Israeli Election Hinges on a Mosaic of Competing Groups

Israeli politics can be tribal, with loyalties to ethnic groups, religious factions and ideologies as strong a factor in voting as views on particular issues. Here’s a guide in words and pictures.


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Sept. 17, 2019

JERUSALEM — Tuesday’s do-over election in Israel may not, by itself, decide who will be the next prime minister. That could take weeks of arduous coalition negotiations.

But the vote will almost certainly provide fresh evidence that the United States has nothing on this country when it comes to identity politics.

The April election was the first I’d covered as a foreign correspondent in Israel, and it shocked me that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu openly expressed desperation in the campaign’s final days and hours. At 11:25 p.m. on the night before votes were cast, he even had his American pollster join him on camera to declare, gravely, “Right now, we’re losing the race.”

In the United States, political candidates are programmed never to let the voters see them sweat, no matter how abysmal the poll numbers. In Israel, Mr. Netanyahu has perfected the art of setting his hair on fire and dialing 911 to get his voters to put out the flames.

There’s a reason this works so well for him. Israeli politics in many ways is tribal, and when a member of your tribe sounds the alarm, your instinct is to run to their aid.

Unlike the biblical tribes of Israel, these groups do not spring so much from bloodlines, but from loyalties to ethnic groups, religious brethren or ideology, and they erupt into plain view during election seasons.

ImageAn Israeli settler schoolgirl in the West Bank town of Hebron.

President Reuven Rivlin took a stab at defining Israel’s tribes in a landmark speech in 2015, noting that secular Zionist Jews, once a majority, had dwindled to a large minority, as three other groups had grown: the ultra-Orthodox, the national-religious and Arab citizens.

“Israeli politics to a great extent is built as an intertribal zero-sum game,” he warned, urging all four groups to figure out a way to work in partnership. (They haven’t.)

A new book by Camil Fuchs and Shmuel Rosner, “#IsraeliJudaism,” categorizes the Jewish population along two axes: how strictly they follow religious tradition, or how Jewish they are; and how much they embrace Israel’s nationalist symbols and rites, or how Israeli they are. A majority, they find, strongly identifies with both, but many ultra-Orthodox reject nationalism and many secular Israelis reject Jewish religious practice.

What has made Mr. Netanyahu so formidable a force over the years is his melding of nationalists and the religious into a single, right-wing political bloc.

But Rabbi Donniel Hartman, president of the influential Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, identifies no fewer than 17 tribes in present-day Israel, breaking down the ultra-Orthodox according to their attitudes toward Zionism and modernity, so-called traditional Jews according to how much they adhere to Jewish ritual, and Arabs according to religion and whether they take pride in being citizens of Israel, among other cohorts.

“That’s why coalition government is so important,” Rabbi Hartman said. “Because when you have all of this, each group sees itself as a persecuted minority.”

Just as President Trump relies on support from white, working-class Americans, Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud party draws much of its political strength from working-class Israelis, many of them Jews living in the so-called development towns on Israel’s periphery, where immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa were resettled beginning in the 1950s. These Mizrahi, or eastern, and Sephardic Jews, who account for around half the Jewish population of Israel, have long harbored resentments toward the European-descended, Ashkenazi liberal elite, who discriminated against them while governing Israel from its founding until the 1970s, when Likud first came to power.

Likud is not the only party that caters to Mizrahim: Shas, the Sephardic ultra-Orthodox party, also attracts some of the many Mizrahi Jews who are “traditional” in their religious practice — a broad range of people who may not attend synagogue regularly but are perfectly at home there when they do, Rabbi Hartman said. And Labor’s Moroccan-born leader merged the party with one led by the daughter of a Moroccan-born former Likud leader, but its politics remain anathema to most Mizrahi voters.

To tourists who enjoy Tel Aviv’s beaches and nightclubs and never venture farther afield, Israel can seem a bastion of ultraliberalism that is difficult to reconcile with the country’s right-wing national politics.

And to Tel Aviv’s largely secular population, the election is a battle to stop Mr. Netanyahu from undermining Israeli democracy for the sake of retaining power and from allowing the ultrareligious, through their influence on government agencies, to try to brainwash their children into becoming observant Jews. Secular Israelis have been sounding the alarm to preserve an open-minded, live-and-let-live Israel before it is too late.

