December 22, 2020
Supporters of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rally outside his Jerusalem residence on Aug. 20, 2020. (Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Liberal American Jews are generally confused when it comes to Israelis. On the one hand, they claim to have empathy and support for Jews of color. But in order to inflate the number of those who fit that fashionable category, which offers an opportunity for post-Black Lives Matter virtue-signaling about racial issues, they must conflate Mizrahi Jews who trace their origins to countries in the Muslim world with black or Hispanic Jews into one catch-all category. But while concern about treating all members of the Jewish community fairly is well-founded, the condescension implied in the effort only increases the contempt with which most of the Mizrahi world views this mindset.
This is amply illustrated by the latest attempt by The New York Times to explain to its uncomprehending left-wing readership why certain populations don't vote as they think they should. So in an effort to elucidate the stubborn refusal of red-state Trump voters to vote in a manner that the chattering classes think is in their interests (i.e., for liberal Democrats who promise more social justice and entitlements), the Times has turned to Israel for an explanation. Jerusalem bureau chief David Halbfinger took a deep dive into the question as to why Mizrahi Israelis vote for the right-wing parties and support Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Just as American liberals are frustrated by the failure of their appeals to white working-class voters, the same is true of Israel's left-wing parties. The Israeli left offers a Mizrahi population that is more likely to be disadvantaged the sort of socialist benefits that ought to entice them, as well as a more universalist view of human rights that promise more inclusion that are instead viewed by this segment of the population as not only undesirable but a threat to their community and the nation.
Halbfinger finds his explanation in the work of Israeli sociologist Nissim Mizrachi, who came to his attention as a result of a lengthy interview published in Haaretz in January. In it, Mizrachi (who, as his name indicates, is himself a product of an upbringing in a poor Mizrahi Jerusalem neighborhood with a mother who had immigrated from Iraq) tried to tell the readers of the left-wing newspaper why Mizrahim were solidly behind Netanyahu and the right. Much like the 2004 book What's the Matter With Kansas? in which journalist Thomas Frank sought a reason for that state's poor farmers' loyal support for Republicans, the answer is not in economics but values.
According to Mizrachi, values and identity — and the security issues related to them in the Jewish state — all make it nearly impossible for the left to make progress with a demographic group that now forms the majority of Jewish Israelis. It's not that, as American liberals complain, people vote against their interests or that they are too backward to understand or appreciate liberal values. On the contrary, Mizrahim view the liberal vision of the Israeli left — in which the Jewish nature of the state is downgraded or shunted aside as being less important than a belief in universalism and democracy — with horror. As Mizrahi has written, Mizrahim came to Israel to be in a Jewish state where their rights and security would be protected. They don't view themselves as an oppressed minority group or desire "inclusion." They just want Israel to be a Jewish state whose security is defended without compromise. Hence comes their natural support for Netanyahu, Likud and other right-wing parties — just as they supported Menachem Begin in the past — and their utter disdain for the Israeli left, even if it seeks to portray itself as the champion of the oppressed.
To American liberals, that sounds vaguely familiar in that they see the concerns of Trump voters about the rewriting of American history, border security, the loss of manufacturing jobs abroad and a desire to put the interests of "America First" as the product of a similarly reactionary impulse.
The parallels between the two sets of conservative voting groups make some sense because both American conservatives and Israeli right-wingers understand that liberal elites in the government, the media, the arts and academia look down their noses at them and distort public discourse with slanted accounts of the issues designed to support liberal schemes and candidates. The American left's contempt for conservatives and their values was famously summarized by President Barack Obama's dismissive quote in which he depicted working-class whites thusly: "They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren't like them — as a way to explain their frustrations."
In the case of Israeli right-wingers, the "people who aren't like them" are Palestinians. Putting it in this context makes Mizrahim appear not merely misguided, but as bigots who hate Arabs due to their tribal loyalties and antediluvian religious beliefs. Indeed, many on the Israeli left have criticized Nissim Mizrachi's attempts to portray Mizrahi culture positively and worthy of respect by claiming that is mere right-wing bigotry.
But what is completely missing from Halbfinger's efforts to explain Mizrahi attitudes to befuddled Ashkenazi liberals is that their view of Arabs is rooted in their historic experience of being a powerless and despised Jewish dhimmi ("second-class") minority in Muslim countries. The notion of their lives and rights of Jews being threatened by Israel's enemies is real and visceral, and not — as their liberal detractors claim — based on racism or unrealistic nightmare scenarios. Moreover, as Nissim Mizrachi tried to explain to his Haaretz interviewer, Mizrahi Jews' views of non-Jews in Israel is not based on racial or religious prejudice, but on whether or not those people are seeking to undermine or destroy the Jewish state. His research has also shown that the Israeli group that has the least interaction with and understanding of people not like them are well-off Ashkenazi liberals, not the supposedly insular Mizrahi right-wingers. The same is often true of American liberals who view red-state voters with incomprehension as well as fear.
What the Israeli sociologist has discovered is that if the liberal vision of left-wing elitists means sacrificing the Jewish nature of the state, as well as undermining its security, in the name of universal values, Mizrahi Jews don't want any part of it. That is why they continue to vote for the right as their numbers have grown and the Oslo mindset has been increasingly discredited by Palestinian actions, and the Israeli left has gone from majority to minority to complete irrelevance.
If people want to understand the thinking of those who vote for their political opponents, then they should try to understand them rather than to dismiss their fears and defense of the values that are sacred to them. As Obama's quote and Hillary Clinton's 2016 gaffe about "deplorables" indicate, American liberals didn't listen to Thomas Frank. By the same token, it's far from clear that anyone in the Israeli left is listening to Nissim Mizrachi or is willing to treat Israel's version of red-state "deplorables" with the respect they deserve either.