I received this note the day after the recent elections in Israel. -J.G.

Dear Jeff,

As you know, I am frequently blamed for being “pessimistic.” Indeed I am. I am on record stating that Bibi would win three days before the election. Nevertheless, even I did not expect this MAJOR victory. It is “our” liberal biased view that blinds us from looking coldly at how Israeli culture is moving away from our cherished liberal democratic values. In some respects, and given what is going on in the Middle East, this development is quite congruent with the neighborhood we are in.

Since the late 70s, with two brief exceptions (Rabin’s and Barak’s short terms as PMs), the Israeli political right has ruled the country, usually aided in its coalition governments by the religious, ultra-orthodox nationalistic and conservative parties. While this rule had many cultural influences, two directly affected the recent elections.

One is that Israeli governments have invested billions of Shekels in settlements. The Jewish population in these settlements grew, became very active and politically influential, and has been fighting — quite successfully — to protect and expand its expansionist and essentially conservative interests.

The other cultural influence has been that under powerful, conservative and sometimes orthodox religious Ministers of Education, the politically oriented national educational system turned slowly into supporting increasingly strong national and traditional religious educational values and systems. The politically orthodox and ultra-orthodox branches of Judaism enjoyed state support for their independent educational systems. These long-term investments yielded a very large part of the population that supports national, traditional, religious and expansionist values.

While public rhetoric has always been that Israel is both Jewish and democratic, in recent years the “Jewish” aspect (in its orthodox and ultra-orthodox versions) has become dominant.

Add to this the Sephardi/Ashkenasi rift in which Sephardi Jews tend to support traditional, more right wing political parties, and the frustration from, and fear of, what appears to be a never-ending conflict with Palestinians (remember the bloody Intifadas?), pepper in this concoction with the Iran, and voila, we now see the results.

The electoral magic that “Bibi” supposedly used was based on a crowd sympathetic to national religious themes and harping on primordial hatreds and fears (some real, some imaginary). “Bibi’s” victory was based on deep cultural structures cultivated over a long period, resonating with a significant portion of the population.

The next government will most probably be nationalistic, confrontational, clerical and less tolerant/liberal. You read my book on Theocratic Democracy. This IS the direction to where this country seems to be heading.

Hugs,

Nachman

11 thoughts on “The Cultural Basis of the Netanyahu Victory

  1. I share Ben-Yehuda’s pessimism, but not his analysis of the “cultural Basis” of Netanyahu’s victory. Of course settlers, religious orthodoxy and the Sephardi/Ashkenazy distinction have to do with this election results, but the main issue conveniently avoided is the fact that Israel’s main problem remains Zionism itself. This election result should not be too quickly analyzed as a hostile take over of forces external to the original Zionist idea: religion, Sephardic traditional voters, etc. Unfortunately, the main problem is that Zionism itself, the Ashkenazy anti-religious movement, carries within itself the nationalist, even nationalist-ethnocratic ethos; and this in turn is the true “cultural basis” making the present extreme-right results possible. Quite simply, the Israeli center-left, encompassing today the labor party, more or less agrees with Netanyahu about the danger of Arab voters; or of the need to dodge the two state solution. (Have you seen Herzog condemning Netanyahu on taking back his two state commitment, by the way? I haven’t, certainly not before election-day.) It may be that some form of Zionism – the form of Arendt and Buber, i.e, todays post-Zionism – could avoid the present results. But Ben Gurion’s non-religious, Ashkenazy Zionism, very unfortunately, is the true cultural basis of what we are seeing.

    1. I agree with Omri, and would state my view more strongly. To point to the ethnic/religious dimension of the vote is no explanation. It is simply to state the obvious, in other words to remain at the surface. Omri is right to point to the inescapable contradictions of Zionism itself. In my own post I have called attention to the role of the US and the symbolic importance of the US President, especially in regard to so-called “security.” There are many other factors that have to be called upon for an explanation. We need a sense of this historical moment in world affairs, which is everywhere lacking. We need to understand the tragic fate of the Arab Spring. It would take quite a while for such a full, rounded explanation to emerge from collective discussions, but we should not pretend to explain when we are merely describing.

