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Why the right-wing Mizrahi vote is misunderstood in Israel

Israeli Jews from the Middle East and North Africa vote en masse for Likud and its right-wing allies, despite being told it's against their interests. Here's why
Benjamin Netanyahu visited the Western Wall after being sworn in as prime minister. It was a gesture that appealed to the Mizrahi community (AP)
By Peggy Cidor in Jerusalem

Whenever an election rolls around in Israel, a major question arises: why do the Mizrahim, in their vast majority, continue to vote for Benjamin Netanyahu, his Likud party and other right-wing parties?

The question itself is seen by experts and members of the community as an expression of a deep misunderstanding of Mizrahi Israelis, due to deep cultural, religious and social differences with their compatriots.

The Mizrahim, a general term for Jews from countries in the Middle East and North Africa, is also a political sociological term that was coined with the creation of Israel. Between 1948 and the early 1980s, more than 850,000 Jews left or were expelled from countries in the region. As of 2005, 61 percent of Israeli Jews were of full or partial Mizrahi ancestry.

“Mizrahim”, as a term, is perceived as a form of Orientalism, similar to the ways in which Westjuden (Jews from the West) had labelled Ostjuden (Jews from eastern Europe) as “second class”.

'We vote according to our culture, we vote for those who do not underestimate our faith, our tradition'

- Sheleg Ben Shitrit, Channel 14

In the 70s, Mizrahi Israelis voted en masse for the Likud, because they felt that Menachem Begin addressed them out of true respect and appreciation. The Likud leader, who in 1977 became the first prime minister not from Israel’s Labor party, spoke about the Mizrahim in his speeches, emphasising they were all brothers and Jews at a time when Ashkenazis from Europe were, like now, dominating society.

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Mizrahi Israelis were and remain some of the poorest communities, living in developing towns and underprivileged neighbourhoods. Yet the Mizrahim continues to vote for right-wing parties: mostly Likud, but also the ultra-Orthodox Shas and Jewish Power, headed by the far-right national security minister, Itamar Ben Gvir. (Bezalel Smotrich's Religious Zionism party, which ran with Jewish Power, is considered very Ashkenazi, while Ben Gvir is himself Mizrahi.)

This confuses some, who expect people of such a background to vote for parties on the left, who promote civil rights, equality and the pursuit of peace.

“I am often asked why we, the Mizrahim, vote for those who do not benefit us, instead of supporting the centre and left parties, which are supposed to provide answers to our economic and social hardships,” says Sheleg Ben Shitrit, producer and artistic director at Channel 14, who describes herself as a proudly right-wing lesbian.

“It is clear they miss the point. We vote according to our culture, we vote for those who do not underestimate our faith, our tradition, those who do not treat us as lacking understanding not able to decide and choose what is really important to us,” she tells Middle East Eye.

Ben Shitrit says this kind of behaviour from left-leaning Ashkenazi Israelis is “the same arrogance from the first years of the state, when they saw us as cultureless and did not understand that we have different priorities that are no less legitimate”.

Universality a problem, not a solution

The division has occupied many researchers for several decades. Momi Dahan, a professor from the Hebrew University, has examined the gap between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim in voting patterns over the last nine elections. Dahan found that in the March 2021 elections, the right-wing parties received 65 percent of Mizrahi votes, compared to 42 percent in the Ashkenazi communities.

According to Nissim Mizrahi, a sociologist from Tel Aviv University and the Jerusalem Van Leer Institute, politics of universality, seen from a liberal point of view as key to correcting society’s ills, are experienced by the Mizrahim as an identity threat, a problem rather than a solution.

That’s because the secular, liberal worldview can lead to “enlightened racism” which “tarnishes traditional, religious, ultra-Orthodox and other peripheral communities, and negatively labels their worlds, their way of life and their culture”, explains Mizrahi.

