Naftali Bennet has been nothing if not surprising in his choices of Knesset candidates. Recently, he tried to secure a spot for Eli Ohana, former Israeli soccer star and coach, and a traditional though not religious Jew whose positions can be classified as moderately right-wing. It was an obvious move to expand the party’s appeal outside the national religious sector.
The move met with an unbelievable torrent of anger and bemusement from said sector, including wondering what business a soccer star has in matters of government. His political and religious positions and practices came under withering attack. Today, Ohana – understandably – decided to call it quits.
The whole affair has left a bitter taste in the mouths of everyone, especially Mizrahi Jews, many of whom see Ohana as a folk hero and paragon of success. A few of my Mizrahi friends have even charged that the often vicious attacks on Ohana are racially based, and that the old prejudices of Religious Zionists – which usually involved trying to force Mizrahi Jews to become as “White European Ashkenazi” as possible religiously and culturally – were exposed by the whole sad story.
While race certainly played a part in this mess, there’s a much more important factor involved – class. Certainly when it comes to Religious Zionists, Modern Orthodox and elite secular Jewry, American and Israeli, being a member of the middle to upper middle class is just as important as religious and political convictions, sometimes even more important. One might say that many modern religious Jews worship God but live bourgeois culture and adapt halacha thereto. They read Western literature, look towards the middle class west for inspiration and care far more about what the New York Times says than the average man in the street.
To your average member of middle class Jewry, Jews who do not fit this mold are part of a metaphorical “flyover country” – a bunch of backward, naive barbarians with a primitive love for sports and “lower-class” (in their eyes) taste in music, food and culture. This was true when it came to German Jewish attitudes to Eastern European working class Jews, and that prejudice is now entrenched towards a large swath of Mizrahi Jewry who also don’t fit their preferred mold.
Ohana is a perfect example of this prejudice. There is no objective reason why Ohana would be a worse parliamentarian than many a neophyte academic from Yesh Atid. He is not “just” a soccer player but a former manager, a job that requires savvy in business, understanding people and complex legal negotiations. But because he succeeded through non-bourgeois means, that makes him a nothing, a bum.
For middle class Jewry, and especially “religious” middle class Jewry (pun intended), a person with a doctorate in nothing studies, no real world experience and a lousy non-tenure job is always preferable to a successful businessman who earned the adoration of tens of thousands. A middle class Jewish mother would still prefer an unsuccessful lawyer to a plumber or electrician.
This affair has important lessons for the political right in general, both in America and Israel. Minorities or at least culturally less powerful groups may share your conservative values, but they will be damned if they vote for people who don’t take the time to understand them and their culture in a serious, non-condescending manner. Any party which fails this lesson will learn it the hard way at the polling booth.