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Israel's New Government Reinstates the Old Elites

Ron Cahlili
Ron Cahlili
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Yamina's Naftali Bennett and Yesh Atid's Yair Lapid, earlier this week.
Yamina's Naftali Bennett and Yesh Atid's Yair Lapid, earlier this week.Credit: Emil Salman
Ron Cahlili
Ron Cahlili

The government now taking shape is the most Ashkenazi government Israel has had for decades. Ashkenazim from the left, right and center of the political spectrum, with nary a Mizrahi in sight. All the leaders of the parties comprising the impending coalition are Ashkenazim – Lapid, Bennett, Gantz, Sa’ar, Michaeli, Horowitz and Lieberman (a “Russian”, which is a category on its own). The good old Israel, in its 2021 version, is back in town.

People will say it’s better than Regev, Amsalem, Ohana, Bitan and Dery, who’ve given Mizrahi politics a bad reputation. People will mention Yifat Shasha Biton, the designated minister of education, and Meir Cohen, designated to become labor and social affairs minister, despite a TV investigative report that included allegations of his sexual misconduct, as a huge Mizrahi achievement. But can anyone, with hand on heart, truly believe that either of these two will pick up the Mizrahi issue and put it center stage, as part of their public persona, as did Regev, Amsalem, Bitan and others, with the impossible costs they incurred? I doubt it.

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It’s true, not a few Mizrahi cabinet members and public officials have wreaked great damage to the Mizrahi case, making it vulgar and incoherent, attaching to it ultra-nationalism and a burning hatred towards anyone who isn’t them. But there were achievements as well, in awareness, in representation and in material progress. One can prattle endlessly about Netanyahu’s racism, it’s all true, but his recent governments were composed mainly of Mizrahi Jews, for better or worse.

The Ashkenazi ministers became wax figureheads representing the old establishment politics, exposed to the light only when there was no other recourse. They were sourpusses, subject to ridicule as the vestiges of the party’s erstwhile “princes.” The “base,” the party’s central committee and its prominent representatives in the Knesset and government, were all characterized as Mizrahi. It paid off for all involved.

But in the eyes of the nascent government, it seems that nothing has changed, with the same silence and rituals prevailing. Its members wish to continue where they left off. Time and the changes it brought about have been nullified.

It’s true, we’ve all gone through a process, the Mizrahi discourse of the last decade has done its work. We no longer have the racist Mapai party, we’ve moved forward. Even religious Zionism is searching for the next Amir Ohana, trying to be more Israeli and less sectorial and Ashkenazi. Besides, they’ll fume, since when do we choose representatives based on their community of origin? That’s really racist, they’ll say, we’re one people, it’s disgusting.

But nothing can hide the nakedness of the missing representation, with its deep and significant implications. It’s not just the representation, it’s the essence, the priorities set. Because Netanyahu, despite all the hoopla, and in spite of the growing and very present new Mizrahi middle class, leaves behind a pile of ruins in this context too.

The gaps between Ashkenazi and Mizrahi Jews have shrunk in several parameters, but have remained intolerable or grown in some areas. Mizrahi Jews are still less educated, with a lower average life expectancy and income. Don’t buy the neoliberal Cinderella stories of Yitzhak Tshuva, Rami Levy and Kobi Maimon, with their limousines and well-guarded villas. The majority of Mizrahi Jews have the raw end. The have inferior schools, with learning a trade as the main career option; they have less efficient and less accessible health services, with limping transportation services and no rewarding or fulfilling jobs.

Not putting the Mizrahi case at the center of public attention would be the most dramatic mistake the new government could make. The old latent anger will erupt once more. Here, they’ll say, you’ve forgotten us yet again, despite your lofty words in which you claimed to recognize past sins and pledged to undertake a sincere reckoning. When the reins returned to your hands, your smugness came back, with an aggressive protection of real and symbolic assets, couched in polite racism, blind to itself.

If the Mizrahi public is ignored again, after being pushed for years into the ultra-nationalist and capitalist arms of the Likud right, this will not only obliterate the “extreme left” in all its permutations, this time for good – it will also enable the most spectacular comeback in history, that of Likud without Netanyahu, within a month or two, or perhaps in two years.

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