“This produces deep despair in liberals, as it turns out that they don't have any visible option in their toolbox to buy a broad hold and win the elections. I call it liberal violence, for it is the distaste shown for any religious or national expression,” Mizrahi tells MEE.

“For example, strong and opinionated religious women oppose the description of gender segregation as exclusion… I don't see how you can deny the reality that groups in society differ in their conceptions of good and bad and what a moral life is.”

Conservative religious Mizrahim oppose the description of gender segregation as exclusion (AP)
Conservative religious Mizrahim oppose the description of gender segregation as exclusion (AP)

Merav Aloush Levron, a cultural researcher and social activist, specialises in the study of identities in visual communication and popular culture. He says the claim that "Mizrahim vote for those who screw them over" is one of the “great cliches” of the liberal left.

“It does not take into account the Mizrahi class mobility, the Mizrahi heterogeneity and the traditional religious Jewish component, which competes with other variables,” he tells MEE.

“Socialist Zionism sought to purify the Jewish identity.”

Competing visions of Jewish identity

Laly Derai was born in Paris to parents who first immigrated from Tunisia to France before moving to Israel. She’s now a Likud activist and a prominent figure in the Israeli media known for her right-wing and traditional positions.

For her, Jewish misunderstandings over the Mizrahim’s politics strikes to the very heart of the issue: competing visions of Jewish identity.

“Living in Israel is for us, coming from Arab countries, the continuation of our Jewish identity. Whereas the programme presented by the left is cosmopolitan - in which nationalism is overcome - we, Mizrahi Jews, do not relate at all to this discourse, in which human and civil rights come before our Jewish identity,” she tells MEE.

“But there is more than that,” she adds. Mizrahi Likudniks are often asked why the party of the Mizrahim has never had a leader from the community.

“But that is not the problem at all. It's not a meritocracy, it's not at all a question of a Mizrahi being elected to head the party or not. What matters is that it is the movement that promotes the programme that suits us, with which we feel that we are truly represented.”

Netanyahu is known for being religiously non-observant, but Derai says that’s no problem for religious Mizrahi.

“Choosing Netanyahu has nothing to do with the halaha [Jewish law] but depends on one’s self-definition,” she says.

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“The question Netanyahu and all of us ask ourselves is: how do you define yourself? Are you first Jewish or first Israeli? If you define yourself firstly as Jewish, then we are in an identity story and not a religious one, and Netanyahu being religious or not doesn’t matter at all.”

Derai hesitates a minute and then adds: “You have to understand that for us, the natives of the Arab countries, the state of Israel was not created because of the Shoah [Holocaust], but because we wanted to realise a millennial dream.”

Yair Lapid, head of the centrist Yesh Atid party, visited Israel’s Holocaust memorial when he became prime minister in July. “He says that Israel was created because of the Shoah. But when Netanyahu is elected, he goes to the Kotel [the Western Wall]: it’s a Jewish declaration that fits us. The attachment to our traditions remains very strong across generations.”

Yet the fact remains that Likud is not a party that is known for its policies helping more vulnerable sections of society. Derai, however, describes left-wing parties such as Labor as “caviar left”.

“Not only have they cut with their Jewish roots, but also they no longer have any connection with the socialist side.”

She points at the large rallies the opposition has mobilised in Tel Aviv in recent weeks, in which hundreds of thousands of Israelis have decried the plans of Netanyahu’s new far-right government to overhaul the judiciary.

“Look at those who gathered these recent weeks in Tel Aviv. It is not socialism that motivates them. The tendency of this left today is that they care more about the Palestinians than about their Jewish brethren,” Derai says.

“And it’s not that a true socialist message would not please us Mizrahim, because we see that on the right there is mainly meritocracy and a free market, so it is not true to say that we do not care about equality.

“I remember that when Mitterrand was elected in France [in 1981], my parents and I went out dancing in the street. But sadly, over the years, the Israeli left has moved more and more to the left, while we have not moved from our position.”

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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