The X-factor of the 2015 Israeli election – ethnicity

The 2015 elections are anything but what they were expected to be: they are certainly not boring, but rather vicious and more mean-spirited than any previous campaign; they are not about “the economy, stupid”, as many thought they should be. The campaign is the most politicized ever, based not only on the natural division between right and left, but one touching – cynically – on the very core of “who is a Zionist” and who is a patriot.

But underlying this campaign is an evasive and surprising X-factor: ethnicity. More precisely, the Sephardi-Ashkenazi (between Jews of European origin and those from Arab states) divide that might become the real tie-breaker in an otherwise close race. “It’s a very distorted reality,” says Prof. Yossi Yonah of the Zionist Union. “The Ashkenazi vote is considered universal, whereas the Sephardic vote is defined as ethnic. As if Ashkenazi is the norm.” Yet even Yonah, a life–long social activist, cannot explain the eruption of the ethnic motif, to the point where identity has become a key issue. Contrary to popular belief, or rather wishful-thinking, what Israeli media like to call the “ethnic demon” never really died natural death. It’s certainly not a demon, but a real issue with which Israeli society hates to deal, whether out of shame or a reluctance to cede Ashkenazi hegemony.

In a debate at Tel Aviv University last week, Mossi Raz, a candidate of the left-wing Meretz party, said that “voting patterns in Israel are still ethnicity motivated”. Raz should know. Himself of Sephardic origin, he often struggles with the (mistaken) Ashkenazi image of his party. Even Sephardi Israelis with left-wing views are hard pressed to overcome the ethnic obstacle that keeps them from voting for the liberal party.

A study published on the Al-Monitor web site two weeks ago proves beyond a doubt the truth of the sentiment that Ashkenazi Jews vote for parties with an Ashkenazi image. In 2008, Shaul Mofaz, a former military chief-of-staff and defense minister, wanted to replace Ehud Olmert as head of the Kadima party and as prime minister. Mofaz, born in Iran, had a hunch that his Sephardic roots might be an issue. The shocking results of an in-depth study he commissioned bore him out: while 50 percent of those who define themselves as Sephardic said they would vote for him, only four percent of those who define themselves as Ashkenazi said they would. When Amir Peretz, of Moroccan origin, became head of the Labor party, veteran Ashkenazi members left the party in protest. All politicians of Sephardic origin are trapped in this catch: if they hide their ethnic identity, they are blamed for hypocrisy; if they flaunt it, they are blamed for using an illegal weapon.

In 2015, something changed. Ethnic discourse is suddenly not only legitimate, but often a source of pride. Shas party leader Aryeh Deri now insists on using his long-forgotten middle name “Machluf”, emphasizing his Sephardic roots. Even more telling is the identity of the Shas campaigners: an impressive group of young Sephardic intellectuals, people who until recently despised Shas, re-inventing it as a spiritual and political home. They are the people behind the campaign slogan “transparent people” – the underprivileged for whom Shas will care, a universal message with ethnic undertones. They are also the people who realize that they and their ilk form a disturbing minority in Israeli academic and media positions.

Most of them hold left-leaning views, but found themselves justifying Netanyahu’s assault on the candidates and judges of the prestigious Israel Prize, claiming they represent far-left views and do not reflect the spectrum of Israeli society. The numbers support the claim: out of 57 recipients of the Israel Prize in Literature, only three were of Sephardic origin. Ophir Toubul, a renowned artist of Sephardic origin, now a top Shas campaigner, wrote on his Facebook page: “The Israeli left and its junta rewarding each other in a closed circle is so bad, that it makes me sometimes agree with a despicable man like Bibi (Netanyahu’s nickname).”

Just recently, a scandal rocked what seemed to be a smooth road to the success of the Jewish Home party and its leader, Naftali Bennett. Bennett, in search of diversity, offered a place on his list to an ex-soccer star, Eli Ohana. His party, based on the Ashkenazi foundations of the National Religious Movement, was up in arms, forcing Bennett to cave in. The Sephardic Ohana left after what will be remembered as the shortest political career in history. The aftershock is far from over. Polls indicate that Sephardic voters left the party in droves and returned to the Likud, a more natural home for Sephardic voters since Menachem Begin established it as such in 1977.

Yet the biggest 2015 change is the pro-active spirit. No longer just complaints of abuse and condescension by the Ashkenazi hegemony, but a real list of demands. A movement of Sephardic activists called ‘B’Mizrach” (“Hebrew for “in the East) has prepared a list of ten demands and published it as a petition, including reforms in education, housing, welfare, culture, representation, and more.

The x-factor is not a predictor of voting patterns. Those are embedded in a more complex set of considerations. Contrary to widespread assumptions, economic hardships are not necessarily part of them. In closing remarks at the debate on the elusive “tie–breaker” between the two major parties (Likud on the right and the Zionist Union on the center-left), Nissim Mizrachi, head of the sociology department at Tel Aviv University, told the following story: during the Cold War and prior to US presidential elections, homeless Americans were asked what they consider their country’s biggest problem. Surprisingly – or not – they all responded: “the Communists”, and the remedy they offered was “war”. The analogy to voting patterns in Israel is quite clear.

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