The Center: The Players And The Program

If all one means by center is a vague desire to contain Palestinian terrorism yet distance oneself from settlers’ excesses—to do the former without alienating Washington, and the latter without splitting the Jewish people—then a stable majority has been centrist since 1967.  But this is a free-floating desire, not the basis of a political identity.  You can see how much good vague desire is when others create facts.

ISRAELIS ANGUISH OVER five issues, actually.  First, there is the question of whether to rely primarily on military power when dealing with the troubled Middle East.  Second, there is the collateral but more ideologically charged question of whether to withdraw from occupied territory, historic Eretz Yisrael, in order to advance to a “two-state solution” with Palestinians.  Third, there is the question we have examined thus far, whether a democracy can accord exclusive privileges to legally defined Jews—a question linked to the first two, but not limited by them.  Next there is the question, tucked into the last one, of whether to privilege orthodox religious practice.  Finally, there is the question of economic privilege, even class: who wins and who loses in a global market economy?   

One cannot easily find a center in the permutations these questions produce, which is why as many as twenty political parties typically compete in Israeli elections.  But when pundits speak about a center now, they mean leaders who—though they’ll want to have things both ways on many of these issues—have tipped in certain directions: immediate toughness over eventual diplomacy; “painful concessions” in the territories over “Zionist” devotion; some civil reform yet Jewish privilege over scrupulous attention to Arab rights; the religious Status Quo over secular discomfort; and global markets over working-class discomfort.  

Some of these choices are short-sighted, no doubt, but the ambivalence is promising.  Centrists will often advance contradictory positions: shows of social compassion for the poor wedded to reassurances to venture capitalists; civil marriage, yet jobs for Rabbis. 

To add to the complexity, Israel’s elections bring out five more or less permanent tribes to debate these issues: groups of electors defined by primordial ethnic or religious loyalties.  Each comprises about 20 percent of the electorate, or something around a million and a half people.  The tribes have had immigrant experiences at very different times, and so tend to think of Israel in different ways.  They sometimes melt into each other and more often chafe against one another.  For some time now, Israeli coalition politics has been a game of temporarily patching them together.   

THE FIRST TRIBE—call it Tribe One—is dominated by veteran Ashkenazim (of European origin), most of them “Sabras.”  They were born in the country, are now well-educated and cosmopolitan, secular and (if anything) observant of Judaism in the emancipated sense, live-and-let-live by instinct—and living very well indeed in fashionable neighborhoods like North Tel-Aviv, Jerusalem’s Bak’a or Haifa’s Carmel.  These are the Israelis Americans usually run into, members of the educational and professional élite, often drawn by opportunities abroad: a visiting appointment at the University of Pennsylvania, a stint at A.T. Kearney.  Their old-timers tell harrowing, personal tales of ideological non-conformism and political prescience, of immigrant courage and pioneering struggle during the Mandate.  Successful entrepreneurs will yet justify their businesses in the rhetoric of the old pioneering communitarianism.  Tribe One are Israel’s WASPs.  Clearly, they are crucial to an understanding what the Israeli center is and can yet be.  Think Kadima and Labor.

Tribe Two, in contrast, are the residual core of the rather larger North African immigration of Mizrahi Jews, who came to Israel in the 1950s and 60s en masse.  They were as shocked as the Arabs by Tribe One’s ideological and sexual avant garde.  Most had been petit-bourgeois, small merchants and tradesmen back in Casablanca, Tunis, Tripoli, etc.  Their most educated or affluent leaders often went to Paris or Montreal.  Back in the Maghreb, men ruled and plotted family survival.  Women were generally illiterate.  The collapse of colonialism, and the birth of Israel, left Mizrahi Jews exposed to unexpected retaliations in their countries of origin; businesses and friends were left behind in heartbreaking haste.  

Once in Israel, however, the Mizrahim found themselves in an underclass, much less well-educated than the Eastern European Labor Zionists who ran the place.  They were pressured to work for, and become like, the socialist bosses who presided over the kibbutzim, union-owned factories, and government agencies.  Their old culture heroes were the French bourgeoisie.  

On average, Tribe Two still actually earns a third less than Tribe One.  Pride in Tribe Two is pride in the family, not in tales of some old commune or movement.  But it is a pride that tips easily into social anger, for they see the state as a kind of great family that ought to take care of its own. Many have now made it in retail businesses, or car repair shops, or real estate.  Their children have become lawyers, police officers, and contractors.  Yet most of Tribe Two remain hungry for status, and tens of thousands still struggle with unemployment in inner-cities and neglected development towns. Think Likud. 

Unlike Tribe One, Tribe Two follow Halakha naturally, if not quite piously.  They still feel they have a score to settle with “the Arabs,” the Muslims, who drove them out, mainly after the Sinai War.  They still cannot believe how they could have been so marginalized by the old Labor aristocracy. Think Shas.

