Middle Israel: Voters shoved entire political system into the bag of cats

Well, Israel’s 22nd general election signaled the beginning of a hesitant but promising retreat from this politics of “me before we.”

AN ISRAELI TRIBE is usually some sort of a combination between genealogy and ideology. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
AN ISRAELI TRIBE is usually some sort of a combination between genealogy and ideology.
You end on a high note,” explained once a psychology student who researched the way people prioritize good news and bad news, noting that listeners prefer the bad news first and tellers the other way around, because they hope to soften the bad news’ effect.
Middle Israelis faced no such dilemma following last month’s election, because its bad news – no matter one’s political stripes – was evident from the moment exit polls showed the voters had just shoved the entire political system into the bag of cats where it is currently trapped.
Where the legal process that this week accelerated is headed, and what it will do to the political process – remain to be seen. What does not remain to be seen is this poll’s happier news, which is that Israeli politics’ worst disease – sectarianism – is embattled, and possibly on the retreat.
Before we detail this trend’s three engines, a word about political sectarianism in Israel, a phenomenon that most of this newspaper’s readers don’t fully understand, because in the Anglophone countries where they come from it is pretty much inconceivable.
SECTARIANISM IS about placing tribe above nation.
Israeli politics’ definition of a tribe is tricky. In his book The Tribes of the State of Israel (Dvir, 2017), political thinker and former education minister Amnon Rubinstein broke Israeli society down to 14 “tribes,” ranging from ultra-Orthodox Jews and messianic settlers to Muslim, Christian, Druze and Bedouin Arabs.
Critics noted that not all of these groups are biological, and therefore cannot be called tribes. That’s technically true, as is also the fact that not all of them field their own political parties, and that an Israeli tribe is usually some sort of a combination between genealogy and ideology.
Even so, what matters to us is that five such groups – Arabs, settlers, Russian-speakers, ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazim and ultra-Orthodox non-Ashkenazim – did form parties, and that over the past quarter of a century those parties populated between a quarter and one third of each Knesset.
None of these invented Israeli politics’ culture of tribalism. Instead, its origins hark back to the British era, when budgets, jobs, land allocations and immigration permits were issued by British officials and handed out by Jewish parties.
The result was party-based distribution of resources. That is why kibbutzim which were affiliated with the ruling establishment got more and better farmlands. That is also why political parties built neighborhoods, such as Shikun Mapam, along what now is Tel Aviv’s Aluf Sadeh Street, which housed members of the socialist party that stood to the Labor Party’s left, and nearby Yad Eliyahu’s Shikun Hapoel Hamizrachi, where the National Religious Party created housing for its own voters.
That is also why much of our spectator sports is based on political associations: Hapoel was formed by the Histadrut labor federation; Beitar was formed by the Revisionists, and remains identified with the Likud to this day; and Elitzur was formed by the same modern-Orthodox politicians who established a sectarian university (Bar-Ilan), housing company (Mashav) and bank (Mizrahi), a smaller version of Labor-affiliated Bank Hapoalim.
In short, all this is as if there would be, say, a neighborhood named the Sydney Liberals’ Estate, a London bank called Tories’ Ltd., or a basketball team called the Cleveland Republicans.
Israel’s main parties have mostly abandoned this sectarian conduct, but their habits were picked up by the five groups listed above, whose entire presence in politics has not been about leading the country, but about looking after the narrow needs of their narrow constituencies.
That is why a Shas lawmaker’s aim is not to lower the size of all classrooms in Israel, but to add another school in his party’s El Hama’ayan network. That is why a National Union’s lawmaker’s most urgent aim is not Tel Aviv’s subway, but the missing lane in the access road to his cousin’s West Bank settlement. That is why a United Torah Judaism’s legislator’s focus is not how to make housing cheaper for all Israelis, but how to build a neighborhood exclusively for his rabbi’s followers. And that is why a Balad politician’s most urgent aim is not to add hospital beds throughout the country, but to spite the Jewish majority, at best with inflammatory sloganeering, at worst by assisting jailed terrorists.
Well, Israel’s 22nd general election signaled the beginning of a hesitant but promising retreat from this politics of “me before we.”
THE FIRST to realize sectarianism’s futility was Naftali Bennett.
The nominally Orthodox politician who hired a lesbian press secretary and, unlike the rabbis around him, shakes women’s hands, sought all along a formula with which to break loose of the sectarian bind. Initially he did this by bringing secular politicians to the Orthodox Bayit Yehudi Party. More recently he tried to establish a secular-religious party, and now seems intent on restoring that effort.
Meanwhile, at the political spectrum’s opposite end, Joint List leader Ayman Odeh broke Israeli-Arab politicians’ unwritten code, and recommended a candidate for the premiership, in addition to vowing to fight for general issues that affect all Israelis, from raising National Insurance wages for the elderly to building more battered women’s shelters.
Finally, Avigdor Liberman rearranged his agenda, previously dominated by the Russian-speaking electorate’s presumed hawkishness, and now inspired by the Israeli mainstream’s quest for change in religion-state relations.
Of the three’s paths, the one ahead of Odeh is the longest, but the principle applies: the sector’s young want less sectarianism.
Obviously, what we have just seen is no panacea, whether in terms of this threesome’s motivations or in terms of their willingness to truly reprogram agendas. Even so, each of them detected among his voters a growing impatience with life on power’s outer rim. No, that’s not the end of the sectarian past. It is, however, the beginning of its aftermath.
The writer’s best-selling Mitz’ad Ha’ivelet Hayehudi (The Jewish March of Folly, Yediot Sfarim, 2019) is an interpretation of the Jewish people’s political history.