Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara during a visit to Aleh Negev, a rehabilitation village for disabled children and adults near Ofakim in southern Israel, on July 28, 2016. (Haim Zach/GPO)
Haim Zach / GPO, shows Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara during a visit to Aleh Negev, a rehabilitation village for disabled children and adults near Ofakim in southern Israel, on July 28, 2016.
Netanyahu talks like a populist; Gantz and Gabbay didn't

Why the left keeps failing in the pro-Likud periphery, home to 25% of Israelis

Nearly 1 in 4 Israelis live in development towns and southern cities. The left simply doesn’t speak their language, say experts and locals — one reason it keeps losing elections

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

Main image by Haim Zach / GPO, shows Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara during a visit to Aleh Negev, a rehabilitation village for disabled children and adults near Ofakim in southern Israel, on July 28, 2016.

During a visit to the northern town of Kiryat Shmona to inaugurate a new emergency room in October, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu criticized as “boring” a woman who interrupted his speech to protest the closure of a local medical center.

“Look,” he told resident Orna Peretz, a local social activist who also suffers from cancer, “you’re simply uninteresting. You’re boring us. We want to discuss things that interest us. Come back when you have something interesting to say.”

Peretz retorted, “I vote for you every four years, and if that’s how you treat your public, then shame on you.”

A couple of months later, though, after Netanyahu had called for national elections, the same Orna Peretz took part in a conference to support his Likud party.

And it seems reasonable to assume that she was one of the 49 percent of Kiryat Shmona residents who voted for the party earlier this month — a percentage nearly twice the 26.46% of the Israeli public that cast its ballot for Likud nationally.

Orna Peretz, a social activist from Kiryat Shmona. (Facebook)

Kiryat Shmona is one of around 30 development towns created in the 1950s and 1960s mainly in the north and south of Israel, primarily to house immigrants from North Africa.

Long associated with deprivation — though this is less deserved today — most of these largely blue-collar towns vote consistently for the right-wing, capitalist Likud party– even though, on the surface, such a choice seems contrary to their interests.

Prof. Erez Tzfadia, associate professor of public policy and administration at Sapir College, near Sderot in the south, has been charting voting behavior in the development towns going back to 1981.

Prof Erez Tzfadia, associate professor of public policy and administration at Sapir College, near Sderot. (Facebook)

“The question to ask is how voting in the development towns compares with voting nationwide,” he told The Times of Israel.

He explained that Likud has always taken 20 to 40 percent more votes in development towns nationally, and it actually improved its hold there in this month’s elections.

The Labor Party, by contrast, has consistently polled around half of its national vote in the development towns, in percentage terms, and that was the case this time around too; the only exception was in 2006 when Amir Peretz, the Moroccan-born former mayor of Sderot, led the party and managed to bring its share of the vote in the development towns up to its national level.

Labor party Knesset member Amir Peretz and his wife cast their ballots at a voting station in the southern town of Sderot on April 9, 2019. (Flash90)

For its part, the left-wing Meretz has usually won votes in the development towns at around a quarter of its nationwide level, he went on, while the centrist parties — under their various guises (Blue and White in this last election, Yesh Atid in the one before) — tend to win around 60 percent of their average scores.

In short, the center, center-left and left dramatically under-perform in the development towns, and this month’s election was certainly no exception.

There were, however, two substantive changes in 2019 in the voting patterns in development towns, Tzfadia said.

One was in the national religious vote, which, from being similar to the nationwide average for the sector in the past, jumped 20 percent above it in the development towns this time.

The development towns are one of the most tolerant, accepting sectors in Israeli society. The veteran Mizrahim connect with the concept of one nation of Jews from a biblical, rather than a politically nationalist, point of view

The other was increased support for United Torah Judaism, the ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi party — part of a trend that began in 2006 (more on this later). In the 2015 elections, UTJ was taking 110 percent of its national average. In the April 9 elections, the figure rose to 130%.

The only development towns where Likud did not take the most votes on April 9 were Beit Shemesh in the Jerusalem corridor, where a significant Haredi influx lead to United Torah Judaism coming first; Arad in the Negev, where the Blue and White party came first, followed by UTJ and then Likud; and Netivot, also in the south, where Likud improved on its 2015 results but came second to the Mizrahi ultra-Orthodox party Shas.

