The Growing Pains of Israel's New Elite

What began with the 1997 elections and intensified with the IDF's demographic changes over the past 20 years is in a phase of more external expression - in the media, art and culture.

Ravit Hecht
Ravit Hecht
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An illustration showing Netanyahu giving out copies of Israel Hayom, wearing a hat with the slogan "Make Israel Great Again." Meanwhile Lieberman takes a wrecking ball to an Army Radio building and Kahlon tries to hold together an Israel Broadcasting Authority building, which Netanyahu is bulldozing over.
Illustration. Credit: Amos Biderman
Ravit Hecht
Ravit Hecht

Israel is being subject to an intense process of elite replacement. It began back in 1997, after the first Likud electoral victory in the Knesset, and intensified with the demographic change in the Israel Defense Forces over the past 20 years, as the ranks of those in the field were filled by Orthodox soldiers. It has also been pushed by a strong tailwind of religious representation in the public service, such as the prosecutor’s office and the education system. Currently it is in a phase of more external expression — in the media, art and culture.

Despite what many in the secular-European camp feel, it’s not the end of the world. A struggle or redistribution of power doesn't need to relegate anyone to exile from his homeland, his family or his language. This is the era of the Sephardim and the religious, who are benefitting from the democratic and cultural expression that they deserve. In addition, a strengthening of nationalist, religious and separatist trends and an increase in anti-liberal feeling are global phenomena — from India and China to the United States, which is being dazzled by Donald Trump.

By the way, Israel was never a liberal democracy. Anyone who gets all choked up longing for the “good old Israel of the past” is invited to recall the privilege bestowed on people who were members of Mapai, the predecessor of the Labor Party, and the martial law under which the country’s Arabs lived until 1966. Israel is not unique; instead, it reflects global trends in its own way.

What is amazing, however, is that the country’s old aristocracy — which is refusing to come to terms with the fact that it is a demographic and cultural minority entitled to reduced influence when it comes to governance — is drowning out the wailing of the rising elites. Despite the steadily accelerated growth in their power and the popular sentiment that they attract, they can't refrain accusing the establishment (which they have long constituted) of discrimination, persecution, silencing and oppression. Most of the members of the Knesset are right wing. They are not secular. They are anti-liberal, but they still claim that government is constantly surrendering to the left or that it isn't sufficiently right-wing.

In the army, the ranks of soldiers and officers are being filled with religious people, and an estimated 30 to 40 percent of graduates of officers courses are Orthodox. However, as we learned from Rabbi Yigal Levinstein of a pre-army preparatory program in the settlement of Eli, religious soldiers are moving targets of ridicule in the IDF.

There are the newspapers Israel Hayom and Makor Rishon, broadcasters Arutz Sheva, Channel 20, Galei Israel and even Army Radio as it now undergoes change, along with the Israel Broadcasting Authority, which answers to the government. And the commercial television channels, which seek to satisfy clients in the Yedioth Ahronoth group, which when all is said and done is in a personal dispute with the prime minister — all of them are rightist-oriented media outlets, or at least centrist. But right-wing discourse would have it that the media are always left-wing.

This sense of persecution is above all an essential tool in completing the revolution: The feeling of being the underdog is a very effective motivational tool, like the Real Madrid soccer team, which is at its best when its back is against the wall, or Benjamin Netanyahu, whose career has been based on the trick that “the whole world hates us.” But one also should not ignore the psychological origin of this resource — infinite feelings of inferiority and a constant contrarian sense — which has long run counter to reality. Those who were discriminated against by Mapai — Sephardim, religious Zionists and right-wingers, whoever they may have been — simply refuse to realize that they are now in power.

As a result, those in power refuse to apply the rules of governance to themselves. Instead, their systems operate as if they were guerillas fighting for their lives, while their cabinet ministers wildly express themselves as if they are internet commenters. So the way they look at it, Palestinian national poet Mahmoud Darwish’s poem poses an existential threat to the country, the counterpart of Hitler’s “Mein Kampf,” as Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman claimed. Deflecting the influence of Jewish religious law on open-fire regulations and the rules of engagement is seen as a left-wing defeatist plot. Rabbi Levinstein is a figure that they are careful to show respect for; instead of holding him accountable, they make do with mild condemnation of his remarks. Reporting on an investigation of the prime minister is a case of deliberate media harassment of the government, and even a student project at the Shenkar art school with an imaginary nude depiction of Culture Minister Miri Regev shows contempt for a symbol of government.

These feelings, even more than the ideology, are what is responsible for the tribal breakdown and the disintegration of Israeli solidarity. A government that doesn’t believe that it is one necessarily leads to civil war.

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