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Beyond Netanyahu: On the collapse of the so-called Left

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.”

Benjamin Netanyahu gives a victory speech on election night, March 18, 2015. (Photo: +972 Magazine)

Benjamin Netanyahu gives a victory speech on election night, March 18, 2015. (Photo: +972 Magazine)

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.

Zionist Camp leader Isaac Herzog gives a speech at the end of the party’s election night event, Tel Aviv, March 17, 2015. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)
Zionist Camp leader Isaac Herzog gives a speech at the end of the party’s election night event, Tel Aviv, March 17, 2015. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

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.

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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.

Shas MK Aryeh Deri (Photo by Activstills.org)

Shas MK Aryeh Deri (Photo by Activstills.org)

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.

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    1. Pedro X

      “Beyond Netanyahu: On the collapse of the so-called Left” screams the headliner to this article.

      Does an analysis of the elections show that the left collapsed? No the left actually gained two seats from the 2013 results, 29 versus 27. The right only picked up one seat, 44 versus 43. The Arab parties picked up 2 seats. The religious parties lost 5 seats. The center still controls 21 seats as it did in 2013.

      The election shows that the vote in the right camp was redistributed to the Likud from Jewish Home and Yisrael Beitenu, Shas and UTJ. The Zionist Camp picked up 3 seats more than it and Livni held in the 2013 election.

      The election also shows that the right continues to enjoy strong support form the Mizrahim. For instance Likud took 42.85% of the vote in Sderot. Next in line were Jewish Home and Israel Beitenu. The Zionist Camp got 7.5% only. All three of the right wing parties maintain a presence in Mizrahi communities having offices and workers located in them. The Mizrahim identify with the right because the right is visible in their communities and the right more closely reflect values they can support. Arab parties are non-existent in cities like Sderot.

      In addition the Mizrahim of cities like Sderot trust the Likud in areas of security and in the matter of the economy. When the Likud came to power in 2009 the unemployment rate in the country was over 9%. It is now 5.3%. The gross domestic product of the country has gained considerably under Likud. On a per capita basis it has increased by 10% since 2010. In a generation the GDP has tripled.

      One can look at the failing economies and per capita income of Israel’s neighbors. One can look at the average unemployment rate in Arab countries or in the Euro zone. In the Euro zone the unemployment rate is above 11%. The unemployment rate in France is 10.4%. Egypt and Jordan have unemployment rates over 12%. Things are not as bad as leftists in the Tel Aviv bubble would want one to believe.

      Despite the writer claiming some sort of conceptual breakthrough involving the joint Arab list and right thinking leftists (that is leftists who think like the writer) the Mizrahim are likely to remain firmly in the camp of the right and the majority of Israelis will vote for right and centrist parties to guide their state.

      Reply to Comment
      • Philos

        There is no rest for the swivel eyed hasbaraist

        Reply to Comment
      • Brian

        No doubt disadvantaged white Southerners continued to vote for right wing Democrats and then Nixon but after the march in Selma, Alabama something had fundamentally changed. The author mentions Selma. I really like this guy Ayman Odeh with his warm, dignified persona and intelligent positions and this latest intelligent move. And he’s marching peacefully to Jerusalem as we speak. This is something new. The Joint List Is something genuinely new. The American-Israeli and EU-Israeli relationships are shifting in real ways in the aftermath of the choice of Israelis of a right wing government without a fig leaf. This article here makes the case as well as any that Herzog would have been just another pseudo-leftist fig leaf. Good riddance. The times are changing Pedro X. To everything there is a season. Your hard right nationalist project has seen better days.

        Reply to Comment
      • Joshua Tartakovsky

        Pedro, that you refer to the Israeli Zionist Left as a “Left” already shows a deep level of ignorance.
        Supporting Israel’s bombardment of Gaza is hardly a position a Left would take.
        While Herzog said he “understands Arabs” since he saw them through the scope of the gun.

