Israeli election posters
Israeli election postersWikicommons

To properly analyze the dynamics of Israel's political system, it’s important to recognize two things - that our political map isn't a one dimensional linear spectrum and that Western socio-political framings don’t fit Israeli society.

The Shas party, for example, successfully campaigned on its identity as the only electoral option that is simultaneously Jewish, yemini (nationalist) and ḥevrati (supportive of social programs to help our weaker sectors). While the party champions socio-economic policies that would put it squarely on the left of any European nation’s political map, its positions on Jewish culture and identity might place it on the right of any such nation in which it represents the dominant majority population.

What pundits from outside Israel might find even stranger is the fact that Shas leader Aryeh Deri made it clear throughout his campaign that a vote for Shas will help ensure Netanyahu’s return to the prime minister’s office.

In addition to seeing Netanyahu as a close political ally and sensing that the contradictions between where each party hopes to lead Israel are currently non-antagonistic, Deri understood that many of his potential voters were struggling to choose between his party and Netanyahu’s Likud. In order to make it easier for this demographic to vote Shas, Deri made clear his intention to recommend Netanyahu to the president and to sit in a Likud-led coalition. A party campaigning hard (and planning to deliver) on its leftist socio-economic policies rarely flaunts the fact that it plans to form a government with a prime minister well known for liberal economic positions. This dynamic alone should make clear the problematic nature of trying to understand Israel through Western linear political framings.

Liberal, conservative, left, right, religious and secular are all categories that developed in Europe and have deep roots in the West. They grew out of Greco-Roman civilization, Christian dogma and the revolutionary transition from feudalism to capitalism. Trying to impose such a framing on non-Western societies obviously leads to major errors in our analyses.

Right and left, for example, mean something totally different in the Israeli context than they do in the West.

The term “left” in the State of Israel generally refers to two groups. The first is Israel’s westernized Liberal-Zionist ruling class that is primarily concerned with the material wellbeing of the Jewish people (security, economy, diplomacy, etc.) but maintains a very European sense of national identity while remaining largely estranged from the ancient values and traditions of Am Yisrael.

The second group is a smaller sector of the population that is far more universalist and has almost fully adopted the narrative of Israel’s critics. Despite its seemingly insignificant numbers, this second group actually does resemble the left in other parts of the world and expresses some important points that the broader Israeli society should really consider (but probably can’t just yet). On election day, this group likely voted for Ḥadash-Ta’al (or Balad if they didn’t fear voting for a faction unlikely to pass the 3.25% threshold).

The term “right” in Israeli society also refers to two groups – ideologically motivated Jewish nationalists (for lack of a better term) fully living their people’s story on the one hand, and those with a European style of nationalism similar to the first group of “leftists” but who resemble Western conservatives in their focus on security and economic liberalism on the other.

An early feature of this past election cycle had actually been the antagonization of contradictions between these two groups of “rightists” (the most offensive example being Yisrael Beyteinu leader Avigdor Liberman’s crass video portraying Netanyahu as a puppet of Rav Zvi Yisrael Tau). What had been referred to by certain political figures as the “normal right” or “sane right” is actually those who’ve adopted conservative Western positions, while those psychologically living in Jewish history and loyal to the aspirations and folkways of our ancestors are often defamed as “messianic” or “extreme.”

From whatever perspective we approach Israel’s political map, it’s helpful to acknowledge that terms like “left” and “right” have already become too broad and ambiguous to mean anything concrete. And that’s without even struggling with the question of where the Ḥaredi and Arab parties would fall on such a linear political spectrum.

Israel’s Tribal Political Map

It’s clear that a more precise set of terms is required to more accurately understand Israeli society and the broader Jewish world. And when we search within our own culture for such a socio-political framework, we find that what best suits our people is a model based on our Hebrew tribal identities.

Although these tribes were once biologically defined, today they should be understood differently. If we accept the worldview of our ancestors that saw the people of Israel as expressions of a single spiritual organism shining into this world, then we should see the tribal identities as different shades of that collective soul. Or in simpler terms, as different personality types found within the Jewish people.

