The Israeli Activist Who Wants to Bring an Elitist Left-wing Party Back to the People

Avi Buskila, who is Mizrahi and gay, is fighting for the leadership of the predominantly Ashkenazi Meretz party

Eness Elias
Eness Elias
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Meretz's Avi Buskila, December 2017.
Meretz's Avi Buskila, December 2017.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Eness Elias
Eness Elias

Meretz, the party to the left of the Labor Party, is inarguably an Ashkenazi party – made up of Jews with roots in Europe. Since it was founded to run in the 1992 election, only two of its Knesset members have been of Mizrahi – Middle Eastern or North African – extraction: Ran Cohen and Mossi Raz. And its community of voters rarely changes very much.

But realizing that the party was losing voters and wasn’t drawing new ones, Meretz made some clumsy efforts during the last election campaign to appeal to the Mizrahi community. There was the slogan “Your heart is on the left, dear,” and a cringeworthy video of Meretz politicians singing and dancing at a wedding.

After so many years of arrogant disregard, the expectation that Mizrahim would choose Meretz seemed pretty absurd. Now the party apparently understands the need for greater change. For the first time Meretz will hold an open primary, which has sparked a lively leadership contest between young and old, Mizrahim and Ashkenazim, offering some hope for the party’s future.

That’s the thinking of Avi Buskila, 42, a former army officer, former Peace Now chief and now a candiate in the Meretz leadership race against Tamar Zandberg and Avi Dabush. Buskila is the son of Moroccan parents from Moshav Mishmar Hayarden on the northern border, known as a Likud stronghold. He’s definitely not the typical Meretz leadership contender.

His candidacy set off a storm among the party’s hard core and generated criticism of his lack of experience that some thought was tinged with racism. Buskila isn’t threatened by the closed Ashkenazi ranks. He sees his origins as an advantage, along with his long army service, which some people on the left also perceive as a problem.

“I always say that I’m a Mizrahi Israeli and they ask, ‘why is Mizrahi relevant?’” Buskila says, describing his meetings with some Meretz people. “Mizrahi is relevant the way being gay is relevant, the way the fact that I grew up in the country’s outskirts is relevant. It’s part of my personality, and my personality is part of my platform,” he adds.

“We know that the State of Israel still treats people differently because of their origins. In Meretz one can talk about Arabs and about Ethiopians, so what’s the problem with the word ‘Mizrahim’? So I say it over and over.”

Buskila says that while party veterans have raised an eyebrow over his candidacy, younger people understand that there’s an issue they can’t ignore. “All told, the Mizrahi discourse deals with the issues that are Meretz’s bread and butter. Equal opportunity, distributive justice – that’s what the party does,” he says. “The Mizrahi discourse isn’t against Ashkenazim, it’s a debate with the establishment that continues to operate the same way.”

The powerful kibbutzim and moshavim

Still, Buskila knows that the issue of distributive justice is problematic in Meretz, which has a strong support base in the kibbutzim. Distributive justice means reallocating the state’s resources that were provided to population groups with power and status, as well as a realignment of municipal boundaries in outlying areas that isolate development towns from the wealthier regions studded with moshavim and kibbutzim.

“As a worldview I believe in distributive justice. I think that we have to draw up a new contract regarding state land,” Buskila says.

“Distributive justice also includes the division of profits that will help bring money to the less wealthy places. I think we should renationalize all our natural resources and the state should manage them, instead of the privatization going on now. If we don’t divide the resources and the profits differently, it’s hard for me to see how we can close gaps in Israeli society.”

In recent days Meretz politics took a new turn when both Ilan Gilon and Zehava Galon dropped out of the leadership race. Gilon left for health reasons, but Galon’s decision was a real surprise.

“In general, Zehava’s vision is being realized, it was just a little ahead of its time. I think she wanted another term to complete the change, and she could have fought to the end and forever. But she understood that the process was already happening and decided to retire,” Buskila says.

“I think you have to give her a lot of credit for this move. The party is seeking change, is looking for a young, different spirit. I’m sure this was a very difficult decision for her. Personally, I wasn’t celebrating that day. For me it wasn’t an easy day.”

Buskila says it’s unclear how Galon’s departure will affect his candidacy. “There are plenty of people from Ilan’s and Zehava’s camps who are talking to me, who are expressing public support, who are trying to find common denominators we can work with,” he says. “But there’s no doubt that it’s a whole new ballgame; the truth is, the battle is only now beginning.”

Identity politics Israel-style

Buskila brings the Mizrahi angle to Meretz through the class angle on which the party was founded. “The social and class order in Israel was built by the left,” he says. “Now the old elites of the kibbutzim have been replaced by the new elite of the settlers – two Ashkenazi elites – while the middle class hasn’t changed. Israel’s middle class has a color.”

He notes how his father, who grew up 50 feet from the border, experienced the threat from both Syria and Lebanon but was never considered one of the country’s founders.

“When you talk about identity politics you have to talk about equal opportunities, whether a boy like me who was born in Moshav Mishmar Hayarden has the same opportunities as in Ra’anana,” he says. “In the periphery, physically, you don’t have the same equal opportunities, though there are always those people who defy the conventions. To say that this is the same thing is to deny reality. The left has to cope with these social issues and do some soul-searching.”

Buskila is very close to his parents and family. He describes political arguments, often loud, between him, the leftist son, and his right-wing parents. Still, he says, “the left isn’t far from the world of Mizrahi values. It’s even closer; it’s a humanistic worldview that connects to people.”

But the language of the left is condescending, Buskila says. “I had an argument with someone about Elor Azaria’s mother,” referring to the mother of the soldier convicted of manslaughter for shooting a knife-wielding Palestinian who was already wounded lying motionless on the ground.

“I argued that she broke my heart, and she claimed that Oshra Azaria had said that we should all die. So what? Every day a million people tell me I should die. What mother will accept having her son called a murderer? Compassion is the strongest tool the Israeli left has and we don’t use it; we use cynicism and sarcasm. If the left wouldn’t laugh at Oshra Azaria but instead would understand her pain, the situation would be different.”

Buskila isn’t afraid to say that the right isn’t all bad, and even has a good word for Culture Minister Miri Regev, because, “for the first time there has been a real discussion about the culture here in Israel, a discussion that would never have been started without her.”

He added, referring to three Likud ministers, that “Netanyahu surrounded himself with the clique of [Gilad] Erdan, [Yuval] Steinitz and [Yisrael] Katz, even though Regev could have done any of their jobs very successfully. He put her in a ministry that until now people didn’t know existed. He was counting on her being in a small quiet ministry with no influence on the public. He made a big mistake.”

Either way, Buskila also plans to continue to promote the LGBT agenda, marked by efforts to help this community in the country’s outskirts.

“Most people in the center support the community, but to be gay, lesbian or transgender in the periphery isn’t the same thing, even in places considered pluralistic,” Buskila says. “To be LGBTQ in the far north is difficult, whether you live on Kibbutz Mahanayim or in Kiryat Shmona. These are places where it’s harder, and these are the places where we should be more significant.”

Buskila says the idea is to know how to meet with people.

“It’s hard work but if we want the public to believe in us, they have to see us as part of their struggles, their lives. If Meretz now finds representatives in all parts of the country, nurtures them and gives them the tools, they’ll turn into influential representatives in their communities.”

In the end, Buskila says, “it’s also important not to forget optimism, hope and joy. If you’re a leftist, all you talk about is how horrible and sad things are; everything’s catastrophic. This is hard for people; it turns them off. You can be on the left and still be happy.”

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