Opinion |

So Many Mizrahim on Television

Carolina Landsmann
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Actors Ze'ev Revach and Leah Koenig light a beacon during Israel 70 Independence Day celebrations
Actors Ze'ev Revach and Leah Koenig light a beacon during Israel 70 Independence Day celebrationsCredit: Emil salman
Carolina Landsmann

Something about the speech by Lula da Silva, the former Brazilian president and beloved labor leader, just before he entered prison for corruption earlier this month, made me think of Benjamin Netanyahu. It had to do with what Lula believes is the real crime for which he was prosecuted – that during his tenure, the poor in general and blacks in particular breached the ghettoes of their social class. His legions of supporters are certain that his conviction was the result of a political witch hunt: The white elites couldn’t abide having neighbors with a different skin color, now that such people were moving into areas that used to be beyond their reach.

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I thought of Netanyahu because in Israel, too, similar cries are being heard from those who feel that “the country has been taken from them,” who complain about the country’s vulgarization – code for an increasing Mizrahi presence – and dream of changing the people who make up the nation.

The rejoicing among Brazilian whites that accompanied Lula’s entrance into prison were described on the left as an expression of revenge and class hatred; as the counter-reaction to the joy of the poor and of blacks when Lula was in power, when poverty and inequality shrank a bit. On the other side of the world, poet and social activist Shlomi Hatuka excitedly summed up the torch-lighting ceremony: “I’ve never seen so many Mizrahim on television.”

Indeed, it’s hard to deny that under Netanyahu, the gates that kept Mizrahim excluded have been breached, and their visibility is undeniable, much to the chagrin of the Ashkenazim. But contrary to Lula, who fought passionately his whole life for the workers, the poor and the blacks – Netanyahu and his wife seem to genuinely harbor a hatred for the poor. Netanyahu is not being persecuted, he is the political persecutor. Netanyahu cannot take credit for the liberation of the Mizrahim. He uses the Mizrahi cause to incite and conquer, not to remedy an imbalance or to build a common, equal and just ethos.

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Even though Netanyahu has acted cynically, can one ignore the fact that under his governance, the socio-ethnic fabric of the public domain has changed beyond recognition? That Miri Regev is the culture minister and it wasn’t Yariv Levin or Yuval Steinitz who took over for the prime minister when he was under anesthesia? It’s easy to scoff at the status the premier has given to Regev, but isn’t the dismissal of a formal role a form of covert racism: She is the deputy prime minister only because he is not in mortal danger? When Regev is culture minister, does that position not carry the same kind of weight as it would if given to an Ashkenazi? Is it really of no importance that the 70th Independence Day festivities were designed just as she pleased, or that the Mizrahi narrative has become the bon ton when it comes to political correctness today?

Netanyahu has groomed only the “professional representatives” of Mizrahim and not those with genuine talent. To the former, he grants at most the job of filling in, but never of really being in charge. And he threatens to make the heads of the latter roll whenever they dare to truly do their jobs – out of loyalty to the public and not to Netanyahu – as is the case with Israel Police Commissioner Roni Alsheikh. This also explains the conflicted feelings many on the Ashkenazi left have for Netanyahu: They hate him for advancing the Mizrahim, but admire him for blocking them with a glass ceiling.

And herein lies the hope: Alsheikh symbolizes the Mizrahi distancing from Netanyahu and perhaps also the birth of a new historic narrative in which – against his will, and completely contrary to his political intentions – the prime minister has acted as the donkey of the Messiah of the Mizrahi revolution.

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