The Mahapakh: Its Causes and Implications for Contemporary Israeli Politics

Avi Shilon. Jewish Quarterly Review. Volume 108, Issue 4. Fall 2018.

“Ladies and gentlemen, mahapakh!” announced the television anchor Haim Yavin the moment he was informed of the Likud victory in the Israeli elections of May 1977. The exclamation of mahapakh (political upheaval) expressed astonishment as well as anticipation of dramatic change in the political system: for the first time in the annals of Zionism and Israel, the Likud party, the political incarnation of the Revisionist Zionist movement founded in 1925 and now under the leadership of Menachem Begin, had taken over the government. Indeed, the Mahapakh, as these events came to be called in general parlance, deeply affected Israel’s political trajectory but must not be understood as surprising or unforeseen. It was the outcome of historical, sociological, and political developments that unfolded over an extended period. I will address briefly the main reasons for the Mahapakh, focusing chiefly on its ethnic underpinning, and conclude with a discussion of its ramifications in current Israeli political life.

The Yom Kippur war, which erupted in October 1973 and caught the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) unprepared for the Egyptian and Syrian assaults, led to unprecedented and widespread protests that crossed all sectors and parties. These protests were directed against the failures of the Israeli political leadership, then headed by senior members of the Labor Party Alignment (Ha-Ma’arakh). Even though the Alignment still won the elections that were held immediately after the war ended (in December 1973), it turned out that the trauma of the war lingered, as it typically does. It would take the public another four years to give full voice to their protest at the ballot-box.

The Mahapakh must also be understood against the background of changes that were taking place in the political system. Begin had come a long way from his days as a founder of Herut in 1948 to the formation of Likud in 1973. In Israel’s first elections, held in 1949, Herut focused on calling for the enlargement of the state’s borders even at the price of another war. It failed to achieve its goal of becoming the country’s main opposition party, winning only fourteen seats; in 1951 the party fell to just eight seats. From the mid-1950s Begin played a key role in consolidating the center-right and broadening his electoral base. In order to pave the way for an alliance with the religious parties, Begin abandoned previous efforts to create a constitution, even though such a goal had originally appeared in the Herut political platform. In 1965 Herut merged with the Liberal Party. In June 1967, on the eve of the Six-Day War, Herut joined the unity government of Levi Eshkol (appointed prime minster after Ben-Gurion resigned in 1963), who presented a more inclusive approach toward the Revisionists.

Ideological changes also influenced the Mahapakh. Before 1967, Begin’s maximalist attitude toward the Land of Israel was viewed as radical and almost irrelevant. But the conquest of territories in 1967 turned Begin’s position into a more mainstream view. The “Movement for Greater Israel”—which was founded in November 1967 and included personalities from the Labor, Revisionist, and Religious Zionist movements—is a prominent example of the change. Yet among the various factors that led to Likud’s victory, ethnicity is the most important. The sociologist Yona-than Shapiro found that “starting from 1955, Mizrahi Jews (i.e. Jews originally from Middle Eastern countries) constituted about 55 to 60 percent of all Herut voters,” but that “until 1973, most Mizrahi Jews, about 55-60 percent, voted for Mapai.” However, in 1977 more than half of the Jews from Middle Eastern countries and their second-generation descendants voted for Likud.

How can we explain the support of Mizrahim for the Likud, a phenomenon that is still relevant today? A conventional explanation posits an “alliance of the downtrodden.” Just as the Revisionists faced political discrimination from the Mapai establishment, so too Mizrahim faced economic and cultural discrimination for ethnic reasons. The problem with this theory is that it is difficult to prove empirically and suggests simpleminded psychologism. Perhaps in the spirit of theories that hold that “class approaches are the most fruitful way to study ethnicity and race,” we ought to direct our gaze at the socioeconomic class angle. The dichotomy between Mizrahi and Ashkenazi populations was reflected in the low socioeconomic status of the former and the middle- and upper-class status of the latter. New studies regarding Mapai policy in Israel’s formative years show that until the early 1960s, Mapai worked to narrow wage gaps in the public sector—in stark contrast to its perceived image. However, in doing so, it created dependence on the “establishment,” in particular the Histadrut (the General Organization of Workers in Israel), which was dominated by Mapai. Mizrahi Jews of low socioeconomic status thus had a rational interest in voting for Mapai until the 1960s. After that point, when the party no longer served their economic interests, Mizrahi Jews began to distance themselves from it and to protest the dependence that it had fostered.

Missing from the economic explanation for the affinity of Mizrahim with Likud, as is often the case in materialistic theories, is the ideological dimension. Shapiro made the claim that Mizrahim were captivated by Begin’s rhetorical manipulation, which incited them against Mapai. (A similar claim is prevalent in the media today with respect to Mizrahi affinity for Benjamin Netanyahu.) According to this theory, Mizrahim adopted hawkish stances similar to those of Likud only as a result of these manipulations. However, this argument smacks of condescension. Emotional manipulation is not necessarily effective against people of one particular background, and in any case politicians routinely employ manipulation in order to influence public opinion. Nevertheless, the claim that Mizrahim adopted hawkish positions because of their support for Likud, and not the other way around, is worthy of attention.

