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Why aren’t we talking about culture?

The one thing I’m not seeing people relate to in all the postmortems is because it’s uncomfortable to talk about the cultural contexts of politics. But it’s necessary if we want to change direction, and not clear that it’s plausible. The PA response is that all these parties are “as different as Coke and Pepsi.” We may not agree. But instead of dismissing this as rhetoric, I think we need to ask ourselves serious questions about why they seem this way to them. Ben Gvir’s very smart ad as if quoting himself and then revealing that these were all Ben Gurion’s statements is pretty damn meaningful.

But the hard question is that of culture. Ideologies have purchase on cultural groups. And this won’t be addressed by electoral reform and organizing and finally producing effective campaigns. If we don’t attend to cultural factors, we will fail, every single time.

I want to be very careful here. I’m not essentializing race or ethnicity or culture. But there are reasons that so many Sephardim and Sephardi communities vote on the right. And there is a strong thread of chauvinism in Haredi culture and ideology (even if there are sources in their traditions that suggest this is not a necessary position of Haredi ideology).

There’s also a generational issue. Many young people are drawn to the far right because they offer a simple message and stoke their pride. Netanyahu and others campaigned on the rhetoric of Jewish pride, and even said things like, “with us, people will be able to walk down the street with their heads up again.” This is fundamentally dishonest. I haven’t noticed people walking around with their heads down over the past year. A manufactured grievance. Witness UTJ MK Yitzhak Pindrus’s statement to Ynet:

“We won’t treat you cruelly like you treated us. We’re civilized people, not animals like you. In the government you stole, you treated us, you walked all over us. You thought we were just rags. We’re human beings. We will treat you well, we won’t persecute you, we won’t harass you,. We’ll take care of our rights, but we won’t look for where we can harass you a little bit, where we can do you harm. We’re not like you.”

This aligns with MK Gafni’s speech against the bill to condition funding of their schools on offering math and science and English and civics: “We will continue to learn Torah!!!” Who ever suggested that anyone stop learning Torah? Because some people want Haredim to be more productive economically? Or serve in the army or do some form of national service? This will take some time away from learning, but it won’t stop it. It isn’t some attack on their yeshivot or stigmatizing the study of the Talmud at all. The only animosity to learning Torah is that these communities don’t participate in the society from which they demand funds in ways that would compromise or refuse to accommodate their culture. It mirrors the demagoguery in the US from the right that suggests that the anti-Christian left wants to close down churches. And that Christians are being persecuted.

But at this point, Pindrus isn’t simply lying, or stoking division. This belief is now central in Haredi culture. Not getting everything you want is persecution and trampling on their “rights.” Asking for their participation, again in ways that accommodate their sensibilities as much as possible is some sort of insult and disrespect?

I don’t know how we can address this. I think there will be more violent repression. That will bring more violent resistance. It’s hard for me to believe that many right-wing voters wouldn’t engage in violence under Occupation. Some already have and do, even though we are the privileged and powerful group. Ben Gvir himself and Smotrich have encouraged and justified right-wing violence. But instead of thinking that trying a different approach might stop this tide, they will call for doubling down. More violence will beget more violence will beget more violence and that will beget more violence. Where will it end? With harsh sanctions at some point? Will it reach overt and explicit genocidal violence? Will everyone in Jenin be deported? Or imprisoned and exploited for menial labor? The anti-Arab sentiments, which aren’t always expressed interpersonally, are currently central to the cultures of many Haredim and Mizrahim.

That’s where we are. And we don’t have answers. And if we don’t take seriously the cultural and sociological context, which will only grow with demographic trends, we will continue to swirl clockwise into the abyss.

About the Author
Ori Weisberg is a writer, editor, and translator. He holds a Ph.D. in Renaissance English Literature from the University of Michigan and has taught at academic institutions in the US and Israel. He lives in Jerusalem with his wife and three very attractive children.
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