Rethinking the Israeli Left-Right Paradigm

The recent victory of the right-wing Likud Party in the Israeli elections has been decried by analysts as the end of the peace process with the Palestinians. Others have said it displays the death of a progressive movement in the Jewish state. There is much to criticize about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition partners. Many of them and their supporters are religious extremists who treat women and the LGBT community as second-class citizens. The Otzma Yehudit party is racist against Arabs. Netanyahu himself is under investigation for corruption charges, and would rather keep the status quo than make any necessary or helpful changes in Israeli society. But the media needs to be honest–the Israeli Left was never really as progressive as they believed from their rose-colored glasses. Nor was the Israeli Right truly as bad as the pundits have believed. The Left-Right paradigm in the West–between an increasingly xenophobic, ultra-right wing and an intersectional, revolutionary far-left wing–doesn’t apply to Israel.

In Israel, it was the left-wing Labor Party that began the settlement movement–today, much of the media portrays settlements as a product of right-wing governments. It was the left-wing Labor Party in Israel that marginalized–and continues to marginalize–Sephardic, Mizrahi, and Ethiopian Jewry. Many segments of the progressive movement in Israel were built on a vision of internalized self-hatred–the denial of the Eastern identity, location, and origins of the Jewish people (including Ashkenazi Jews). The first Zionists envisioned an Ashkenazi-dominated state that would become a “Vienna on the Mediterranean.” Jewish refugees from the Middle East & Africa were seen as “uncivilized” and relegated to the poorest margins of the country. The same fate awaited (albeit to a lesser degree) Jewish refugees from the Soviet Union in the late 20th Century. Arabs–whether Israeli citizens or Palestinians–were treated even more poorly. Much of this has faded, as younger generations of leftist voters shed the European vision for the country and became less discriminatory. Indeed, most Israelis today are of mixed heritage. Yet the Israeli left-wing still struggles to make inroads among non-Ashkenazi communities.

By contrast, the Israeli Right rose to power on the backs of a new Sephardic and Mizrahi class of empowered voters. Likud and its prime minister, Menachem Begin, came to power after years of liberal Labor Party governance that ignored dark-skinned Jews and their more religious/traditional community. Israel still hasn’t had a non-Ashkenazi prime minister–including Begin and Netanyahu. However, these two men both had solid support from these communities–which remembered how poorly they’d been treated under Arab rule, and viewed Ashkenazi leftist peace plans as dangerously naive. It should also not be forgotten that it was Begin’s right-wing Likud government that brought Soviet and Ethiopian Jews to Israel when many leftists scoffed at the idea. These communities have generally rewarded right-wing parties ever since. It was the Israeli Right that empowered those on the lowest rungs of Israeli society, at a time when the supposedly-progressive Israeli Left ignored or belittled them.

In Israel today, there is an increasingly-powerful segment of religious, right-wing factions that act similarly to regressive far-right parties in the West. But the rising younger generation of right-wingers in the country is not necessarily embracing conservative views on religion, LGBT rights, women’s rights, or other social issues. It has been traumatized by the failed, leftist-led approach to peace with a Palestinian population that is unwilling to lay down its arms. It has grown up with multiple wars in a Gaza free of occupation. It has grown up during the age of Intifada and terror despite an internationally-encouraged left-wing Israeli leadership that was willing to make many concessions for peace. The Israeli Left has failed to adjust to these realities in any meaningful way. It still calls for a return to the failed “peace processing” of the past. As such, a traumatized youth will shift to a security-oriented right-wing. Some leaders of the Labor Party have tried to adapt to these new realities, but generally have failed to impress and have instead split the Left.

This is not to say that there shouldn’t be a peace process; that the left-wing in Israel hasn’t become more progressive; or that some of the right-wing parties aren’t adopting a concerning approach towards religion and equality. But change in Israel can only come from accepting the truth. Just because the founding members of the country were socialists or refugees from persecution themselves doesn’t mean their own flaws (and there are many) should be forgotten. Just because one doesn’t agree with Netanyahu doesn’t mean that the Israeli Right hasn’t done much to lift up the country’s marginalized populations. Ultimately, the media’s failure to correctly predict & analyze Israeli politics stems from its Eurocentric/Western-centric interpretations of the definition of “right-wing” and “left-wing.”

About the Author
Dmitri Shufutinsky is a graduate of Arcadia University's Masters program in International Peace & Conflict Resolution. He is an ardent Zionist and a supporter of indigenous rights, autonomy, solidarity, and sovereignty. He currently lives in Philadelphia, USA.
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