imagined. That is why no whining and fault-finding TV series was produced about them, and if one had been, it would have garnered scant interest, certainly not earning the enthusiastic applause received by Amnon Levy's True Face: The Ethnic Demon," the recent documentary series exploring discrimination against Jews from Middle East and Arab countries.

This characteristic of the community, and probably additional sociological and political reasons, made Lieberman feel time was running out for Yisrael Beitenu. Not to mention the fact that he disappointed his voters by not fulfilling central promises, such as advancing the civil marriage law. He certainly did not live up to his promises, or rather threats, to quit the government over construction freezes, particularly in Jerusalem. Yet the main reason for Yisrael Beitenu's gradual demise is the growing and welcome integration of its voters in Israeli life. If the party runs in the next general elections, a large portion of its past voters will abandon it.

As for Shas, in its 31 years in politics, the "crown" – despite what we've been fed ad nauseam surrounding Rabbi Ovadia Yosef's death and funeral – has not been restored to its former glory. On the contrary – Shas's "ethnic pride," which was nothing but empty rhetoric, only served to slow down the natural process, however painful, of a real "ingathering of the exiles." It impeded, even completely stymied the educational and economic progress of thousands of those seen in the funeral photos. And the organizational and political orchestrator of this progress-in-reverse was, and still is, Aryeh Deri.

Now, with the passing of The Spiritual Leader, the future in store for Shas headed by Deri is similar to that of Yisrael Beitenu, though the process will unfold at a much slower pace. Then we shall witness the true misery of those who followed, like blind men, the preaching of Rabbi Yosef, who now cannot escape the wretchedness in which they and their families are mired. That won't happen to Lieberman's graduates.

Undoubtedly, ethnic discrimination exists in Israel, though it's not as bad as some claim. But alongside the marginal improvements made by the ethnic parties in Israel, they all ended up worsening polarization. In order to justify their own existence, they radicalized reality and evoked devils that hardly exist. They thereby allowed those who for various reasons failed in life to avoid taking responsibility and to blame discrimination.

The expected shrinking of Shas, alongside the gradual disappearance of Yisrael Beitenu, are thus good news for the Zionist vision, in which the integration of the exiles is a basic tenet.

Shas leader Arye DeryCredit: Olivier Fitoussi

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