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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Cutting a politician off in mid-sentence and taking him off the air is a powerful weapon of radio and TV interviewers - a prerogative to be used extremely sparingly in a democracy. Army Radio's Razi Barkai did it three weeks ago during an anti-Zionist tirade from MK Azmi Bashara.
On Tuesday morning, I found myself wishing that he'd do the same thing to former Shas minister, Shlomo Benizri. The dailies published reports of the attorney-general's decision to press charges against Benizri for accepting bribes from his close friend, contractor Moshe Sela. In exchange, Benizri - at the time labor and social affairs minister - allegedly arranged for Sela to be given the license to bring hundreds of foreign workers into the country.
Never media-shy, Benizri was quick with his retort to the charges. The only reason he was being taken to court, he quipped, "is that my name is Benizri, not Benizrovich."
In other words, Benizri was saying, "they" wouldn't dare do this to an Ashkenazi. Not only did Barkai - who had presumably spoken with Benizri prior to the show and knew what he was going to say - allow him to invoke the "ethnic demon" in such a self-serving manner; for the next hour of the show, he allowed him to rehash the absurd allegation at length.
That very morning, Haaretz prominently published accusations that "Hakeshet Hamizrahit," a radical group of non-Ashkenazi intellectuals, is making against Labor Chairman Amir Peretz for turning his back on his Sephardi identity for fear of alienating Ashkenazi voters.
Upon closer examination, both Benizri's and Hakeshet's charges are revealing.
Four and a half years ago, I edited the first investigative piece exposing the allegedly corrupt ties between Benizri and Sela for Jerusalem's local weekly, Kol Hair. The give-and-take relationship between the two was widely asserted even then in the local haredi community. Neither, apparently, does anyone in Shas harbor any illusions about Benizri. Party chairman Eli Yishai recently even tried to remove him from the Knesset list.
Benizri remains a Knesset candidate through the influence of his long-standing patron, the popular Rabbi Reuven Elbaz (himself a suspect in the Sela case). Neither of these facts bothered Benizri when he went on air on Tuesday to say that he was being charged only because his parents were born in Morocco. What's worse, they didn't stop Barkai from giving the ludicrous claim an airing.
The same can be said about Hakeshet, whose high media-profile can't change the fact that they represent no one but themselves; and the only justification for their existence is their claim that the establishment is still systematically discriminating against non-Ashkenazi Jews. They won't let any facts get in their way when being interviewed.
The only sensible way to rebut the accusation that Amir Peretz has somehow turned his back on his identity is to paraphrase George Orwell, to wit: It's such a ridiculous idea, you'd have to be an intellectual to believe it. A Sephardi one. Such a pity Haaretz gave it so much attention.
For all his shortcomings, Peretz is the most authentic party leader ever seen in Israeli politics. He couldn't turn his back on his identity even if he wanted to. If Labor voters were racist enough not to vote for Peretz solely on account of his Moroccan origins (and according to polls this isn't the case), nothing he could do - not even change his name to Persky and make speeches in Yiddish - would change that. We all know where Peretz was born and where he grew up, and for many who are planning to vote for him - most of whom, apparently, are Ashkenazim - that's a major part of his attraction.
ONE WOULD have to be quite removed from reality to claim that there is still widespread discrimination against non-Ashkenazi Jews in Israel today. The wide gaps that still exist in education and income are no longer determined by ethnicity. The average Ashkenazi is still wealthier, but that's due to historical reasons. There are no hurdles, not even invisible ones, standing in the way of non-Ashkenazim (though they do exist for Israeli Arabs) getting any top job in the public or private sectors. And their prevalence in the legal profession and the judiciary (though not yet in the "good ol' boys" High Court) makes a mockery of Benizri's claims.
Discrimination exists only in the feverish imagination of Shas politicians and a handful of radical academics who will never be invited on television again if they admit that, at least in this respect, Israeli society has grown up. It's not hard to understand why they're mad at Peretz, who steadfastly refused to play that card, and who, upon being elected Labor chairman three months ago, proclaimed: "Tonight we have buried the ethnic demon."
He's jeopardizing their livelihood, after all.
So why are serious media organizations and journalists supplying platforms for charlatans, who are perfectly willing to rekindle ethnic tensions for their own interest?
It's not an issue of free speech, since they're spouting such demonstrably false allegations. It's not as though we don't have enough conflicts going on here.
They do so for a range of reasons. Partly it's due to a long-standing guilt complex that many senior Ashkenazi journalists and news executives still carry around with them. This is actually a form of inverted racism. Interview one radical non-Ashkenazi lecturer and feel good because we "let them" talk. It's much simpler to look at the country's problems through an ethnic prism. The shallow press has much less patience to try and really understand the reasons for poverty and why it affects certain groups.
But above all, a non-Ashkenazi politician accusing the establishment of victimization is still seen as a "sexy story."
It conjures up memories of the Wadi Salib riots and our local version of the Black Panthers. Of course, everyone knows that it's just a way of trying to get off the hook, but it makes us feel good.
And let's not forget the ratings.