Israeli elections undermine Zionist myths


By Adam Hanieh

RAMALLAH — If you believe the Arab media and the leaders of Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, the Israeli elections in early May are essentially a vote for or against peace. The internal Israeli debate, though, has been remarkably silent on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The issue which has so far dominated most media attention in the election period has been the conflict between religion and secularism.

On Sunday, February 14, 300,000 Orthodox Jews demonstrated in Jerusalem against the Israeli High Court. The Orthodox were met with a counter-rally of 50,000.

In the preceding week, several leading rabbis had strongly criticised the Israeli legal system, even going so far as to call it anti-Semitic. The reason for this was the recent arrest of three Orthodox Jews on a charge of attacking and burning the apartment of three Christian women in an Orthodox area in Jerusalem. The Orthodox believed the women were Christian missionaries.

During this period, all leading Israeli politicians have been holding high-profile meetings with rabbis from different Jewish factions. Yitzhak Mordechai, former defence minister and now head of a new "centrist" party, was shown on television kissing the beard of one of the chief rabbis. There have been impassioned pleas for national unity and mutual respect from all sides of the political spectrum.

In reality, the differences between the major Israeli parties are few. What the elections do reveal — particularly the debate around religion and secularism — is the increasing tension within Israeli society as the changes wrought by the Israeli economic elite regarding Israel's place in the Middle East begin to have domestic ramifications.

Two-party tradition

Traditionally Israel has been dominated by two political parties — the ruling Likud and the opposition Labour Party. Historically, Labour Zionism has dominated Israeli politics through its close alliance with the trade union bureaucracy and the kibbutz movement.

Because Zionism was essentially a movement of European colonialism, the Labour Zionist movement was dominated by white, European Jews — "Ashkenazi" Jews as they are known within Israel. Labour Zionism has traditionally supplied the economic, military and social elite of Israeli society, although promoting a pseudo-socialist rhetoric based on the kibbutzim and trade union movement.

Likud had its roots in a fascist-type movement, Herut. It was always in opposition until it began to attract the support of recent immigrants to Israel — so-called Mizrachi Jews (Jewish migrants from Ethiopia and Arab countries such as Iraq and Yemen). Likud, which opposed the so-called secularism and economic domination of the Ashkenazi elite, was first elected to power in 1977.

The last elections, in 1996, brought Benyamin Netanyahu and the Likud to power after several years in opposition. These elections demonstrated the emerging importance of smaller religious and right-wing parties, which were to provide Netanyahu with enough support to form a cabinet. The most important of these parties was Shas, an Orthodox party with strong support amongst Mizrachi Jews.

Religious vs secular

Israel is a Jewish state. This is the key foundation of the Israeli constitution and declaration of independence but it immediately raises the question of "Who is a Jew?". According to the Israeli constitution, a Jew is someone whose mother is a Jew or who has converted to Judaism and been recognised by the Orthodox chief rabbi.

The first definition merely postpones the question — how do you define whether someone's mother is Jewish? So we are left with an essentially religious definition of Jewishness. Because of the absolute centrality of religion to Israel, the Orthodox have a lot of power despite making up only 7% of the population.

This creates a big problem for the Jewish state — because, as in all nations, some people are religious and some people are not. Many Israelis don't consider themselves religious, call themselves "secular Jews" (secular Israelis would be a better term) and resent the influence of religion on everyday life.

This influence is indeed far-reaching — it means you can't drive your car in certain areas on Saturday, you can't eat certain foods, and if you marry someone who is not Jewish, they can't get citizenship.

The influence of religion sometimes takes a violent form. Non-Orthodox people have been beaten, had their houses set alight and even been killed for violating religious laws.

This points to a fundamental contradiction between the Israeli nationality and the Jewish religion. Zionism treats the two as equal — the Jews are a nationality and Israel is their state. The fundamentally religious nature of modern Judaism means that it is impossible for Israel to separate itself from religion. Israel cannot be secular and Jewish at the same time. Zionism has a religious kernel which cannot be removed.

Religious justification

For many years, Israel justified settler expansion within the West Bank and many of its other policies on religious grounds. The expansion of Israel was seen by many as fulfilling a religious prophecy of return to the Holy Land. This terminology figured within the vocabulary of even the most secular Israelis.

The Israeli state also supported the religious community through massive state subsidies for schools and religious institutions, passing various religious laws that gave the religious community autonomy over its own affairs.

These issues also have a class dimension. Orthodox Jews have a much higher birthrate than the rest of Israeli society and tend to hold a lower socioeconomic status.

Many of the immigrant communities (such as Ethiopian Jews) are dominated by Orthodox beliefs. They tend to live in overcrowded and poor conditions and are totally reliant on the state for survival (Orthodox Jews don't work, receive no standard education in areas such as mathematics, history or science, don't serve in the army and are subsidised by the state). This explains the remarkable growth of the Shas party in recent years — in the absence of any secular left-wing alternative, Shas tells the Mizrachi population "Your problems will be solved if you just follow religious law."