Demographic waves

Tzfadia explained that the development towns are socially dynamic places that have seen three major demographic waves, each of which has been reflected in successive election results.

The first wave, in the 1950s, saw the state directing immigrants — mainly from North Africa — to these peripheral communities. It is part of this population that is profoundly loyal to Likud. And its underclass forms the backbone of the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox Shas, which has consistently polled 1.6 to 1.8 times higher in the development towns than nationwide since the party was established in 1984.

The second wave, in the 1990s, brought newcomers from the former Soviet Union (mainly the less skilled among them) who settled in disproportionate numbers in the development towns and in what were then peripheral cities such as Ashdod and Ashkelon on the southern part of the Mediterranean coast.

Russian immigrants attend an event marking the 25th anniversary of the major wave of aliya from the former Soviet Union to Israel, at the Jerusalem Convention Center, on December 24, 2015. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Since then, Yisrael Beytenu, established by secular, Russian-speaking Israelis, has consistently won twice the support in the development towns that it has nationally, with the exception of the 2013 elections, when the party ran on a joint ticket with Likud. This suggests that some of the Israeli-born children of the immigrants are continuing to vote like their parents.

The third wave, which began in the first decade of the current millennium, brought large numbers of Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox, known as Haredim, to the periphery, with groups of religious Zionists on the margins.

Tzfadia said that while cheaper housing was commonly assumed to be the main factor drawing the Haredim to these communities, research he conducted together with Dr. Lee Cahaner of Oranim College in northern Israel showed that the ultra-Orthodox migration to the development towns had more to do with the way the veteran Mizrahi communities there, who tend to respect religious observance, accepted them.

Mizrahi (plural Mizrahim), which literally means eastern, is the term Israelis use to describe the roughly 1.5 million Diaspora Jews who lived for centuries in North Africa and the Middle East.

“The development towns are one of the most tolerant, accepting sectors in Israeli society. The veteran Mizrahim [many of whom came from pre-industrial parts of North Africa] connect with the concept of one nation of Jews from a biblical, rather than a politically nationalist, point of view,” he explained.

Thrust into competition over jobs and housing, they initially got on less well with the immigrants from the former Soviet Union. But what drew them out onto the streets to protest was related to religious observance — the opening by the newcomers of nonkosher stores.

Today, he said, relations between the two communities are much improved.

The exception is in Arad, where the veteran population is still battling against a community of Gur Hasidim, but there, the veterans are secular Ashkenazis.

Illustrative: Thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jewish men protest in Jerusalem in a battle over control of the Ashkenazi synagogue in Arad, and against the secular mayor, Nissam Ben Hamo, a Yesh Atid party member, on December 22, 2016. (Shlomi Cohen/Flash90)

The welcome extended to Haredim in the periphery applied less to religious Zionist Jews, Tzfadia said. In their case, integration had been less smooth and tensions with veteran Mizrachi populations had been more intense.

He cited Sderot, where Beersheba-born Alon Davidi of the Jewish Home party (now part of the Union of Right-Wing Parties) became mayor in 2013, replacing Sderot-born David Buskila, who governed the city from 1989 to 1998 and then again from 2008.

Alon Davidi, mayor of the southern Israeli city of Sderot, attends a press conference in Jerusalem, March 27, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

While some of the religious Zionist groups that had settled in development towns were doubtless committed to positive social change rather than to just pushing a particular religious line, many from the veteran Mizrahi community viewed them as condescending or even bent on displacing them, culturally and politically, in the local hierarchy, Tzfadia explained.

Davidi subsequently moved over to Likud.

A voting paradox

It is a paradox in Israel that lower-income Mizrahi groups vote more for the capitalist-minded Likud, while wealthier, better-educated Ashkenazim support the center and left.

Since even before 1977, when the Mizrahi vote helped catapult Likud to power for the first time in Israel’s history, these communities felt a visceral resentment towards all that the labor movement and the secular, European Ashkenazi elite represented.

