J Street's Blind Spot Is Class

Peaceniks Need To Forge Alliance With Working-Class Israelis

Class Matters: J Street draws a well-meaning and well-informed crowd. But it overlooks the fact that Israeli politics is still driven by resentment at elites by workers, immigrants and Sephardim.
liz malby
Class Matters: J Street draws a well-meaning and well-informed crowd. But it overlooks the fact that Israeli politics is still driven by resentment at elites by workers, immigrants and Sephardim.

By Jay Michaelson

Published April 01, 2012, issue of April 06, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share

I’m not one for political conventions. Good policy is subtle, but effective politics is broad — and I, for one, prefer the former. When friends of mine returned from the AIPAC conference in early March, inspired by (in the words of one of them) “thousands of Jews all united by a love of Israel,” I felt nauseated. I don’t want to be in a crowd of thousands of people united by anything.

So it was with some ambivalence that I approached this year’s J Street conference — which seemed fitting, since J Street’s official slogan, “Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace,” is itself somewhat ambivalent. Yes to Israel, no to settlements. Yes to negotiations, no to imagining the Palestinians as righteous victims of oppression. Of course, this is territory I’ve staked out in these pages for years. And lo and behold, I fit right in, with thousands of people united by a love of Israel and a concern for its well-being now that a right/far-right government is leading it.

The only thing is, the Israeli public elected that right/far-right government, and the public would likely re-elect it if the election were held today. And while I heard numerous opinions about why the government’s policies are damaging to Israel, morally wrong, at odds with America’s interests and so on, I heard very little about how they might be changed — that is, by a different party winning the next election.

Why do Israelis vote for rightist and far-rightist parties when poll after poll tells us that most Israeli Jews support center-left policies? The answer has nothing to do with Palestine or with the issues discussed at 95% of the J Street conference held in late March.

Rather, Israel’s right-wing coalition depends upon Sephardic resentment of Ashkenazi elites, Russian resentment of Ashkenazi elites and religious Israelis’ resentment of Ashkenazi elites. Yet while we J Streeters heard from one Ashkenazi elite after another, I didn’t hear a peep about the dynamics of race and ethnicity in Israeli culture, or what can be done to convince these groups to stop voting against their economic interests by propping up a hawkish, wealth-gap-enlarging regime. I heard a lot about issues that interest Ashkenazi elites: an end to religious coercion, an end to the occupation and so on. As an Ashkenazi elite myself, I duly applauded.

But surely this is a tone deafness so opaque as to resemble deafness itself. Even worse, it is a continuation of the very condescension that so enrages Sephardim, Russians and religious Jews. If only you would understand what we understand; if only you’d see that a two-state solution is in your own interests; if only you’d choose hope instead of fear.

Now, I am sure that the centrist and liberal Israeli politicians who addressed the J Street conference are indeed committed to fighting the stratification of Israeli society and have all the right liberal positions on equality of opportunity. I am sure they can point to some party officials from these various groups, even though I didn’t see any of them at the conference itself. And it was of great importance that Stav Shaffir, one of the leaders of last summer’s social justice protests, was a featured speaker at the conference; this is a sign that the Israeli economic dynamic may be changing.

But that was not nearly enough. Ignoring the ethnic/social/racial elephant in the room, which has stampeded the left since the days of Menachem Begin, had me wondering if these elites still don’t get it, like conservatives in America who really think we live in a colorblind society and that race doesn’t matter anymore.

Over and over, we were told about how Israel should be coaxed to the negotiating table for its own good. But surely the right way to make change is not by persuading a right/far-right government to defy its own electoral base. Could you imagine this view playing out in America? Rather than campaigning against the Republicans, trying to exert external pressure on a Republican government to raise the minimum wage, fight climate change and favor diplomacy over war?

No. What Israel needs is a regime change, and that has to come from Israelis voting for a different ruling party. And that, in turn, has to come from changing the dynamics that enable Benjamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman to stay in power. To pretend that those dynamics are about hope versus fear, or enlightenment versus ignorance, is to perpetuate them. Without engaging the Israeli electorate head on, without changing and diversifying the Israeli Left, we thousands of concerned, liberal, Ashkenazi Americans are just talking to ourselves.

Jay Michaelson is the author of, most recently, “God vs. Gay? The Religious Case for Equality” (Beacon Press, 2011).


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • Planning on catching "Fading Gigolo" this weekend? Read our review.
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. http://jd.fo/q3Iaj Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.