Labor Attempting to Play Down Importance of Ethnic Demon

Amir Peretz's ethnic origins apparently play a very important role in the decision whether to vote for him.

This election campaign is the first one to have a Mizrahi candidate at the head of one of the major parties. In his victory speech at the primaries, Amir Peretz declared: "Today we are euthanizing the ethnic demon."

In practice, it turns out that, at best, Peretz managed to sweep the demon under the carpet, where it remains alive and kicking as before, maybe even more so. Peretz's ethnic origins apparently play a very important role in the decision whether to vote for him, especially in the decision by many Ashkenazim not to do so. It can therefore be argued that at least in these elections, the ethnic demon is Ashkenazi.

Nevertheless, it's been years since there was an election campaign in which the ethnic issue was so suppressed. One reason is that Peretz wants to come across as everyone's leader. In his interview with Ari Shavit in last week's Haaretz Magazine, Peretz said he has always tried "to avoid being enthralled by the ethnic demon. The ethnic demon is the No. 1 enemy of the social struggle." This is helped by the fact that Shas lost its traditional rivals - Shinui's Tommy Lapid and the Yisrael B'Aliya party - and Shas chair Eli Yishai is keen to present a new and moderate image.

Polls commissioned by Labor show that Peretz is bringing in about eight Knesset seats from underprivileged towns and neighborhoods, primarily among lower-middle class voters. But he is losing a similar number among veteran Labor supporters - residents of Givatayim, north Tel Aviv, the Carmel and kibbutzim - mostly Ashkenazi, mostly well-to-do. Labor's Lova Eliav, who heads a team of intellectuals charged with bringing the Ashkenazim back to the fold, says the real reason for the abandonment "is that they don't want a Moroccan leading us."

"I have no doubt," says Yuval Elbashan, head of Labor's campaign planning headquarters, "that a large part of the loss of all sorts of votes to Kadima stems from the Ashkenazi ethnic demon."

"The ones letting the genie out of the bottle are the Ashkenazim," says Shimon Beit-On, chair of the Moroccans in Israel Alliance. He is calling on the media and politicians to stop ridiculing Peretz, "before the ethnic demon picks up steam and we lose control."

"In my talks with Labor's Shelly Yachimovich and Yuli Tamir," says Prof. Yossi Yona, of the Mizrahi Democratic Rainbow, "and it saddens them and embarrasses them as Ashkenazim that a group from their community of affiliation has racist tendencies and benighted views."

There is "a conspiracy of silence," Yona adds, since politicians are afraid that airing the matter will wind up hurting them. Yona says he is amazed that the ethnic issue is ascribed to Mizrahim, "when the most ethnic voting patterns belong to Ashkenazim."

"The ethnic demon is always there and sets the words and music for politicians, but everyone denies it. The best thing that could happen to us is that we being it up and clean the pus." Elbashan said that Peretz was very angry with him for raising the ethnic issue because he believes "that will only strengthen the demon."

Still, it's hard to shake off the impression of a division of labor: Peretz's associates battle the demon and Peretz keeps mum about it. Peretz took a moderate approach in his Haaretz interview: "What truly hurts," he told Shavit, "is that part of the peace camp, which since 1977 has said that it wants to open its gates to the people of the periphery, is now leaving the Labor Party when the peripheral towns are coming to it." Notably, Peretz did not say which ethnic group the people leaving belong to, nor did he offer an explanation for their departure. A source close to Peretz said that "Amir's election means that the ethnic issue is gone. The ethnic issue is therefore not an issue in these elections."

The transfer of Mizrahi voters to Labor and of Ashkenazi voters to Kadima places in question for the first time the consensus that Labor is a party with a definite Ashkenazi majority. Pollster Rafi Smith found last week that less than half of Labor votes in the upcoming elections (45 percent) will come from Ashkenazim. The rest will come from Mizrahim (36 percent) and third-generation Israelis (20 percent).

The Peace Index data, presented by Prof. Ephraim Ya'ar, are less clear cut: Only a quarter of Labor supporters are Mizrahim and more than half are Ashkenazim. Surveys by Dr. Mina Tzemach for the Dahaf Institute indicate a similar percentage of Mizrahi support for Labor, but the rate of Ashkenazi voters is closer to two thirds.

Ya'ar is skeptical of claims that attribute Labor's loss of Ashkenazi voters to Peretz's election. Peretz won the primaries in early November 2005. Polls for that month had Labor winning nearly 30 Knesset seats. It later lost about 10 of those. Ya'ar claims that most of the voters who left the party between then and January 2006 were Mizrahim. Yossi Yona offers a possible explanation for this: "There are plenty of Mizrahim who are tainted by that same racism."