Israeli demographics have always made for a chaotic political culture. While to the outside world, it’s a nation of Jews, internally it’s a nation of Russians, Anglos, native Sabras, Yemenites, Syrians, Persians and a hundred others. Even the smallest group has its compartmentalized identities: the delicate differences between immigrants from a single country but different towns, the countless distinctions among its religious communities in their own way are united and disunited.
The politics of such a country encompass too many groups to list. There are the 19th Century Hungarian immigrants who came in preparation for the coming of the Messiah and have resented all other Jews who came before them or after them as usurpers: these form much of the Neturei Karta, a fanatical group that rejects the State of Israel. There were the German Jews who brought with them an equally fanatical efficiency, building chicken processing plants that were as clean as operating tables. There are the truly old Jerusalemites and the immigrants who have just arrived and are already learning to resent the new immigrants who get off the plane and expect to have everything handed to them on a silver platter.
Israeli politics are born out of the chaos of the nation’s demographics. Its Knesset is a room where fanatical atheists and the fanatical religious, urbanites and hill-dwellers, representatives of Russian and Middle Eastern Jews, settlers and Arabs, feminists and patriarchs, socialists and capitalists, scream at each other for hours, not always for the reasons you expect, and do nothing constructive. That makes Israeli politics a lot like everyone else’s politics, but it has its unique features as well.
The Israeli left is one of the few socialist movements in the First World to lose power because of immigration. Around the same time that Western immigration policies were being tuned to bring in populations with less investment in their new nations, new Israeli immigrants were more patriotic and nationalistic. To understand the effect, imagine that the United States today was being flooded, not with the morass of Mexicans, Haitians, Pakistanis and Kenyans, but with Irish and Italian immigrants who had no hesitation about flying the Stars and Stripes or identifying with their new country.
Russian and Middle-Eastern Jews who arrived in Israel (and the United States) were more likely to be conservative and to regard the left’s growing preoccupation with appeasing terrorists with suspicion. And in a two party system, their votes would have prevented the left from ever doing more than having a few token elected members denounce the state on the floor of the Knesset before slinking back to their cafes.
The Israeli left was never particularly fond of immigration to Israel. Their ideal from the start was a land settled by a cadre of young men and women, trained in their schools and indoctrinated with their ideology. British restrictions on Jewish immigration were not nearly as troubling to them as they were to the right. Israel, as they saw it, would be for a small chosen elite, a socialist enterprise that the vast majority of European Jews did not have the skills or temperament to participate in.
Their vision of a country consisting of collective farms and a few state-operated enterprises under a single union was ended by the Holocaust. While the right took the lead in smuggling Jews into Israel, particularly in the fading days of the war, the left had still not come to grips with a country being overrun by the kind of people they had wanted to leave behind.
The left seized power early on and, with the Altalena massacre, demonstrated that it was entirely willing to kill to maintain that power. But it couldn’t maintain it against the press of the ballot box. The system of patronage that it implemented was meant to marginalize the right, as well as those outside its club, the Holocaust survivors and Middle Eastern Jews, who were meant to play secondary roles in the life of the country.
One of the peculiarities of Israeli politics was that its left was nativist while its right took on the role of the defenders of marginalized minorities. A role reversal that was made possible because, while most Western leftist parties viewed immigration as a way to destabilize the nativist vote, the Israeli left saw immigrants as destabilizing their existing power base.