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The Southern Man and his Cosmopolitan Ghetto

Making Sense of Yair Lapid and the Israeli Center

by NEVE GORDON

Former anchorman and middle-class darling Yair Lapid stunned the Israeli political scene in the recent elections. His party, Yesh Atid (There is a Future) won 19 seats, second in size only to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Likud-Beiteinu alliance, thus ensuring that Lapid will play a pivotal role in the next government.

But who is Lapid and what exactly does he stand for?

In Israel he is considered a northerner. The label refers to upper middle-class secular nationalists who live in northern Tel-Aviv. They are hard-working professionals who nonetheless find time to frequent the city’s busy cafes and restaurants. With yuppie-like qualities, they brush shoulders with tycoons and bohemians alike and consider themselves to be liberal cosmopolitans, tolerant and progressive.

The problem, of which this social class is well aware, is that northern Tel-Aviv is a tiny bubble that is always in danger of imploding. Yet, for Lapid’s hard core followers, northern Tel-Aviv epitomizes the desired normal, the way life in Israel should look, while the rest of Israel, populated by ultra-orthodox Jews, Palestinians, and other poverty-stricken or marginalized residents, represents the abnormal and the eminently undesirable.

The goal, then, is to create ever more sections of Israeli society in the image of the northerner. Not surprisingly, Yesh Atid emulated Obama’s successful campaign, arguing that they would introduce policies much more amenable to middle-class society. Lapid thus positioned his party as the center — between the rich and the poor, the left and the right — and appealed to his voters by echoing their yearning for some form of normalcy.

All of which raises the question of normalcy and its meaning for middle-class Jewish Israelis today.

In this respect, it is telling that Yesh Atid launched its election campaign in Ariel, a settlement located in the heart of the occupied West Bank. Ariel was thus constituted as an eastern suburb of Tel-Aviv, part of normal Israel, rather than an illegal settlement.

During its inauguration ceremony in Ariel, Yesh Atid introduced the party’s eight-point platform, which focuses on improving the conditions of the Israeli middle class. First on the list is the redistribution of social burdens, particularly in relation to the ultra-orthodox, which, in the centrist party’s view, need to be taken off the dole, drafted into the military and encouraged to seek work. Concluding the list is the Israeli Palestinian conflict, and Yesh Atid’s promise that it will “strive for peace according to an outline of two states for two peoples, while maintaining the large Israeli settlement blocs and ensuring the safety of Israel.”

This two-state solution, which for many decades was taboo in Israeli society, now stands for the normal. During an interview for Time Magazine, Yair Lapid intimated what exactly this normal means. When asked if he is sincerely interested in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through a two state solution or whether he is advocating such a solution because this is what the world expects of him, the Israeli politician replied that his proposal is indeed sincere, adding:

You know my father didn’t come here from the ghetto in order to live in a country that is half Arab, half Jewish. He came here to live in a Jewish state. And we have 3.3 million Palestinians now between the sea and the eastern border of Israel. If we don’t do something about it, her generation [nods toward a 15-year-old girl at our table] is going to spend her time with six or seven or eight million Palestinians.  So doing nothing about it is shortsighted.

Lapid’s response reminded me of an important distinction the great African American intellectual James Weldon Johnson made in the beginning of the twentieth century between the relationship of white southerners and northerners towards blacks in the United States.

“Southern white people despise the Negro as a race,” Johnson wrote, “and will do nothing to aid in his elevation as such; but for certain individuals they have a strong affection, and are helpful to them in many ways.” Johnson then added “that it may be said that the claim that the Southern whites love the Negro better than the Northern whites do is in a manner true. Northern white people love the Negro in a sort of abstract way, as a race; through a sense of justice, charity, and philanthropy, they will liberally assist in his elevation… Yet, generally speaking they have no particular likings for individuals of the race.”

This distinction suggests that although Lapid may be a northerner in Israel, in Johnson’s parlance he is a southern man, born and bred. Lapid and many members of his party almost certainly have individual Palestinian friends, but they do not like the Palestinian race.  Indeed, on the party’s Hebrew website, and, interestingly, not on its English site, Yesh Atid justifies its support for their particular two-state solution by claiming that “peace is the only reasonable answer to the [Palestinian] demographic threat and the crazy ideas of a ‘state for all its citizens’…”

The thinly veiled racist phrase “demographic threat” does not really register among most non-Hebrew speakers and therefore was probably not translated into English, but it does reveal that Yesh Atid’s objective is very different from the one set out by those inventors of modern democracy, France and the United States.  The crucial point is that due to its deep-rooted prejudice against Palestinians, normalcy for the Israeli center has come to signify a completely illiberal understanding of the political; namely, absolute opposition to a “state for all its citizens.”  The Israeli center thus embodies the contradiction of its constituency: while it thinks of itself as projecting a liberal cosmopolitan worldview, its utopian horizon is actually informed by a racist logic.

This is precisely why the center is more eager to create a coalition with the extreme right wing Likud party and Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi (The Jewish House) than with the liberal Zionists. The liberals, after all, are Johnson’s northerners; unlike the center and right wing in Israel they don’t hate the Palestinian race, yet generally speaking have no particular liking for Palestinian individuals.  But since liberal Zionists are now a minute minority, the center and right will, for the foreseeable future, determine what constitutes the normal in Israel and just like the southern man they will do so by advocating a racist agenda. The only difference between Yesh Atid and the extreme right is that although both would like Israel to become a homogenous ghetto, clean of Palestinians, Lapid believes that he can somehow transform this ghetto into a cosmopolitan enclave.

Neve Gordon is the chair of the Department of Politics and Government, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel, and is the author of Israel’s Occupation, University of California Press, 2008. His website is www.israelsoccupation.info