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In Israeli Politics, It's Not Right vs. Left but Ashkenazim vs. Mizrahim

Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy
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Former PM Benjamin Netanyahu at Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem, in 2020.
Former PM Benjamin Netanyahu at Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem, in 2020.Credit: Emil Salman
Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy

Israeli politics is like a suitcase with a hidden compartment. The visible section shows two main camps, right and left. Their ideological rift is commonly described as deep, wrenching and stormy, bordering on civil war. But that’s only a façade. The political suitcase has a false bottom, hiding a compartment in which the real game is roiling.

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That game is still, shockingly, the ethnic game, the identity game. The most significant boundary line in politics, as well as in society and culture, is still the one that divides West and East. There is no deeper rift than this, none more suppressed and denied. It’s unpleasant to admit it. It’s far more comfortable to talk about ideology, the war of ideas between the classic left and right, capitalism and socialism, liberals and conservatives, religion and secularism, occupation supporters and opponents. But a closer look reveals the illusion: We talk about a torn and divided society, while the differences on the core issues range from marginal to nonexistent.

Everyone is Zionist, everyone is more or less for continuing the occupation, everyone is for the military and all are for helping the poor. Something like that. The differences are miniscule. Underneath them, a struggle for Israel’s image is going on that has never been decided: West or Levant, Tuscany or the Atlas, Berlin or Istanbul. This struggle also motivates politics. It is further today than ever from resolution.

In one group, things are open and clear: The ultra-Orthodox are divided between Ashkenazim and Sephardim, with no gray area in between. Hardly any Mizrahim vote for Agudat Israel – former ultra-Orthodox party – no Ashkenazim vote for Shas - ultra-Orthodox Mizrahi-based party. The ultra-Orthodox are not ashamed of this arrangement; the other camps are not honest enough to admit it. Anyone who tries to tell it like it is, for example the journalist Dr. Avishay Ben Haim, is pelted with contempt and shame, especially, of course, by the camp that is less comfortable about looking reality in the eye.

In a sweeping generalization – there’s no other way – we can say that the struggle in the upcoming election will first and foremost be about this split. Not that there are no other dividing lines, but a gray cloud hovers above it all: Who are we? Much before “what are we?” You don’t need to be Columbus to discover that the liberal camp, enlightened, at least in its own eyes, wealthy and progressive – in short, the center-left – is largely Ashkenazi. You don’t have to be Einstein to conclude that the motivating force of the other camp is first and foremost generations of a sense of discrimination and frustration, in addition to increased religiosity.

There are, of course, abundant exceptions, but they only prove the rule. Among the Ashkenazi-dominated parties, Meretz had Avi Buskila and Avi Dabush, Yesh Atid has Meir Cohen and Yifat Shahsha-Biton is in New Hope. Above all, former Prime Minister lawmaker Benjamin Netanyahu, the leader of the aggrieved Mizrahim, is 100 percent certified Ashkenazi. The settlers and their supporters, the strongest right-wing power in Israel, spoil the ranks a bit; the leadership and most of the camp are Ashkenazi. However, they are now challenged by Itamar Ben-Gvir, whose Mizrachi credentials are a significant part of his attraction, even if he denies it. You have to hear Jacob Bardugo – a right-wing pundit for Israel's Army Radio – talk about the right-wing Ashkenazis, what he says about the likes of lawmaker Matan Kahana and Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel, not only because of their participation in the government.

We must understand that in the end, the deep identification with Netanyahu is the solidarity of victims, at least in their own eyes. Is Netanyahu a victim? Are his supporters victims? This question is a secondary one. It’s enough that they feel that way, Netanyahu about his parents’ home and the courts, and his public about the reality of their lives.

The poet Yehuda Amichai once wrote, “…and how without pain – time” (translation by Ted Hughes). The rift will not heal with time; rather, it will deepen. No, it’s not about incitement, it’s the reality of life. As opposed to the fairy tales about there being no socioeconomic gaps and no discrimination, about the army being a melting pot and mixed marriages in the family, the 2022 election is in the end, Ashkenazi versus Mizrahi, or the other way around.

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