Romney and Herzog: Are Demographics Destiny For the Israeli Left?

Following Israel’s parliamentary elections last month, a few interesting comparisons have been made to the most recent American presidential elections. In both cases the opposition party – Labor in Israel, the Republicans in the US – went into election day fully expecting to win. And in both cases that expectation wasn’t simply wishful thinking, it had polls to back them up. The venerable Gallup poll, America’s oldest regular presidential poll, showed Romney ahead of Obama going into election day, leading many top prognosticators and pundits to predict a GOP win. In Israel, every polling firm, save Geocartography, showed Herzog defeating Netanyahu by a comfortable margin.

In both cases, the opposition read into the polls a larger narrative of popular frustration with the incumbent whose scandals and alleged mishandling of the economy had badly damaged them and left them vulnerable. In both elections the opposition smelled blood. Yet in both instances, they were defeated – in fact, they didn’t even come close. Romney was trounced in the Electoral College 206 to Obama’s 332; Herzog lost by an equally decisive margin of 24 seats to Netanyahu’s 30.

In 2012 and then in 2015 the challengers were left grasping for an explanation for the shocking defeat. For both the GOP and Israeli Labor Party the loss was especially painful since it appeared to reinforce apparent long-term electoral problems. Pundits – particularly on the left – regurgitated with an almost bulimic regularity the fact that Republicans had lost the popular vote in 5 of the last 6 presidential elections. Labor has fared even worse; losing each and every one of the 6 national elections held after 1999.

It’s Demographics, Stupid

In the case of the GOP post-2012, many – on both sides of the aisle –concluded that the GOP’s lopsidedly poor performance with minorities have made defeat all but inevitable as the country shifts demographically. Demographics are destiny, it’s been argued, and the Republican Party must undergo radical changes or forever be the opposition party.

Although this theory has been debated – most notably by political scientists Sean Trende and Michael Barone – the logic behind it is simple enough. Over the past half a century, the GOP has lost the non-white vote in every presidential election. In 2012, it won a paltry 18% of the minority vote. Romney won 60% of the non-Hispanic white vote, yet lost the overall popular vote by a four-point margin, 47% to 51%. Given that the non-Hispanic white population has declined from 85% in 1960 to 80% in 1980 to a mere 62% in 2014, proponents of the “demographics as destiny” theory assert that the GOP will never – at least in its current form – be competitive again, except perhaps in low turnout midterm elections.

While the “demographics as destiny” theory is helpful in explaining the GOP’s lackluster performance nationally over the past 20 years, in the long run, American politics has a history of shifting ethnic political affiliations and changing electoral coalitions. In fact, cracks in the Democratic coalition evident in the past few years have led one of the earliest and loudest proponents of the demographics as destiny theory, John Judis, author of The Emerging Democratic Majority, to recant on his long-held beliefs and actually predict an emerging Republican advantage. But if the demographic destiny theory has only short-term validity in the American context, I’d argue that it’s longer lasting in Israeli politics.

The Emergent Likud Majority

The Israeli demographic shift has been in many ways the elephant in the room of Israeli political life. Inside of Israel, the proclivity of Sephardic Jews – Jews who immigrated to Israel from North Africa and the Middle East – to support rightwing parties generally and the Likud specifically has been something of a taboo subject, touching upon the still raw feelings of many regarding Israel’s Jewish ethnic divide and a lingering sense among many Sephardim of Ashkenazi elitism. Outside of Israel, few observers grasp the internal Jewish divisions beyond the secular/religious schism. And while the voting patterns of Jewish ethnic groups inside Israel aren’t nearly as polarized as American politics are, last month’s election reinforced the obvious centrality of both Sephardic and religious Jews in the Likud’s electoral coalition – and more broadly speaking, the Israeli right.

Given all this, Israel’s own demographic changes do not bode well for the left or the Labor Party in particular. In fact, Labor’s downfall since the 50’s and 60’s can at least in part be attributed to changes in the makeup of Israel’s population. When Israel was founded in 1948, Ashkenazim made up a whopping 80% of the Jewish population. Today, however, Ashkenazim are only 48% of Israeli Jews. That change has been reflected in an electoral environment that is far less favorable for the Israeli left. While Labor won all 8 of Israel’s elections prior to 1977, since 1977 it’s managed to win only 2 of the 13 national elections.

In the state’s early years, the left held a solid majority of the Knesset and Labor typically held about 30 seats more than Likud’s forerunner Herut – a stunning margin in the 120-member parliament. But waves of Sephardic immigration in the 1950’s and 60’s helped to diminish Labor’s dominance and in the dramatic 1977 election, Likud finally managed to dethrone Labor, inaugurating Israel’s first rightwing government.

By the 1980’s, high fertility rates amongst Sephardic and Orthodox Jews were already being identified by the Israeli left as a serious electoral hurdle that would become increasingly difficult to clear. Yet no shift was made towards the center in an attempt to realign the party with the country’s changing demographics – there was no need to, or so it seemed. Labor had been saved, Deus ex machine, by the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union and the flood of predominantly secular – and most Ashkenazi – Jews from behind the Iron Curtain to Israel.

That was the theory, at least. And in 1992, it seemed to hold true, as Soviet émigrés helped elect Yitzhak Rabin. But the marriage would be a short one. Much to the chagrin of the Labor Party, it became apparent during the 1990’s that the new wave of Soviet immigrants, while largely irreligious and Ashkenazi, was culturally distant from the country’s secular elite. Rather than simply amalgamate into the Israeli left, the new immigrants quickly formed their own parties, becoming in effect a third Israeli Jewish ethnic group. To the horror of those expecting demographic salvation, immigrants from the USSR quickly turned towards extremely hawkish political positions, reflected in the meteoric rise of Avigdor Lieberman’s secular yet staunchly nationalistic Yisrael Beitenu party. Labor’s great white hope had been a mirage.

2015: The Perfect Storm

And yet in spite of it all, Herzog and his supporters felt assured of victory last March. The scandals dogging the Prime Minister’s Office, mounting international pressure, an inability of Netanyahu’s government to bring down skyrocketing housing prices after 6 years in office, and a unified left-wing bloc following former Justice Minister Tzipi Livni’s alliance with Herzog seemed to form the perfect storm that would finally enable Labor to surmount its electoral handicaps. But in the end, it still came up short, despite being the party’s best showing since 1999.

Regrettably, but perhaps not surprisingly, following the stunning defeat, a wave of bitter, often epithet-laced public statements from Herzog’s supporters targeting Sephardim and the Orthodox have circulated in the media. The loss was especially stinging since for many of Herzog’s supporters it confirmed their deepest fear – they are no longer a majority of the country and time is not on their side. Worst of all, unlike in the United States, the electoral effects of demographic changes appear to be permanent. If they indeed are, the emergent Likud majority formed in the 1970’s will continue well into the future.

About the Author
David Rosenberg is a freelance writer and political commentator. He holds an MA in Israeli Politics and Society from Hebrew University. A California native now living in Israel, he also promotes joint Israeli-American educational ventures.