In J.M. Coetzee's disturbing book, "Disgrace," Prof. David Lurie loses his position at the University of Cape Town because of a romance with a student. He looks for somewhere to escape from the scandal and goes to the farm of his daughter, who lives there alone. Over time he discovers that his daughter was raped by local blacks but she has forgiven them because they are black and she does not even plan to take them to court. Coetzee shows in a brilliant way what a dangerous stage South African society has reached as it gropes along the path between racist complexities. Merav Michaeli's article, "Labor Party's elections are Israel's version of Clinton vs. Obama" (in the Hebrew edition of Haaretz, July 12 ) touches on those very places which one should beware of when talking about identities and gender.
The reality which Coetzee describes is, of course, different from the one that Michaeli deals with. Nevertheless, as a woman of Mizrahi (Middle Eastern ) origin, I felt uncomfortable when I came across Michaeli's call to choose Amir Peretz as head of the Labor Party also because of his Mizrahi origin. Peretz failed miserably in the public field and now wishes to make a comeback, as if nothing happened, to that very chair he lost, justifiably, after the Second Lebanon War.
Peretz failed when he chose to be a partner in an anti-social government, failed a second time when he chose to be defense minister, and failed a third time in his functioning during the war. Neither his prolonged experience as chairman of the Histadrut labor federation and a member of Knesset, and certainly not his Mizrahi origin, nor his place of residence in Sderot, helped him to make the right social choice in real time.
Michaeli's call to prefer Peretz and her attempt to blur his failure and to forgive him, are most puzzling. When the justification rests on his ethnic origin, no matter how good Michaeli's intentions are, she is seen as arrogant and patronizing. A public figure must be judged on the basis of his personality, his positions, the way he conducts himself, his lifestyle, his remarks and his activities - not according to his ethnic identity. Praising a person who has let down his voters and examining him on the basis of his Mizrahi origins will not create the new order that Michaeli is yearning for.
With all Michaeli's aspirations to create a challenging feminist discourse in the style of the primaries in the United States in 2008, when it is translated into the Israeli reality, this discourse sounds forced. There American women had to choose between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Peretz is far from being an Obama. A politician who preferred the position of defense minister over finance minister or any other social portfolio is not able to preach about changing the order of priorities in society and cannot be a fresh alternative.
It is strange that Michaeli fell so clumsily into the trap of an ethnic choice especially since she is the very one who, a week earlier, lauded the new discourse introduced by Daphni Leef and her comrades who organized the public protest - a discourse that is inclusive and accepting and not masculine in its essence. A discourse that does not reduce reality to an oversimplified representation and wishes to see in men and women much more than political or gender identities.
Following years in which the weaker segments of Israeli society took their social struggles to the streets, but never managed to mobilize the general public, Leef succeeded in doing the impossible - bringing the people out onto the streets after her. A young Ashkenazi woman, white, the daughter of parents from a high socio-economic level who live in Kfar Shmaryahu, proved to the Israeli public that what is important is not one's origin and place of residence but rather one's internal truth, the sincerity of one's actions, the vision and the burning desire to bring about change. Above all, Leef proved that you do not have to pull out an ID card and to justify yourself and to apologize about where you grew up, where you served in the army, and what the color of your skin is. That is not what makes leaders and public figures. Sometimes one's skin can be black but the mask is white.
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