Warring Tribes

Theoriginal idea, born after the 1948 War of Independence, was that allJews in Israel would be equal. No poor, no “ethnics,” no excessivelyreligious people unless they were too stubborn to change. The nearly2 million Jewish immigrants (at first chiefly from Middle Easterncountries, later mainly from the Soviet Union and the republics thatsucceeded it) were slated for nationalization — to become Israelisfirst and last, with nothing to separate them from one another orfrom the Sabras.

It hasn’t worked out that way. Today it is rapidlybecoming clear that Israel has atomized into a number of “tribes” –Sephardim, Russians, Ethiopians, ultra-Orthodox, national Orthodoxand secular Ashkenazim. (The nearly 1 million Arab citizens ofIsrael, who make up about 15 percent of the total population, areunofficially treated as a separate, lesser people.)

Fueling the tribal divisions are economic gapsbetween the rich and poor. The poor live in what are euphemisticallycalled “development towns” in the distant Galilee to the north andNegev Desert to the south, as well as in the slums of the big cities.They are overwhelmingly Sephardic, Ethiopian and middle-aged andelderly Russian, or immigrants from the Islamic republics of theformer Soviet Union.

The most obvious evidence of the tribalization ofIsraeli society is in politics. No longer are political parties onlyleft-wing, right-wing or religious; now there are powerful ethnicparties as well. Yisrael B’Aliya, led by Natan Sharansky, is theprimary address for Russian immigrant voters. But the star of ethnicpolitics, the third-largest party in the Knesset after Labor andLikud and the most dynamic political movement in the country, isShas. Officially, it is a Sephardic ultra-Orthodox party, but, on theground, it is the populist champion of the Sephardic poor, be theyultra-Orthodox or just “traditionally” religious.

The irony about the rise of tribalism in Israel isthat it comes just as the two largest groups, Sephardim and Russians,are growing more and more successful, and finding fewer and fewerbarriers to their advancement.

Theroughly 700,000 Russians who have come to Israel since 1989 areunanimously viewed as the most successful wave of immigrants ever tohit the country. This is not entirely true, though. Most of theRussian elderly are poor, many middle-aged former professionals havebeen reduced to minimum-wage labor, and many from the Islamicrepublics don’t have the educational background to compete in Israel.But the majority of Russian immigrants are well-educated, ambitiousand perfectly suited to make it in Israel –and they have.

Yet, when Israelis speak of ethnicity and poverty,they are speaking mainly of Sephardim. These immigrants and theirdescendants make up nearly half the country’s population. While it isby no means true that most Sephardim are poor, it is glaringly truethat most of the poor are Sephardim (not counting Arab citizens, thepoorest of Israelis, who effectively don’t count).

Israel’s transformation from a lower-middle-class,socialistic country to a bourgeois, capitalistic one has onlyworsened ethnic and class divisions. Israel’s economic growth –which began in 1985 with inflation-slashing reforms, expandeddramatically in 1989 with the Russian immigration, and stretched yetfurther in 1993 with the Oslo peace process — benefited mainly themiddle-class and rich, as economic growth tends to do. The trickledown was relatively thin.

Before 1985, nearly all Israelis lived at a modeststandard; the difference between the haves and have-nots wasn’t allthat noticeable. With the turn toward free-market capitalism, themiddle-class began buying expensive homes, new cars and takingvacations abroad, while the poor remained in their slums andbackwaters. For many years now, the income gap between the rich andpoor in Israel has been the second-widest in the developed world,after the United States.

Labor Knesset member Shlomo Ben-Ami, whoimmigrated in the ’50s from Morocco and is one of the best analystsof the new Israeli sociopolitics, says class and ethnic resentmentswere the key reason why Sephardim voted overwhelmingly for Netanyahuin the 1996 election, a crucial factor in Netanyahu’s victory.

They saw that the economic good times andoptimism over the peace process had nothing to do with them, but wasbenefiting mainly the wealthy in Tel Aviv and the suburbs –Ashkenazim whom they identify with Shimon Peres and the Labor Party,”Ben-Ami says.

But class and ethnic resentments go back further,to the 1950s, when the masses of poor, uneducated Sephardicimmigrants were housed for years in tents and sheds bunched togetherin sprawlingma’abarot, or transit camps. Their children formed the “BlackPanther” movement of the 1970s, fighting in the streets with policeto protest their miserably second-class status in Israeli society.Today these second-generation Sephardim and their children areworking through Shas; the secular Sephardic party, Gesher (Bridge);and a host of social action movements to gain political and economicpower.