The two main leadership tribes within Israel have always been Yehuda and Yosef. Yehuda represents what’s unique about the children of Israel’s identity, worldview and historic mission, while Yosef tends to be more focused on Israel’s material wellbeing and emphasizes that which we share in common with other nations – especially the most dominant civilization of any given period.

Yehuda and Yosef are also orbited by tribes that serve as extreme expressions of their characteristics (for a breakdown of the Jewish people’s broader tribal political map and how these identities manifest in Israel’s current political system, readers are encouraged to check out this more in depth analysis).

This friction between Yehuda and Yosef has played itself out in many different ways over thousands of years. One of the clearest examples would be the two rival kingdoms of the first Temple period. The most impactful leaders of the kingdom of Israel came from the tribe of Yosef (specifically the Ephraim sub-tribe) while the kingdom of Yehuda continued to be led by the descendants of David.

While most Jews today are descendants of the Yehuda kingdom (which is why the term “Jew” subsequently expanded to include the tribes of Shimon, Levi and Binyamin), anyone living through that historic period would have likely seen Israel as the more important kingdom. But while the Yosef-led Israel was stronger and more engaged with other nations, it was also more culturally influenced by these nations than the landlocked isolationist Yehuda kingdom. Unchecked, this led to the Israeli kingdom’s ultimate downfall.

Our sages have long understood the concept of Mashiaḥ ben Yosef (the messianic force of Yosef) as the redirecting of Yosef’s ability to successfully manage the material world towards the fulfillment of Jewish national aspirations.

The Gaon of Vilna taught his students that the physical rebuilding of the Jewish people in our land would be the process of Mashiaḥ ben Yosef and that it would emphasize the features of our identity that we share in common with other nations. In his eulogy of Binyamin Z’ev Herzl, HaRav Avraham Yitzḥak HaKohen Kook expounded on this idea and essentially dubbed the Zionist movement that messianic expression of Yosef.

But once Zionism’s revolutionary role was accomplished, Yosef appears to have naturally slid back towards an assimilationist impulse that characterized its tribal identity in the Diaspora (it’s worth exploring the dialectical relationship between the Haskalah and Zionism). The desire of our Zionist political factions for Israel to be accepted as part of the West is a clear expression of this.

There are contemporary examples that can help us better understand the friction between Yosef and Yehuda that lie at the core of the current tensions within Israeli society.

Yehuda Jews tend to understand the world around them through lessons learned from the Jewish past, the statutes of our Torah and ancient prophetic ideas about our collective destiny and mission. When any given social or political issue arises, a Jew with a more Yehuda orientation generally tends to see the issue through the prism of Israel’s history spanning thousands of years. He might even cite Biblical examples of how our ancestors responded to certain challenges in ancient times in order to advocate for similar policies today.

But Jews with a more Yosef orientation tend to look at the very same social or political issue through the prism of what’s universally considered just according to the values of what they perceive to be the most morally advanced civilization of the time.

So Yehuda and Yosef generally look at the same issues, come to radically different policy conclusions and often relate to the positions of the Other as deeply frightening. Yehuda often sees the universalist orientation of Yosef as stemming from a weak connection with our people’s identity and an unhealthy need to gain gentile acceptance, while Yosef generally sees the particularist orientation of Yehuda as dangerously chauvinistic and out of touch with a more enlightened modern world.

The Illusion of a Unity Government

Even though the groups superficially defined as comprising the right in Israeli society have had significantly more electoral power in recent elections than those defined as left, the plutocratic coalition headed by Naftali Bennett (Yamina) and Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid) showed us that the divide between Yehuda and Yosef is actually deeper and more significant that what many of us are conditioned to see as a right-left divide.

The Bennett-Lapid government, with the exception of Mansour Abbas’s United Arab List party, was comprised of different shades of Yosef. And because the tribe of Yosef today represents and emphasizes the part of Israeli identity that we share in common with the West, one can easily look at all the political expressions of Yosef as making up a linear political spectrum ranging from liberal to conservative. This government was mistakenly hailed by many as a unity government representing different ends of Israel’s political map because the people making that claim tended to see the non-Yosef tribes as essentially illegitimate and beyond the pale of what should be politically acceptable.

