Politics of diversity in Israel

Diversity is not just about representing the interests of small minority groups, it is about the health of the country as a whole and the attempt to build a strong shared and united society.

Meretz performs mock gay weddings outsided of Bayit Yehudi headquarters, January 12, 2015.  (photo credit: MERETZ)
Meretz performs mock gay weddings outsided of Bayit Yehudi headquarters, January 12, 2015.
(photo credit: MERETZ)
Last weekend Labor politician Shelly Yacimovich blasted Bayit Yehudi as “the white Jewish home.” She was referring to the contratemps in the national religious party over the decision of party chairman Naftali Bennett to invite soccer legend Eli Ohana to join the party list. (After two days of controversy he decided not to run with the party.) The controversy over Ohana has everything to do with Israel’s politics of diversity, that cements ethnic divisions in the country and reinforces discrimination.
Ohana’s story should have been quite simple. Growing up in a poverty-stricken neighborhood in Jerusalem, the son of immigrants from Morocco who themselves had suffered through living in Wadi Salib, a dumping ground for Mizrahi immigrants in the 1950s, he was seen as an Israeli success story. But when he was chosen by Bennett for the party’s list, loyalists were miffed.
Many felt Ohana didn’t represent them or the party; he had supported the 2005 Gaza disengagement and thus betrayed their worldview. Ayelet Shaked, No. 2 on the Bayit Yehudi list, was more circumspect: “Naftali wanted bring in a traditional, Sephardi person who had a difficult childhood and succeeded.” Shaked’s comments angered Shas, who called her views “backwards and racist.” A day later Ohana decided he wouldn’t run.
Some in Israel attribute this kind of controversy to “the ethnic demon.” This is the term many Israelis use any time discussion of the Sephardi-Ashkenazi divide in the country surfaces. Each time it does surface, such as after Amnon Levy’s Channel 10 TV series focusing on Mizrahi Jews in Israel, aired in 2013, there is an outpouring of angst about the issue. Haaretz writer Carlo Stranger claimed, after watching Mizrahi Jews on Levy’s TV series describe discrimination at the hands of the Labor party in the 1950s, that “the core values of liberal democracy have become associated with the so-called ‘white tribe’ of the secular Ashkenazi ‘elite.’” Strenger asked, “Should Ashkenazim once again atone, search their souls and apologize to the Mizrahim for what they have been and supposedly are still doing to them? ...Israel’s secular liberals must cease apologizing for fighting for a liberal democratic Israel. We are not oppressors, but a minority.”
In a sense Strenger, who defines himself as a “liberal” and a member of “my own Ashkenazi tribe” is employing the same mantra Bennett is: “stop apologizing.”
But when both the Left and the Right are saying “stop apologizing,” we must assume something is wrong.
Yacimovich described Bayit Yehudi as the “white” party. It is interesting how Jews in Israel have adopted the concept of whiteness to apply to the imagined community of the “Ashkenazi tribe.” Let’s analyze how this convoluted concept infects Israeli politics of diversity.
Carolina Landsmann, another Haaretz writer, mocked how Israeli parties try to encapsulate diversity: “They include a woman, a Mizrahi [or Jew of Middle Eastern origin], an Ethiopian, a disabled person, a religious Jew, a traditional Jew and a Russian on their tickets.”
She claimed that these parties are merely representing tokenism, because they don’t have real primaries that would likely show their true faces. She alleged that in many cases the ostensible diversity of some parties was a betrayal of values.
“True, they agree, [Likud MK Miri] Regev is a racist – but she’s a Moroccan racist. In other words, it’s true that this is a giant step forward for racism, but it’s also a small step forward for Mizrahim.”
For Landsmann, Strenger and many others, “exclusionary identities” are problematic. What is meant by this is that, for example, Shas is “exclusionary” in that it is an ethnic religious Mizrahi party. Oddly, however, when a party like Labor or Meretz had their top echelons entirely made up of Jews with European backgrounds, they were not “exclusionary” but rather liberal and European.
The same insult is directed at the Arab parties in Israel, i.e. they are narrow and “Arab.” This is particularly interesting because the United Arab List is incredibly diverse. In the second spot on the party’s list is a communist, while the top and third-place candidates are both secular. It has two powerful and outspoken women in its top seven, and a Jewish man. It has Christians and Druse. Ironically it is exactly the kind of diverse list Jewish liberals in Europe or the US would tend to support. But not in Israel.
What do we have in Israel? We have respected newspaper columnists condemning Russians for having “crime in their blood,” and people with names like “Tseela” or “Olga” being condemned in major newspapers for not having “Jewish names.” We have a politics based always on ethnic divisions, where well-known professors see nothing shameful in tweeting “huge Ashkenazi majority at demonstration,” without even bothering to explain how they can know who is “Ashkenazi” and “Mizrahi.” We have a political scene in which the most popular and “liberal” Israeli authors openly castigate Arabs and haredim (ultra-Orthodox) as a “demographic threat.”
President Reuven Rivlin described Israeli society as “sick” last October. He’s right. There is a sickness, and a lot of it is tied up with the country’s noxious ethnic politics. This year more women are projected to be members of the next Knesset than ever before, while at the same time it appears few if any Druse or Ethiopians will be represented. Many of those in the majority scoff at these “ethnic notions,” wondering, “Why should we need an Ethiopian?” That’s a good question. Why do we need Jewish or African-American members of Congress in the US? It’s easy to relax in Savyon or a bucolic kibbutz in the Negev and complain about those “uppity” ethnics who want representation. The concept that people should put their “Jewish” or “Israeli” identity over their “narrow ethnic identity” is nice, but meaningless when the Israeli identity has no room for others. The organization Makom, which is a project of the Jewish Agency and supplies educational materials for learning about Israel, claimed Israelis “vote for a party they believe will embody their Jewish values, their feeling of solidarity with Jews around the world and connection to the Jewish faith.” That would seem to ignore the 20 percent of Israeli citizens who are Arab, and is emblematic of the “Israeli” definition. For many, “Israeli” means “me and my tribe,” and often this weirdo concept of “white tribe.”
Let’s conclude by admitting diversity is not just about tokenism. Diversity of opinion is as important as diversity of skin color. Diversity of socio-economic origin is as important as diversity of religious observance.
Diversity is not just about representing the interests of small minority groups, it is about the health of the country as a whole and the attempt to build a strong shared and united society; rather than a balkanized, hate-filled and divided one. Israel has a long way to go on this road, unfortunately.
Follow the author @Sfrantzman.