As with the Boston Irish, their social resentment gets passed on from generation to generation and gets channeled into cultural politics: over-zealous devotion at soccer matches, or overt nepotism in the smaller city councils, where Tribe Two politicians tend to dominate. 

TRIBE THREE, THE newest tribe, have their origins in about 900,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union, most of whom came in the 1990s.  They include people from the Ukraine, the Baltic states, etc., but are generally known as “the Russians.”  Hyper-educated, hyper-secular (about 25 percent were never “real” Jews back home in Moscow or Kiev), the Russians were beneficiaries of both a rigorous Soviet education and a vital anti-Soviet “refusenik” underground. Fo them, Jews are victims of perpetual hatred, and their national retaliation defines them. They are repelled by the orthodox and are gluttons for high culture and, horrors, non-kosher food: symphonic music, experimental theater, cosmopolitan styles, mathematical science.  

In the 1990s, when Israeli high tech was taking off, about a third of the research programmers, materials scientists, etc., were from Tribe Three.  But they are also hyper-nationalist, certain of their purchase on Europe’s grim history, scornful of Muslim fanaticism and backwardness (their Vietnam was Afghanistan, after all), and dismayed by the squishy liberal intellectuals of Tribe One who allegedly pander to the Muslim world.  They came to Israel to join the “West” and to save it from itself.  They are searching for an Israeli Putin.  Think Lieberman and Yisrael Beiteinu.  

Haaretz’s Lily Galili, who has followed this community for years, told me that a majority of the Russians are feeling chronically embattled, “a combination of seeing impending catastrophe and a certainty that toughness will bring progress.”  They are quick, she says, to see Nazis in Palestinians, and yet they are certain about Israel’s ability “to exercise a kind of omnipotence” on a world stage:  

“This is very Russian, the idea that ‘liberalism’ is holy and yet something for Jewish suckers, which is why they have such common language with American neo-conservatives.  Natan Sharansky is in many ways their hero—the chess player, the intellectual, the world prophet.  He appealed to international liberal conscience while he was in prison, but after coming to Israel, he seems to have found that he could both lecture to the world about democracy and lecture Israelis that the Jewish claim to Jerusalem was a ‘higher value’ than liberalism—that the Arabs  had better learn to accept it—that Israel, being a better ‘democracy’ than its neighbors, should be immune from Western criticism.” 

These first three tribes intermarry at a high rate, and their edges are getting blurry.  Some vote their class interests, some their security fears—none of the three is monolithic.  The melding of Ashkenazim and Sephardim is especially great in the twenty-something generation.  More educated Mizrahim and more cosmopolitan Russians tend to vote Labor and embrace liberal ideas.  Nevertheless, “identity politics” play out among these tribes in unpredictable ways, depending on who leads or what buttons get pushed—say, whether security concerns or economic issues dominate the headlines.  

On the whole, economic issues pull people leftward, that is, toward concessions to the Palestinians, while security issues pull rightward. Though a majority in each tribe has tended to hold to certain directions—Tribe One to Labor, Two to Likud, Three to rightist splinter parties, claiming Russian loyalties—it is in Tribes Two and Three where virtually all of Israel’s swing voters live today.  

IN THE FRAUGHT election of 2001, which brought Sharon to power, the affluent mainly Ashkenazi suburb of Kfar Shmaryahu voted 78 percent for Labor, while 81 percent of the comparatively poor Mizrahi town of Beit Shemesh voted Likud.  In 1999, some 65 percent of the Russians voted for Barak in 2001, about 70 percent voted for Sharon. All of which brings us to Tribes Four and Five, more familiar by now—also more monolithic and predictable. 

Four is made up of Israel’s ultra-nationalist, theocratic groups, bronzed West Bank settlers wedded politically, if not temperamentally, to pale Haredi Yeshiva students.  Tribe Four are devotees of the Land of Israel.  Yet they tend to be economically socialist—“national socialist,” one settler told me with a kind of creepy pride—for many of the orthodox live off the state, either in state schools or embattled settlements. Tribe Four disdains Israeliness as an effort to decouple the national life of the state from the Jewish world of Torah and commandments. It refuses the distinction between the covenantal people and the Israeli nation. 

Its bane is Tribe Five, Israeli Arabs, living in towns segregated by both archaic land policies and the discrimination of Zionist institutions.  Poor but up-and-coming, willing if not eager to enter Israeli democracy, Israeli Arabs are enraged by the existing version of the Jewish state.  Five is counting on, if anything, Israeliness.   

ORDINARILY, THEN, TRIBE Three hates Four, condescends to Two, and doubts One; Two hates One, resents Three and (for different reasons) Four; One is afraid of Two, patronizes Three and hates Four; Four hates One, proselytizes Two, and is afraid of Three.  All four are afraid of Five. 

So imagine how, if at all, any winner of tomorrow's election will be able to form a government, and how long any such government will last. The real question is whether a government will form that will be able to respond to an American initiative, which is the only hope.   

(Many of these observations are taken from