A major problem for secular Israelis, who are no longer the political force they once were, is that their votes are being split among too many parties. For the first time, what remains of the storied Labor Party may not clear the threshold to be seated in Parliament. The fledgling left-wing Democratic Union is in similar shape. Both have been threatened by Blue and White, the centrist party that is vying to topple Mr. Netanyahu but is vacuuming up the votes of many on the left.

The most outwardly recognizable tribe because of their traditional black-and-white attire, the ultra-Orthodox, also known as Haredi Jews, vote en masse, generally heeding the instructions of their rabbis — which means that Sephardic ultra-Orthodox back Shas and the Ashkenazi support United Torah Judaism.

Their ability to turn out the vote is the envy of other tribes: Bnei Brak, a Haredi city, reported a stunning 77 percent turnout in the April election. And it is the source of their political power, which among other things has given them exemptions from military service, financial subsidies and rabbinical control of marriage, divorce and religious conversions.

In a small country, having a party that represents the ultra-Orthodox means being able to seek help from someone in power who shares a similar worldview, said Binyamin Rose, a U.T.J. voter who is editor at large of Mishpacha Magazine. “If I need something, who am I going to go to?” he said. “If I go to Likud, they’ll take one look at me and say, ‘Why should we help you?’”

A growing number of ultra-Orthodox are stepping out of their insular, yeshiva-centered communities, serving in the army or taking jobs at technology companies, and engaging with broader society. But the current battle between secular politicians and the religious is driving many back to the fold.

“We’re closing ranks,” Mr. Rose said. “They say, ‘This is who represents me.’

Perhaps the most interesting tribal warfare of this campaign has been for the votes of religious Zionists, about 12 percent of the Jewish population. These Sabbath-observant Israelis encompass a broad range of views, but most tilt to the right, and include the ideological foot soldiers of the settlement enterprise.

By promising last week to annex a large portion of the West Bank, Mr. Netanyahu was making a play for these voters, whose natural home is the Yamina, or rightward, party. Yamina argues that it needs a large contingent in Parliament to force Mr. Netanyahu to keep his promises.

But Yamina is also having to protect its own right flank from an even more extreme faction, Otzma Yehudit, or Jewish Power — an overtly anti-Arab party whose leaders call themselves disciples of Meir Kahane, the Brooklyn-born militant who was assassinated in 1990 and whose Kach party was outlawed in Israel and declared a terrorist group by the United States.

The leader of Otzma Yehudit, Itamar Ben Gvir, is demanding a cabinet post if the party makes it into Parliament and delivers its support to Mr. Netanyahu.

The wild card in this election, Arab citizens of Israel make up about one-sixth of the eligible voting population, and they vote in large numbers in municipal elections. But only 49 percent voted in April, a record low, and turnout is not expected to rise dramatically on Tuesday.

Arabs give plenty of reasons for not participating in the Israeli political system: in protest of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, in reaction to Zionist parties’ refusal to consider including Arab parties in a governing coalition, or out of impatience with Arab lawmakers’ focus on the Palestinians’ problems rather than their own voters’ needs. But Arab and center-left Jewish politicians are at least making an effort to woo them, by promising to address crime, housing shortages and other tangible problems in their communities.

For a while, it seemed as if the premiership might be decided in places like Bat Yam, a seaside town heavily populated by immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Mr. Netanyahu has tried to make inroads with supporters of Avigdor Liberman, the Moldova-born leader of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, after Mr. Liberman refused to join Mr. Netanayhu’s coalition after the April election. Mr. Liberman’s refusal to compromise with the prime minister’s ultra-Orthodox allies prevented Mr. Netanyahu from forming a government and precipitated the new elections.

Mr. Liberman’s Russian-speaking supporters, who have backed him for more than 20 years, do not appear to be deserting him. But they are aging, and their children are fully Israeli and vote for a variety of parties, prompting Mr. Liberman to reinvent himself as a champion of secular Israelis, whatever their native tongues.

One hot-button issue, among many: the hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens, including many former Soviet immigrants and their offspring, who are considered Jewish by the state but not by the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate, meaning they cannot get married in Israel.

Not every tribe in Israel can muster enough votes to gain representation in Parliament through its own party. The roughly 130,000 Ethiopian-Jewish Israelis have yet to wield much muscle in politics, despite the election of a handful to the Knesset since the waves of immigration in the 1980s and in 1991.

But after a string of fatal police shootings, they are working hard to assert themselves politically, with frequent protests against police brutality aimed at forcing a national reckoning with what black Israelis say is a history of racism.

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