While on the surface, Israel’s internal conflict might appear to be one between a westernized ruling class and a population more connected to the identity and traditions of our people, there’s also something deeper taking place beneath the socio-political surface between the forces of Yosef and Yehuda. The more we understand this friction, the more we appreciate its place at the center of these past elections.

The Inevitable Shift

Itamar Ben-Gvir was the focus of this past election cycle not because of his positions on Palestinian issues but because his rising popularity signals a significant socio-cultural shift. What once appeared to exist at the fringes of society has suddenly gained acceptance from the Israeli masses.

Attempting to examine Religious Zionism, Otzma Yehudit, Noam and their voters through a Western political lens can easily lead one to mistakenly equate them with far-right nationalist formations in Europe and the United States. But although some shallow parallels can be drawn, this lazy analysis completely misses the mark and can only lead to erroneous conclusions. In truth, such a comparison is probably as accurate as categorizing our Ḥaredi community as Israel’s version of the American Christian right. It simply doesn’t fit (a slightly better but still flawed comparison might be the Muslim Brotherhood).

The Jewish people are unique in history. We’re the only example of an ancient people that was displaced from its land, maintained its identity in exile for roughly 2,000 years despite overwhelming persecution and actually returned home to take possession of its land and establish a modern state (largely using colonial tools). That’s why it’s so easy to see Zionism as either an indigenous people’s liberation movement or as a colonial project born in Europe. Both claims can be proven true using selective facts but a more intellectually honest and inclusive perspective reveals that Israel simply can’t be understood through Western political framings or neatly placed into the categories most political analysts in the West are accustomed to. Anyone seeking to understand the dynamics of Israeli society and where we are headed therefore needs to be careful to first understand the Jewish people.

In the cultural conflict taking place within Israel between those psychologically living in Jewish history and those psychologically living in the ideological paradigm of the modern West, Yehuda – or Shimon in Ben-Gvir’s case – appears to have gained power over Yosef (especially if we view Netanyahu’s Likud as a neutral bridge faction between Yosef and Yehuda). In truth, this shift was inevitable. If it didn’t happen this election cycle, it would have likely happened the next one. For a long time it’s been clear to anyone paying close attention to Israel’s socio-cultural trajectory that we’ve been moving in a more Jewish particularist direction and will likely continue to do so.

What needs to be understood is that this marks an important milestone in Israel’s national development.

So long as Yosef ran the state and set its Western liberal ideological paradigm as the paradigm all other tribes must function within, Yehuda remained focused on narrow Jewish national concerns and Israel under Yosef’s leadership could only exist as a self-styled outpost of Western civilization in the Semitic region (a “villa in the jungle” in Ehud Barak’s words). But once Yosef cedes leadership to Yehuda, Yehuda will suddenly find itself needing to develop solutions to real societal challenges and human needs that are actually more just than the solutions offered by the liberal ideological paradigm. To accomplish this, Yehuda and its satellite tribes will need to develop a genuine sensitivity to the sectors of society that appear most at risk by their political ascension (Palestinians, African asylum seekers, LGBTQ+ people, descendants of Jews who are not themselves Jews according to how w’e’ve defined the term for thousands of years, etc.) and to find solutions that address their needs coming from real Jewish sources. The Israeli public and Jewish Diaspora need to see that Israel can become a more deeply Jewish society without excluding or marginalizing anyone.

This shift is especially important with regard to Palestinian Arab issues because Zionism (a uniquely Jewish flavor of European-style nationalism) doesn’t possess the depth of Jewish national consciousness to safely confront the Palestinian story or the tools to imagine a state that’s deeply Jewish yet fully inclusive of the Other. Zionism tends to relate to the Jewish people as an object with a problem and seems obsessed with proving to the world that Israel is right and the Palestinian Arabs wrong.

