Many in the Israeli Left saw the recent election defeat as a danger to democracy. But if the Left wants to win elections, it needs to let go of its anti-Mizrahi fear-mongering and racism.
by Elad Ben Elul (translated by Joshua Tartakovsky)
In order to understand the outcome of the recent elections in Israel, one has to step away from the two central conceptual frameworks that make up the discourse of most Israelis, but in fact do not capture the complex reality below the surface. One has to step away from the traditional boxes of “Right” versus “Left” and of “religious” versus “secular,” at least if one seeks to liberate oneself from orthodox conditioning that does not reflect the reality on the ground. The key to breaking out of this conceptual straitjacket has been the Palestinian discussion regarding the Joint List and the Mizrahi discussion regarding the ultra-Orthodox Mizrahi Shas party, which provide a different interpretation of political realities.
These discourses are not new, and in fact have been prevalent in the media, television, cinema, literature and politics over the past years. For some reason, however, they have not filtered in to the so-called Israeli “peace camp.” Instead, the Israeli Left chose to conduct a disengaged campaign that was not based on a genuine ideological alternative to the Zionist hegemony, and focused solely on the mantra “anyone but Bibi.”
The connection I make between the Arab and Mizrahi post-Zionist discourse in relation to the recent elections is meant to offer a new prism by which to see future possibilities, provide an alternative and ask how is it possible that some electoral outcomes appear unfortunate and despairing for some but as inspiring for others? And why is the strengthening of the Arab political camp, along with parties that offer social economic policies — such as the Kulanu or Shas — seen as a major defeat by those who view themselves as the Left?
As someone who identifies as part of the Left, I have always been proud of the fact that leftist thinking always examines itself before criticizing the Other. In my view, advancing a progressive agenda means advancing the understanding that we cannot change the Other before we change ourselves, and that if we want to improve a given situation, we must examine ourselves in an unyielding manner before we criticize our perceived enemy. But recent months have also taught me that the Israeli Left does not truly engage in self-scrutiny; rather, it criticizes the Other which belongs to its own camp. In this way, it copies the criticism, contempt and blind hatred that the Right has towards the Arabs, and projects it onto members of the Right, including religious Jews, Russian Jews, the poor and Mizrahim. In this way, the Left preserves its place (in its own eyes) as rational, enlightened, educated and righteous — a victim of the enemy within the country, rather than examining what it can change.
Here are only several examples of many that point to the hateful nature with which the so-called Israeli Left views minorities, including Mizrahi Jews and Palestinians, those whom it supposedly claims to protect.
Several weeks before the election, Yair Garbuz, a leading Leftist cultural figure, spoke on the current state of Israeli affairs in front of tens of thousands in Tel Aviv during a pre-election rally: those who kiss amulets (a not-so-hidden reference to Mizrahi Jews’ religious practices) rule over us (referring to the “enlightened” Ashkenazi Left). Furthermore, the Movement for Quality Government in Israel called to disqualify Aryeh Deri from being appointed minister in the upcoming government, due to his conviction in 2002 for bribery. Although 15 years have passed, not to mention the fact that Ashkenazi leaders of the Labor Party have also been involved in corruption, puritans on the Left seek to disqualify him. In this way they reveal not only their racist views of Mizrahi Jews, but also their hypocrisy, as the Left usually has little to say about its leaders who were directly involved in the killing of civilians while serving as high-ranking military officials.
In effect, Garbuz’s speech not only marked the secular, Ashkenazi and racist boundaries of the “peace camp,” it actually pushed out those who were thinking of stepping in.
In the days following the defeat of the Left (or the so-called Left), its members did not do much reflection, but rather tried to exonerate themselves from collective responsibility. Some chose to upload pictures of their EU passports on social media, others said they will relocate to Berlin, or make openly denigrating comments about Mizrahi Jews. To make matters worse, a recent campaign named “Do Not Give” (in a play of words on a charity organization named “To Give”) called to punish impoverished Mizrahim who live in the periphery and voted Likud by ceasing to give them donations.
Connections of a genuine Left
The “enlightened” Left harshly criticized two incidents during the election cycle that did not fit its conceptual framework: The Joint List’s refusal to to sign a surplus agreement with Meretz (which would give surplus votes to to the party that needed them most), as well as its refusal to join a potential center-left government headed by Isaac Herzog. Members of the Zionist Camp claimed that those who vote for the Joint List are wasting their vote, and therefore cannot think beyond their narrow interests. From the Palestinian perspective, it is clear that the competition between the Right and the Left reflects an internal Jewish discourse which is temporary, imaginary and insignificant.
In addition, while left-wing governments were responsible for actions that can be considered “right wing” from a political standpoint — such as expropriating Arab land, expelling and destroying entire villages, establishing settlements — the right-wing governments signed peace agreements, released terrorists and allowed for some forms of economic revival in the West Bank. I will not go as far as to say that right-wing governments were good for the Arabs, but that from the perspective of the Arabs, the difference between Right and Left is negligible. Expecting the Joint List to agree to every request made by a Zionist Jew who identifies as leftist is both condescending and privileged.
