SHLOMO VAZANA and Moshe Karif choose to meet The Economist in the café of Jerusalem’s cinematheque, which has Hollywood posters on the walls and offers a magnificent view of the Old City. The setting is appropriately fashionable. Mr Vazana is a film director and teacher of film making; Mr Karif the managing director of a media company in Tel Aviv. They are by any standard successful young Israelis. But today they have come to explain how angry they still are about the way Israel has treated Jews like them, the Sephardim, whose parents came to Israel from the Arab world and not from Europe.
Mr Vazana’s parents emigrated from Morocco, Mr Karif’s from Tunisia and Iran. Both sons remember indignantly the welcome awaiting their parents in the promised land. Having grown up in an Arab milieu, attracted to Israel by traditional religious affinity rather than Zionist theories, they found a country whose European establishment showed little respect for their culture. The oriental Jews were expected to reinvent themselves as westernised Israelis, to “recover” from their presumed backwardness. At school, MrVazana says, there was only one role model: the blond with the Uzi submachinegun. The students were taught to demonise the Arabs. But when he came home from school herealised that his own mother looked like an Arab. Mr Karif has a similar memory. “My grandmother looked like a Palestinian,” he says. “So I asked her not to come to school to pick me up. This is the psychological trauma in Israel’s basement.”
Such is their continuing bitterness that Mr Vazana and Mr Karif are among the founders of a new political movement, Keshet (Rainbow), which promotes the interests of the Sephardim under the slogan “It’s my land too”. Their conversation burns with indignation: about the predominance of Ashkenazi officers in the highest ranks of the army; about the country’s Ashkenazi elite calling itself socialist but never sharing its wealth; about the bailing out of the (mainly Ashkenazi) kibbutzim when these collective farms fell on hard times, while nothing was done for the Sephardim in their dreary development towns; about the ease with which the new Russian arrivals establish themselves in better jobs andneighbourhoods.
Keshet is a small movement, still trying to decide whether to form a proper political party. What is remarkable is that, after 50 years of statehood, common education and a respectable rate of intermarriage, relations between Israelis of Sephardic and Ashkenazi origin continue to generate such powerful emotions. It is too much to speak of the Sephardim as a single ethnic group. Literally, Sephardim are Jews from Spain, but the term has come over time to be used to embrace those Jews—just under half Israel’s Jewish population—whose origins are in North Africa and the Middle East. But although there are big differences within this group, the split between Sephardim and Ashkenazim within Israel’s Jewish population has a profound political impact.
It is not the only split. For understandable reasons, Israel is often looked upon as half of an international conflict rather than as a complicated place in its own right. Internal cleavages that seem relevant to the conflict are exaggerated while others are overlooked. As a result, outsiders too often interpret the country’s politics as a one-dimensional confrontation between Labour and Likud in which the only thing that matters is territorial: what to do about the lands captured in those fateful six days of 1967. This is misleading. It is true that the territorial issue is the principal point of contention between the two parties. But for a proper grasp of what is going on, you have to add another dimension, one that takes account of the feelings of people like Mr Vazana and Mr Karif.
Far from being a monolith agonising over how much land to return to the Arabs, Israel has a surfeit of “normal” politics: that is to say, vigorous competition between a jumble of ethnic and social groups pursuing their own narrow interests. The abnormality is that this competition takes place within a party structure that happens to be organised around the territorial question.
From the outside, this may seem deplorable. Why should the stability of the Middle East depend on the domestic ups and downs of Israel’s innumerable little factions? But if things had not evolved this way, Israel’s domestic politics would in turn have become a hostage of relations with the Arabs. And since those relations have been unstable for half a century—including at least 30 years when the Arabs did not even recognise Israel’s right to exist—the Jewish state had to find some way to conduct ordinary politics, even if this required its domestic politics and foreign policy to become entangled perplexingly, and sometimes perversely, together.
That is what happened in the election of 1977, which brought Menachem Begin to power on the back of Sephardic votes and put Labour into the wilderness for the first time since the founding of the state. Since Begin’s one big idea was to fasten the West Bank perpetually to Israel, this election had calamitous consequences for the Palestinians (though it was Begin who went on to withdraw from the Sinai peninsula and make peace with Egypt). Like most of Israel’s elections, however, the election of 1977 was not fought on territorial issues but on the question of internal change. After nearly 30 years of single-party rule by Labour, Israel needed such change, and the Sephardim had to find some outlet for their needs. The pity is that it was Begin’s populism that won them over.
