Opinion |

Mizrahi Voters Don’t Vote for Mizrahi Candidates

Ron Cahlili
Ron Cahlili
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Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu attending the traditional Moroccan celebration Mimouna, in 2017.
Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu attending the traditional Moroccan celebration Mimouna, in 2017.Credit: Rami Shllush
Ron Cahlili
Ron Cahlili

The bottom line is that Mizrahi Israelis are not interested in having their own vision of peace and equality. Despite being repressed and discriminated against for being “Mizrahi,” they never knew how to operate as a tribe or a distinct category, working in their own interests. They didn’t know how to produce from within their ranks a group of intellectuals with national clout. They never succeeded in framing a vision, or a country-wide distinct and sweeping campaign that would close the gaps between Mizrahi and Ashkenazi citizens, leading the country to equality, peace and prosperity. They never managed to raise appealing political leaders who could truly challenge the Ashkenazi ruling class throughout its generations.

Despite the nostalgia, most of the Mizrahi public in Israel never believed in Mizrahi politicians. It didn’t believe in David Ben-Haroush, who led and was jailed for riots staged by immigrants from North Africa in 1959, or in the Black Panthers in the seventies. It didn’t believe in the Lithuanian Jews’-inspired Shas Party in the eighties, in the Mizrahi Rainbow Democratic Coalition in the nineties, or in Labor Party leaders Amir Peretz and Avi Gabbay in the aughts. This public, like its patrons, doesn’t believe in itself. The message has been well internalized: we are destined to be the “Messiah’s donkey,” professional whiners and moaners. We have no vision or the ability to present a worthy and effective alternative.

All this leads to another bottom line: ultimately, Mizrahi Israelis, with all their bellicose clamor – particularly after the appointment of Miri Regev as the minister of culture and the extensive media exposure of lawmakers David Amsalem and Galit Distal-Atbaryan and academician Avishai Ben-Haim, for whom the Mizrahi struggle is a central pillar of their agenda – never really believed in the ability of any Mizrahi candidate to be Israel’s prime minister. Being a [former finance minister] Kahlon, yes, but no more than that. You need a responsible adult at the helm. An Ashkenazi one, obviously. All Ashkenazi Israelis are responsible people; it’s a built-in feature of theirs.

There is something pitiful about the Mizrahi representatives of the right wing in all its stripes, mainly in Likud, a party which in recent decades has become the clear representative of a Mizrahi public which is increasingly aware of its Mizrahi character. Everyone there screams oppression, hegemony and white racism, while at the same time huddling around the well-tailored suit of Benjamin Netanyahu, who couldn’t be a more privileged Ashkenazi. We didn’t really need the testimony of Hadas Klein in Netanyahu’s trial (“I knew that if Sara knew I was Mizrahi we wouldn’t be friends”), which followed classic statements by Netanyahu and his wife, such as “you are boring us (addressed to a Likud voter complaining about the lack of a hospital in an outlying area of the country” or “we Europeans are dainty; we don’t eat like you Moroccans.”

I’m aware of the theory claiming that the Mizrahi members of Likud are using Netanyahu just like he is using them in order to maintain his nefarious grip on power, that there is a reciprocal give and take, and that this is not blind admiration but a mutual exploitation – Mizrahi Israelis support Netanyahu and whitewash all his abominations while he throws them some crumbs (budgetary, political and mainly representational) while silencing them. But if you examine the bottom line, the brass tacks, it turns out that the gaps between Mizrahi and Ashkenazi Israelis only grew wider in the twelve years of Netanyahu’s rule. Do the abovementioned claims collapse? Entirely.

People say I rush to judge, that we’re in the midst of a “process” and that changing mentality takes time, as does the crystallization of a real political-tribal entity. Here, they say, Netanyahu, the authentic representative of the “second” Israel, is about to depart, to be immediately replaced by the real thing: Amir Ohana, Miri Regev, David Amsalem, or perhaps by “fashion model” Yossi Cohen, the former head of Mossad. They say he’s Mizrahi. The new Mizrahi politicians, they promise, will not present the reins of power to mediocre Ashkenazi ones such as Yisrael Katz or Nir Barkat. This time they will insist and fight and blah-blah-blah.

It’s true, admit many, that choosing a Mizrahi politician to head Likud may rip the party apart, just as happened to the Labor Party when Amir Peretz was elected to lead it (Shimon Peres and his followers demonstratively left the party and joined Kadima); the strong Ashkenazi base, the Jabotinsky followers controlling the party’s apparatus since its founding, will not be able to tolerate this Mizrahi humiliation, goes the argument. They will have to leave and establish a new and pure right-wing movement.

But it appears that the real reason for the repeated Mizrahi choice of an Ashkenazi candidate, going way back, was and remains the lack of self-confidence. Background noise? Happy to provide it. A prime minister? Hold on…he’s too stereotypical, a genie in a bottle, and besides, what would we do without the Ashkenazi master?

Even if that’s not the entire picture, in real time, as indicated by the remote and recent past, Mizrahi Likud members will always close ranks behind the current Ashkenazi raised to godlike stature. One time he’s called Begin, another time Sharon, and then it’s Netanyahu. They’ll say he speaks polished English, that he’s educated and knows how to rub shoulders with world leaders, the least Mizrahi-like leader one could imagine. At the same time, they’ll tell you Mizrahi Israelis need just a bit more time in order to come to terms with themselves and fully understand that they are actually the hegemons who are unaware of their hegemony [not the Ashkenazi elite]. To the question “why Bibi again?” there is sometimes a simple answer: because he is Ashkenazi. For many “proud” Mizrahi people, you don’t need more than that.

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