      1. The idea of a democratic Jewish homeland had tensions built into it, but they did not necessarily lead to the aggressive racism of Netanyahu, as you, Eli, seem to assert. As Omri pointed out, there were currents in the Zionist movement before the state of Israel who tried to address the tensions, and there are ways that liberal Zionists and post Zionists now, working with the parties of the joint list, could begin to work toward a creative solution. I don’t know if they will, but the alternative is there.

        I agree with Andrew Arato that the results for the joint list is the ray of hope in the recent election, see his reply to Eli’s own recent post https://publicseminar.org/2015/03/the-israeli-disaster/#.VRB_f2aNXj There is a genuinely democratic Palestinian actor. now, one that many critics too quickly overlook. And please note, Obama’s tough response to Netanyahu may have consequences.

        1. from the responses to my post:

          As usual, Arato soils public discussion with ad hominem insults. As for Jeff: I never said Zionism leads to racism. Finally, as for the attempts to avoid the question of the relation of Obama to the election see this article from tonight’s Times, which shows how central Netanyahu’s carefully engineered relation to Obama is. Frankly, the Goldfarb/Arato duet is a little tiring by now. Rebukes From White House Risk Buoying Netanyahu

          By JODI RUDORENMARCH 24, 2015

          1. one more point: Is this new school sociology: gemeinschaft/gesellschaft as an analysis of Israel today? Surely the starting point of any analysis is the dominant role of the US in shaping Mideast politics since the thirties at least, and shaping israel. And surely any concrete analysis of the US will play close attention to the dynamics of the Presidency– charisma, leadership, etc. No one analyzes 1919 without talking about Wilson. no one analyzes World War II without talking about FDR. No one can talk meaningfully about ISrael without talking about the US and its President. These are the ABCs of a meaningful sociological analysis. Not Gemeinschaft.

  2. Just very quickly, as I’m short in time.

    a) there is
    indeed a cultural undercurrent which is absolutely decisive in Israel,
    and I don’t think that the problem resides in Zionism, except if you
    accept its right wing definition. Here’s a lengthy analysis I wrote for
    the special issue of Haaretz’s peace conference last year: http://www.haaretz.com/news/diplomacy-defense/israel-peace-conference/1.601122

    b) I think that most people abroad simply underestimate how afraid Israelis are. Two links to analyses I wrote elsewhere: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/carlo-strenger/israelis-chose-security-over-democracy_b_6908410.html and http://www.huffingtonpost.com/carlo-strenger/netanyahu-owes-a-hearty-t_b_6711684.html

    And
    I haven’t even started talking about the ethnic problems
    (Ashkenazy-Sephardic tensions), without which nothing in Israel can be
    understood…

    Depressing times indeed

    1. You say

      “I think that most people abroad simply underestimate how afraid Israelis are” , you listed in your article http://www.huffingtonpost.com/. things that the Israeli are afraid of and you tried to justify this fear. Israel the strongest country in the region, Israel that has army which is equipped with the most sophisticated weapons including nuclear, add to that being supported blindly by a super power .
      I think these times are the best times in Israel life.The Arab countries are being destroyed be internal fighting. The Syrian Army and Hezbollah are fighting a war on multiple front and are worn out. The Iraqi army is fragmented and can not keep peace in the country and Egypt is fighting a war in Sinai and now in Yemen. These wars and fighting will continue for decades and Israel can enjoy long period of peace.
      So what are they afraid of? ISIS? a group that is fighting in several countries and being attacked by the super powers? Hamas? Hamas fired few rockets and in return Israel demolished half of Gaza and killed thousand of people.
      Fear is a strategy for Israel and not a reality. Since its creation around six decades ago, Israel uses fear to unite the Jewish population and gain the sympathy and support of the Jews around the World.Fear of the Arab armies, fear of the Palestinian fighters, fear of Hamas, fear of radical Islam fear of Iran and now fear of votes of the Palestinian citizens of Israel.
      There are justified and unjustified fears.
      The fear that we the Palestinians citizens of Israel have is justified. We fear that our existence in our land is temporary as Lieberman indicated several times.We see the signs every where and in every government policy.
      The Israelis do not have a monopoly on fear as you know.

