The Price of intra-Jewish Ethnic Condescension in Israel

Mizrahim suffered widespread oppression, discrimination and neglect. Today this is no longer the case, but what remains – the condescension and derision – is just as bad.

Tomer Appelbaum

Call it whatever you want: the State of Israel versus the State of Tel Aviv; the periphery versus the center; the black tribe versus the white tribe – in the end, the truth will hit you in the face: We’re talking about Mizrahim versus Ashkenazim.

This is the main explanation for the election results. It’s also the explanation for the result of the previous election, and all those that came before it. The ethnic genie is alive and well, and will be with us for many years to come.

>> The Mizrahi Revival: A Special Project

You can argue from now until the cows come home over the right solution to the conflict with the Palestinians. You can disagree about the causes of the high cost of living and exorbitant housing prices. That’s not what made the difference. It was Ashkenazi (Jews of Eastern European descent) condescension toward Mizrahim (Jews of Middle Eastern descent) that determined the election outcome.

For it’s possible to persuade people that the time has come for a diplomatic solution that will prevent the emergence of a binational state that would spell the end of the Zionist dream. It’s also possible to persuade people that the government is to blame for failing to bring down the cost of living and housing costs. But it’s not possible to degrade and mock and insult a large group of people and then go and ask the Mizrahim for their votes.

Nobody is willing to be humiliated. Nobody is willing to let their values and beliefs be disparaged. Every person has self-respect that guides him and his actions, and this holds true for Mizrahim just as it does for Ashkenazim. Nonetheless, time after time, the condescension comes from one direction only: from Ashkenazim, directed at Mizrahim.

Let’s take a brief inventory: In the heated 1981 election campaign, Shimon Peres was heckled and shouted at during an campaign stop in Beit Shemesh. He lost his cool and shouted back: “You don’t scare me. I’m not afraid of your fascism, your Khomeini-ism, or your Mizrahi social movements.” And at that same emotionally charged rally, Mordechai Gur called out: “We’ll screw you just like we screwed the Arabs.” It was in the same election, perhaps the stormiest in the country’s history, that entertainer Dudu Topaz said at the big campaign rally in Malchei Yisrael [now Rabin] Square: “The [Mizrahi] riffraff are in Metzudat Ze’ev [Likud headquarters in Tel Aviv]. They are barely good enough to serve as guards on a base, if they even enlist,” and in so doing drove the final nail in the Labor Alignment’s coffin. Begin won that election by a 10,000-vote margin.

In 1998, Labor MK Ori Orr’s offensive remarks about Moroccan immigrants were reported, and a year later, in the 1999 election, actress Tiki Dayan said at a conference at Kibbutz Shefayim that “Bibi supporters are rabble from the shuk.”

In this election, we had artist Yair Garbuz talking about the “kissers of amulets and idolaters who prostrate themselves on the graves of holy men.” Arye Dery immediately pounced, morphing “kissers of amulets” into “kissers of mezuzahs,” thereby hugely increasing the ranks of the offended group.

Many Israelis have the custom of kissing mezuzahs. They are not ultra-Orthodox or even Orthodox. They are traditional. They keep kosher (70 percent of the public), they go to synagogue on the holidays, and some might also light a candle on the grave of the Sephardi kabbalist Baba Sali. So what? Does that make them completely irrational? Does that mean they have less understanding of social, economic and security issues? Does their vote count for less than the vote of those who still vote for Mapai and Ben-Gurion?

Once upon a time, when Mapai still ruled the roost, the Mizrahim, who were concentrated primarily in the periphery, suffered widespread oppression, discrimination and neglect. Today this is no longer the case, but what remains – the condescension and derision – is just as bad.

The Alignment (and then Labor and now the Zionist Union) is perceived as “Ashkenazi,” regardless that it was once headed by Amir Peretz from Sderot. Likud is perceived as “Mizrahi,” regardless if it has only been headed by Ashkenazim. It is the party that opened its doors to Mizrahim like David Levy, Silvan Shalom, Meir Sheetrit, David Magen and Moshe Katzav.

So, it wasn’t the diplomatic-security issue that won the election. It wasn’t Iran that determined voting patterns. Nor were socioeconomic issues the key. It was all about ethnicity, and revenge was served up cold at the ballot box.