The Political Right in Israel: Different Faces of Jewish Populism

Right-hand man: Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party appeals to ordinary Israelis’ deep-seated fears Right-hand man: Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party appeals to ordinary Israelis’ deep-seated fears

By Dani Filc
Routledge £75

Why do so many impoverished Israelis vote for the Right? Netanyahu’s policies of privatisation and empowerment of the private sector clearly seem to be against their interests. Yet they shout: “Long live Bibi and Israel”.

Dani Filc of Ben-Gurion University argues that this is a nuanced version of what has always existed in Israeli political life – an exclusion of specific cultural and ideological groups. Labour excluded the Sephardim, Israeli Arabs and the nationalist Right. Menachem Begin reacted by preaching that the people were the source of all truth and raged against “elites” and “kibbutz millionaires”. But, on attaining power, Likud took a similar, exclusionary line.Party membership became a means of identity for its adherents who remembered the bad old days under Labour.

Netanyahu has managed successfully to retain these symbols of populism – even as the number of the working poor has increased and the gap between skilled and unskilled workers has widened. (The Bank of Israel recently observed that 75 per cent of all new jobs in Israel are part-time.)

Such transitions to a neo-liberal economy and a contraction of the traditional industrial sector, combined with the breakdown of the Oslo peace process and the emergence of the suicide bomber, have created a sense of insecurity and a real challenge to cherished identities. “Melting-pot” Israel has given way to a plethora of separate identities – secular, ultra-Orthodox, Ethiopian, Sephardi and many others.

The civic republicanism of Zionism has been undermined. Parties have effectively abandoned, to a robust media, their role as mediators between people and government. “I consume, therefore I am” is now what motivates the average Israeli, it seems, rather than the urge to build a new society. A weakened Histadrut has been unable to articulate the problems, leaving the way open for radical right-wing parties such as Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu to capitalise on deep-seated fears.

Filc describes how Lieberman – who projects himself as both a Putin-like strongman and the oracle of the common man – appeals to those fears by arguing for the exclusion of different groups from the Israeli consensus, exemplified by the loyalty test for Israeli Arabs. The Supreme Court, he suggests, should be replaced by another body whose members are elected by politicians. Writers, intellectuals and thinkers, Lieberman argues, are subversive, and all leftists are potential traitors. The recent attacks on New Israel Fund president, Professor Naomi Chazan, demonstrate this impulse.

Filc’s book is both important and disturbing and goes a long way towards clarifying the direction Israel has taken since the killing of Yitzhak Rabin.

Jewish Chronicle 15 April 2010

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