  3. In my reply to Nachman’s email I agreed with him that the results of the election in Israel were indeed very depressing. On this, he, Omri Boehm, Carlo Strenger and I are in agreement. But behind this agreement are different political judgments and commitments. Are the election results a consequence of the Zionism, a logical outcome of the very idea of a progressive democratic and Jewish polity in Palestine, or are they a perversion of Zionist ideals? On this Omri, Nachman and Carlo do not agree, while I find myself torn: believing that the tension between a Jewish homeland and a democratic state is not necessarily insurmountable, but knowing that this election stands as evidence that it has become so.

    While polities can and do deal with such tensions, what Iddo Tavory and I would summarize as a manifestation of the social condition, in this case, with this election, there is strong evidence suggesting that this tension is more and more being addressed through bigotry and state repression, using military force to enforce occupation, tellingly described in David Shulman’s recent article in the New York Review of Books http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2015/mar/21/israel-elections-ugly-truth/?utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=NYR+Beckett+Gibson+Israel&utm_content=NYR+Beckett+Gibson+Israel+CID_acf2784a3b4e54b0d2b952d7db7a08a4&utm_source=Email+marketing+software&utm_term=Israel+The+Stark+Truth

    Nonetheless, Ben Yehuda’s piece gives an account of the sociological conditions leading to this latest turn, just as it seemed that a different result seemed likely, coupled with the very promising development of a joint list of Palestinians with Israeli citizenship.

  4. I generally agree with Ben Yehuda, but would like to add three points.

    1. As more and more voices surface now argue: the victory of the right wasn’t that much of a victory. Netanyhau took a lot of mandates from other rightist parties, not from the center or the left. What was is what is, apart of the sad fact that racism and hatred are more explicit and more legitimate (though the most racist party didn’t enter: Yachad failed the Election threshold by the fraction, but it failed it). So that one point, nothing dramatic changed in counting heads, but the meanings attached to those heads became ever more concerned with hatred and racism. both internal within the Jewish population, and even more so concerning the Arabs.

    2. The second point I would make is that what Nachman calls cultural aspects I would call political (but that is, of course, quite understandable accounting for our different disciplines). His cultural reading is Gramscian almost inside out. And I generally agree with it. But if the analysis is Gramscian, we should also mobilize Gramsci’s prescription, which is participating in a slow, gradual, and counter hegemonic war of trenches (which should not really be a war, only a political campaign) to reclaim the commonsense and restructure alliances, values, interests, and expectations. Maybe thus the politics of identities will be substituted by real and reasonable democracy. The government can be right or left, as long as the regime and the political culture will be legitimate and not racist and hating.

    3. The third point is that internal struggle will not be enough. The US
    and Europe (along with the Jewish communities) should stop talking
    and start acting. When Israel will start to feel that it crosses the
    lines of what is morally acceptable and will start paying in real
    money for the occupation, Israelis will not be able to turn a blind
    eye to the results of the so called democratic elections: elections
    in which only we Israelis participate and decide the future of
    Palestinians and of the Palestinian polity. Real pressure might do
    the job. But then again, this call will always be mobilized by
    rightist hate speech to indicate that we leftists are nothing but
    traitors…

  5. From where I sit there are two important claims here that I could not undersign. The first is where Nachman says: “The next government will most probably be nationalistic, confrontational, clerical and less tolerant/liberal.” Not the first clause, but the second, namely “less tolerant/liberal.” Less tolerant or liberal than what, I would ask? Than the government that Netanyahu dissolved? Or than the one he could have built without calling elections? If we mean the first, then there *might* be some truth to this–but is Kahlon “less liberal” than Livni or Lapid, really? But in any case that government was gone. The only honest comparison to make after these elections, to my estimation is this one: what are the comparative losses or gains (for those within Israel and those outside it who are profoundly troubled by, as Nachman puts it, “how Israeli culture is moving away from our cherished liberal democratic values”) in seeing the government that will come to be from this election vis-a-vis the government that Netanyahu could have installed without elections.

