Skip To Content
JEWISH. INDEPENDENT. NONPROFIT.
Back to Opinion

What The Israeli And American Left Can Learn From Each Other

The right-wing in Israel has largely dominated politics for nearly 20 years. But I’m going to say something shocking here: Israeli voters are not right wing; Israeli Jews are.

Nearly all Israeli Jews vote for Jewish/Zionist parties, while the vast majority of Israeli Arabs vote for Arab/non-Zionist parties. It’s from those Jewish/Zionist parties that the rightward tilt comes. In the most recent legislative elections on April 9th, 2019, 59% of the vote for Jewish/Zionist parties went to the right, while only 38% of that vote went to the Jewish center or left.

It’s an exact mirror for America, where 58% of white voters supported Trump and only 37% supported Clinton.

And yet, despite consistently losing the white vote in similar margins to those by which the Israeli left loses the Jewish vote, Democrats have won every single popular vote in a Presidential election since 1992 but one. That’s because Democrats don’t rely on white voters to propel them to victory. They understand that the only way to win is to form a broad, multi-ethnic voting block of white, black, Latino and Asian voters.

In Israel, Jews only make up 74% of the population. If the quarter of non-Jews voted at the same rate as Jews, non-Jewish parties would have around 30 seats in the Knesset, a far cry from the paltry 10 seats they won in the last election. If non-Jewish Israelis voted for left-wing parties at the same percentage that black voters support the Democrats (around 90%), and Jewish voters maintained their roughly 40-60 split, the broader left would have 63 seats — a clear majority in the 120 seat Knesset.

This isn’t happening, of course. Israeli Arabs, facing down major voter suppression campaigns and massive demonization from the right vote in much smaller numbers than Israeli Jews. Centrist parties often join the right in railing against Arab parties and voters, and make no efforts to boost Israeli Arab turnout. Given this reality, it’s hard to imagine the center-left coming to power any time soon in Israel.

That is, of course, unless they actually copy what the Democrats have done and work to build a Jewish-Arab electoral coalition. But that’s easier said than done.

In order for this coalition to work, there needs to be a cultural shift in Israel where Arabs are no longer seen as second class voters, but equal to their Jewish counterparts. The left cannot simply expect Arabs to break with decades of antipathy towards a state that doesn’t view them as true equals and participate in state institutions; the left must earn Arab votes by promising them a truly better future.

This is what Israel can learn from America. But America has a great deal to learn from Israel as well.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is, by all accounts, something of a political genius. He’s controlled Israeli politics over the past decade, and will likely be the longest sitting Prime Minister in Israeli history. What’s interesting is to observe what he does immediately before an election, which is to run far to the right.

According to the standard understanding of elections, this makes no sense. Running to the center to appeal to “moderate” voters is pretty much the bread and butter of political campaigning. So shouldn’t Bibi also run to the center before elections and just let other more extreme right-wing parties win the right-wing vote, and form a coalition with them after?

The way Bibi sees it, running to the right shifts the conversation. It forces Israelis to put the conflict with the Palestinians at the forefront of their mind. Again, in theory, this is a bad idea. In general, most polls show a plurality of Israelis support the two-state solution, and most are opposed to annexing the West Bank. But right before the last election, Bibi promised to begin annexation of the West Bank — and won.

What this shows is that while many Israelis would prefer a two-state solution in the long-term, the status quo is far from a disaster to them. The average Israeli Jew rarely interacts with a Palestinian, and terrorism is at much lower levels than it was two decades ago. And despite threats of boycotts, the Israeli economy is doing fine.

In short, a two-state solution threatens to disrupt a situation that’s decent, if not ideal, for Israeli Jews. So they’ll continue voting for the status quo until there becomes a clear reason why the status quo is truly harmful to their way of life.

Something very similar is happening in the U.S. For Trump and the establishment Republicans are fighting over what the 2020 election should be about. Trump wants to steal a page from Bibi’s book, run right, and focus on immigration. Mainstream Republicans are urging him to run to the center and focus on the good economy.

Again, the standard model says the mainstream Republicans are right here. Trump’s polling on the economy is much better than his polling on immigration. But given that Trump succeeded where Mitt Romney and John McCain failed, it’s worth considering that maybe his political instincts on this one are better than we’d initially believe.

By all accounts, the economy should be Trump’s biggest strong suit, his ace in the hole. Unemployment is very low, the stock market is doing fine, and real wages are up. And yes, Trump scores decent marks when it comes to the economy, with just 43% disapproving according to a recent Economist/YouGov poll.

But according to the same poll, only 32% of Americans strongly approve of his economic performance. That means that 68% of Americans are looking at a large number of nominally positive economic metrics under Trump, and either think he’s doing poorly on the issue or don’t have an opinion on the question. That’s actually pretty bad given the situation, not to mention the fact that betting on the economy is very risky; if there’s a crash before November 2020, Trump will be in a lot of trouble.

Likewise, by all accounts, immigration should be Trump’s biggest weakness. Trump got a huge amount of flak for separating families at the border and caging children. The government shutdown over the wall was a disaster for Trump, and his biggest campaign promise, that Mexico would pay for that wall, will certainly be unfulfilled by the election. And sure enough, according to that same Economist/YouGov poll, a 45% minority of Americans approve of his performance when it comes to immigration.

But here’s the kicker: Only 38% strongly disapprove of him when it comes to immigration. So 62% of Americans have heard all of the negative accounts of his immigration policies, and, despite all of that, think he’s doing a good job on the issue, only slightly disapprove of his performance, or don’t know enough to say.

There’s an extra layer here. A great deal of Americans, including many who disapprove of Trump’s immigration policies, will never be personally affected by these policies. A continuation of these policies will be a disaster to undocumented immigrants, but will have no impact on the lives of the vast majority of Americans, meaning that many folks who would prefer a more humane immigration policy will still be able to shrug off these abuses against immigrants. On the other hand, the economy affects every American directly. Appearing to be an economic failure is probably the most potent poison pill for any politician.

So Trump, like Bibi, understands that the way to win is by offering your base red meat and shifting the conversation to something he’s comfortable talking about. Democrats are on much more uneven footing when it comes to immigration. None of them have policies as narratively succinct as “Build the Wall.” Sure, they’ll talk about comprehensive immigration reform, but few people will have an intuitive sense of what that actually means in practice.

On immigration, Trump will look like the visionary proposing bold ideas, and Democrats will look like feckless, waffling elites. On the economy, we’ve got the exact opposite situation: Democrats will be fighting on their home turf and proposing big, easily digestible, and extremely popular ideas like raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour and making the rich pay more in taxes.

So the Israeli left has a lot to learn from the American left, namely, that the key to gaining and retaining power is to build a broad multicultural coalition. And the American left has a lot to learn from the Bibi-Trump style of politics, specifically, the idea that running on positions that are seen as more “extreme” and giving your base red meat is a surprisingly wise strategy.

It’s a strategy they’ll need to work on countering now before “King Bibi” in Israel becomes “King Trump” here.

Alec Ewig is the Director of Data and Analytics at J Street

A message from our editor-in-chief Jodi Rudoren

We're building on 127 years of independent journalism to help you develop deeper connections to what it means to be Jewish today.

With so much at stake for the Jewish people right now — war, rising antisemitism, a high-stakes U.S. presidential election — American Jews depend on the Forward's perspective, integrity and courage.

—  Jodi Rudoren, Editor-in-Chief 

Join our mission to tell the Jewish story fully and fairly.

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.