For those of us who watched the U.S. election from Israel, the results seemed eerily familiar. America’s electoral map is sharply divided: between blue and red, urban and rural, the coastal liberals and the conservative masses in the middle. In Israel we call it the geographic divide between the center of the country and the periphery, between the elites and the rest of the people.
Donald Trump was propelled to victory in part on a platform of “draining the swamp” of a corrupt ruling class and stopping illegal immigration. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in his re-election campaign last year, was spurred to a last-minute victory by tacitly reviving the timeworn idea of a disconnected Ashkenazi elite and the threat of the Arab minority “flocking to the polls.”
While comparisons are always inexact, it does seem that in both America and Israel there is a great divide in society on issues of culture and identity. Combined with economic frustration at the unequal benefits of globalization, this divide fuels feelings of growing nationalism, xenophobia and populism among the citizenry. It is this divide that all of us in both countries who care about liberal and constitutional democratic values have to now understand and work to repair.
As a prime minister now in his fourth term, Netanyahu isn’t so much against the political establishment — he is the political establishment — as he is against the cultural establishment. He sees the media, the academy, the arts and the courts as pockets of influence of an out-of-touch partisan elite. It’s no surprise that in the last election the left-leaning Zionist Union party won in the greater Tel Aviv metro area and Haifa; Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud won almost everywhere else. These are physical coastal bubbles — of geography, demographics and economics. In Israel, the periphery is exactly that: peripheral in terms of government priorities, infrastructure spending, education levels and economic prosperity.
More than anything, however, these are bubbles of culture and ideas.
Sound familiar? Like America, Israel is now engaged in a battle over its identity.
Since its establishment, Israel has been a predominantly secular and liberal society. The dominant ruling class, mostly Ashkenazi, took its ideas from Eastern European socialism and Western liberal democracy. But today, religious and nationalist particularism is on the rise. The growth of ultra-Orthodox, religious-nationalist and other traditionalist population groups at the expense of the old Ashkenazi elites is one part of the story. In parallel, many fear that the Jewish State’s Zionist identity is threatened by a growing Arab minority (currently 20 percent of the citizenry) and the unresolved conflict with the Palestinians.
In the 2015 election, Israelis on the periphery reacted against urban elites who appear to have more in common with their counterparts in Berlin and Brooklyn than with the peripheral working-class town of Beit She’an. During my time as director general of the Kadima party, which governed as a pragmatic centrist ruling party, I saw the full spectrum of Israeli society. Our party activists were dedicated, sensible and moderate people. But in recent years I have watched some of these same people come out in support of overtly illiberal legislative proposals. Did these party activists suddenly become racists and populists? I don’t believe so. Rather, I believe they are responding to their own perceptions of peril — to Israel’s Jewish character in a challenging security environment.
It is these perceptions that need to be better understood and addressed. In the same way that liberals in New York and San Francisco have to now reconnect with the American heartland, Israeli liberals too have to make a more successful effort to reach out to those parts of the country that do not look or sound exactly like them. Israel may be divided geographically, but it cannot afford to sacrifice its social solidarity on the altar of identity politics. Nor can we allow people’s disenchantment with the system to lead to a loss of faith in liberal values and democratic institutions.
What we need is not a red-blue divide but a multi-colored mosaic that reflects the values of its diverse constituents and is stronger as a result. Such an approach makes for good politics, and it is also good statesmanship.
For Israel as well as America, what is needed is a genuine concern for the preservation of national identity and more inclusive economic policies that bring prosperity for all — not just those at the top. Israel, in particular, has to develop a revised interpretation of Jewish nationalism that is liberal and inclusive. Our openness and pluralism are among our societies’ greatest strengths. They cannot be taken for granted.
Yohanan Plesner is president of the Israel Democracy Institute.