From Peace to Race: On the Elections in Israel

From the May 2015 PNL #842

by Dana Lloyd

When “the only democracy in the Middle East,” which is also considered the most secular state in the Middle East, defines itself as a Jewish democracy, what could “Jewish” mean? It couldn’t possibly mean religion, right? Could it perhaps mean race? And if it does, could a Jewish state be democratic?


Photo: Haggai Matar

A month has passed since the elections for the twentieth Israeli parliament. A month since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (colloquially referred to as “Bibi” by Israelis) has been elected for the fourth time after warning the Israeli Jewish public that “the Arabs are voting,” prompting people to vote Likud and save the country from its Palestinian citizens.


This call has raised red flags for Americans, who are particularly sensitive about race and voting rights. I spent some time trying to convince myself (and others) that despite his appearance as a tyrant, these elections are not about Bibi Netanyahu himself at all. It is Israel’s regime that matters, and there is a growing chance we will be able to change it in the foreseeable future, given the growing representation of Palestinians—the most invisible group in the state of Israel—in its parliament. Therefore, we should really be hopeful.

Then, on March 21, only a week after the elections, a six-year old Palestinian girl was attacked and injured by two Jewish settlers in Hebron. In the face of this incident I was having a hard time feeling hopeful or writing a piece I was supposed to write about the future of the Middle East and of the “peace process.”
In reality, peace is not on the agenda of any of the major parties in Israel anyway. Peace, which was a part of all major parties’ campaigns in 1996 (the Likud’s 1996 elections campaign slogan was “Netanyahu —Making Safe Peace”), was not a part of any of the major parties’ campaigns in 2015.

A racist slogan which was seen on billboards during the last weeks before the elections read “with Bibi-Bennett we will be stuck with the Palestinians forever.” Bibi is, as mentioned above, Benjamin Netanyahu. Bennett is no other than Naftaly Bennet, the leader of the religious nationalist party The Jewish Home, which is on the extreme right wing of the political map in Israel. This campaign was sponsored by an ostensibly leftist non-governmental organization, and its logic is also the logic of the peace process and of the Oslo Accords: Jews want to disengage from Palestinians; indeed, they should disengage from Palestinians. According to the slogan, it is the right, even the extreme right, wing of the political map that is to blame for us (Jews) being “stuck” with the Palestinians. Only peace will enable us to separate from them. This is the “leftist” logic of the peace process. In other words, the peace process is not really about peace, but about disengagement.  If the peace process follows a logic of disengagement, which is essentially a racist logic, perhaps we should talk about something else instead. Perhaps instead of talking about peace we should talk about freedom.

A new hope for a peaceful protest, for a peaceful struggle for change, has risen in this round of elections in Israel. The unification of the Palestinian parties and their campaign as the Joint List, declaring war on racism, won them thirteen seats in Israel’s parliament, an increase of almost 20% in comparison with the last elections, when they ran separately.

Race, of course, plays a more complicated role in Israel. Racial tension exists in Israel not only between Jews and Palestinian—a tension that is usually referred to as “national”—but also between Ashkenazi (white, European) Jews and Mizrahi (African, Arab) Jews—a tension that is often referred to as “ethnic.” There is also racial tension between Israeli citizens and between work immigrants and refugees, who are usually racial minorities. And race has been a large part of this round of elections, more visible than in previous rounds. The ultra-orthodox Shas party’s identity politics and its campaign slogan “A Mizrahi votes Mizrahi” is one example.

Another is the disqualification by the elections committee of the ultra-orthodox party Yahad’s racist campaign video, a campaign against “terrorism, asylum seekers, and immigrant workers” (and the party’s disappearance from Israeli politics for the time being). The success of the Kulanu party, with an agenda of social and economic justice, whose leader is a working-class Mizrahi Jew who may become Israel’s next minister of finance, is yet another example.
But race was also visible when immediately after the elections the web filled with denouncements of marginalized racial groups for their failure to see Netanyahu’s role in their oppression and for their contribution to his victory. The Israeli Jewish left (traditionally Ashkenazi in large part) was called to stop “giving charity” to and showing solidarity with these groups until they wake up and stop supporting him (later we discovered that Likud had more Ashkenazi than Mizrahi voters, a discovery that revealed that the assumption that only Mizrahi Jews vote Likud is racist and detached from reality).
And so, if race is such a burning issue in Israel, and if even the peace process follows a racist logic of separation, then perhaps it is freedom from racial oppression, not peace, we should all strive for. Bringing racial oppression into the vocabulary of mainstream Israeli public discourse—which certainly happened in these elections— might be a first step in the right direction.

Once, Israeli elections were about peace, but merely the illusion of peace. In 2015, Israeli elections are (finally) about race—racial solidarity and racial hatred. If this change—from peace to race—brings about a shift from a logic of disengagement to one of solidarity, then perhaps there is a reason to be hopeful.

Dana has studied and practiced law in Tel Aviv. She is currently a PhD student in the department of religion at Syracuse University.