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A Look At The Political Center In A Sharply Divided Israel
A banner with a picture of Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu reading ‘Crime Minister’ is spread on the ground during a protest against the 'Jewish Nation-State Law' in Tel Aviv earlier this month. (Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images)

A Look At The Political Center In A Sharply Divided Israel

Some analysts believe that Israel’s political centrists, though sizable, have no room to grow and forge a united political party

Since it was passed by Israel’s parliament last month, the so-called “Nation-State Law” which officially defines Israel as “the national home of the Jewish people” has been the spark of ongoing protests and wide-spread criticism from various sectors of Israeli society.

The latest protest in Tel Aviv last weekend saw a diverse group of 50,000 protesters led by members of Israel’s Druze community. Jewish groups and Arabs have also been clamoring against the law, slamming it “racist” and massively harmful to fundamental human rights. Protests against it were staged in multiple Arab communities across the country.

It all seems to point to an elevated level of discontent about the direction the country is heading.

The monthly Peace Index from the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI) and Tel Aviv University found that 52 percent of Jewish Israelis believe the Nation-State law is vital to Israel’s identity. The poll, however, indicated another coalescing belief: 60% of respondents think the law should contain an equality clause protecting all of Israel’s minorities.

A similar split is also evident when political affiliation is taken into account. On the Right, 69% of those polled valued the law, while only 11% of respondents on the Left thought the same.

Yet, as often happens in democratic politics, there is a sizable group—vaguely termed the political center—squeezed between the two sides.

Of this group, roughly 36% of those polled thought the Nation-State law reflects important national values. What is clear from the numbers and responses given is that members of the political center are attempting to make broader inroads in Israel’s political life. One of their central objectives is to bring the opposing sides nearer to one another. Also, while some centrists have political leanings, others prefer to call themselves “non-partisan.”

Pnina Pfeuffer teaches political activists and aspiring policy-makers for Politikva, a center-left grassroots movement that aims to bridge social gaps between different ethnic groups in Israel.

“We target people in their 20s and 30s who have an interest in pursuing a political career, introducing them to a diverse array of issues,” Pfeuffer explained to The Media Line.

As a member of the Yerushalmim or Jerusalemites Party, she will become the first Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) woman to run for a seat in the city council this October. The Yerushalmim party was established in 2008 with the aim of encouraging religious dialogue in the capital. It has since turned to young secular and religious individuals like Pfeuffer.

“I identify as part of the new Haredim who advocate for the liberalization of education and the right of ultra-Orthodox to join the workforce,” Pfeuffer asserted.

Of those who espouse a non-partisan ethos, Kulna Jerusalem, a non-profit organization, aims to provide a platform for groups in Israel that have drifted apart ever since the establishment of the country in 1948.

“Light heartedness is part of our group’s character. The founders of the group kept this in mind when they started organizing casual get-togethers around music,” said Noa Talel, the chairwoman for Kulna Jerusalem.

Her organization comprises Jews and Arabs living in Jerusalem who are keen to interact with each other through leisurely events such as games of backgammon at the Knesset and, more recently, a mini-soccer tournament at Jaffa Gate in the Old City.

“The founders of the organization felt like our parents’ generation experienced closer relations between West and East Jerusalemites. But since the completion of the West Bank separation barrier as well as spates of terrorism, our generation sees little to no proximity between the sides,” Talel explained to The Media Line.

In addition to organizing events that provide opportunities for networking and dialogue between different groups, the organization also attempts to tackle policy issues in the city. For example, it helped Palestinians in East Jerusalem obtain Israeli ID cards for basic needs such as travel and proof of residency.

“The political center is larger than it used to be because Jews are becoming more secular, but I’m not sure if it will grow,” Tamar Hermann, the director of the IDI’s Peace Index, told The Media Line.

Hermann explained that Jews in the center of the political spectrum are not part of an organized party, but felt themselves pushed into the center because of their inability to unite on key issues ranging from civil marriage to allowing businesses to remain open on Shabbat.

“There is not that much room for the center to grow, as growth would most likely come at the expense of the Left, where only 15% of the country’s population is aligned with,” continued Hermann.

As for critics who claim that Israel is more divided politically than ever, Hermann says “this is a cliché, as people forget the past when divisions were more concrete.”

She credits wider media coverage of political issues today as a major contributor to an exaggerated perception of the country as irredeemably split.

(David Lee is a student intern in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Student Program)

DISCLAIMER: The opinions expressed on this page are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Media Line Ltd., it’s management, staff, advertisers and sponsors. The Media Line bears no responsibility for opinions and/or information appearing herein.

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