Playing the ethnic card

Israel's early olim initially stuck together, then kept a distance from newer immigrants.

March 23, 2006 19:18
3 minute read.
metzger amar 88

metzger amar 88. (photo credit: )


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For decades, our political scene was burdened by the gaps between Jews of European and Middle Eastern origins. This gap reflected side-effects common to all immigration processes, and problems unique to the Israeli situation. As an immigrant society, Israel was built by layers of arrivals from assorted countries, who initially stuck together and subsequently kept a distance from those who arrived after them. Similar rifts existed already before the state's establishment between traditionalist, revolutionary and bourgeois elements and, following the German immigration of the 1930s, between East and Central Europeans. However, the arrival of massive immigration waves from the Muslim world in the 1950s introduced tensions that reflected deeper East-West gaps. The Jews, who until the 18th century were split evenly between the Christian and Muslim worlds, became 90 percent European by the 19th century, thanks to improving conditions. The Jews of the Muslim world, meanwhile, declined not only in their numbers but also in their wealth, education and clout. After the Holocaust, the non-Ashkenazi share in the Jewish people in general, and the Jewish state in particular, rose sharply. Eventually, nearly half of Israeli Jews were non-Ashkenazi, while practically the entire political, cultural and financial elites remained Ashkenazi. Fortunately, since this problem emerged a lot has happened here, and for the better. Marriages between the two communities have risen steadily over the years and have now become so common that children are often no longer sure how to classify themselves or their friends. The business sector is brimming with world-class success stories like Yitzhak Tshuva, Tzadik Bino, Haim Saban, Shlomo Eliyahu and Benny Gaon, the army is now headed by its third non-Ashkenazi chief of General Staff, and the political scene has seen non-Ashkenazim serve as ministers of defense, finance, foreign affairs and president of Israel, in addition to practically any other position in the legislative, municipal and governmental hierarchies. This is not to say that our ethnic gaps have vanished. Academia, for instance, remains excessively Ashkenazi, both at the graduate and faculty levels, as does the Supreme Court. Still, in terms of stereotypes, Israel is no longer where it once was, and people are judged not by where they came from, but by who they are. Sadly, this foregone conclusion must now be reiterated because some in Labor - including former interior minister Uzi Baram and former foreign affairs and defense committee chairman Hagai Merom - are hard at work attributing a prospective electoral setback next week to Labor leader Amir Peretz's Moroccan origins. The way they see it, many veteran Labor voters think Israel "is not yet ready" for a prime minister "with Peretz's background." Yet if Labor indeed emerges disappointed from next week's election, its leaders would do well to search their own souls rather than the voters'. Amir Peretz's public profile is sufficiently rich, deep and diverse for people to judge it by its substance, and it is this substance, not Peretz's "background," which deters many from giving him their vote. A political career dominated by unionist activism, and a platform that, while rich in economic recipes and slogans, is disabled by diplomatic anachronism, not to say naivete, are much more difficult to sell than a candidate's lineage, whatever it may be. Perhaps those seeking ethnic patterns in the mainstream electorate's problems with Labor are the same ones who had in the first place rushed to anoint Peretz having judged his electoral value using ethnic rather than ideological scales. The fact is Peretz has not only origins, but also ideas. And while some of those ideas, relating to Israel's more impoverished sectors, are attractive, others, from increasing public spending to negotiating a final-status settlement with the PA, are alarming to a swath of former Laborites who now prefer Kadima, which promises to treat the budget with greater caution, and the Palestinians with greater suspicion, than Peretz would. For years this newspaper has argued that Labor is suffering from a denial syndrome, in its refusal to concede its historic mistakes, especially relating to the failed Oslo process and the bloating of the public sector. Peretz's election as Labor's leader was initially hailed as the beginning of the former ruling party's overdue resuscitation. The excuse it is apparently preparing for a poor performance in next week's election indicates that it is still not prepared to confront its own maladies.

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