More on the Israeli left

Thanks to Harry for linking to Ian Buruma’s Guardian piece on the current state of the Israeli left. I’ve been meaning to post on the topic for some time here, but was deterred– in part by the effort of having to describe the strange and tangled history of the left in Israel, in part because I haven’t lived there for almost three years (several lifetimes in Israeli politics) and in part because it’s just so damn depressing.

Buruma does a good job of explaining– as well as anyone can explain– how an elite of European origin (Ashkenazim) came to be identified with the left and how poor and working-class Israelis of Middle Eastern origin (Mizrachim) came to be identified with the right. Anyone interested in trying to understand what Israel is about should read it. (I object, however, to his blanket and unfair claim that the Mizrachim have “hated the Arabs.” And contrary to what he implies, the settlements mostly have been populated by Ashkenazim.)

During my time in Israel, many of Israel’s corporate and financial elite supported the “left-wing” Labor party; meanwhile, supporters of the “right-wing” Likud party sometimes sounded more socialist than the socialists on issues of workers’ rights and economic justice. The Meretz party, which is to the left of Labor, has stood up for social democratic principles, but many of its secular members seemed to be more interested in struggling against the religious parties than in challenging the power of the elites. And many Israeli leftists have a disturbing tendency to look down their noses at the supposedly uncouth and uneducated Mizrachim who traditionally support Likud and the religious party Shas. (While some Israeli Arabs support Labor and Meretz, most support Hadash– the tiny Communist party– and exclusively Arab parties.)

Only in Israel could a newspaper like Haaretz– with its Thatcherite economic positions– be considered left-wing because it also takes dovish and secular positions. (Fortunately not all of its writers follow that line: see, for example, the reporting by Hannah Kim.)

I sense that things have changed since I left at the end of 2000, largely as a result of Israel’s dire economic situation. On behalf of the Likud-led government, the former prime minister and current finance minister Binyamin Netanyahu is trying to cut benefits for the poorest Israelis as well as salaries and pensions for civil servants. The Israeli labor federation, the Histadrut, has reacted militantly to these government policies, carrying out a series of strikes and protests, and threatening more. The Histadrut’s leader, the Morrocan-born Amir Peretz, is the leader of a small political party called Am Echad, which– alone among Israeli parties– puts economic justice and workers’ rights at the top of its agenda.

Israel is in desperate need of a political realignment. But I doubt this is possible before a final settlement with the Palestinians. I hope that someday—when the struggle between Israel and Palestine is finally settled—Israeli politics will at last become more “normal,” allowing people who have disagreed on peace and security, but perhaps agree on most other things, to finally be on the same side.