“We are creating a new definition of Zionism,”Ben-Ami told a crowd of elderly Sephardic protesters in Jerusalem,who were demanding ownership of the tiny, government-owned slumapartments they’d been paying rent on for decades. Ben-Ami and otherSephardic leaders insist that these people and hundreds of thousandslike them are not Israel’s charity cases, but instead are Zionistpioneers who have never received their due and should be glorified noless than the Ashkenazic socialists of the kibbutzim.

Socialism, secular Zionism, Western-styledemocracy — all these used to be the dominant ideals of the country.The rise of Menachem Begin and the Likud in 1977 marked the beginningof the end of all that. West Bank settlers became the new pioneers.Ultra-Orthodox rabbis and politicians became the new power brokers.Orthodox Judaism, tradition, ethnic roots and hard-line nationalismreplaced progressivism as the dominant ethic.

“The beliefs that used to hold Israelis togetherare no longer there. Now each separate group tends to look after itsown parochial political interests,” said sociologist Dr. Yossi Dahan,a leading secular Sephardic ideologue.

More than any movement in Israel’s history, Shasspeaks to ethnic and class resentments at once. Absent the violence,it works much like fundamentalist Islamic movements, says Dahan.Using its political power to gain massive government funding, it hasset up a broad network of low-cost day-care centers, schools andyeshivas in the urban slums and development towns. Led by an army ofdedicated activists, Shas attracts followers by providing them withsocial services, which makes the recipients open to the party’smessage of Sephardic pride and old-fashioned, Eastern-style Judaism.They vote Shas, which gives Shas more political power, which gainsShas more government money for social services, which attracts morefollowers — and the cycle just keeps expanding.

“Liberal democracy never worked for the Sephardimin the slums and development towns. These people have no future inmainstream Israel. Shas gives them help and personal attention, tellsthem they’re somebody, makes them proud, so it’s no wonder that Shasis so popular with them,” Dahan notes.

At the beginning of the decade, when manythousands of Russian and Ethiopian immigrants and poor Sephardim wereliving in low-rent mobile home parks, a rock-and-bottle-throwingclash broke out at one of the parks between Ethiopians and Russians.Asked if the two sides couldn’t settle their differences by sittingdown and talking to each other, park manager Tsiki Aud said this wasa dangerous idea.

“If they dig down into their real feelings, theymight even come up with more resentments,” he said. As anafterthought, he noted, “The worst ethnic disputes aren’t between theRussians and Ethiopians anyway, but between the Russian Ashkenazim[mainly
from Russia and the Ukraine] and the Russian Sephardim [fromthe Islamic republics].”

=There is much truth in the generalization thatRussians look down on Sephardim and Ethiopians as primitives, andthat Sephardim resent the Russians for getting better immigrantbenefits than they received. In the ultra-Orthodox world, Ashkenazimlook down on Sephardim, and Sephardim resent the Ashkenazim fordiscriminating against them. (This latter sentiment was the reasonwhy Shas came into being in the early 1980s.)

The Israeli poor are probably unique among poorpeople in the world in that they vote decisively for conservativepolitical candidates and parties. (Again, not counting Israeli Arabs,who vote almost unanimously for the left.) The reason for thisuncanny voting pattern is that while the various tribes may dislikeeach other, they dislike the Arabs and the Israeli left, which isoverwhelmingly Ashkenazic, even more.

The Sephardim see leftists as the people who sentthem off to the ma’abarot in the ’50s and ’60s, and who look down onthem now. The Russians see leftists as descendants of the Communists,and as the ruling establishment in Israel that is trying to keep themfrom reaching the top.

Together with the Orthodox, Israel’s ethnic andpoor have joined together behind Netanyahu. They are his “coalitionof outsiders” who elected and still support him, less out ofenthusiasm for him than out of antipathy towards his enemies: theArabs and the Left. Stirred by Netanyahu, the Sephardim, Russians andOrthodox make a melting pot of sorts — just not the sort thatZionist socialist David Ben-Gurion and his protege, Shimon Peres, hadin mind.

Top photo from “Those Were The Days”