Social historian Dr. Shani Bar-On Maman. (YouTube screenshot)

Shani Bar-On Maman, a social historian and author of “Weaving Community: Workers in Ofakim 1955 to 1981,” explained that the development towns experienced the labor movement very differently from the rest of the country.

Jewish settlement in pre-state Palestine was a project of socialist-minded Jews from Eastern Europe.

It was they who formed the first governments of Israel and who ruled the country until 1977, overseeing all the major waves of immigration bar those from the former Soviet Union, which came later.

Bar-On Maman divides the immediate post-Independence absorption of immigrants into two periods.

The first, the “mass Aliyah,” from 1948 to 1951, saw immigrants — half from Europe, the rest from Muslim lands such as Yemen, Iraq, Libya and Syria — housed in kibbutzim, moshavim, towns and former Palestinian villages, and in tent cities called ma’abarot, which eventually evolved into neighborhoods within cities. Most of the people who came during this period eventually found work, because their places of residence were close to the country’s economic center.

The planning of around 30 development towns in the early 1950s was put into practice during the period of “direct absorption” between 1954 and 1964, when most of the new immigrants coming in were from North Africa.

A development town in the desert. (YouTube screenshot)

During this period, the government’s focus was on settling Jews outside of the built-up central region to consolidate Israel’s hold on border areas captured during the 1948 War of Independence and to prevent the return of Palestinian refugees.

Concerned less with individual hardship, it was fired by the need to build a state.

Most of the post-Holocaust remnants of European Jewry that wanted to immigrate had already done so or were trapped behind the Iron Curtain.

What remained was a significant pool of Jews in the Maghreb.

Killing two birds with one stone

Killing two birds with one stone, the government implemented construction of the housing projects in the Galilee in northern Israel and in the Negev desert in the south to accommodate immigrants from Morocco and Tunisia, along with a smattering from Romania, Egypt, India and Persia.

Interviewed at the time and many years later, the late geographer Elisha Efrat, who was involved in the development town project, noted how unusual it had been to be able to marry the national security needs of the country with a major immigration wave of people who lacked the tools (including the money) to refuse and move elsewhere.

Not only did the authorities decide who would live where — families were given tickets in advance with the name of the town to which they would be taken directly from the port; officials would brook no opposition from those who refused to get off the lorries in these desolate places, or who tried to leave later on — they were told they would lose all government support if they tried.

One of the lorries that took new immigrants to the development towns. (YouTube screenshot)

North African Jews who had French citizenship — the vast majority of Algerian Jews, around half of the Tunisians, but just 20 percent of the Moroccans — fled to France when, in the run-up to independence, anti-Jewish sentiment in their homelands began to grow. (Many of the descendants of these Jews are now fleeing anti-Semitism in France by immigrating to Israel).

Of the 250,000 Moroccan Jews who made aliyah in those years, around 40,000 were from villages in the Atlas mountains. The remainder were urban, although often from poor Jewish quarters.

Fired by religious devotion and yearning for Zion, they usually lacked the political and ideological motives of Israel’s socialist founders. Without networks in the elite, they were not part of the club. And without money or property, they were powerless to demand alternative accommodation. They were trapped in the places to which they had been sent.

Immigrants from North Africa. (YouTube screenshot)

The main problem was that the development towns — located literally in the middle of nowhere — lacked any economic rationale.

No economic rationale

The result was that heads of households, who had been able to earn dignified if small incomes as tradesmen or craftsmen in North Africa, were now humiliated by becoming welfare cases, dependent on a massive bureaucracy not only for housing but also for a few days a month of menial work tarring roads, planting trees, building, or carrying out agricultural work.

“It was a very aggressive, top-down operation,” Bar-On Maman explained.

In the wake of violent nationwide demonstrations by Mizrahi immigrants in 1959, which began in the poor neighborhood of Wadi Salib in Haifa, in northern Israel, the government began to build factories in the development towns — mostly low-skilled, low-wage textile or food processing plants.

The former Kitan textile factory in Dimona, April 8, 2019. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

Then, it set about training a generation of youngsters in the low-tech skills that would be needed to operate them.

