February 08, 2010

Follow up on Oslo and ethnic relations in Israel

The video of Israelis hailing Hitler posted here on JSF some times ago is making the rounds of the blogs, but usually without attention to the historical context. Yet without this context it helps misunderstanding the reasons for the fateful historical bankruptcy of the Israeli "peace movement."

When it was published on JSF, I was challenged by Emmanuel Shiff, apparently a student from the Hebrew (colonial) University, about my criticism of the Israeli peace movement. I thought this discussion is worth a second look, so I reproduce it below in full.

ES: "The great success of the Ashkenazi dominated Labor Party was to create a linkage between peace with Palestinians and intensified racism against Jews of Arab origin. This is the foul fruit of that achievement."

I'm not sure I understood you correctly. Are you saying that the Labor Party used the peace process in the 1990's to intensify discrimination of Mizrahi Jews? If that's what you're saying, it makes no sense. The peak of discrimination was the 1950's, 60's and 70's. In recent decades, the discrimination of Mizrahim has gone down, though it is not gone completely and the effects of the earlier discrimination are still very present.

GA: Its frustrating that on the web you cannot get away with sloppy writing. ;-)

That was sloppy formulation. My apologies. What I should have written is that the the peace process was perceived, correctly, as threatening to lead to the intensification of the oppression of Mizrahis. Indeed the height of oppression was in the period up to the 1970s. But the way that oppression lessened was through the rise of Likud, and the transformation of the occupation into a welfare system and upward mobility tool. Oslo was a not primarily about peace, it was primarily about economic liberalization, globalization and investment. It was a program of stopping Mizrahi upward mobility for the sake of integrating Israel globally.

I will change the body of the article later tonight, for the sake of future google searches.

ES: A big part of Oslo was indeed the economic liberalization aspect, though I'd say it came hand in hand with, and was equally important as, peace and security, and wasn't more important than those two aspects. The way you put it, the weakening of the welfare state was meant to preserve Ashkenazi domination, but that isn't the case.

The transition to a more capitalist economy may have hurt the lower classes, which tend to be Mizrahi Jews, but that wasn't the goal, but rather a side-effect.

GA: The transition to a neoliberal economy (it was 100% capitalist before as well) was a 'passive revolution' (Gramsci) driven by the exhaustion of the previous economic configuration in an inflationary spiral that ended in a collapse of the banking system (1985). Of course, neoliberalism was not the only logical option. It was the option favored by the dominant Ashkenazi class, because it preserved their economic and social domination. It opened up new forms of capital accumulation (globalization), which were of course only available to those in the position to buy the state's assets or to manage them. It also transferred power away from state institutions to the private sphere exactly at the moment when Mizrahis were finally starting to use their voting power to increase their numbers in the state apparatus (following 1977). This was not analyzed by most Mizrahis at the time in marxist terms, but the scope, direction and social implications of the transformation was clearly grasped by the masses. Elections between 1981 and 1996 were polarized on race/economics (with signposts such as dudu topaz' 1981 gaffe, or the 4% [from memory] jump in the stock market on the announcement that labor won the 1992 elections).

Eventually, globalization took hold but the Oslo processed collapsed. In principle, it could have been the other way around. Labor could have run on...welfare and wages (unimaginable, right?) and Rabin could have taken the Hebron settlement down after the Goldstein massacre, and could have replaced the ultra hostile Barak with a pro Oslo general. Then we would have reached the end of the century with a much less capitalistic Israel and some sort of a (inadequate) two state solution. In practice, that could not have happened, because Israel of course would have then to go against the global neoliberal trend. But the carriers of that trend in Israeli society were the Ashkenazi left who benefited from it most (and voted labor). Sure they wanted peace. nobody says that most "left" voter weren't sincere. But the social compromise that Begin already articulated in the early 80s and that Netanyahu consolidated in the late nineties was based on Ashkenazis accepting the continuation of the occupation and Mizrahis accepting globalization.

ES: I'm not a marxist, so I don't see it the same way you do, but even from a marxist standpoint this isn't necessarily an Ashkenazi vs. Mizrahi issue, but more a question of socio-economic standing. Yes, it is undeniable that the well-off tend to be Ashkenazis and the poor tend to be Mizrahis, but by that reasoning all neoliberals are actually racists. Were George W. Bush's economic domestic policies intentionally anti-black and and anti-hispanic? As horrible a president as he was, I don't think he's a racist (at least not towards African-Americans and Latino-Americans)

Regarding the elections between 1981 and 1996 (I'd say even earlier and later), there was definitely an ethnic divide, with the Mizrahim clearly preferring the the right (which is still the case today) and the Ashkenazim preferring the left (something that isn't as clearly the case nowadays). I think this has much more to do with Labor's racism in the earlier period than with economic liberalization. Likud (and its predecessor Herut) was smart in embracing Mizrahim while Labor rejected them. However, starting with the late 70's, the Mizrahim stuck with Likud despite the fact that it was hurting them no less then labor. Likud, after all, was the party that started the economic liberalization and hurt the poorer classes. From that point, it wasn't ongoing discrimination by Ashkenazi-dominated Labor that made Mizrahim Likudniks, but rather a combination of Mizrahi Jews' hawkish tendencies and inertia.

