To fully understand the nature of the protests against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, we have to accurately define two amorphic terms: First Israel and Second Israel.
Some like to portray this as an ethnic division, which makes it easier for the left to dismiss it by showing the host of left-wing Sephardi public figures who have risen to power in difficult circumstances, or by highlighting the Ashkenazi roots of the leaders on the right.
But more than anything else, the Archimedean point to understand this political reality is in the realization that First Israel is an exclusive club that gives its members privileges and makes it very hard for all other citizens to join.
The First Israel club began as a fraternity of people associated with Mapai, the party that was dominant in the early statehood years and governed through centralized policies.
According to one sociologist, that group can be loosely described at the Ashkenazi, secular, older, Socialist Israelis. Over the years, the club has lost its relative strength and has had to offer membership to others, but only if they paid the bouncer exorbitant membership fees.
A young Sephardi Israeli outside the main cities who wants to pursue an academic career; a national-religious woman who wants to join the State Attorney’s Office; the son of parents who were part of the right-wing pre-state militias who wants to join theater productions. All those people know that in order to join the club, you have to turn your back on the places where you grew up, to embrace the values of enlightenment as defined by the club managers, and use the right terminology, and on top of that, attack Netanyahu and the Likud and show disdain for the settlers and the haredim.
The club’s power lies in the fact that even after being out of power for almost all of the past 40 years, the power-centers in Israel continue to be at their disposal through unelected means.
The right may win election after election, but only recently has it actually internalized the importance of controlling committees and apparatuses that run the government bureaucracy and the judiciary, which have been gradually chipping away at the political institutions.
Over the past several years, the right has had a quantum leap on a perceptual level. The right-wing media outlets, social media and NGOs managed to break the left’s hold on the flow of information and its control of the national agenda. Its fight against judicial overreach has become one of the main rallying cries of right-wing voters (mostly because of the perception that the judiciary was out to get Netanyahu).
Second Israel has begun to fight for its political rights and for the first time may breach the walls, and actually enter the power centers that the old guard has long considered to be its own.
The protests currently being held by the left are not designed to protect democracy from some dangerous right-wing assault, but rather the exact opposite: This is a determined fight to create anarchy and preserve the privileges of First Israel. They are not fighting for democratic values, but for the exclusive perks of the oligarchs.
We are at the height of a battle that will determine whether Second Israel manages to open the gates of power and climb the rungs, or whether First Israel manages to deny them the limited powers that they already enjoy, and turn them into Third Israel. If the right does not wake up, the left may very well succeed. This is what is at stake.
Erez Tadmor is co-founder of Im Tirtzu, a right-wing nongovernmental organization.
This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.
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