U.S. Intellectual History Blog

What’s the Matter with Israel?

Benjamin Netanyahu to the backdrop of the Har Homa settlement under construction

Benjamin Netanyahu with the Har Homa settlement under construction in the background

As some of you might have surmised from my occasional language gaffe, I’m not American—at least not originally—but from Israel. And since the elections in Israel last week have occupied much of my time of late I have often found myself engaged in the curious intellectual exercise of comparative history. Indeed, I have found only too many uncomfortable similarities between Israel and the US and thought to use the prism of the recent elections to explore some of them.

In a recent article Shlomo Ben Ami, the one time secretary of state of Israel and a professor of history of modern Spain, has aptly cast the recent elections results as “an expression of an ongoing Kulturkampf in an ethnically kaleidoscopic society.” In other words in order to unpack the results of what is on its face a narrowly defined political issue, we must examine the historical formation of contentious cultural camps engaged in a struggle for dominance. Viewed in this vein, voting in Israel’s elections is a practice laden with poignant symbolism. Sounds familiar right?

Much like in the US, in Israel there is a crucial voting block of supposedly confused lower class folk that has long upset elites concentrated along the coast. Probably for reasons stemming primarily from wishful thinking, many thought that this time around at least a critical mass of them would not fail to finally understand their true class interests. Yet, when push came to shove they aligned with the Israeli right in great numbers as they have done since the late 1970s. This block of voters that typically live in more peripheral parts of Israel—many of which are descendants of Jews that came from Arab and Muslim countries—could not bring themselves to vote for the left of center parties that represent the entrenched secular, liberal, and Ashkenazi social and cultural elites. In the US of course I’m alluding primarily to the parallel ‘block’ of the white rural lower classes that have, since the political realignment of the 1960s, largely rejected the Democratic Party.

What confounds liberal elites in Israel—and the US—is that, economically, they view themselves, with some degree of legitimacy, as representing the interests of this block much more than the right. For in the last 35 years a right wing economic turn in both the US and Israel, though with significant complicity of center-left elites, has gutted the welfare state and nurtured a growing disparity of wealth. Nonetheless, these lower class blocks, who have increasingly suffered under neoliberal economic regimes, consistently throw their lot in with right wing parties who more vehemently support austere economic programs.

The crucial component that best explains this supposed “false consciousness” is the presence of a third group of ethnic or racial “others” that above all else the so-called “misguided” block fears. In the case of Israel it is the various Arab peoples in Israel/Palestine. In the case of the US it has always been black people and certain groups of immigrants. Likewise, in both the US and Israel liberal elites view themselves, with varying degrees of legitimacy, as more sympathetic towards this third group of racial or ethnic “others.”

Such stark similarities I think should lead us to reconsider basic assumptions regarding the nature of political conflicts (both narrowly and broadly construed). Indeed, to start off—if we haven’t done so already—we must jettison the burdensome notion of false consciousness. Who are we to determine what the “true consciousness” is? If people have consistently shown such determination to support certain agendas we ought, if not fully at least to a large extent, to seriously engage with their commitments. To be sure, demagoguery, hegemonic ideological constructions, fear-mongering, and other such explanations must account for some of these trends. Ultimately, however, even when opportunists with ulterior motives pander to anxieties, they nonetheless pick up on a predilection either latent or in full swing that we must acknowledge.

The sad truth is that as much as we would like to believe that certain relatively oppressed groups of people have been deceived by the workings of master minds or even by structural “overdetermination,”(1) too many over too many years in different contexts have consistently voted with their feet. They should by now have convinced us that disregard of “true” economic agendas, though easily identified by us onlookers trained to think of material gains as the ultimate social prize, does not constitute disregard of one’s de-facto agenda. At times economics do not constitute the most instructive historical axis. In both Israel and the US similarly situated blocks have consistently chosen strategies linked with race and ethnicity to assert their difference from the most oppressed group in their respective societies, exacerbating that oppression as they have done so.