    If we take this view of things, then I think we see that Nachman is mistaken when he, like many others, describes this election as “this MAJOR victory” for Netanyahu. Here’s the “cold blooded calculation” as I see it. When he decided to kick Livni and Lapid out of government, Netanyahu could have immediately constructed a government that consists more or less exactly of the coalition he is likely to build out of this election. “More or less exactly” because it would not have included Kahlon’s “Kulanu” party, which at least brands itself as a “center of the center” and thus more or less exactly in the territory that Livni/Herzog were staking out together with Yair Lapid’s “Yesh Atid,” and thus cannot but complicate life for Netanyahu (unless Kahlon governs entirely different from his campaign). So, basically, Netanyahu has swapped a 61-seat majority composed of five parties, all of which his own or a party to his ideological right for a 67-seat majority composed of six parties, including Kulanu, which at least reports itself to be pursuing policies not easily distinguished from those Lapid promised to pursue, except for being *more* economically populist. How is this a “victory” let alone a major one for Netanyahu? How much more “freedom of movement” will his government have, now that he has five partners instead of four, and there are more differences rather than less among those “partners?”

    For these reasons, I have a very hard time believing that the world is faced with a “less tolerant/liberal” government than it would have had had these elections not occurred. The fact that Netanyahu called these elections–even though they did not mean his political demise as many understandably wished–has *not* made matters any worse. The results might not be positive in any sense, but for this reason we ought not to consider them as a “major victory” for the anti-democratic camp.

    Quite aside from election analysis, this conversation has raised the spectre of Zionism as such. “Can there truly be a Jewish, democratic state?” is a very fair question in my mind. But it is not as though even a 10-seat swing toward Herzog/Livni would have done anything to address that question.

  6. I generally agree with Ben Yehuda, but would like to add three points.

    1.
    As more and more voices surface now argue: the victory of the right
    wasn’t that much of a victory. Netanyhau took a lot of mandates from
    other rightist parties, not from the center or the left. What was is
    what is, apart of the sad fact that racism and hatred are more explicit
    and more legitimate (though the most racist party didn’t enter: Yachad
    failed the Election threshold by the fraction, but it failed it). So
    that one point, nothing dramatic changed in counting heads, but the
    meanings attached to those heads became ever more concerned with hatred
    and racism. both internal within the Jewish population, and even more so
    concerning the Arabs.

    2. The second point I would make is that
    what Nachman calls cultural aspects I would call political (but that is,
    of course, quite understandable accounting for our different
    disciplines). His cultural reading is Gramscian almost inside out. And I
    generally agree with it. But if the analysis is Gramscian, we should
    also mobilize Gramsci’s prescription, which is participating in a slow,
    gradual, and counter hegemonic war of trenches (which should not really
    be a war, only a political campaign) to reclaim the commonsense and
    restructure alliances, values, interests, and expectations. Maybe thus
    the politics of identities will be substituted by real and reasonable
    democracy. The government can be right or left, as long as the regime
    and the political culture will be legitimate and not racist and hating.

    3. The third point is that internal struggle will not be enough. The US
    and Europe (along with the Jewish communities) should stop talking
    and start acting. When Israel will start to feel that it crosses the
    lines of what is morally acceptable and will start paying in real
    money for the occupation, Israelis will not be able to turn a blind
    eye to the results of the so called democratic elections: elections
    in which only we Israelis participate and decide the future of
    Palestinians and of the Palestinian polity. Real pressure might do
    the job. But then again, this call will always be mobilized by
    rightist hate speech to indicate that we leftists are nothing but
    traitors…

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