Street art in Tel Aviv
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Street art in Tel Aviv
Last updated: June 28, 2015

Israel’s new culture war

Banner Icon Professor Josef Olmert thinks the battle for identity and culture might prove to be Israel's toughest challenge so far.

It is regrettable, though arguably true that the State of Israel is commonly associated in the minds of many, both inside and outside Israel, with war. Actual war that is. But nowadays, Israelis are also engaged in a new type of war, one which is not claiming lives (at least until now), but still one which has the potential to tear society apart, creating unbridgeable and lasting rifts at a time when much of the Middle East is in turmoil, with the distinct possibility that the flames will engulf also the Jewish State. 

Jewish State? Well, this is how many outside of Israel relate to it, but is this the definition that is universally accepted in Israel? The surprising answer is no. Welcome to Israel’s Culture War. 

This is a much­ talked about debate raging in full force after the last elections when contrary to polls, Prime Minister Netanyahu and his secular and religious partners won another round of Israeli elections. The results were a reflection of a phenomenon well established in Israeli society and politics, which somehow was ignored by pollsters as well as well as many in the Left Wing. Israelis vote along communal­-cultural lines. Jews from Arab and Muslim countries (Mizrachim), and Jews from the former Soviet Union and religious people vote for Likud and its partners. The socio­economic features of these people are very diversified­; the Mizrachim are mostly blue collar, working class, less educated. They are the poorer elements of society, mostly from the suburbs of the big cities and the peripheral towns in the South and North. They are largely traditional, many are strictly observant, and many more are falling into the category of religiosity, rather than pure orthodoxy. The religious element of this electoral coalition are mostly Ashkenazi Jews (from Europe and Anglo-Saxon countries), combining strong nationalism with religion, and many, particularly those in the settlements, have a strong messianic tendency. Alongside them is the Ultra­ Orthodox element, not self­ styled Zionists, but nationalistic nevertheless. Jews from the former Soviet Union are mostly secular, but they also are highly nationalistic. 

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This is a winning electoral coalition, because they are a majority of the voting Jewish population. A majority, which is growing in numbers due to very high birth rates of the religious community. Yet, while on the face of it this is a somewhat unnatural coalition, it is still a solid one, because there are two important elements which cement these groups together. First, they claim to be anti­-establishment. Second, they tend to think in terms of’ “Am Levadad Yishkon”: ­The Jews are always lonely among the nations, which means that they are not impressed with the rhetoric about the Judeo­-Christian world, and Israel being part of the Western world. Each element of this coalition came to that realization from a different point of departure, but they share this deep mistrust, if not outright hostility, towards the outside world.

However former Soviet Jews are slightly different, most of which regard themselves as bearers of Western values. But at the same time, they are also the product of decades of Soviet indoctrination, so ideas which are commonly connected with Right­ Wing politics about democracy and ethnic conflicts are very popular among them and consequently drive them to vote Right rather than Left. Avigdor Lieberman, but not only he, is a prominent spokesperson for many of them.

So, whom are they opposed to? The other side is called Left, but this is a somewhat misleading notion. There are among them nationalists, particularly in the Labor and Yesh Atid parties, socialists and free marketeers, secular as well as a few religious people, Zionists, Post ­Zionists and outright anti­-Zionists. While it is expected of Israeli Arabs, who are 15% of the electorate to be adherents of non­-Zionist ideology, to express reservations about the Jewish nature of Israel, when stated as part of the democratic discourse and without violation of the law of the land, the spread of such ideas among a growing number of Jews is a new phenomenon. There are a growing number of people in the Left, in the Labor Party, as well as in Meretz, who are questioning the Jewish character of Israel. 

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There are multiple issues on which they express this sentiment, and not only with regard to the Palestinian question, once regarded as the litmus test by which one distinguishes between Right and Left in Israel. It is, for example, over the question of the Law of Return, which grants automatic citizenship to Jews, while not preventing non-Jews from becoming citizens through a naturalization process, as in many other countries. It is also over the question of illegal work infiltrators, mostly from Africa, which many in the Left want to grant citizenship. It is the indifference shown by many in the Left towards the spreading anti­-Semitism in the world, it is the desire to radically change the Zionist narrative in the education system into a non­-Zionist one, and it is also about belittling the Holocaust, hence its impact on the current Israeli agenda. 

Interestingly enough, issues such as gay rights are NOT at the center of the debate, as well as other social issues, such as abortion rights. Overall though, many in the Left do show a general sense of disdain towards the Jewish religion, and in many cases, towards old, traditional rituals mostly adopted and followed by the Mizrachim. The debate is about IDENTITY; should Israel continue to adopt the nationalist Zionist ideology of the founding fathers and give a central role to the Jewish religion, or should Israel become something else, not exactly defined by many in the Left, but a state which will abandon most, if not all, of the characteristics which make it a unique state, dominated by its Jewishness? 

The paradox for many in the Left is, that while they reject the very notion of Jewish Nationalism, they politically support Palestinian Nationalism, and even more importantly, while they call upon Israel to adopt Western values, they ignore the built­-in opposition of the vast majority of Israeli Arabs towards these very same values. Tens of thousands of Leftists voted some months ago for the United Arab Party, in which there are Muslim MKs who support polygamy and espouse bigotry towards gay rights. For these people in the Jewish Left, the REAL issue is the identity and national one, not any other, which is exactly what the Culture War is all about. 

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They may be a small, though increasing group of people, but they are significant far above and beyond numbers. This is so, because they are influential in the media, academic and cultural establishment. In fact, they are much more the establishment than the ruling party and its satellites. Hence, we have the uniquely Israeli situation, whereby the Right Wing has been in power for most of the last four decades yet still feels disenfranchised, and therefore is anti-establishment. 

The Right has, at least one big advantage on their side: the number of voters. But a debate like the one discussed here is not going to be decided by numbers only. It has deep roots in Jewish and Israeli history and is much influenced by what seems to be a tidal anti-Jewish and anti-Israel wave abroad, mainly in Europe. This war may still prove to be the toughest of Israel’s wars. 

Any views expressed are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of Your Middle East

Josef Olmert
Dr. Josef Olmert is Adjunct Professor at the University of South Carolina. A native of Israel, he was formerly a professor of Middle Eastern Studies at Tel Aviv, Hebrew, and Bar-Ilan Universities. He has served in senior positions in the Israeli government. Dr. Olmert was a participant at the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991 and subsequent Israeli/Syrian peace talks.
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