The introspection and self-criticism required for Israel’s growth can be dangerous for those Jews with a shallow reactionary nationalism. But the core voters and spiritual leaders who supported the Religious Zionism list this week tend to see the Jewish people as a subject with desires and are therefore not truly Zionist (if we’re equating Zionism with Yosef). Only those Jews deeply rooted in the worldview of our ancestors and meta-narrative of our people stretching back thousands of years have the ability to confront the Palestinian story without losing their own.

It might be unrealistic to expect Smotrich or Ben-Gvir to do this work but we should appreciate that their conceptions of Torah, Jewish identity and our people’s connection to this land can serve as a base and provide fertile soil for their future successors to formulate new ideas and paths forward. So although we shouldn’t relate to these specific political figures as our ideal leadership or as the ultimate destination Israel is meant to arrive at, they’re most likely a necessary part of a journey that requires us to shed the colonialist mentality inherent in Zionist thinking and to adopt a national consciousness more authentic to our people that aspires to universalism and healthy engagement with the outside world. As counterintuitive and frightening as this might be for some people, these election results might constitute progress in our national development that will likely only be appreciated much later in the process.

One of the ways Yosef had fought to delay this shift was to make our last few election cycles not about Israel’s identity or major policies but rather about the willingness of each political faction to sit in a government with an ostensibly corrupt “King Bibi.” But there’s a limit to how long these tricks can work. Although Yosef built the State of Israel and played a leading role in achieving most of its successes, the nation is now ready for a more advanced stage of the Jewish liberation project and Yosef’s role will likely shift from a leading role to a supporting one as Israeli society continues to develop.

The Challenges Ahead

This new period Israel is entering comes with a new set of challenges and contradictions to be resolved. The forces of Yosef need to reconcile the fact that they no longer have a democratic mandate to run the nation-state they established. They’ll also need to accept the fact that the western liberal paradigm (the ideological superstructure of an unjust system responsible for untold human suffering) does not hold a monopoly on addressing the needs of human beings. In fact, one of the major reasons Israel came back to life in modern history is to create new frameworks for addressing the needs of humanity that are actually more advanced than the frameworks they are destined to eclipse. Humanity can do better than capitalism and liberalism. Democracy shouldn’t just be a synonym for westernization in countries like ours but rather a mechanism for empowering people to influence the structures we live under.

Rather than fight against the trajectory of Israeli society, those deeply concerned with universal values should work to ensure that these values be promoted in such a way that doesn’t bring them into conflict with Israel’s Jewish identity or appear to be imposed on society as a tool of cultural imperialism (such efforts almost always incite a backlash in societies like ours). By working together with the forces of Yehuda, perhaps Yosef can help develop a uniquely Jewish universal approach that can actually compete with Western liberalism on its own ideological turf.

The challenge for the forces of Yehuda (and Levi, Shimon and Yissakhar), meanwhile, will be to help the Yosef Israelis find their healthy place in what the State of Israel is becoming. Despite no longer being suited for leadership, Yosef still has significant contributions to make to Israeli society and to accomplishing the Jewish people’s collective historic mission (according to our prophets and sages it’s actually Yosef that will ultimately defeat Esav).

What’s most important to keep in mind is the larger process of Israel’s national development, from European-style Jewish nationalism (Zionism), to a more uniquely Jewish brand of national consciousness to a Hebrew Universalism rooted in Israel’s ancient identity and worldview but facing the rest of humanity in the modern world with a strong desire to give. The transition period we’re currently entering is understandably frightening for a lot of people but this current shift is a necessary part of the process that will ultimately lead Israel to being what we came back to life to be.

Rabbi Yehuda HaKohenis a Jewish organizer and educator. As a leader in the Vision movement, he works to empower students to become thought leaders and active participants in the current chapter of Jewish history. As part of Semitic Action, he organizes grassroots dialogue sessions for Palestinian Arabs and Israelis seeking to transcend competing one-sided narratives in favor of a more scientific analysis of the factors forcing both peoples into conflict.

    Originally published at Vision Magazine