Netanyahu is pitting Jews against Jews

While seeking normalisation of relations abroad, the Israeli PM is sowing ethnic tensions at home.

Israeli protesters hold signs and chant slogans during a demonstration against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu In Tel Aviv, Israel, Thursday, Aug. 27, 2020
Israeli protesters hold signs and chant slogans during a demonstration against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu In Tel Aviv on August 27, 2020 [File: AP/Sebastian Scheiner]

Everyone in Israel is talking about “normalisation” these days. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his followers are feting the normalisation of Israel’s ties with the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Political pundits are betting on the identity of the next Muslim state to normalise relations with the Jewish state – will it be Bahrain or Sudan, or will the Saudi flag be flying soon in the heart of Tel Aviv?

Netanyahu, with the generous help of his crony, US President Donald Trump, has indeed successfully bridged the formal divide between Israel and the rulers of several Gulf states.

However, even as he pontificates on the historic reconciliation between Israel and the Arab world (while deepening Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory), he is leaving an imprint on the annals of the Jewish people as an arch-divider, pitting Jews against Jews. His skills in sowing divisions are rivalling those of Trump.

In a bid to extricate himself from his corruption indictment and possible incarceration, Netanyahu has repeatedly depicted himself as a victim of persecution by the liberal left, which many dub “the Ashkenazi elites”, referring to Jews who hail from Europe and are traditionally viewed as more privileged than their brethren from Arab states, known as Mizrahi Jews.

Netanyahu and his followers portray the tens of thousands of protesters who mass on the doorstep of his official Jerusalem residence each week as a gang of “sourpusses” intent on unseating him and the political right. These are the same “white tribespeople” whom he accused in a loud whisper into the ear of the elderly Chief Sephardic Rabbi in 1997 of “forgetting what it means to be Jewish” given their penchant for Western, liberal values and left-wing politics.

Using his brash son Yair as his mouthpiece, Netanyahu has been quick to ride the wave of every public controversy de jour and leverage it into incitement against the “Ashkenazi elites” – the fact that his father was born in Warsaw and was a university professor in the United States, notwithstanding.

His latest use of these cynical tactics involves a feud between the eastern town of Beit She’an and the nearby gated kibbutz of Nir David over access to a section of the Hasi River that runs through the community.

Rather than proposing a solution to a festering decades-old socialeconomic sore that has pitted Mizrahi Jews living in cramped housing against the predominantly Ashkenazi kibbutzim endowed with land, Netanyahu, who owns a seaside villa in Caesarea, fanned the flames. His son Yair tweeted against the founders of the kibbutzim and the state, calling them “damned communists who stole half state lands at the expense of the development towns”, referring to the towns built for Mizrahi immigrants in the 1950s.

The Kibbutz Movement, long considered a bastion of left-wing politics in Israel, struck back, highlighting its pioneering role. “While children from the kibbutzim in the Galilee sit in shelters, the bum from Balfour thinks it’s appropriate to slander us,” it posted on Facebook, referring to the young unemployed Netanyahu who lives in the official prime minister’s residence on Jerusalem’s Balfour Street. “We are not going anywhere. If anyone should be moving it is you from Balfour.”

Netanyahu is by no means the first right-wing politician to harness what Israelis dub “the ethnic demon” in his bid for power. The late Menachem Begin, the first Likud leader to become prime minister, pitted residents of the “development towns” and poor urban neighbourhoods, most of them immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa, against kibbutz residents (“swimming pool owners”, as he called them), most of them of European origin.

However, if Begin was entitled to accuse the Ashkenazi-dominated Labor party and the political left of discriminating against the Mizrahi immigrants when they ruled the state from 1948 until his victory in 1977, Netanyahu heads a party that has ruled Israel almost without interruption for four decades. Despite decrying constantly Ashkenazi privilege, however, the Israeli prime minister has done next to nothing to uplift the Mizrahis.

It was on his watch and that of his Likud party that the rate of university graduates among third-generation Ashkenazi Jews remained 1.5 times higher than among their Mizrahi age cohort.

This gap first emerged among previous generations because Mizrahis were directed to vocational schools, based on their origin, regardless of their ability, rather than to academic schools with a higher potential to reach university and strengthen their social status. Among Ashkenazis the trend was reversed.

Over the years, this resulted in a higher rate of poverty and poor socioeconomic mobility within the Mizrahi community.

While Begin mobilised Mizrahis to mount a political struggle, Netanyahu is doing so to undermine the gatekeepers of Israel’s democracy – the attorney general, state prosecutor, police commissioner, media, human rights organisations and protesters against corruption at the top.

Several leading journalists and university lecturers have positioned themselves to the right of Netanyahu and his government and Knesset sycophants.

The most prominent and vocal is an analyst for Channel 13 television, Dr Avishay Ben Haim, who has become the flag bearer of what he calls “the second Israel“, a term synonymous with Mizrahi Jews.

On the eve of the start of Netanyahu’s corruption trial in May, Ben Haim declared, “I am being put on trial”, claiming that Netanyahu’s trial was a plot by “the first Israel” to negate the choice of “second Israel” voters for prime minister, and to humiliate the “most admired Jewish figure of the 21st century”.

In July, while he was reporting for the news bulletin from the demonstrations outside Netanyahu’s residence in Jerusalem, protesters identified and hurled insults at him. One or two of them called him “Moroccan scum”. Several prominent leaders of the demonstration argued that the individuals that attacked and insulted Ben Haim were right-wing provocateurs.

That did not stop Minister of Interior Aryeh Deri, leader of the conservative Shas party which excludes women and Ashkenazis from its ranks, from quickly weighing in.

“It doesn’t matter that Avishai Ben Haim has a PhD, was a lieutenant colonel in a military combat unit, is a respected journalist – for people in Israeli society he remains ‘Moroccan scum’ just because of his origins,” tweeted Deri. “We will no longer bow our heads at such remarks […] We are proud Moroccans!” declared the senior minister, who rose to prominence on the back of the “ethnic demon” and rallied supporters against what he claimed was his ethnically motivated conviction for corruption in the 1990s.

Despite Netanyahu and his allies’ attempts to portray the protests as Ashkenazi-only, the crowd that has been gathering in front of his residence for months now has been quite diverse. Among the devoted protesters are people from different origins, from tattooed young women to men wearing a kippa.

Criticism of Netanyahu also cuts across ethno-religious lines. A recent poll indicates that only 30 percent of Jews of the traditional denomination (who tend to be Mizrahi/Sephardi), and only 20 percent of the secular (who tend to be Ashkenazi) think that Netanyahu’s motives are the wellbeing of the state or ideology. The traditional majority (52 percent) and the absolute majority among the secular (68 percent) think that Netanyahu is mainly driven by his legal future. His most devoted constituents are members of both Ashkenazi and Sephardi ultra-orthodox communities.

“Thy destroyers and they that made thee waste shall go forth of thee,” (Isaiah 49:17) the prophet Isaiah warned the people of Israel. From thee, not from Dubai and not from Riyadh. Normalisation must begin at home.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.