Shaking the kaleidoscope
Even allowing for this merging of Sephardic sentiment into the Greater Israeli programme of the Likud, Israeli politics may look simpler than it really is. There is nothing unfathomable about a system of two parties in which one, supported predominantly by disadvantaged Sephardim, is hawkish on foreign affairs while the other, supported predominantly by better-off Ashkenazim, is more dove-ish. But three additional complexities must be taken into account. First, Israel is riven by many more communal andsectoral tensions besides that between the Ashkenazim and Sephardim. Second, the mix of Israel’s population is changing rapidly. And, last, Israel’s formal political system, which has also recently changed, is remarkably odd.
A topical place to start considering Israel’s communal variety is with the Russians. At the beginning of this century Russia provided most of the first Zionist pioneers (among them, from Plonsk in 1906, one David Gruen, who later changed his name to Ben Gurion). With the advent of the Soviet Union the gates slammed shut, except briefly during the 1970s, when about 150,000 Russian Jews were allowed to emigrate to Israel. This group was quickly absorbed. But when the Soviet Union collapsed, a much larger wave of immigrants spilled into Israel: more than 700,000 since 1989, now amounting to more than 15% of the population (see chart 3). Like their predecessors, they were welcomed enthusiastically as reinforcements for Zionism. But they have also changed the face of Israel.
For one thing, the new Russian immigrants have already helped to determine the results of two general elections. In 1992 most of the newcomers voted against the incumbentLikud, helping to elect Yitzhak Rabin and opening the way towards the Oslo agreement. They did so principally for economic reasons. Many felt that, under Yitzhak Shamir, theLikud’s hawkish politics were leading to a confrontation with the United States that would jeopardise Israel’s economic prospects. However, Labour had reason to hope that the Russians might become permanent allies. They were, after all, Ashkenazic, well-educated and secular in outlook. But then something unexpected happened. Unlike its predecessors, this group of Russians declined to take Israel as they found it.
Instead, the Russians chose to create the country’s first successful ethnic party. Under Natan Sharansky, who had spent nine years in a Soviet jail after trying to emigrate toIsrael in the 1970s, Israel Ba’aliyah contested its first election in 1996 and won seven seats in the 120-member Knesset. This was all the more surprising because until their arrival these “Russian” Jews (who actually came from all 15 former Soviet republics) hardly constituted a group at all. Under Soviet communism, few had practised Judaism or developed strong feelings about Israel. Some are said not to be Jews. Most of them came in search of a better life, and some in search of a safer one: “It is easy to become a Zionist when you wake up one morning and find ‘Death to the Jews’ scrawled on the wall,” says Svetlana Berliant, an immigrant from Moldova.
Now that they are in Israel, however, the Russians have worked energetically to create a new feeling of togetherness, separate from that of the host society. They maintain close links with home, and have their own Russian-language media (including four daily newspapers and two radio stations) and cultural institutions (such as Gesher, a highly successful Russian theatre group that has taken Israel by storm). In time—and especially once their children move through school and army service—the Russians will no doubt blend into Israeli society. They may then spread their votes more evenly among the various parties. But in the meantime, they vote overwhelmingly for the new party created expressly to serve their interests.
So now the picture begins to look more complex. Israeli politics is not shaped only by the antagonism between Ashkenazim and Sephardim, which in turn is grafted on to a political system organised around the territorial issue. There is also an assertive minority of Russians with their own political party. And to this mix must be added two additional ingredients: the Haredi Jews and the Israeli Arabs. These groups, to make matters even more fraught, are not just semi-detached from the Israeli mainstream, as the Russians are, or resentful of it, like the disadvantaged Sephardim. In their different ways, they are actively hostile to Zionism.
In Brooklyn, Paris or London’s Stamford Hill, the Haredim are tolerated as a colourful minority, a harmless reminder of the life of Europe’s vanished shtetls. At Israel’s founding, the state’s political leaders looked upon them in much the same condescending way. The Haredim had long been among Zionism’s fiercest critics. But in the aftermath of the Holocaust, the new state’s founders were in no mood for a confrontation with them. Why should the energetic young Israel care if a small group of Jews wanted to dress and behave as if they were still in their medieval ghettos? In time, it was assumed, the Haredim would surrender to modernity and blend in with everybody else.
