Not a Word About Mizrahim

It seems like early elections are approaching. It also seems that, once again, the parties will ignore the intolerable inequality between Mizrahim and Ashkenazim

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Moshe Kahlon speaks during a debate hosted by the Israel Women's Network in Tel Aviv on Feb. 24, 2015
Moshe Kahlon speaks during a debate hosted by the Israel Women's Network in Tel Aviv on Feb. 24, 2015Credit: AP
Ron Cahlili
Ron Cahlili

Early elections, so it seems, are approaching. And once again Mizrahim, the political orphans, will face a crossroad. With the exception of Shas — which will surely fine-tune its social and religious messages and will again be the only party to speak the name of the category that no one mentions — the chances are good that the rest of the parties will ignore the intolerable inequality between Mizrahim and Ashkenazim. Just as they ignored the article last week in the Hebrew edition of Haaretz, reporting that 45 percent more Mizrahim than Ashkenazim received welfare services.

The parties are right. Why complicate things. Why should they argue with the senior strategist who insists that they remains “Israeli” and “statesmanlike,” that is, general in nature. After all, the new public opinion, everyone believes, requires that the parties that want to be big and significant appoint a Mizrahi chairperson (who says nothing significant in this context), but continues to hide behind what has become the most mendacious cliché in our history: “We’re all Israelis.” That is, without variations, without a revolutionary or alternative agenda that will dismantle everything that has become taken for granted and that brought us to stagnation.

Take for example the last election campaign, when an old-new player emerged on the political field by the name of Moshe Kahlon, whose Mizrahi identity — in contrast to his boss’s “Mizrahi gene” — is unmistakable: Raised in Givat Olga, his het and ayin are guttural. He’s good-looking, a nice Likud boy. Right-wing when it comes to the Palestinians, he’s a capitalist revolutionary who doesn’t forget his origins. I remember reading the platform of his new party, Kulanu, and finding nothing specific about Mizrahim. What was there? The middle class, of course, young married couples, class consciousness and lots of promises. Moreover, when an interviewer asked him about the Mizrahi issue, Kahlon refused to identify as such and, it seemed to me, dismissed the question as empty. I recall that many Mizrahi activists tried to defend him. They said it was clearly a campaign strategy, that he must not identify as Mizrahi, that it would be seen as divisive and that what was important was that he come across as Mizrahi; that this was the main accomplishment: visibility, representation.

Amir Peretz, who was preparing to challenge Isaac Herzog for the leadership of the Labor Party, avoided making any unequivocal Mizrahi statement for years. He too comes across as Mizrahi. Peretz is Moroccan, he even has traces of an accent. A retired labor leader, he lives in Sderot. But when asked about Mizrahim, he clams up a little. He’s uncomfortable, perhaps in part because he knows that the heart of the Labor Party, his home party, wouldn’t like such supposedly passe talk. Although everyone keeps saying it’s not like that anymore, that Labor Party has seen the light, and all that jazz.

Avi Gabbay is similar in this respect. That is, he came into the political world in that interview with Ilana Dayan, in which he took her to the Jerusalem immigrant camp where he grew up, told about the poverty of his childhood, spoke about the connection between origin and social class, openly criticizing the inherent racism in the Israeli establishment over the generations. But from the moment he learned he won the primary and became the Labor Party chairman, he retreated to the warm bosom of vague Israeliness. He has something to say about everything: the settlements, Jerusalem, the natural-gas deal and the Arabs, but about Mizrahim, the tribe that he ostensibly represents? Not a word. For now, at least.

Just as everyone already knows that no fair and true political debate can take place without women, religious Jews or the Palestinians, it’s no longer possible to run for the Knesset without Mizrahi candidates or a Mizrahi agenda. And not an agenda that hides behind the small print in a party platform and serves mainly to assuage the wounded conscience of its framers, but one that represents the street, loudly so, out of a sense of true justice, and that enters the hearts of voters. Good luck with that.

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