        Reply to Comment
    2. Jello

      The left is humanist, secular and cosmopolitan by definition. Once you remove these there is literally nothing left (no pun intended). The conceptual breakthrough your propose would have the left stop being the left and turn into some jumbled group of sniveling sycophants for the ideology and principles of others. You proposal that the left give up its ideals and principles for some incoherent greater good is likely to be demotivating rather than inspirational. There is no good reason for a secular, humanist, cosmopolitan leftist to choose to align himself with a party like Shas which promotes a medieval religious agenda that is directly contradictory to everything that leftists believe is good and just. If such a leftist chose a priori to not fight for his principles and to submit himself, his goals, desires and beliefs to the rule of those that directly oppose them then there is no good reason for him to be politically involved. Even in ‘victory’ he can only lose.

      Not just that, but such a proposal effectively emasculates the left as a political force because once the left proclaims its values bankrupt it can offer no real alternative. Rather than potentially attracting new voters and supporters it would drive them to seek political and ideological meaning elsewhere and there are plenty of those offering such alternatives. Nor would the left have much of role to play as a bridge between other ideological groups because, again, it would have nothing to offer; no framework that could bring disparate groups together. It would relegate itself to a sycophantic cheerleading role for whichever group could make the greatest claim to victim status. That may be useful to that particular ‘victim’ group but it offers no governing alternative.

      Your proposal is to have the left permanently concede government to the right and as such I approve.

      Reply to Comment
      • Brian

        “There is no good reason for a secular, humanist, cosmopolitan leftist to choose to align himself with a party like Shas which promotes a medieval religious agenda that is directly contradictory to everything that leftists believe is good and just.”

        This has been discussed in a related way here before —


        — and I think you entirely miss the author’s point, Which is developed in the last seven paragraphs or so above.

        It’s about bringing people along from where they really are and empathizing with them rather than disdaining them from afar, and taking them seriously and harnessing what is important to them in progressive and creative ways. The author says this well, above, last seven paragraphs… Your utter contempt for the religious (or is it just the non-national religious but the gun-toting knitted kippa wearers are cool?) unredeemed by any more complex considerations, is no different than the hard left’s and leave out the fact that your own religion by all appearances is hard-right Jewish nationalism, secular variety.

        Reply to Comment
        • Jello

          It isn’t about “bringing people along”. You bring people along when you still believe in your own path. The author seemingly proposes for the left to have no path whatsoever. He wants the left to give up the principles that it holds dear out of a desire of an alliance with the ultra-Orthodox. The only possible “more complex consideration” that the author and you choose to avoid talking about is the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. If the author believes that the left should sacrifice everything it holds sacred on that altar he should be quite explicit about it. He should quite explicitly tell others on the left that he is willing to send the women back to the kitchens and gays back into the closet because to him the messianic goal of finding an arrangement with the Arabs takes overriding precedence over any values that he might have once held. Because, after all, if the world isn’t moving forward to a secular future, then clearly the correct direction for a progressive to charge into is backwards.

          Once he has emasculated the left and deprived it of all secular/humanistic values clearly the voters will shift in his direction because people naturally seek an ideological vacuum to fall into and vote for movements that abandon the values they hold dear. And yes, the “gun-toting knitted kippa wearers” are far more progressive on secularism, women’s rights and gay rights than the medieval rabbis of Shas or UTJ. Although, perhaps the female MKs from Shas or UTJ would argue to the contrary.

          Reply to Comment
          • Brian

            “he is willing to send the women back to the kitchens and gays back into the closet because to him the messianic goal of finding an arrangement with the Arabs takes overriding precedence over any values that he might have once held.”

            This is just nonsense. It’s very black and white, manichean, us or them, all or none, and is not honestly derivable from what the author actually wrote. Jello hates Shas (fine, I’m not defending Shas) but has no problem with the Right forming a coalition with Shas and UTJ but the Left is forbidden to in his system. “Those fanatics are our fanatics not your fanatics” he seems to be saying.

            Reply to Comment
    3. Yeah, Shas and the Joint List, a match made in heaven. The fact that Rabbi Ovadia Yosef compared Arabs to snakes and called for their annihilation – well, the evil Ashkenazi leftists always distorted Maran’s blessings.

