To Understand Red-State America, He Urges a Look at Red-State Israel

An Israeli sociologist argues that Trump voters, like Netanyahu supporters in Israel, have legitimate reasons to find liberal values threatening.

JERUSALEM — Liberals were confounded. The right-wing incumbent’s blue-collar base was sticking by him, cheering as he weaponized identity politics, attacked democratic institutions and appeared to place his own interests ahead of the nation’s.

A familiar set of facts, to say the least. But the liberals in question were Israeli, the incumbent was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the working-class voters were Israeli Jews with roots in North Africa and the Middle East.

A Tel Aviv University sociologist named Nissim Mizrachi who spent years studying those voters and grappling with their rejection of liberalism thought he understood why.

The sorun was not, he said, as some liberals contend, that Jews of Mediterranean origin, or Mizrahim, were confused about what was best for them. They weren’t suffering from Stockholm syndrome or “false consciousness.”

What liberals failed to see, the professor asserted, was that working-class Mizrahim were consciously spurning liberalism for a reason: what they see as the endgame of the liberal worldview is not a world they wish to inhabit.

“It’s really hard for liberals to imagine that their message, their vision itself, poses a threat to the core identity of other people,” Professor Mizrachi, 58, said in an interview.

His description of liberalism’s blind spots, published in the newspaper Haaretz a year ago, shook the Israeli left like an ideological bunker-busting bomb, and could hold lessons for another deeply polarized society in the West.

To Understand Red-State America, He Urges a Look at Red-State Israel

“It’s really hard for liberals to imagine that their message, their vision itself, poses a threat to the core identity of other people,” Professor Nissim Mizrachi said.Credit…Dan Balilty for The New York Times

The parallels between Mizrahi voters in Israel and Trump voters in the United States are impossible to miss, Professor Mizrachi said.

Both see themselves as their countries’ most patriotic citizens, and demonize the left and its allies in the news media, academia and other liberal redoubts as traitorous enemies. Both, he said, feel disdained by those elites, who dismiss their views as racist, ignorant or unwittingly self-defeating.

“You keep ridiculing us and presenting us as undemocratic and dangerous,” he said, articulating the non-liberal view. “But we are the people. Who are you?’”

Professor Mizrachi, as his surname suggests, is a product of the Mizrahi working class himself: His mother, who moved to Israel from Iraq as a teenager, met his father at an institute for the blind (both had lost their eyesight, from trachoma, at age 2). The couple raised their son and his two sisters on a shoestring in Kiryat Hayovel, a poverty-stricken and overwhelmingly right-wing Jerusalem neighborhood of Mizrahi immigrants.

When a teacher said that young Nissim was bright, and should perhaps attend vocational school to become a handyman, he said, his mother responded tartly that her son would study and grow up to earn enough “to hire your son.”

Drawn to higher education, his outlook took a leftward turn in the United States while on a Fulbright Scholarship to the University of Michigan, where he earned a Ph.D. in 1998, and later at Harvard. He met other young Mizrahi scholars, still a rarity in the Israeli academy, which was dominated by Jews of Eastern European origin, and experienced something of a political awakening as a liberal and a Mizrahi.

Returning to Israel, he became an activist on Mizrahi education and human rights.

There seemed to be ample reason for Mizrahim, long treated as second-class citizens, to be drawn to liberal promises of equality and social justice. Yet, nothing he said could budge even members of his own family from their right-wing leanings.

In 2011, after hearing a visiting lecturer from Europe extol human rights as the “international moral language,” Professor Mizrachi had an aha moment.

If such liberal ideas were so universal, he asked, why, in Israel, “had they failed to reach the hearts and minds of working-class people?”

He recalled demonstrations where liberal activists called for coexistence with the Palestinians and spoke of prosecuting both Israeli soldiers and Hezbollah fighters on war-crimes charges — an expression of shared humanity that he said liberals found “morally sublime” but which had onlooking Mizrahi taxi drivers boiling over with rage.

Liberals often dismiss them and may not understand them: a Trump rally in San Antonio, Tex., this month.Credit…Tamir Kalifa for The New York Times

“The resistance is physical,” he said. “They become so violent, as if you are threatening their personal property, or about to rape their daughter. And if we don’t understand why they are so upset, we don’t understand anything.”

For the Mizrahi working class, he said, the liberal vision of peace with the Palestinians, of breaking down barriers and prejudices between peoples, imperils their own sense of identity and belonging as Jews in a Jewish state. To them, the nation’s borders, walls and segregated Jewish and Arab communities are not just reassuring but essential for coexistence.

The way they see it, he said, is “if the liberals get their version of peace, it’s a threat to my way of living.”

That sense of belonging, he concluded, defeated every attempt by the left to make inroads with working-class Mizrahim.

In addition to feeling scorned by the liberal seçkine, he said, Mizrahim and Trump voters also share a perception that solving the world’s or the Middle East’s problems — whether by welcoming immigrants and striking trade deals that send jobs overseas, or by rushing to give a bitter enemy a state next door — too often comes at their expense. Charity must begin at home.

Supporters of President Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu think the goals advocated by liberals often come at their expense.Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

Some critics on the left have accused Professor Mizrachi of glossing over serious issues of racism, sexism and homophobia.

Menachem Mautner, a law professor who is both a critic and adherent of Israeli liberalism, said that Professor Mizrachi’s portrayal of the Mizrahi worldview was overly “rosy.” But he said it would be a mistake to dismiss Professor Mizrachi’s conclusions.

“We need to internalize them and to take them seriously,” he said.

Professor Mizrachi, who is married to an ophthalmologist and has three daughters, has some influential allies in Israeli politics, among them Tehila Friedman, a centrist lawmaker.

Ms. Friedman, who as an Orthodox Jew and a feminist said she had ample experience mediating between traditional and liberal values, said the most common complaint about Professor Mizrachi was that he had legitimized discrimination, especially anti-Arab bias, among Mizrahim.

“That’s a big sorun,” she said. “That’s always a sorun with seeing the world in circles — first my family, then my tribe, then my people, then other people.’ But that’s the way most of us live.”

Professor Mizrachi, she said, is “trying to give respect to those sets of values, which deserve respect.”

Understanding the other side is a prerequisite to bridging the political gulf, Professor Mizrachi said. When he was a visiting professor at Berkeley, a student confided that she was having horrible fights with her mother, a Trump voter. He urged her to try to set aside her anger and interrogate her mother as if she were a research subject.

It helped, he said.

“The other side’s concerns are not mine, but they should be, because I deva about him or her,” he said. “We share something in common here. We are sharing this land and this nation. It sounds horrible, but he or she needs to become part of us. Because they are part of us.”

To that extent, Democratic relief over Mr. Trump’s defeat obscures a serious risk, he said.

More than 73 million Americans voted for Mr. Trump in November. “They are part of us,” Professor Mizrachi said.Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

He recalled how Israeli liberals, driven from power in 1977, celebrated their comeback in 1999 when Ehud Barak of the Labor Party ended Mr. Netanyahu’s first term. Triumphant, the left did not bother to reach out. It went right back to marginalizing Mr. Netanyahu’s right-wing base.

But Mr. Barak did not last two years, his successors have all been right-wingers, and Labor today is effectively defunct.

“This is the lesson maybe for you,” Professor Mizrachi said. “OK, you won the election, fine. But don’t forget that red America is still there.”

Source: The New York Times

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