Amram Mitzna is the highest ranking yekke [German Jew] in the history of Israeli politics. His grandparents were born in Poland and Russia. They emigrated to Germany at the beginning of the century. His mother, Miriam, was born in Berlin, and his father, Ben Zvi, was born in Leipzig. At birth, they named him Norbert Mitzna. His parents came to this country as young pioneers.
Mitzna senior was a frequent traveler to Tel Aviv, usually taking the same bus. The driver's name was Amram, a fellow from Kibbutz Kinneret. He and Mitzna became friends, and Mitzna decided to name his son after him.
Mitzna grew up to become an agricultural expert, and the state sent him off to Indonesia. Former prime minister Golda Meir told him that with a name like that, he couldn't represent Israel. She said he needed a Hebrew name. A secretary who was sitting in the room suggested that he change the last letter of his name from "heh" to "ein." Written with an "ein," Mitzna means "hiding place."
Yekkes have done well in this country as doctors, lawyers, professors, industrialists, public administrators, newspaper editors and free professionals. Very few have made it into politics. The Eastern European Jews who arrived here first made life tough for them. Former prime minister David Ben-Gurion said that if they hadn't been Jews, they would have supported Hitler. Former justice minister Pinhas Rosen headed a party, but the Progressive Party was clearly an ethnic party. A yekke party. It wasn't very influential. Yosef Burg was one of the few yekkes to serve as a government minister, but he never became a really important man.
Yekkes stayed out of politics not only because others kept them out, but also because most of them did not feel at home here. They would have preferred to remain in Germany, but they had no choice. They came here as refugees. Many - maybe even most - refused to integrate in Israeli culture because they saw it as an inferior culture.
It also was hard for them to elbow their way to the top because many of them had the same mentality as the yekke who took the train from Haifa to Nahariya and sat in the seat facing the opposite direction. On arrival, he complained that it had made him dizzy. "Why didn't you just ask the person sitting across from you to switch places?" someone said. "The problem was that no one was sitting there," said the yekke. "I had no one to ask."
Associates of former Labor Party chairman Benjamin Ben-Eliezer were quick to argue that Mitzna's victory demonstrated that Fuad was still an "alien implant" in his party, i.e., a Mizrahi blocked by the Ashkenazi establishment. Abba Eban, the quintessential Anglo-Saxon, who died this week, was also perceived as an outsider in his party, as were the few yekkes who ever attained a position of power in the party leadership.
The truth is, most Israelis are "foreign implants" in one circle or another. To a great extent, all of Israel is one big mosaic of outsiders. That explains the rising importance of ethnic identity. Unlike many yekkes, Mitzna's parents did carve out a new Israeli identity for themselves. They spoke Hebrew to their three children. Rami, as they call their son, is not fluent in German and defines himself as an Israeli.
Nevertheless, later in life, Mitzna's parents felt the need to go back to the land of their birth and renew their connection with the German language. This week, they identified themselves as yekkes. His mother has a strong German accent, and his father says: "If there were another 100,000 yekkes in Israel, this place would look better."
Ethnic affiliation has become stronger in the wake of the realization that the "new man" that was being created in Israel has had trouble suppressing the "old Jew." Newfangled Israeliness has not met the needs. That is why the Holocaust has become one of the major components of Israeli identity, and that is why Shas was born.
There is a correlation between ethnic identity and voting patterns. But politics has actually been opened up to Jews from Arab countries with greater ease than other social frameworks. This is true for all levels of political activity, from local councils to the President's House. The political clout of Moroccan Jews, for example, is inestimably higher than that of the yekkes.
Amram Mitzna's triumph does not prove that the Ashkenazis have screwed the masses again. It proves that politics is continuing to open up. Today, even yekkes can do it.
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