The Ties That Bind: Israel’s Fractious Tribes

The Ties That Bind: Israel’s Fractious Tribes

Although social diversity is the norm, rather than the exception, in the world today, there are few societies that are as diverse and fractious as Israel’s. Israeli society appears to be a hodgepodge of different groups constantly bickering with each other. Israelis disagree on almost every conceivable issue from the most momentous, such as the location of the country’s final borders and the relationship between religion and the state, to the most mundane, such as what days of the week the weekend should fall on and when clocks should be changed from summertime to wintertime.

Israeli politics is hostage to these disagreements and divisions, as different social groups compete for power and prestige through their own political parties or through reserved slots on party lists -- a competition made possible by Israel’s electoral system of extreme proportional representation. Political parties in Israel do not simply represent different policies and worldviews, but different social groups. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party has traditionally represented Jews from the Middle East and North Africa, known as Sephardim or Mizrahim -- literally “Easterners.” Its historical rival, the center-left Labor Party, by contrast, is predominantly supported by the descendants of European Jews (Ashkenazim), as is Meretz, a small party further to Labor’s left. Yisrael Beiteinu (“Israel is Our Home”), the party led by the hawkish former Foreign Minister Avigdor Leiberman, is the “Russian party” because it draws its support primarily, although by no means exclusively, from those who emigrated in the 1990s from the former Soviet Union. (These immigrants now make up about 15 percent of Israel’s population.) Then there are different parties for different kinds of religious Jews -- for ultra-Orthodox and traditional Sephardim (Shas), for ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazim (United Torah Judaism) and for religious Zionists (Habayit Hayehudi and National Union). Finally, Israel’s Arab citizens have two parties of their own, one more secular and the other more Islamic in orientation (Balad and United Arab List-Ta’al, respectively).

Israel’s social divisions are not only on display in its parliament. Walk around different towns and cities in Israel and you will often hear Hebrew, Arabic, Russian, Amharic and even Yiddish, as well as a host of other languages, such as Thai, Tagalog and Chinese, due to the growing number of foreign workers and asylum-seekers in the country. There are also local newspapers, radio stations and television channels in different languages, each catering to a slice of Israel’s multicultural society.

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