On the flip side, secular Israelis dominate the business elite of the country and the wealthier middle classes of areas such as Tel Aviv. They also tend to be overwhelmingly white and from a European or North American background.

The question of religion versus secularism has become one of the most discussed issues within Israeli society. This reflects the fact that on one hand Zionism needs religious justification, but on the other, Israel as a modern capitalist economy wants separation between state and religion. In addition, the cutbacks to the Israeli state structure disproportionately affect the religious community, who tend to be poorer and rely on state subsidies. This contradiction has sharpened in recent years due to changes within the Israeli economy.

Economic changes

Israel from the beginning represented an attempt to build a Jewish state which would represent the interests of imperialism in the region. The pre-state bourgeoisie was weak, and state power rested in the hands of a Zionist labour movement backed by imperialism.

The clearest example of this was the debate around the use of Palestinian labour during the years before the founding of the state. Labour Zionism fought strongly for Jewish-only labour and to exclude Palestinian labour even though it was cheaper and favoured by bourgeois elements.

This formed the main conflict within the Zionist community during the 1920s and '30s; the Zionist labour bureaucracy eventually won this debate. The economic interests of the indigenous bourgeoisie were subordinated to the political interests of a Jewish-only state and imperialism.

In the last 50 years, however, there has formed a ruling class marked by the fusion of newly arrived bourgeois elements and the labour bureaucracy. We can see this through tracing the ownership of the major corporations in Israel — many of the ruling families come from elements of the old Zionist labour movement which have merged with US and European capital.

Today the Israeli ruling class resembles much more the ruling classes of other capitalist states. There is remarkable consensus within this class over the necessary economic direction and Israel's place in the Middle East that can be summarised in the following:

1) An integration between the Israeli economy and the economies of the Middle East in which Israel plays the more traditional imperialist role of exploiting the cheap labour and the markets of the Arab hinterland.

2) The privatisation of major sectors of the Israeli economy, including banking and construction, which have traditionally been controlled by the state.

3) Substantial cutbacks to the "welfare state" and social programs, which have traditionally provided security to the Israeli Jewish community.

4) The end of the "Palestinian problem" through granting a form of autonomy to the Palestinians living in the West Bank — the aim being to control the land but not directly the people, who would be controlled through a Palestinian "proxy".

This program is premised on the shifts within the broader Middle East and the defeat of the Arab revolution across the region. In other words, imperialism has many friends now — not just the traditional bases of Saudi Arabia and Israel. Every Middle East regime, with the possible exceptions of Iraq, Libya and Syria, follows a pro-imperialist policy and is now moving to embrace Israel.

The economic and ideological shifts that this implies have serious ramifications for the internal stability of Israel. For decades Zionism has promoted the myth of "Greater Israel", an Israel under threat from the surrounding Arab masses, and the myth of the "Promised Land" where every Jew can find a home. Now Israel's bourgeoisie wants integration and normalisation with the Middle East and cutbacks to the Zionist "utopia" as factories shut down and move to Jordan, Egypt or the Palestinian autonomous areas.

The Israeli bourgeoisie is faced with a problem: how to implement the above program and maintain the social consensus resting on Zionist ideology, which for 50 years has meant that Israeli workers see their interests as identical with their rulers' for the "national good".

Recasting the problem in this light illuminates the confusion of the Israeli political landscape. The two major political parties have the same economic program — privatisation, social cutbacks — and essentially the same political program — the Oslo process. They differ in their social base.

In the period before the last Israeli elections, Israeli society was extremely divided. On a political level, the settler movement feared that the Oslo process would mean dismantlement of settlements and relinquishment of land.

On an economic level, unemployment was at record levels and factories were closing down. The Orthodox movement feared cutbacks to state sponsorship of religious schools, or compulsory military service for Orthodox youth.

It was this general climate which led to the assassination of Labour leader Yitzhak Rabin (the archetypal example of Labour Zionism and the Ashkenazi elite). Likud came to power with the same program as Labour but with the ability to maintain the support of the religious right, settler movement and the Mizrachi poor.

Netanyahu's trick was to implement the program of the bourgeoisie quietly and at the same time increase his rhetoric of opposition to the Oslo process. He relied on a cabinet dominated by the religious Orthodox and settler movement, to which he gave various incentives to maintain their support for his policies.

However, the three years of the Netanyahu government have not solved the fundamental problems facing Zionism. During 1998, there were five separate general strikes protesting privatisation and wage cutbacks, and a two-month strike of universities around the issue of fees. On a political level, the settler-movement has violently opposed Netanyahu's practical support of Oslo (typified by the Wye Agreement).

Since its beginning, Zionism has attempted to portray itself as a movement of national liberation for the Jewish people and Israel as a state for all its people. These elections indicate that the myth is beginning to crumble.