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Israeli Liberals II: A detached elite looking outwards

Israeli Jewish liberals are focused on social and cultural identity, look away from Israel and towards the west, do not have alliances with economically disadvantaged groups, are sympathetic towards the military, and prefer to exercise influence through non-electoral channels.

In my previous post, I argued that Israeli liberals are not the right audience for anti-occupation activists. In order to explain my argument, I must first clarify what I mean by liberals, and how do I see their position in Israeli society.

Israel’s liberals share some attributes with liberals in other countries, but also differ from them in significant ways. Here, liberalism is more of a cultural identity and social attitude than a political ideology. Its components include, by and large: secularism, tolerance on issues of sexuality and lifestyle, and a strong emphasis on individual rights and personal freedom.

Cosmopolitanism is a common trait among liberals everywhere, but in Israel it is their most dominant attribute. To some extent, it might actually be more accurate to call them cosmopolitans than liberals (or in Bernard Avishai’s terms: “Global Israel”).  Israeli liberals strongly identify with the West, which is the main producer of the culture that they consume (as the picture below demonstrates). More than anything else, they want to be, and to feel, a part of it.

A random ad in central Tel Aviv, with not a single Hebrew word or cultural reference, shows that the true home of many city residents is abroad (Photo Credit: Roi Maor)

Ironically, it is this very desire which drives Israeli liberals to a different position from that of their counterparts in the West, and especially the US. Although Israel’s liberals pay lip service to issues such as anti-racism, feminism and economic justice, these are generally not topics which engage and mobilize them. Seriously addressing these issues requires them to work with groups which remind them of how non-Western Israel really is.

Although there are many Palestinian liberals, these are not the people to whom Avishai and Goldberg are referring. Israeli Jewish liberals have generally stirred clear from alliances with Palestinians. To some extent, this reflects the feeling that ethnic strife in Israel is an issue which threatens each group’s survival, and therefore one must choose sides. That is not typical of racial tensions in the US and Western Europe in recent decades.

But the feeling that Palestinians represent the Orient, whereas Jewish Israeli liberals aspire to be part of the occident, is also quite significant. And it is certainly the most important explanation for liberals’ alienation from Sephardic Jews, who immigrated to Israel from North Africa and Middle Eastern countries.

Even feminist groups and labor unions, which are strongly allied with social liberals in the US, are not in coalition with Israel’s liberals. Mainly, this is a reflection of the weakness of these groups, which were largely coopted into the establishment, but the end result is a significantly narrower version of liberalism.

Unlike American liberals, which were strongly involved in the anti-war movement during the Vietnam era, and more recently around Iraq, Israel’s Jewish liberals have shown a much weaker anti-militaristic sentiment, with the possible exception of the first Lebanon war in the 198os. Even then, draft dodging was mostly out of the question. Like other Jewish Israelis, liberals must serve in the IDF for three years, and this experience, combined with the sense of existential threat mentioned above, makes them much less suspicious of hawkish policies.

Liberals’ greatest animosity is directed at the ultra-orthodox, which is not surprising given both groups’ obsession with social and cultural issues, and their differing views on personal freedom (liberals: pro, ultra-orthodox: con). This clash has several consequences. First, it highlights liberals’ identification with the IDF, because the struggle over freedom from religious coercion is often mixed with resentment over the fact that the ultra-orthodox are exempted from military service. Second, liberals are less sympathetic to the problem of poverty because the ultra-orthodox are one of the poorest groups in Israel.

Third, the high visibility of the ultra-orthodox drives liberals away from areas into which this ever-expanding population moves. Liberals are increasingly scarce in Jerusalem, and are ever more self-segregated to the metropolitan areas of Tel Aviv and Haifa. This increases their isolation from broad swathes of Israeli society.

Since they are not part of a broader popular coalition, liberals in Israel gain their (substantial) influence through non-electoral channels. They are strongly represented and often use the legal system, professional societies, the government bureaucracy, businesses, the media, and international connections. These tools are also widely used by social liberals in the US, but they usually supplement these channels with popular mobilization, and this is not the case in Israel.

So, Israeli Jewish liberals are focused on social and cultural identity, look away from Israel and towards the west, do not have alliances with economically disadvantaged groups, are sympathetic towards the military, and prefer to exercise influence through non-electoral channels. Therefore, it seems quite surprising, on the surface, that the vast majority of liberals in Israel (though not all of them) identify with the left and the peace camp.

This seeming contradiction is, in fact, a mirage. Israeli liberals have a definition of peace, and reasons for supporting it, which have everything to do with their desire to detach from the Orient, and little to do with any sympathy towards the Palestinians. In the next post in this series, I will look into their thinking on this issue and their position vis-à-vis the occupation.

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    1. Arlosoroff

      In my opinion the categories you use to define the left wing dont really fit.
      The idea of “detaching” from the orient is only a characterisation that you choose to colour their decision to “embracing” human rights of palestinians with.
      Your attempt at portraying liberals in israel as some sort ot orientalists removes any possibility of any israeli can ever be genuinely sympathetic to any arabs.

      how could you tell the difference to a liberal who was an orientalist, and one who isnt?

      Even is an israeli jewish lefty supports a two state solution to “keep israel jewish” (as the haaretz editorial headline ran a few days ago) that could still not be defined in terms of an orientalist/occident dichotomy.

      whats a liberal anyway?
      (and why would they care about poverty more then any other capitalist, they are not necessarily socialist.)