Granted, said voting blocks in Israel and the US contrived ideological constructions that incorporate the prospect of financial gains as significant within their ideological schemas. Ultimately, however, they seem to submit economic logic to racial or ethnic logic. Certainly, to parse out ideological constructions to their different facets (economic or cultural for instance) does not reflect any reality, nor is it possible to fully determine what is economic and what is cultural in the last instance, for no such divide really exists. Nonetheless, inasmuch as such analytical categories do help us dissect and account for the various constituents of one’s agenda, in the cases at hand cultural motives seem primary. In the US rural whites chose and still choose whiteness. In Israel the traditionalist Jewish lower classes have just last week yet again chosen Judaism. Their interest as far as I can tell, though not lofty, is to above all else maintain their relative superiority.

Now this is not to suggest that the political block with which they are in cultural conflict—the liberal elites—have themselves historically acted more fairly towards people of lower social standing. In Israel it is the secular Ashkenazi elites who first enacted demeaning policies towards the Jewish immigrants from non western countries, engaging in what Bourdieu would call “strategies of distinction.” They famously sprayed DDT over Jewish Yemenite immigrants as they entered the country and treated immigrant Jews from Arab countries as uncivilized—shipping them off to economically unviable peripheral regions even as Ashkenazi elites found numerous ways to grant themselves the most coveted lands along the coast. Likewise, in the US the attitudes of liberal elites harken back to the long European history of asserting distinction and superiority by refining manners and sensibilities. As early as Bacon’s Rebellion elites in America proved more sympathetic to racial “others”—in that case Native peoples—as a strategy of distinction. Indeed, the social dynamic at work during Bacon’s Rebellion is in many ways the social history of the US in a nutshell. Furthermore, the historical emergence of the culture of sensibility in the 18th century, which fueled the abolitionist movement and the numerous “well intentioned” civilization projects, directed at colonized peoples around the globe, was in large part the expression of distinction strategies aimed at lower class Europeans.

According to Bourdieu, we must understand the concept of ‘distinction’ as relational, linking two different agents in a social process: “[k]nowing that ‘manner’ is a symbolic manifestation whose meaning and value depend as much on the perceivers as on the producer, one can see how it is that the manner of using symbolic goods, especially those regarded as the attributes of excellence, constitutes one of the key makers of ‘class’ and also the ideal weapon in strategies of distinction.” (2) I would like to broaden this definition for the case at hand. While Bourdieu employed the term “distinction” to refer to strategies of refinement employed by the French bourgeoisie, I would like here to suggest that we view the construction of ethnic, racial, or even nationalist identities as possible strategies of distinction as well. Furthermore, I would add that during culture wars anything that designates one as part of the cultural formation one aligns with—including voting—becomes a strategy of distinction. Indeed, ultimately distinction is a crucial cultural strategy for securing political power (broadly construed). And during culture wars culture becomes the key field in a scramble for power.

Put in this light, it was to a large degree the doing of American and Israeli elites that accounts for the particular social position from which the much maligned lower class blocks made their respective Faustian bargain. Yet if indeed we view this bargain as Faustian, it was the elites who had originally played the role of devil.

Well, what does that leave us with, you might ask. Who do we align with if we reject the Faustian bargain of the lower classes and we historically associate liberal elites with such sinister machinations as well? I’m not sure exactly, but in some way we must refuse to contribute as best we can to the processes of distinction, which perpetuate this logic. At the very least I think that in the US we should try as much as we can to show unreserved solidarity with brown and black people on their terms. In Israel the only solution I can think of is to express unyielding solidarity in whatever way possible with the oppressed non Jewish population and hope for the best. Sadly, particularly in the case of Israel, I can’t say that I’m optimistic.

[1] To use Althusser’s concept, not Laclau and Mouffe’s interpretation, which in some ways mirrors my argument here.

[2] Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, trans. Richard Nice (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984; 1979), 66.