The development towns became stigmatized, watchwords for poverty, crime, frustration and despair. The hardships — and the perceived condescension of the ruling party —  created an anti-establishment, anti-left attitude that persists to this day.

The official line was always that the young state had to contend with massive immigration with minimum resources and had done the best it could.

Then came “Salah, Here is the Land of Israel” (“The Ancestral Sin” in English), a 2017 documentary series directed by David Deri, who grew up in the Negev development town of Yeruham.

Using archive material and interviewing Elisha Efrat, who died during production, the documentary, later screened as a series on Israeli Channel 13, provided shocking evidence of the way the establishment treated those it saw as less equal, even genetically inferior (these were different times), and how this helped in large part to determine their collective memory and the direction of their lives for generations to come.

Erez Tzfadia was a consultant to the documentary, as was historian Dr. Avi Picard, a member of Yeruham’s religious Zionist community, a researcher of the development towns, and a lecturer in the department of Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology at Bar-Ilan University.

In general, Picard agreed with the direction of the film, the evidentiary basis of which had been known to researchers like him for some time.

But he thought it was insufficiently nuanced, with some manipulation for dramatic effect, and he took issue with its claim that the Mizrahim were sent to the periphery to distance them from the Ashkenazim of the central region. “Moving to the periphery was seen as a great Zionist act at that time. Kibbutzniks also went north and south.”

Dr Avi Picard, a resident of Yeruham and a lecturer in the department of Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology at Bar Ilan University. (Facebook)

Picard urged against generalizations given the significant differences among development towns.

And he reacted to the oft-repeated phrase that Likud voters in the development towns were “stupid” for voting against their interests.

This was no different, he argued, from wealthy people in central Israel casting their vote for Meretz, a socialist party committed to a more equal distribution of wealth.

“Israelis vote tribally, not just those in the development towns,” he said.

Picard thought the historical experience of the development towns was less relevant to people’s voting choices today than feelings of belonging to a certain camp, and the way the camps related to Jewish tradition.

Meretz chairwoman Tamar Zandberg, Meretz members and Palestinian officials at the Palestinian Authority presidential headquarters in Ramallah on March 10, 2019. (Credit: Elad Malka)

He referred to a Meretz campaign on Facebook in the run-up to the recent elections asking voters whether they preferred a (secular) Sabbath with party leader Tamar Zandberg or one spent with (ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism lawmaker Yaakov) Litzman. “This is not the dichotomy of the development towns,” Picard said. The campaign distanced people to whom religious tradition was dear.

Labor party leader Avi Gabbay, meanwhile, had badly misfired by trying to claim that Benjamin Netanyahu was a racist. “You’re not going to change voting behavior with gimmicks,” he said.

The left’s liberal, universal ideas appealed less to Mizrahi populations, Picard went on.

Contrary to widespread assumption, they were not anti-Arab because of past experiences in the lands of their origin, nor because of a need to feel superior to a group that was even lower than they were on the socioeconomic scale.

“The main thing is that they feel part of a Jewish state and whoever is in favor of that state is fine,” he said.

Recognition and respect from the right

It was from the political outsiders, the right wing of Israeli politics — Likud and its precursor Herut — that expressions of respect for the Mizrahi contribution to building the country came.

By 1977, the Mizrahi population was large enough to help bring Likud to power for the first time.

Menachem Begin, center, speaks to supporters at his party headquarters in Tel Aviv, on May 18, 1977, as they celebrate the Likud Bloc’s election to government after 29 years of Israeli Labor Party rule. (AP Photo)

During the 1981 elections, then prime minister Menachem Begin exploited the resentment that the Mizrahim in the development towns felt toward the nearby kibbutzim with their vast reserves of land by invoking the “millionaire [Ashkenazi] kibbutzniks with their swimming pools.”

Today, many of the kibbutzim are broke and the development towns have swimming pools.

But old symbols remain potent long after reality has changed.

Yearning to be part of the Zionist story

Prof. Tzfadia notes that in contrast to the historical view of the Zionist pioneers as muscular Ashkenazim suckled on socialism, a trend has been developing among Mizrahi populations since the 1990s that says that they are the pioneers who suffered to protect and develop Israel’s frontier regions.

