Amir Peretz announced last week that he would vie for the Labor Party leadership. Peretz, despite zigzagging numerous times within the center-left camp, is one of the most honest and brave politicians Israel has known. He is brave not only because he stuck to many social values long before they were trendy, but also because he dared to run for the leadership of perhaps the most Ashkenazi party in Israel, despite its token Mizrahim like Binyamin Ben-Eliezer and Shoshana Arbeli-Almozlino. He ran just as he was – a Morrocan resident of Sderot possessing a decidedly left-wing socialist-Zionist worldview and a real salt-of-the-earth man (in contrast to the image of most of his party mates).
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He told me once that the last time he ran for Labor Party leader, in 2005 against Shimon Peres, all the polls predicted he would surely win. However, he told me, he had great respect for Peres and so, two days before the election, he offered Peres the leadership without a contest on condition that he appoint Peretz his number two. Peres refused the offer without any emotion on his face, although he, too, had read the polls. A few days later, after Peretz won the election, Peres left Labor for Kadima. He took with him some good people who couldn't take the humiliation. Peretz told me this move forced him to change his strategy and return to his core constituents, Mizrahi Jews in the country's outskirts, who saw him as one of their own despite his identifying with the left.
Peretz did quite well for himself. Under his leadership, Labor won an unprecedented number of votes in most of the development towns and Mizrahi neighborhoods, for whom Labor would always be associated with its predecessor Mapai, historically the party of the Ashkenazi elite. Yet despite his successes, Peretz didn’t win enough seats to establish a coalition and become the first Mizrahi prime minister.
So, what happened? Well, the answer is simple. Everyone was with Shimon Peres. In other words, the entire Zionist left could not stand the idea that a Mizrahi would become prime minister. The white Zionist left is everything except for leftist. It will talk in lofty terms about socialism, equality and brotherhood among nations, and raise a toast with elected Palestinian officials, but when it comes to Mizrahim, it will join the white right out of some subconscious tribal loyalty and shout, “You are Khomeinis,” like at that election campaign rally in Beit Shemesh in 1981.
No, don’t go tut-tutting. The Zionist left is correct. It's better to hand power over to the right lest the Moroccan wins it, because if he will rule, what will become of us? Who will protect our children's right to inherit our moshav homes and to control the acceptance committees that protect our ability to only live with people who are like us? Who will look after the regional councils that continue to maintain upsetting inequality between the kibbutzim and the development towns?
True, Peretz would not do this, not even a smidgen, for he is flesh and blood of the Labor Party. When he was elected to head it, he even declared with pathos about “the death of the ethnic demon.” However, his origins, his Moroccan ways and his accent, which will almost always touch the average Mizrahi (contract workers, workers’ rights, minimum wage), is sufficient to kick him out of the exclusive club, even at the cost of continued victory by the right. Some things are more important than occupation, greedy capitalism or inequality – being a privileged Ashkenazi, for example.