For those of us who watched the U.S. election from Israel, the results seemed eerily familiar. America’s electoral map is sharply divided: between blue and red, urban and rural, the coastal liberals and the conservative masses in the middle. In Israel, we call it the geographic divide between the “center” of the country and the “periphery,” between the elites and the rest of the people.
Donald Trump was propelled to victory in part on a platform of “draining the swamp” of a corrupt ruling class and stopping illegal immigration. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in his re-election campaign last year, was spurred to a last-minute victory by tacitly reviving the timeworn idea of a disconnected Ashkenazi elite and the threat of the Arab minority “flocking to the polls.”
While comparisons are always inexact, it does seem that in both America and Israel there is a great divide in society on issues of culture and identity. Combined with economic frustration on a global stage, this divide fuels feelings of growing nationalism, xenophobia and populism among the citizenry. It is this divide that all of us in both countries who care about liberal and constitutional democratic values have to understand and work to repair.
Like America, Israel is now engaged in a battle over its identity. Religious and nationalist particularism is on the rise, and many fear that the Jewish State’s Zionist identity is threatened by a growing Arab minority and the unresolved conflict with the Palestinians.
In the 2015 election, Israelis on the periphery reacted against urban elites who appear to have more in common with their counterparts in Berlin and Brooklyn than with the peripheral working-class town of Beit She’an.
During my time as director general of the Kadima party, I saw the full spectrum of Israeli society. Our party activists were dedicated and sensible people. But in recent years I have watched some of these same people come out in support of overtly illiberal legislative proposals. Did these party activists suddenly become racists and populists? I don’t believe so. Rather, I believe they are responding to their own perceptions of peril — to Israel’s Jewish character in a challenging security environment.
For Israel as well as America, what is needed is a genuine concern for the preservation of national identity and more inclusive economic policies that bring prosperity for all. Our openness and pluralism are among our societies’ greatest strengths. They cannot be taken for granted.
Yohanan Plesner is president of the Israel Democracy Institute.