And echoing the views of Avi Picard, he noted that this yearning to be accepted as part of the Zionist story is also what best explains the perceived Mizrahi antipathy toward Arabs.

Attempts by left-wing Mizrahi activists to take on the description of Arab Jews and to act as a bridge between the Arab world and the more European Ashkenazim did not speak to them.

But they did not hate Arabs in the way that (religious Zionist settler) hilltop youth do, he said. They were not extreme, which is why they did not vote in great numbers for former Shas leader Eli Yishai’s extreme right-wing party, Yahad.

Day of recognition

In June last year, the Knesset held a day of recognition for the development towns.

Meir Cohen (right) appears on a Blue and White party election poster in the Negev cit of Dimona, along with Yair Lapid (center) and party leader Benny Gantz, April 8, 2019. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

For the occasion, former Dimona mayor turned Knesset lawmaker Meir Cohen, then of the Yesh Atid party (now part of Blue and White) asked the Knesset’s research and information center to produce some statistics.

The result, “A look at the development towns, 1972-2016,” presented research material on a wide range of subjects and showed that while there have been improvements, particularly in development towns closer to the country’s center, there are still persistent gaps between the center and the periphery.

The Central Bureau of Statistics, from which the booklet took much of its research, ranks Israel’s communities on a socioeconomic scale of one to ten, where one is the lowest.

Out of the 25 communities defined as development towns (some of the original 30 are no longer defined as development towns, and 21 of those are actually officially recognized as cities), the situation in 2016 was that Safed and Beit She’an in northern Israel were in category 2; the Negev’s Kiryat Malachi, Netivot, Mitzpeh Ramon and Ofakim were in category 3; ten towns were in category 4 (including the southern town of Dimona); five were in category 5 and three were in category 6 (Carmiel, Yavne and Eilat). Just one made it up to category 7 — Yokne’am Elit — and not one featured in groups 8 to 10.

(Above and at top of article) Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara during a visit to Aleh Negev, a rehabilitation village for disabled children and adults near Ofakim in southern Israel, on July 28, 2016. (Haim Zach/GPO)

A roughly 20% gap in average wages between the development towns and the country as a whole had persisted over two decades (although there were stark differences among the development towns themselves). And at that time, unemployment still stood at an average of 10.8 percent, compared with a national average of 7.7%.

The proportion of development town residents in higher education was half of Tel Aviv’s and a third of the average percentage nationally.

Slightly more up-to-date figures collected by The Times of Israel, for the year 2016-2017, showed that the average percentages of development town teens earning a matriculation certificate at age 18 stood at 63.8 percent, not that far from the national average of 68.2 percent. That said, 15 out of 25 of the towns were below the average, with some trailing seriously behind. The figures were 46.2% for Ofakim in the Negev, 49.3% for Hatzor in the north, and 49.8% for Safed, also in the north. But they stood at 81.8% in Yavne, in central Israel, 78.5% in the Galilee’s Carmiel, 77.7% in Yokne’am Illit, also in the north, and 71.2% in the Negev’s Sderot.

In the wealthier central region, by contrast, 88.6% of Kiryat Ono’s cohort earned their matriculation certificate, with the number standing at 87.8% in Givat Shmuel, 84.4% in Ra’anana and 84.3% in Ramat Gan.

‘People feel prosperity and attribute it to Netanyahu’

Despite the gaps, the impression left by a drive around many of the development towns is that things have improved over the past couple of decades.

Villas in Dimona, April 8, 2019. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel.)

Netivot, associated in the minds of many Israelis with its shrine to the Moroccan sage the Baba Sali, today has new neighborhoods, community centers and cultural activities.

Dimona, seen by this reporter just days ago, features new neighborhoods of villas and will be building a massive commercial development right next to the Kitan textile factory, which in its heyday employed 2,000 people before closing and becoming a symbol of development town economic collapse.

Benny Biton, mayor of Dimona (third from right), poses with fellow Likud activists at the Likud party’s campaign headquarters, Dimona, April 8, 2019. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel.)

The evident contradiction is explained by the fact that government investment in the development towns has increased significantly, even though expenditure on West Bank settlements is considerably more.