GA: I think you miss a couple of important things. First, regarding George Bush’s malice and racism. His personal attitude is of little importance, but there is what is known as the GOP’s ‘Southern strategy,’ which appeals to white Southern voters using coded language that, as GOP strategist Lee Atwater explained,

“You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites.”

Indeed there is a much larger history that associates “socialism” in the popular American consciousness (correctly, by the way) with Black empowerment. So part of the way neo-liberal policies were marketed in the U.S. was indeed through their direct appeal to racism. What you call the racializing “by-product” of the neo-liberal policy mix has its own political appeal to sectors threatened by racial equality

Second, I’m afraid that in one matter, and precisely where I beg to differ from classical marxist explanations, you are more marxist than I. You explain Mizrahi support of Likud in the nineties as self-damaging “hawkishness and inertia.” The way I see it, both power and hegemony shape the field of choices available to agents, but within this field, agents make relatively rational choices. The liberalism of Likud started with measures that benefited small businesses and the self-employed (many of them operated by Mizrahis). Begin liberalized the way state land was made available for private (Jewish) use, allowing the less wealthy (and mostly Mizrahis) to build small detached houses. Israel being a settler society that stole all its land from the indigenous people, land is a very strong signifier of social status that Ashkenazis monopolized and Likud opened up for Mizrahis. (Compare the land taken by kibuttzim to the congestion and small rooms often allocated to Mizrahis by state housing authorities). Likud governments allocated resources for non Ashkenazi culture, which was both symbolically important and a source of budgets and patronage available to Mizrahis when Likud was in power.

Finally, there was colonization in the West bank itself, which offered social mobility and a safety net to the less affluent Jewish Israelis and which, while both parties supported, was more visibly and more enthusiastically supported by Likud. Hence, while it is true that both Labor and Likud supported economic measure that benefited the Ashkenazi dominated upper class, it was the Right that offered to soften the blow with a mix of policies that appealed to lower class interests, at once symbolically and materially. The so called “Left” effectively told them to take a hike.

Why was “labor” so cavalier? Secular Ashkenazi Zionism is a European settler ideology that is foundationally racist against the indigenous culture, which is Arab, perceived as inferior to the European culture brought by the settlers. Mizrahis brought with them Arab culture to Israel. Their political ascendancy and increased cultural visibility, as well as the increased importance of religion since the seventies, was experienced by Ashkenazis as both a threat to their hegemonic position and as “the State of Israel going haywire” i.e., as the unthinkable victory of the inferior Arab over their superior European culture. The left has always pandered to this racism. Indeed, given that the “Zionist left” in Israel had little on its platform that could be described as “left” in economic terms, and given that its commitment to a just solution of the conflict with Palestinians was at best questionable if not downright dishonest (I’d go with dishonest), the other major component of its electoral appeal (apart from globalization), was identity politics for Ashkenazis, i.e., secularism and racism.

Mizrahis, as Shabi writes in the link Nedster provides below, had to prove their worthiness under Zionism by distancing themselves from their Arab heritage. They did so by adopting hawkish attitudes. But after 1977, this hawkishness opened ways to compete with Ashkenazis on symbolic capital, which in Israel was strongly associated with colonization (Palmakh, kibutz, etc.). The security forces, like other sectors of state bureaucracy, were opened for Mizrahi advancement. The Oslo framework was going to outsource the work of the IDF to Palestinians and the reduction of friction and official end of the colonization process would have closed that avenue for advancement and competition on status. For many reasons, therefore, their hawkishness was not just “traditional,” but a political choice that must be understood within the range presented by the Israeli political system and the limitations imposed by settler ideology.

ES: Sounds like Israel can never be alright, according to your theory. If it doesn't advance toward peace, it is an anti-Arab colonialist. If it does, it only does so to limit Mizrahi power.

GA: There is no such thing as "advancing towards peace" while maintaining and even increasing oppression. This is the bullshit language of the Zionist left you are using.

Nothing that actually happened under the term of "Oslo" constituted advancement towards peace. What happened was closures, the further segregation and destitution of Palestinian labor, the institution of a pass system, further colonization and settlement buildup, a network of roads for Jews only, and the establishment of a small comprador Palestinian class, sustained by international capital, tethered to the occupation and in charge of a Palestinian security apparatus whose sole capability was intended to, and still is, to further the oppression.

"Oslo" contained within it, purely on the imaginative plane, the spark of desire for peace, on the part of a significant portion of the Israeli electorate. Nothing unfortunately came of that spark because it was made subservient to the anti-Arab racism that animates Ashkenazi Zionism and to the capitalists interests that led the process at every step.

The exclusive choice between Peace and Mizrahi empowerment is exactly the choice designed by the Zionist establishment in order to prevent both. It is has no doubt worked like a charm, producing the present moment. One doesn't have to a genius however to understand that a state built on white supremacy and the inferiority of the "Orient" will never be at peace in the middle of that Orient. The fight against white supremacy must be consistent and make no exceptions. Ashkenazi racism is not a foundation on which peace can be built.

Whether Israel can or cannot do right is not a theoretical question. Let it do right first, and ask for that to be recognized later. You want credit for nothing.

There are further links and quotes in the comments.

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