      Reply to Comment
    2. Kibbutznik

      ” Israeli liberals have a definition of peace, and reasons for supporting it, which have everything to do with their desire to detach from the Orient, and little to do with any sympathy towards the Palestinians. In the next post in this series, I will look into their thinking on this issue and their position vis-à-vis the occupation. ”
      Roi , I’m trying really hard to understand what you are trying to say but I’m more than a little lost .
      Arlosoroff is right , ” whats a liberal anyway? ”
      Who exactly are you talking about ?
      ” and are ever more self-segregated to the metropolitan areas of Tel Aviv and Haifa.” Huh ?
      Can you be more explicit , such as just which political party these liberals vote for ?
      Kadima , Avoda , Meretz ?
      Not Hadash according to what you say but many Hadash voters live in Tel Aviv and Haifa.
      I’m completely confused and await your next post in this series.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Noam

      While mentioning that jewish liberals stirr away from the orient, and therefore from Sepharadic jews, I felt the title ‘Ashkenazi’ jews was missing. Being a Jewish Israeli liberal is usually associated with being of Ashkenazi descent.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Shira

      I can’t say I find pro-Palestinian “progressives” preferable to liberal Zionists when it is the “Progressive Left” that acts as a megaphone for far Rightwing conservative and fascist 3rd world regimes surrounding Israel. In fact, it’s this Rightwing fascist ideology that forms the basis of most of the “Progressive Left’s” activism today. And that makes them de-facto Rightwingers.

      As the communist Maryam Namazie explains of today’s so-called “Progressive Left”…

      It “is an anti-colonial movement whose perspectives coincide with that of the ruling classes in the so-called Third World. This grouping is on the side of the ‘colonies’ no matter what goes on there. And their understanding of the ‘colonies’ is Eurocentric, patronising and even racist. In the world according to them, the people in these countries are one and the same with the regimes they are struggling against just as the ‘Muslim community’ here is one and the same with reactionary Islamic organisations, Sharia councils, and parasitical imams. Which is why at Stop the War Coalition demonstrations, they carry banners saying ‘We are all Hezbollah;’ at meetings they segregate men and women and urge unveiled women to veil out of ‘solidarity’ and ‘respect’.

      This type of politics denies universalism, sees rights as ‘western,’ justifies the suppression of rights, freedoms and equality under the guise of respect for other ‘cultures’ implying that people want to live the way they are forced to and imputing on innumerable people the most reactionary elements of culture and religion, which is that of the ruling class.

      In this type of politics, the oppressor is victim and any criticism racist…”

      Most of the Progressive Left today is neither Progressive or Left, but rather aligned with the 3rd world far Right.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Y.

      This analysis is pretty common in right-wing circles – and I could have written almost the same piece. Two minor points however:
      A. Israeli ‘liberals’ are not merely ignoring economic issues. They are actively on the neo-liberal side, regardless of any shallow rhetoric some may spout. Examine Ha’artez’s economic position, the involvement of said ‘liberals’ in the 90s reorganization of the Histadrot, the recent work migrants ‘debate’ etc. etc. Really, it should not be a big surprise to find a self-styled ‘cosmopolitan elite’ supports policies which lower its tax burden and ease movement across borders…
      B. ‘Liberals’ is really the wrong term here, both as a description of the phenomena and of the resulting ideology. You are describing a sociological class, much more than a group of people which merely have a similar ideology – indeed, this entire post series is in response to Avishai, who has quite different opinions from the majority ‘liberals’, and the main example uses Central Tel-Aviv – which has a not-insignificant non-‘liberal’ minority to its Left. As such, a good deal of the far Left as well has the same characteristics.
      To put it in other words, the ideology is quite often a result of selfish internal interests… This has lots of implications. For example, quite a few Israeli ‘liberals’ want to withdraw from the territories _because_ it contains some of the holiest sites of Judaism and because it may deal a blow to the NRPL types. etc. etc.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Ben Israel

      I ran across a good example of this “liberal” attitude in Golda Meir’s autobiography. When she was Israel’s Foreign Minister she made a trip to one of Africa’s emerging new nations. She told of how she visited some tribal ceremony and how she was inducted as an honorary member of this tribe. She told of her pride and excitement at participating in this tribal dance and ceremony.
      On the other hand, she would never willingly enter a synagogue, except for some political event, viewing traditional Judaism as “primitive”. This is in accord with the view that Israeli “liberals” want to detach themselves from “the Orient”, which includes traditionalist Jews, and to attach themselves to a cosmopolitan, globalist world.
      This reminds me of the joke about Mordechai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, whose “liberal” philosophy consisted of the idea that “the Jews (as liberals see it) are a divinely chosen people whose heavenly-mandated mission is to teach the world that there is no Deity and that Jews are no different from anyone else”.

      Reply to Comment
    7. jennifer

      I really appreciate this article. It’s important for people to understand these dynamics. One thought that occurred to me though, is that “liberals” in the United States also tend to be largely inactive when it comes to social justice, and are also a bit more focused on liberalism being an identity. The term “progressives” is often used to describe those Americans who actively pursue social justice in some way. The number of progressives in the US is unfortunately still far lower than the number of liberals.

      Reply to Comment
    8. richard Allen

      Ben Israel, I rarely agree with anything you have to say, but I am equal parts amused and chagrined to see myself so perfectly reflected in your final quote.

      Reply to Comment
    9. David

      This piece and the ad picture are so misleading it may be called a lie.
      The vast majority of ads and signs are in Hebrew. Street signs are try lingual in Tel Aviv. Other languages that can be seen in Tel are Russian and French. Since Israel is a democracy people can write and post what ever they like. To go off on some cultural rant is, well just left wing hysterics, but that is what 972 is all about.

      All you need to do is open your ears walking through Tel and you will hear many a Middle Eastern beat coming from cars and shops and apartment windows.

      Israel has a very complex Jewish Society which defies easy labeling and is for ever changing for obvious reasons. Most families are by now so mixed that this article is just plain wrong. Unless you must believe in it for other motives.

      Change happens in your head and family, and not in some Union or NGO.

      Reply to Comment