Restored to life
No calculation could have been more mistaken. Far from withering away, the Haredim have gone from strength to strength. Their flourishing communities are to be found throughout Israel, no longer only in traditional neighbourhoods such as Mea Sharim in Jerusalem. And such has been the growth in their numbers and power of organisationthat in the 1996 election the two Haredi parties (United Torah Judaism and Shas), plus the National Religious Party (the party of the religious Zionists), won a record 23 seats in the Knesset, not far short of the Likud’s 32 seats. The parliamentary strength of the Haredim is a thorn in the side of secular Israel. In the Knesset, the main interest of theHaredi parties is to capture public money to sustain their schools and yeshivot (religious study centres).
Just as the Russians’ Israel Ba’aliyah controls the absorption ministry, which looks after new immigrants, so the religious parties control the ministries of housing and the interior. But the power of the Haredim is especially resented. Because Haredi society is organised on the principle that men devote their lives to studying the Torah, more than half of the men are economically inactive. Haredi families produce large numbers of children, which means that many families are exempt from local taxes. At both national and municipal level, therefore, secular Israel finds itself subsidising—and defending—a community that refuses to serve in the army and spends much of its time denouncing secular values.
The conflict between the Haredim and secular Jews is at its sharpest in Jerusalem. The city’s Haredi population, like its Arab population, is growing twice as fast as that of secular Jews. Haredim still comprise only 27% of the city’s Jewish population, but they are well organised and play a decisive role in municipal affairs. There is a constant battle between the Haredim and other Jews for the city’s limited residential space. A survey by the Jerusalem Institute of Israel Studies show that 10% of the secular Jews who moved out of Jerusalem last year—some of them to the West Bank—gave relations with the Haredim as their reason.
By comparison with the behaviour of the Haredi parties, Israel’s Arabs are model citizens. Despite the fears of many Israeli Jews, they have not developed into a fifth column. Nor, despite their possession of full political rights, have they become an effective force in parliamentary politics. In the long run, however, they pose a difficult problem. Almost one in five Israelis is an Arab. This is a wholly distinct minority, with an entirely separate school system. They do not seek social integration with Jews, but are eager for acceptance as a national minority enjoying equal status. They do not publicly say, as many of the Haredim do, that the state is not legitimate. But—and this can sound much the same thing to Jewish ears—they do say that they will never achieve equality until Israel stops thinking of itself as a Jewish state.
The weakened rump
Sephardim, Haredim, Russians, Arabs. Who is left once you have subtracted all the Israelis to whom one or other of these hyphenated identities means so much? The remainder—in shorthand, the “secular mainstream”—consists of most of the Ashkenazim, together with many Sephardim who have ceased, or never began, to consider their oriental origins of particular political importance. The “mainstream” is not only numerous but also potentially powerful. As Moshe Lissak, a sociologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, points out, it tends to dominate Israel’s big firms, the legal system, the media and the universities. But because it is more of a rump than a group, it is less powerful than it seems.
For one thing, members of the mainstream are not all of one mind. This group is the main source of votes for the Labour Party and points further left. But there are plenty of non-hyphenated Israelis who support the Likud — not in this case because of any ethnic loyalties or resentments but simply because they approve of the Likud’s tougher foreign policy. The secular mainstream includes many Israelis who have settled in the occupied territories — often for reasons that have nothing at all to do with religion or ideology — or who are sympathetic to the settlers. Following Israel’s new fashion for single-issue politics, some of these groups have set up new political parties of their own.
Against this background, it is easier to see why Israeli politics cannot be described as a simple contest between left and right, between Greater Israelites and territorial compromisers, between religious and secular Jews, or between oriental Jews and westerners. Given the diversity of Israeli society, it is in some ways remarkable that the political system has managed to function at all. It has done so only by evolving into a baffling system of coalitions. And ever since 1977, when the country split almost evenly intoLikud and Labour blocks, the smaller parties in the centre have become the coalitions’ kingmakers.
First published in The Economist, 23.4.1998