For privileged Israelis, the day after the elections was one of mourning, depression and despair — one in which the state was stolen from them, yet again. For the Arab and Jewish public that supported the Joint List, on the other hand, this was a day of hope, change and historical breakthrough. The gap between the feelings of the Zionist Left and the supporters of the Joint List testifies to the lack of collaboration, dialogue and responsibility that a Leftist ideology is supposed to encourage, as well as the disconnect that exists between the Left and the populations it claims to “save.” A true Left stands by the victim, by the Other, without preconditions.
Furthermore, I was amused to discover how many Palestinian activists expressed ironic support for parties such as the Likud, Jewish Home and Yisrael Beiteinu, rather than Meretz or the Zionist Camp, since at least the right-wing parties “tell the truth” and “do not pretend.” The Arab and Mizrahi publics are not dumb; they know when certain parties scorn them and their way of life, even if their declarations say otherwise. “And which party do you genuinely believe in?” I asked a Palestinian human rights activist. “Did you see Shas’ ‘invisible campaign?’ I saw something real there,” she said.
This election saw many left-wing Mizrahi activists encouraged Mizrahim to vote for Shas and Kulanu — parties with a clear social and Mizrahi agenda. These parties center social-economic discourse of the Left, yet they stray from the ethnic, religious, class and geographic parameters of both the Left and Right. In a way similar to Palestinian discourse inside Israel, the Mizrahi discourse is a response to the disillusionment from the leftist narrative, due to its criticism of the Left’s hidden racism since the days of Mapai (Labor’s precursor), not to mention its socialist image that was built at the expense of Mizrahi ghettos and destroyed Arab villages.
Social activists who adopt the Mizrahi discourse seek to blur the distinctions between Arab and Jew, leftists and rightist, religious and secular. Rather than segregating themselves in a separate party, they chose to stand alongside disempowered communities and make the change from within. Replacing Netanyahu with Herzog was not the highest priority for Mizrahi activists or traditional Shas voters since, very much like the Arab public, they see through the illusion. Shas, in its current form, offers a new agenda according to which religious, Jewish, Arab or Mizrahi identity is not associated with a right-wing, ultra-nationalist and racist ideology. On the contrary, it allows for a fresh and more progressive dialogue. It should not come as a surprise that there is a base of support for Shas among the Arab public, which is closer to the traditional, cultural and socio-economic world of many of Israel’s Palestinian citizens.
Unsurprisingly, secular Mizrahi support for Shas was also mocked by Zionist Left. Both Haaretz and social media outlets were filled with patronizing criticism regarding feminist Mizrahi women who showed their support for Shas (a religious party without women); Mizrahi leftists who expressed their support for a party that said it would sit with Bibi; and Aryeh Deri who refused the spontaneous proposal by Joint List leader Ayman Odeh to form “an alliance of the oppressed.” As soon as someone does not dance to the Leftist, Zionist, humanist, secular and cosmopolitan tune, his moral and ideological legitimacy is lost. Here too, one who chose a genuine partnership with the Other over “rational” self-segregation was seen a threat the old order.
The Israeli Left: Between Rabin and veganism
In Professor Nissim Mizrahi’s article “Beyond the Garden and the Jungle: On the Social Limits of Human Rights Discourse in Israel,” it appears that the discourse of human rights, liberalism, universalism and secularism of left-wing organizations is suspiciously rejected by the same communities the claim to serve around the world. Mizrahi argues that the reason for this is that this same discourse does not allow for a diversity of identities, and forces groups to forgo their systems of faith and ethnic, religious and ideological values.
The secularism of the Israeli Left, with its cultural and geographic symbols such as Yitzhak Rabin and veganism, is nothing short of a religion in itself, which contains many internal moral and ideological tensions. While the same Left is not being asked to give up its religion, culture or ethnicity, marginalized communities are required to do so in order to belong to the exclusive club of the holders of morality. Even if left-wing groups fight for a more equitable sharing of resources, they do not genuinely recognize the identity of marginalized communities, and in fact lose their relevance.
Despite the common claim that secularism is a sign of a world moving from away from a religious past to a modern future, Israel (and most of the world) is not moving toward the secular way of life. Judaism, Islam and Christianity continue to hold great significance in the world. Despite their humanist vision and commendable parliamentary activity, parties such as Meretz, the Zionist Camp and Lapid’s Yesh Atid choose to view themselves as bearers of an anti-religious struggle, thus preventing a center-left coalition with the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism and Shas.
The film “Selma,” which depicts the struggle of Martin Luther King Jr. against the racist laws and violence of the U.S. government, shows how a religious discourse does not necessarily need to be one of racism, ultra-nationalism and hatred, but rather one that pursues peace and justice. The Bible, the New Testament and the Quran serve as essential and rich sources for instilling ideologies of change, advancement and morality. The atheist/modernist loathing and rejection of these sacred sources is seen as a loathing of the Jewish and Palestinian communities that make up the country. Organizations such as Rabbis for Human Rights seek to break this duality and thus hold the key to a breakthrough for the Israeli Left.
In the meantime, one can only focus on the conceptual breakthroughs that resulted from these elections, and to hope that another defeat of the so-called peace camp will result in the formation of a strong and effective opposition alongside the Joint List. One that will provide for genuine self-scrutiny in which disparate voices can form one authentic, broad, unyielding voice. One that can take inspiration from a variety of identities, traditions, and cultures of the region in order to promote such values as the love of one’s neighbor, equality and justice.
Elad Ben Elul is a doctorate student of anthropology and sociology at Tel Aviv University. This article was first published in Hebrew on Haokets.