Israel’s left and right ‘stuck in segregationist, racist trap’
Many Jewish Israelis of Zionist left expected to vote for Arab Joint List, to stand against ‘racist nationalism’.
For over 20 years, Ori Goldberg has voted for the left-wing Zionist Meretz party in Israeli elections.
But during the last elections in September 2019, he decided to permanently switch and voted for the Arab Joint List – for the first time since he turned 18.
He reasoned there was no reason to remain loyal to Meretz as there was no longer any difference between the left and right in Israeli political discourse.
Both sides are “stuck in the basic, segregationist, racist trap”, Goldberg, a lecturer at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Herzliya, told Al Jazeera from the Tel Aviv suburb.
“In Jewish parties, for various reasons, I saw that their ideological differences was irrelevant because they’re completely mired in their desire to protect the status quo,” Goldberg said, adding the Joint List is the only party that imagines a future Israel based on “a civilian rather than a militaristic ethic”.
Some Israeli analysts have predicted a record number of Jewish Israelis, who have traditionally voted for left-wing Zionist Israeli parties such as Labor and Meretz, will switch and choose the Joint List on Monday.
According to Israeli polls, the Joint List – the third-largest party in the Knesset – is expected to win a record 14 -15 seats, improving its result in September’s election when it won 13 seats.
Dahlia Scheindlin, a political analyst who has consulted for the Joint List specifically looking at the Jewish vote, told Al Jazeera there is a rise in intention among Jewish Israelis to vote for the Joint List, which could result in a gain of an additional Knesset seat “and possibly more”.
The most common reason for the switch, Scheindlin said, is “they want to make a statement against the widespread sense of racism and nationalism in the right-wing leadership in the last 10 years”, especially after a year of election campaigning that was “so intensely about nationalistic rhetoric”.
Each round of Israeli elections has involved anti-Palestinian racism from candidates vying for right-wing votes.
In September last year, six days before the second round of elections, messages were sent out through an automated popup to anyone accessing the official Facebook page of the current prime minister and head of the Likud party Benjamin Netanyahu, warning against the formation of a “left-wing, secular, weak government that relies on Arabs who want to annihilate us all – women, children and men”.
The message added this was the reason why voters needed to vote for Likud to have “a right-wing policy of a Jewish state, security and a strong Israel”.
The message was referring to a partnership at the time between the Blue and White party led by former Israeli military chief Benny Gantz and the Joint List with the aim of removing Netanyahu.
However, in the upcoming round of elections, Gantz has taken the opposite approach, saying he will build a coalition only with a Jewish majority and not with the Joint List, as many Jewish Israelis do not accept any partnership with Palestinian citizens of Israel.
James North, an editor of news website Mondoweiss, noted in an article on Thursday “there is so much anti-Arab racism in the country that none of the major Jewish political parties will dare to form even a tacit alliance with the Joint List”.
For Monday’s election, Meretz joined a coalition with Labor and Gesher in order to reach the 3.25 percent vote threshold required to enter the Knesset, but for the first time, there is not a single Palestinian legislator placed high enough on the list to guarantee him or her a seat in the Knesset.
Issawi Fereig, a Palestinian Israeli who was part of the last two Knessets and “fought for Meretz’s survival in the last two elections by campaigning in Palestinian areas” according to North, was moved down to the eleventh spot to make room for Jewish legislators.
The second legislator on its list is Orly Levi Abekasis who originally entered Knesset as a member of the right-wing Yisrael Beitenu.
She had abstained on voting for the controversial “nation-state” law in 2018, which declared Israel “the nation state of the Jewish People,” further marginalising the 1.8 million Palestinian citizens of Israel.
Kahanism, the new normal
On January 28, US President Donald Trump presented his proposed Middle East plan, which, among other things, envisioned Israeli annexation of large swaths of the occupied West Bank.
It also proposed the so-called “Triangle Communities” – comprising 10 Palestinian towns in Israel – to possibly be transferred to a future state of Palestine.
According to Natasha Roth-Rowland, a PhD student in the US researching the far right in Israel, since Kahanism – an extreme ideology calling for a Jewish theocratic state – entered Israeli politics in the 1980s, it has dramatically shifted the country’s political discourse to the far right.
It is based on the teachings of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane who sought Jewish supremacy through the use of violence.
Talk of mass expulsion of Palestinians, annexation, and moves such as the nation-state law, which are ideas based on Kahanism and once completely outside of political discourse, have now been normalised in Israel, according to Roth-Rowland.
According to a study released by Israel’s Pew Research Center in 2016, nearly half of Jewish Israelis wanted to expel Palestinians while 79 percent believed Jews in Israel should get preferential treatment over Palestinians.
Journalist David Sheen, who has researched the Kahane movement, told Al Jazeera that Kahane had “tapped into a latent phenomenon that maybe, up until then, people didn’t speak about openly, they didn’t boast about it”.
“But when Kahane came into the Knesset, he destroyed that taboo. He made it OK to say so,” Sheen said.
“I find it very hard to believe that there is any other Western country that extensively claims to be a democracy that, when asked if the largest minority group should be ethnically cleansed, that half of them would agree to that.
“To me, that’s off the charts. It shows how deeply rooted these ideas are. It’s been this way for decades,” Sheen said.
The Joint List has launched campaigns in different languages in the ultra-Orthodox, Ethiopian and Russian communities as an attempt to build solidarity with other marginalised Israelis.
In ultra-Orthodox areas, signs in Yiddish were put up reading “Your vote against the enlistment decree”, drawing on the opposition to military service shared among Palestinians and the ultra-Orthodox.
Messages in Hebrew and Amharic reading “Your vote against police brutality” were put up in cities where many Ethiopian Israelis live, referring to the discriminatory treatment by the police that Ethiopian Israelis and Palestinians are regularly subjected to.
Scheindlin said the momentum of many Jews considering voting for the Joint List shows that this is a different kind of Israeli society “that moves away from the path of racist nationalism”.
Meanwhile, Goldberg said he was impressed that Ayman Odeh and Ahmed Tibi, leaders of the Joint List, had made their message inclusive.
“They were much more inviting towards people like me, Israeli Jews, who before then had considered them less easily palatable because they did not represent us. It was easier to join the team because they changed their message … it was about the entire country.”
While it still may be a niche phenomenon, Goldberg said he knows of quite a lot of Jewish Israelis from the Zionist left who will be voting for the Joint List this time.
“As Israel grows more afraid, more xenophobic, more segregationist, I find myself less and less able to identify with the voice of the strong. I find it to some extent offensive as a Jew that the Israeli version of Judaism is all about power,” Goldberg said.