When one examines the cases in which Likud leaders chose to withdraw from territories captured in 1967, one finds that most of the opponents of these moves were not Mizrahim but rather Religious Zionist Jews of Ashkenazi extraction. Such was the case with respect to the withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula in exchange for peace with Egypt in 1979 (during the Begin administration), and the disengagement from the Gaza Strip in 2005, when Ariel Sharon led Likud. Therefore, even though Mizrahi votes are a key component of the right, this is not necessarily due to a shared hawkish ideology.

In my view, Mizrahi affinity for Likud since the days of Begin should be understood in terms of the place of Jewish tradition within the Zionist project. When Jews from Islamic countries were exposed to the concept of Zionism, they tended to see it as a natural extension of their traditional way of life—as a modern embodiment of the national dimension of Judaism—and not as a revolutionary concept inspired by the nationalisms that had stirred the peoples of Eastern and Central Europe. In Israel they continued to view tradition as a tool for expressing continuity with their national and familial heritage. This was in contrast to the original aspirations of the founding fathers of the Labor movement, who aimed to create a common Zionist Hebrew culture disconnected from the traditional Judaism of the diaspora. Begin not only shared the attitude of many Mizrahim toward Jewish religion; he also presented religious tradition as a common denominator that could unite different ethnic groups. This, in turn, lent a sense of empowerment to Mizrahi Jews. Begin’s Likud was, on this reading, “an inclusive populist movement.”

In fact, Mizrahi Jews and Begin also shared a similar stance regarding the form that religiosity should take. Mizrahi Jews espoused a moderate religious approach: they did not rebel against Orthodox Judaism, but many were not scrupulous in the fine details of observance. This approach can be called simply “traditional.” Begin himself was not observant but practiced certain traditions in the Orthodox style, especially the more nationalistic dimensions of religion. Therefore, although Begin was of Polish-Ashkenazi origin, his stance toward religion resonated with many Mizrahim.

The Influence of the Mahapakh on Contemporary Israeli Politics

Begin’s empathetic attitude toward religion extended beyond his relation with Mizrahim. His governments (1977-83) created a series of political precedents in the religious context that shaped the face of the political system for the following decades and in the process affected how Judaism is viewed and defined in Israel. The first precedent was with regard to the Ultra-Orthodox Agudat Israel Party, which left the Labor-led coalition in 1952 when Ben-Gurion’s government mandated drafting women into the IDF. Agudat Israel did not join another government coalition until 1977, when Likud rose to power. Since then, the Ultra-Orthodox parties have traditionally joined coalitions when they can make financial gains and exert an influence on the political agenda. Heading the list of opportunistic parties is Shas, which was founded in 1984 to represent Ultra-Orthodox Mizrahi Jews with a Zionist orientation. Although Shas defines itself as Ultra-Orthodox, many of its constituents come from the middle-ground “traditional” camp or are @hozerim bi-teshuvah (Jews from a secular background who became religiously observant). There were many reasons for the emergence of Shas, and I will not address them here, except to note that the party participated in the general election only a year after Begin resigned as prime minister. Perhaps that is because the Mahapakh had strengthened Mizrahi politics and Begin’s departure left a gap in the political arena, to be filled by a party that merged Orthodox values with a Mizrahi ethos and a right-wing Zionist orientation.

The second precedent relates to the granting of leadership of the Education Ministry to a minister from the National Religious Party (NRP) rather than to a member of the ruling party itself. From 1977 until today, NRP ministers have received that portfolio almost every time Likud headed a coalition that was not a “national unity government.” (Currently, Naftali Bennett from the Jewish Home Party, which is the current incarnation of the NRP, serves as education minister in the Netanyahu government.) One might wonder about the effects of a religious agenda reigning at the Education Ministry for almost half of the period since 1977. It is no coincidence that surveys conducted since the 1990s show that most Israelis view the Jewish-traditional component of their identity as more significant than the civic-Israeli element; moreover, the concept of the Greater Land of Israel, including the West Bank and Golan Heights, has been made into a defining criterion for a pro-traditional outlook.

In fact, since 1977, the division between right and left in Israeli politics largely tracks other divisions: Mizrahi/Ashkenazi, traditional/secular, and low/high socioeconomic status. The paradox is that while a pro-traditional outlook and Mizrahi identity are usually associated in Israel with more hawkish parties, Mizrahi Jewry was originally characterized by moderation—with regard to relations with the Arabs, as well as to religion—which could have made it a potential match for the left.

When Avi Gabbay, who has Moroccan roots, was elected to head the Labor Party in 2017, he claimed that Netanyahu was correct when he stated in the past that “the left has forgotten what it means to be Jewish.” Gabbay wanted to challenge the association between a pro-traditional orientation and hawkish politics in Israel. However, his words were interpreted as criticism of his own party, and the discussion was nipped in the bud. This points to a concluding thought: as long as the accepted equation still ties traditionalists and Mizrahim to the right, and Ashkenazim and secular Jews to the left, the Israeli political system will continue to be shaped by the impact of the Mahapakh.