Nobody's Token Mizrahi

Dr. Avner Ben-Zaken, an expert on the history of science and a graduate of a prestigious Harvard University program, is disappointed by Meretz's automatic support for the current fighting in the Gaza Strip.

"Meretz is very conventional and not creative in its political and social positions," he says. "It is legitimate to attack a political entity that is attacking you, but before doing so it is worth turning it into an independent entity."

He says that when fighting an independent entity, "your moral and strategic maneuvering room is increased."

However, the lack of political creativity does not surprise him. Ben-Zaken, 41, is familiar with it from another sphere of the political party - the social arena - an area he recently got to know from personal experience.

Ben-Zaken's name flickered into the public consciousness recently when the new left-wing alliance flaunted his biography as an electoral asset. Any time members of the group were suspected of Ashkenazi elitism, they would pull out the biography of the Mizrahi [of Middle Eastern heritage] intellectual and say, "But we have Avner Ben-Zaken who grew up in the [lower-middle class] Daled neighborhood of Be'er Sheva, who has a doctorate and studied at Harvard."

This use, past and present, of his condensed biography is not to Ben-Zaken's taste, to put it mildly.

"I felt that I was being brought back cynically to the borders of this place, as if I couldn't escape it," he said in a conversation with Haaretz. Nevertheless, he went along with the game whose rules he knew well, though apparently not well enough. In the end, he found himself out of the Knesset and off the list. He and his social democratic agenda were pushed down to the 12th slot, which is considered unrealistic - despite understandings reached in advance. It's worth remembering his name, though, ahead of his possible reappearance on a Knesset list as part of the new social-democratic party, Masad, which has already started getting organized for the upcoming elections.

Not a fig leaf

"There is some kind of genetic flaw in the left," says Ben-Zaken of his failed bid with the leftist grouping. "The election committee of the new movement was conducted like an academic election committee. They preferred those they knew, those who were close, those who came from their social milieu, rather than someone who came to their table from a distance."

"It was clear to me that they approached me because I am Mizrahi," Ben-Zaken says of his contacts with the group's organizing committee. "At the same time, I told them that it must be clear that I will not serve as a fig leaf, a representative of a minority. I wish to present a social-democratic vision that makes it possible to move freely from one side to another of society."

Ben-Zaken is not alone. Prof. Yossi Yonah and Dr. Yossi Dahan, with whom the new group conducted prolonged negotiations, are not there either. They demanded slots for both of them out of the moral belief that views the placement of one of them only as using them for a kind of Mizrahi social fig leaf while both of are a real representation. The committee said in response that this was exaggerated but suggested they could lighten the load by adding a woman of Mizrahi descent who would fill the slot both of a Mizrahi and of a woman. Yonah and Dahan agreed, but the committee members didn't get back to them.

In the end, when Ben-Zaken was placed in the 12th slot, they told him it was a realistic place. Ben-Zaken responded cynically that if that place was realistic then the fact that he was giving it up was even more heroic.

"I simply don't want to be in a place where the green discourse and the outposts are more important than the real socio-economic discussion," he says. "In addition, from my position somewhere at the bottom of the list I'll have difficulty even getting my own family involved."

Ben-Zaken's disappearance from the slate and its monolithic nature have become a much discussed subject in left-wing circles in recent days. "An ethnic party" is how they define the new movement, "an Ashkenazi Shas."

On the other hand, people who were involved in the process of setting up the list say that "Ben-Zaken came with exaggerated demands" and they even describe him as being "megalomaniacal."

In any case, they are not crying over his decision to leave the list. A senior activist in the new left-wing movement admits that their electoral objective is to get the veteran public who used to support it to come back. To achieve this goal, there is no real need for Ben-Zaken.

Although he writhes uncomfortably every time the conversation turns to the ethnic issue, Ben-Zaken has no difficulty attacking the agenda that is represented by the final manning of the list. "I think I fell victim to the ratings, just as everyone else did," said Ben-Zaken, referring to "the new stars" of the new movement. "Tzali Reshef suits them because he is an institution that represents Peace Now of the 1970s," he says. "Talia Sasson was placed second by the new movement for reasons that can be understood - Kadima just said that it is opposed to the outposts, Labor objects to the outposts. So Meretz had to say that it objects even more, and who can express that better than Talia Sasson, who wrote the report about the outposts?"

"They decided that the green agenda and the gay-lesbian discourse are more important than the fact that a person of Mizrahi background still earns 40 percent less than an Ashkenazi," he said.

"I came to try to ignite their imagination and to create a new icon for the system," he said. "I failed. The new left revealed itself as the oldest possible left. In a country where there are so many blocks and barriers, the left is the one that best represents the barriers. Even when it tries, it is not capable and not prepared to open up to inter-cultural dialogue and to adapt itself to a changing society. In that respect, the right is more open and a great deal more flexible."