How Israeli Democracy Can Still Win
Can we not speak about Bibi for a moment? OK, that’s a tough one. Israel’s veteran, next Prime Minster has become the very lodestar of everyone’s political identity. Hope of convicting him on corruption charges now dominates the center-left political ethos, despite the relative equanimity with which those same voters tolerated others suspected of malfeasance (Arik Sharon and Avigdor Lieberman). The right, meanwhile, eschews Netanyahu’s indictments as the conspiracy of some deep state elite, an act of “political violence” in the words of Avishai Ben Chaim, despite their own satisfaction with Ehud Olmert’s incarceration. The desire to see Bibi behind bars is an obsession that helped the left fight their adversaries to a draw over the course of four elections, and then drove them to humiliating defeat in a fifth, alongside the meteoric rise of an Israeli fascist party. Likud voters, meanwhile, can hardly be thrilled by the need to soil their eagerly awaited return to power with the stench of Kahanist racism. The Bibi-anti Bibi stalemate, thus, has been a lose-lose proposition for all concerned.
Netanyahu himself, of course, is but the most salient instance of a broader truth. Party politics is more a clash of identities than of policies, and when one’s very identity is at stake, every debate is an existential confrontation. Leftists favor compromise with the Palestinians? The right must be against. Rightists abhor Supreme Court overreach? The left must oppose judicial reform. It’s a struggle fueled, at its core, by ethnicity. Ben Chaim titled his best-selling polemic The Second Israel, a sociological construct largely coterminous — if not synonymous — with Jews of Mizrachi (Middle Eastern) background. His thesis pits them in an ongoing struggle with left-wing hegemony.
A cursory review of election results in Jewish communities based on ethnic composition provides empirical grounding for Ben Chaim’s description of voting patterns, though not his prescription for Israel’s future. No divine fiat has condemned Israel’s lower middle and working classes to far right nationalism. Look just beyond the partisan morass and a very different Israel emerges, a society where shared cultural roots bind people across ethnic and religious divides. 65% of votes cast in Beer Sheva during recent elections went to the Likud and its allies. A survey commissioned by the Hagar Association less than a year ago showed that 64% of Jews in Beer Sheva (and 72% of Arabs) are interested in shared cultural activities that bring Jews and Arabs together. No fluke here. It’s a finding borne out by subsequent events. Since we launched our Center for Shared Culture in the Negev (the Thaqafat initiative), every cultural activity we’ve organized to bring Jews and Arabs together has succeeded beyond our expectations. And as we plan our upcoming schedule of events, we’re working with artists of Mizrachi and Ashkenazi background, Arabs, residents of development towns, Bedouin villages and kibbutzim. Shared culture, it appears, subsists at a deeper level, a place where the rhetoric and grandstanding of partisan politics cannot reach. The soulful melodies of traditional Sephardic piyyutim, for instance – the liturgical poetry that adorns Judaism’s High Holiday liturgy – is directly related to the musical traditions of Moslem and Arab societies where they emerged. The roots of shared culture permeate Israeli society, and will remain there long after Ben Gvir and his racist clowns retreat to what Trotsky famously called the dustbin of history. If we look beyond our partisan preconceptions, the beginnings of Israel’s democratic renaissance are there in plain sight.