Most of the development towns are no longer located on frontiers. Today, it is the settlements that are the facts on the ground that will help determine Israel’s future borders.

According to the Adva Center, which researches equality and social justice, government investment per capita countrywide (via the local authorities and mainly for education and welfare services) grew by 132 percent between 1997 and 2016.

But in sectoral terms, this broke down into increases of 108 percent for Arab communities (in an attempt to help correct decades of neglect), 91% for Haredi settlements in the West Bank, 52% for non-Haredi settlements and and just 25% for the development towns.

Campaign posters for the Likud party (right) in the Negev city of Dimona, featuring Dimona mayor Benny Biton with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the caption ‘Dimona residents say thank you and vote Likud.’ Next to it is a campaign poster for the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, April 8, 2019. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

“There’s a gap between what the statistics say and what people feel,” said Prof Tzfadia. “If you put the Haredim to one side [who are economically poor because of their propensity to study Torah full time rather than work], the situation of the Mizrahi population really does seem better.

“The Haredim have bought their tenement block apartments from them, enabling them to move to better housing. There’s a feeling of prosperity. And people associate it with Netanyahu.”

‘Speaking the right language’

There is an irony in the enthusiasm of many Mizrahi Israelis for Netanyahu, a wealthy man who was partly educated in the US.

“He speaks the language of a populist, unlike [Benny] Gantz [head of the Blue and White party] or [Labor leader] Gabbay,” Tzfadia said.

Labor Party chairman Avi Gabbay in Ashkelon, November 12, 2018. (Ra’anan Cohen)

The Mizrahim loved Amir Peretz (who was not available for an interview). He was seen as a true son of the development towns. He spoke the right language, Tzfadia continued. By contrast, Gabbay — born in the then-poor neighborhood of Baka in Jerusalem to parents who immigrated from Morocco — was seen as a high-tech person who had forgotten his roots. The Labor leader was CEO of the telecommunications company Bezek before he entered politics, initially with the Kulanu Party.

“Netanyahu is anti-elitist in what he says, ” said Tzfadia. “He shows tolerance for marginal groups, such as the Haredim.”

‘Real change for the left can only come from the development towns’

Avi Dabush, an Ashkelon-born social activist from Sderot, was placed 10th on the Meretz party’s list. (The party won just four seats).

Avi Dabush of Meretz. (Courtesy)

He and other activists established campaign offices in July last year in Sderot, Ofakim, Kiryat Gat, Afula and Beersheba, first focusing on the Meretz primaries, in which Dabush ran unsuccessfully for the leadership, then turning to the national election campaign.

“We [Meretz] worked hard on the ground, harder than in 2015. But these are not places in which the party invests in posters or targeted campaigning online,” he said.

“Amir Peretz (then head of the Labor Party) did well but the left didn’t learn from that. You can’t just put in someone of Moroccan descent like Avi Gabbay and talk a bit about social issues.

“I don’t believe in working just during election periods. We need to be active throughout the year, and to come with a different ideology, an alternative,” he went on.

“We could offer long school days, free first degrees in higher education, a medical system as good as the one in the center of the country. But the left says it’s not worth the investment.”

There’s a feeling of prosperity. And people associate it with Netanyahu

Asked how he felt about being placed in the party’s unrealistic 10th spot, he said that while factors other than ethnic background also played a role (two women took gender-reserved places above him, even though they won fewer votes), the party’s list “did not give enough weight to the periphery” and that party officials continued to speak in the language of Israel’s wealthier, better educated center.

There are now roughly 1.5 million Israelis living in the development towns, in the coastal cities of Ashdod and Ashkelon, and in the Negev’s capital, Beersheba — all once collectively known as the Second Israel.

This represents just under a quarter of the country’s 6.7 million Jews.

Dabush believes that real change for the left countrywide can only come from the periphery but charges that the left fails to grasp this.

Asked if he saw the left taking the development towns in the future, Prof. Tzfadia laughed. “Yes, ” he replied, “on the day that [extreme right-wing lawmaker] Itamar Ben-Gvir takes the votes of the [traditionally left-of-center] kibbutzim.”

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