Between the Lines / Swimming in Ashkenazi Cream

The "ethnic genie" in Israeli politics, which has been bottled up and buried any number of times, has come back to life - and in Meretz, of all places.

"I don't think that Haim Oron is the right person to lead Meretz ... The opposition to my election derives from the fact that I don't belong to the conservative 'cream' of the left that is always trying to make themselves look beautiful. They are afraid that I will bring in population groups that the left has never dreamed would come to it, like the Mizrahim [Jews from Middle Eastern and North African countries] and inhabitants of the periphery" - Meretz MK Ran Cohen, Yedioth Ahronoth, December 4

The "ethnic genie" in Israeli politics, which has been bottled up and buried any number of times, has come back to life - and in Meretz, of all places. MK Haim Oron's decision to join the race for the leadership of the party has suddenly stirred up claims that the satiated Ashkenazi elite is organizing itself in an effort to prevent the election of MK Ran Cohen to that position for ethnic reasons. Cohen himself has not said this explicitly, but the meaning of the code words ("I don't belong to the 'cream'") is perfectly understood by everyone: Meretz is not prepared to accept an Iraqi as its leader.

Cohen's attempt to drag a legitimate political struggle into the murky precincts of racism should outrage not only supporters of Meretz, whose team is kicking the ball between its own goalposts, but also every citizen to whom public hygiene is dear. The use of ethnic origin as an electoral lever (or barrier) brings society back to the dark days, opens up old wounds and reflects a mentality of discrimination and victimization, which alone casts into doubt Cohen's suitability for the position he desires.

I don't know what Oron's response to Cohen was, but in his place I would be very surprised even before I began to get angry. Both because Cohen is taking on the "Mizrahi" designation, which is a totally irrelevant issue, and also because the last thing Oron represents is "the conservative 'cream' of the left," or the like.

For quite a long time now, membership in a kibbutz (Lahav, in Oron's case) hasn't endowed a person with membership in the social creme de la creme (even if he is an Ashkenazi), and being a bleeding heart is entirely foreign to Oron's matter-of-fact, straightforward character. More than any other Meretz MK, he is an authentic fighter for social justice, strengthening welfare policy and expanding the state's responsibility for its citizens (even when they are from Gush Katif). His "calling card" includes, among other things, the struggle against erosion of the National Health Law, and being in favor of increasing both the minimum wage and taxation of the wealthy - only unlike the usual social-oriented politician, he is not tainted with populism at all. In short, he is as far as can be from preening elitism.

In every other respect, too, Oron belongs to that vanishing breed of politicians who place the interest of the collective above their own personal interest, develop expertise in and seriously pursue whatever they are doing, keep their distance from the culture of public relations, spin and ratings, and do not live for tomorrow's headline. In Israeli reality this is perhaps considered an electoral disadvantage due to its grayness, but the political and public system are starved for leadership like this. And, therefore, unlike Ran Cohen, I welcome Oron's participation in the race for the chairmanship of Meretz.

A difficult background

Dan Margalit: "You are outrageously crude. You are the lowest of Olmert's spokesmen! ... You are a psychopath!"

Amnon Dankner: "You are a liar, in the grip of an obsession, and a degenerate. You have serious psychological problems when it comes to your friendship with Olmert!" - from the "Council of Sages," Channel 10, December 1

Anyone who needed additional proof of the impassioned character that the conflict between supporters of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his opponents has assumed, had it flung in his face on "Council of Sages." It is hard to recall a precedent on television for such a crude, and violent, verbal slugfest, certainly when the participants are two of the most senior journalists in Israel.

Let us set aside the personal baggage that is (or is not) behind the quarrel between Margalit and Dankner, a pair that has known beautiful days of friendship and professional closeness. What is important is the media-ethical phenomenon they embody - together with Yosef "Tommy" Lapid - in the weekly performance called "Council of Sages."

For years now these Three Musketeers have been connected by an umbilical cord to Ehud Olmert. Margalit was his close friend until they parted ways, while Dankner and Lapid continue to maintain strong friendships with the prime minister. In this sense, all three of them have "a difficult psychological background" when it comes to discussing Olmert's functioning. Everything they say about him is tainted by the complicated personal relations they each have with him. In a properly run journalistic world, this would have prevented them from dealing with Olmert at all, or at least would have minimized their involvement with him, but in the world of commercial television, which deals in entertainment for the masses, they have become a vaudeville team that puts on a weekly show about Olmert. The natural place for such discussions is really the private living room of one of the three, but here they are, appearing on the public stage for entertainment purposes. This is a current-events program, they will tell you, and if we don't talk about Olmert, you might as well shut us down.

Above all, it is important that there be full disclosure. What happened last Saturday shows that the conception of full disclosure has collapsed and the boundaries between the private living room and the professional studio have been violated entirely. Margalit, and especially Dankner, have simply forgotten their place and have caused the program to degenerate to such an ecological low that the possibility of shutting it down seems like an alluring idea. The thin public veneer has cracked, and beneath it raging passions of hostility and identification have been revealed - without the minimal professional distance necessitated by the journalistic ethos. The fact that the editors of the program (which is prerecorded) chose to leave in the curses teaches anew that its entertainment aspect takes precedence for them above anything else.

The trouble is that the emotional storm that Olmert arouses among journalists does not stop at "Council of Sages." It invades reports by senior journalists from most of the media, who are prepared to devour one another (off the record) solely over the way one or the other relates to the prime minister. In this sense, the exchanges of curses between Dankner and Margalit are only one manifestation of the professional bankruptcy that is afflicting Israeli journalism as far as the treatment of Olmert is concerned. The following comments provide another small example.

Gentlemen, a turnaround!

"Ehud Olmert makes me miss Bibi Netanyahu" - Ben Caspit, Channel 2, December 3

Ben Caspit is not pleased with Ehud Olmert. During the past week he has lashed out at him at every opportunity and in a particularly stinging fashion. He called Annapolis "an international adventure of huge dimensions that was conceived in Olmert's feverish brain and is aimed at safeguarding his place in the Prime Minister's Bureau in advance of the approaching political earthquake that will follow publication of the Winograd report" (Maariv, November 30).

Of Olmert's national priorities, Caspit wrote: "He rushes to get his picture taken with [actor Jerry] Seinfeld in a ridiculous black T-shirt like the lowest of his fans, but he has no time for [teachers union head] Ran Erez" (Maariv, December 3). There is nothing out of the ordinary in this criticism, apart from one fact: Caspit has previously been characterized by enthusiastic coverage of the prime minister and indeed has often been accused of being one of his supporters.

What caused the recent turnaround? Here are three possibilities: 1. Caspit has changed his positions for pertinent reasons; 2. The spirit of the "commanding officer" has changed at Maariv since Dankner, the prime minister's friend and defender, resigned from the position of editor-in-chief; 3. Olmert showed unforgivable ingratitude when he granted his exclusive interview after Annapolis to Nahum Barnea and Shimon Schiffer of the rival mass-circulation daily Yedioth Ahronoth.

The reader is invited to choose the possibility that seems most likely.