      Reply to Comment
      • Gray

        That’s the difference between someone who knows what he’s talking about and this author! Mr. Derfner has a solid grib of the political reality and relevant facts at hand, while Ben Elul, who sure has his heart on the left side, too, only engages in wishful thinking. I’d rather read more from experts like Derfner!

        Reply to Comment
      • Joshua Tartakovsky

        As usual liberal Israeli Zionists show a lack of a deeper understanding of religious nuances.
        The problem is Larry is enclosed in a liberal cocoon, he does not see the difference and of course does not realize that Palestinians respect Mizrahi Jews far more than the condescending Asheknazi left. They also have respect for religion, unlike self-proclaimed Israeli progressives.
        Palestinian leaders such as Jibril Rajoub and others, heaped mounts of praise on Aryeh Deri. In him they found someone who they can relate to on an equal level. Palestinians also had great respect for Rabbi Ovadia Yosef who was the only major rabbi to come up with a ruling that giving land for peace is justified, if it will save lives. While the dialogue between Palestinians and Mizrahim is one based on common culture, Palestinians frequently view Israeli liberals as colonialists in disguise who believe they are superior, as they do.
        Rabbi Ovadia Yosef did not operate by a Western logic by which the word matters and the action matters less, but instead proved with his actions that he was pro-peace. On the other hand, Meretz claims it is pro-peace but has segregated itself in an Ashkenazi -liberal Ivory Tower, views with disdain Arabs and Mizrahim and would not like them as its neighbors. Of course, it supports a two state solution since, as Amos Oz said, he fears of living in an “Arab state.” Rabbi Ovadia Yosef was a fan of Egyptian singer Oum Kalthoum while Israeli progressives prefer Arik Einstein and are disturbed when their white-only neighborhood receives ‘Levantine’ influences. Someone needs to remind them they are no longer in Europe.

        Reply to Comment
        • Larry Derfner


          Reply to Comment
    4. Gray

      This story looked to me like utter brouhaha, holier-than-thou criticism, without much regard to reality. Especially that the author talks so much about inclusion of voters who lean right wing, but offers no usable advice how to do that. But I’m willing to give everybody the benefit of the doubt, so I went on to look at his tweets of the last twelve months. Not a single one about Israeli politics! No evidence at all that this guy is a political activist, or at least someone knowledgeable about politics. Why did the editors publish his irrelevant opinions?

      Reply to Comment
      • Black

        Dear Gray,
        1. Don’t judge a person by his Twitter account, especially not in Israel/Palestine and don’t make it personal- it’s a debate, not an attack.
        2. The article is an opinion- it’s not a report of social policy, it’s not a scientific or statistical research, not a straightforward solution to all of the regions problems- in fact it’s the opposite- it’s about questions more than answers. 3. The article merely aims to point at some interesting/surprising encounters and moves that happened in the last election and to describe the gaps between the left and Israel’s oppressed communities. It reflects current internal debates in Israel and inspires us to think outside the left/right binary. That’s all.

        Reply to Comment
    5. Bill

      Here’s a hint. If you’re not a Palestinian, don’t begin a sentence with “From the Palestinian perspective.” This is doubly true for Israeli Jews.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Joshua’s comment could only have been made by a secular left-winger. It’s a caricature of left-wing masochism – they blame themselves for everything and end up apologizing to and praising the people who hate them and everything they stand for.

      Reply to Comment
      • Joshua Tartakovsky

        Too many baseless assumptions:)

        Reply to Comment
    7. Brian

      So on the one hand we have people like Gustav telling us liberals just don’t realize that the Palestinians en masse have an undying hatred and wish to annihilate Jews as Jews and if only, if only they therefore would “recognize Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people” alas–that that’s the ticket; and on the other hand we have Joshua here telling us that liberals just don’t realize that Palestinians greatly respect Mizrahi Jews, Palestinian leaders heaped praise on Aryeh Deri and in him find someone who they can relate to on an equal level, and have great respect for Rabbi Yosef. Whatever other points Joshua is making, he is certainly undermining Gustav’s contention. Something doesn’t add up here guys.

      Reply to Comment