Labor’s new leader on being Jewish and Moroccan

”The Left has forgotten what it is to be Jewish,” says Avi Gabbay, and with some justification. After the Right established a monopoly on Judaism and cloaked it with support for all sorts of evil, such as the occupation and racism, the Left’s estrangement from Judaism deepened, and along with it, the chance of taking power.

The term “Jew” is undoubtedly very broad, and it includes anyone whose mother is Jewish, but this is not what the current leader of the Labor Party meant. Gabbay took care to define those deserving of partnership: he barred the Arab “Joint List”, saying he would not sit with them in a future coalition; he denied the legitimacy of fellow Arab party member MK Zuhair Bahlul because he did not take part in an event marking the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration; he then gave a wink to the settlers, saying that a future peace agreement will not require the dismantling of settlements. And his latest gem is his support for the government’s position in deporting African asylum-seekers back to Africa.

As if all this was not enough, when attacking Netanyahu recently, he showed what an authentic Jew he is by quoting his grandmother who used to say in Moroccan “Hashoumeh!”, or “Shame on you!” For Gabbay, it seems, the epitome of being Jewish is being Moroccan.

But what Gabbay does with full backing of the Labor Party is no different from what President Trump is doing these days. While Gabbay endorses the expulsion of tens of thousands of African asylum seekers, Trump plots against 60,000 Haitian asylum seekers who came to the United States following an earthquake that devastated their country in 2010. In other words, Gabbay’s version of “being Moroccan” is a global trend, and restoring an ethnic group’s former glory is perfectly suited to anyone who fights for ethno-nationalism around the world.

Led by Trump himself, ethno-nationalism is going to “make America great again.” Trump’s “base” is the white worker who lost his social status. This was because of economic and social changes that the US underwent due to globalization, and the great financial crisis of 2008 that brought neoliberalism to its knees. Gabbay is wooing the Likud Mizrahi “base” in an attempt to syphon off votes.

In Germany and Britain, a nationalist wave has been on the uptick because of mass emigration that threatens to change the ethnic composition of their societies; Neo-Fascist parties pop up like mushrooms after the rain. The young 31-year-old Austrian prime minister rode a wave of anti-immigrant anxiety into office; the UK Independence Party (UKIP) forced Brexit—and then disappeared; the far-right populist party Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD) won enough seats to create a political crisis that is keeping Angela Merkel from forming a coalition.

In short, “isolationism” (whether in Israel, Germany, or America) and ramping up hatred of foreigners (Arabs, blacks and Latinos) are not Gabbay inventions, but a global trend to which the Labor Party is being dragged as it reaches for the brass ring of winning the next election.

Xenophobia is not an exclusively Jewish phenomenon. It is found in Christianity and, in recent years, it has also gained strength in Islam. Just as the white American worker despises his black counterpart, the French worker hates the Moroccan immigrant, the British detests the newly arrived Pole, and so the Mizrahi worker in Israel scorns the Arabs and demands the expulsion of African asylum-seekers.

But hatred is not simply directed against the stranger, it is directed even more against anyone perceived as being a lover of foreigners, whether they are Syrian refugees, Latino immigrants, or Arabs. America is divided between blue and red states (Democratic and Republican), and so is Spain, Germany, and—why not—Israel. Steve Bannon (Trump’s right-wing strategic shadow adviser) harbors a hatred of liberal America that far outweighs his hatred of blacks, women, and immigrants. You just have to look at Fox News and read Trump’s tweets to understand how deeply anti-American Americans are.

As for Israel, Rabin’s murder was perhaps the most horrific proof of the abysmal hatred between the camps. It is enough to look at events this week in order to see how high the flames have reached: we have the “Breaking the Silence” affair, in which the organization is accused of lying and betraying IDF soldiers; and we have the wild reaction against President Rivlin for his refusal to pardon the Hebron killer, Sgt. Elor Azaria, a reaction that culminated in a doctored image of Rivlin wearing an Arab headdress, like the image made of Rabin shortly before his assassination.

The split between Sephardim and Ashkenazim in Israel mirrors the divide between the Right and the Liberals in America. It reflects the prevailing class war to determine the future of society. Will America be conservative, religious, misogynistic, and tyrannical? Will Israel become more religious and right-wing; will it maintain a regime that combines military occupation with apartheid? Or will America and Israel integrate into the gigantic historical and technological process leading to global cooperation based on democratic values as the only way to sustain human society?

The division between the Left and the Right overlaps with class imbalance. This has deepened with changes that arose out of the Third Industrial Revolution, the Internet Revolution and renewable energy. What Avi Gabbay proposes is to return to the past instead of posing an alternative vision for the future.

The Moroccan vote for the Likud and Shas (the Mizrahi orthodox party) does not stem from their Jewishness but from their social status. They dwell in poor neighborhoods, the so-called periphery, both economically and culturally, and their power is mainly in their numbers. Despite the fact that they are currently part of the electoral majority, the quickly changing realities are shaking their self-confidence.

In contrast, the Left today is relatively small, but it is at the forefront of Israeli culture and the economy, especially the high-tech industry and the Internet. Although economically and socially based, the Left is politically weak, and this paradox leads to the greatly heightened tension between the camps. What further weakens the Israeli Left is its habit of distancing itself from Arab citizens and their electoral power, a distancing that plays into the hands of the Right.

The Arab revolution, the disintegration and disappearance of Arab states, the shock that Saudi Arabia is experiencing, the rise of Trump and Brexit – all these are secondary tremors following the great earthquake caused by the collapse of the global financial system in the summer of 2008. Today it is known that large parts of society will lose their livelihoods and be made redundant in the coming years: taxi drivers, truck drivers, and many other manual and office workers will be replaced by autonomous cars, robots and artificial intelligence.

The conservatism of the Israeli Right is found in its adherence to the outdated market economy, which has created an unprecedented class polarization and deep poverty. The Right refuses to look reality in the eye and to realize that the time has now come to make profound changes in the system. Political conservatism prevents Israel from resolving the conflict with the Palestinians, and it is also seen in the inability to tackle serious structural problems: the congested roads, the aging and polluting energy grid, the housing crisis, and the collapse of health and education services.

What goes on in the US and Europe shows that problems not addressed do not disappear, but only intensify until they threaten the very existence of democratic regimes. Israel is no exception, and economic and social problems are worsened owing to the conflict with the Arab world and the burden of a 50-year colonial occupation.

Avi Gabbay’s efforts to come to power at all costs are mistaken: his ridiculous attempt to dress the Labor Party in Moroccan robes will not convince Likud supporters. What Israeli society needs, and urgently, is to make the necessary adjustments to the twenty-first century. Countries fighting against globalization, against connecting the world, and against the building of a common future with the ‘Other,’ endanger the democratic foundations established after two bloody world wars.

So it is with Israeli society. Its refusal to deal with a changing reality and the Palestinian problem (a problem it created), its seclusion from the world in order to adhere to old policies, its populism, and the practice of courting voters at any price, all contribute to the perpetuation of the conflict, to the deepening of the social crisis and to the internal rift.

On the other hand, those who advocate solidarity among all peoples, democracy, and human rights see a shared economy, and equality between Jews and Arabs. We see these not just as a way of life, but as the only way to sustain a future human society.

*Translated from the Hebrew by Robert Goldman

About Yacov Ben Efrat