Ethnicity in Israel: Moroccans and others

Prior to 1948, Morocco had the largest Jewish population of North African countries. It was not one community, but several that differed in history, tradition, socio-economic traits, and language. One component traced its heritage to Jews expelled from Spain in the 15th century. Another may have been there since migrations out of Judea at the time of the destruction at the hands of Rome, or even earlier. There were urban Jews, and Jews living in mountain villages. Most lived in the area controlled by France, with the well-to-do thinking of themselves as French as well as Jews. There were also Jews in the region controlled by Spain, and they used Spanish along with Arabic and their own dialect.
Since 1948, the number of Jews in Morocco has shrunk from an estimated quarter-million to 5,000 or less. France received the bulk of educated, upper income Jewish migrants from Morocco, as well as the better-off from Tunisia and Algeria. Most of the remaining Jews came to Israel. Until the migration of Russian-speakers that began in the late 1980s, the Moroccans were Israel''s largest Jewish ethnic group.
And they were the most troubled. Disproportionately poor and living in unattractive "development towns" away from the vibrant center of the country, they also figured disproportionately in the statistics for crime and the prison population. They spawned political protest against what was perceived as a lack of concern, or discrimination at the hands of the Ashkenazi elite. They took cues (and the name "Black Panthers") from African-Americans who were mobilizing at the same time.
The Moroccans have been something between opportunity and a thorn for the Labor Party. Given the party''s socialist roots and its ostensible concern for social programs and helping the disadvantaged, the marriage would seem to be inevitable. But Labor segued away from its working class roots toward highly educated and upper income yuppees with a social conscience, but not much of a commitment to equality. For years Labor members were at the peaks of government, industry, and culture, with those at the peaks disproportionately Ashkenazi. Labor politicians have spoken the language of social and economic uplift, but their emphasis has been more to help Palestinians via a posture of accommodation than to work assiduously for Israel''s own poor.
In case you haven''t noticed, there have not been many votes going to the Labor Party from any source. What is left of the party in the Knesset is eight members, and opinion polls are not indicating that it would win significantly more seats in the next election.
Among the problems of the Labor Party is that many of the Moroccans and others like them long ago found the nationalist postures of Likud more to their liking, and perceived that Likud''s populism--although wrapped along with an affinity for free enterprise--was no less appropriate for them than the faux socialism of Labor.
The Ashkenazi establishment also displayed a lack of comfort with the Moroccans. Golda Meier''s comment about a delegation of Black Panthers from the early 1970s as "not nice people" remains part of the country''s memory and embarrassment.
Israelis of Moroccan origin may be still below average on income, education, and occupational prestige, but who is a Moroccan is increasingly problematic in the face of substantial intermarriage with other Sephardi groups and with Ashenazim. Moreover, the Moroccan post-Passover festival of Mimouna has acquired the status of a national holiday, with politicians competing for media attention by visits to Moroccan homes and parks where they mingle with Moroccans and others gorging themselves on North African delicacies.
Since the appearance of the Black Panthers, Labor politicians have struggled to keep the "ethnic demon" in the bottle, and away from Israeli politics.
With mixed success.
The main headline, with picture and article covering the top half of page one of Ha''aretz: "Herzog to a senior American: Amir Peretz is seen in the public as inexperienced, aggressive, and Moroccan."
The source was Wikileaks, publishing an internal American communication reporting a conversation with Yitzhak (Buji) Hertzog. He is a 50 year-old lawyer, educated in Tel Aviv and Cornell Universities, Member of Knesset as a result of three national elections since 2003, son of the late President Chaim Herzog, and grandson of the late Rabbi Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog. Rabbi Herzog had been Chief Rabbi of Ireland and was Israel''s first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi. Yitzhak Herzog is as close to an intelligent, soft-spoken, modest, iconic member of upper crust and decent Israeli society as can be found. Until the Labor Party split and the component holding on to the name left Netanyahu''s government, Herzog served as Minister of Welfare. He positioned himself as genuinely concerned with the details of the function, and often expressed his concern for the country''s needy. He affiliated with those Labor Party members who pushed hardest in support of a forthcoming posture with respect to the Palestinians.
The comment Herzog is said to have been made occurred in 2006, in the context of an election campaign where Labor, then led by Peretz, was declining in the opinion polls.
Now Herzog himself is involved in a primary contest for the leadership of Labor, and Peretz is trying to win back the position he once held.
Herzog denies that he said what is attributed to him. He and his friends assert that such language counters his beliefs and his manner of speaking. He has demanded an investigation by the current American ambassador, as to how he was quoted in official American documents for a comment he did not make.
While Herzog''s alleged comments about Moroccans headed the morning talk shows, the evening featured the Russians (better described as "Russian speakers" in light of the large number of Jews who have come from the Ukraine as well as other Eastern European and Central Asian republics). After years of police investigations and dithering by the Attorney General''s Office, the current Attorney General has published a draft indictment against Avigdor Lieberman on charges of money laundering, breach of trust, and witness tampering.
Lieberman''s party, Israel Our Home, is said to be just that, i.e., Lieberman''s party. It is the third largest party, with 15 members in the Knesset. Not all its voters are Russian speakers, and not all Russian speakers support the party. However, it is known as the party of Russian speakers, and Lieberman runs it like Vladimir Putin runs the post-Communist but not-so-democratic Russia. One of my Russian friends considers Lieberman as a gangster, but supports him on account of his assertive postures with respect to Palestinians and Israeli Arabs.
The rules are that a public figure is entitled to a hearing prior to the formal presentation of an indictment. Insofar as the Attorney General''s Office required years to prepare a draft indictment, it is assumed that Lieberman''s attorneys will have months to prepare for the hearing. It may be a year or more before there is a formal indictment, and Lieberman''s position as Foreign Minister is secure until then.
Commentators have referred to Israel Our Home as a party of Lieberman and his 14 dwarfs, but it is not exactly that. Two members, in particular, have been prominent. Both are Israeli-born, and either may emerge as leader of a right wing, secular party that has a future beyond Lieberman and migration from the former Soviet Union. Minister of Domestic Security Yitzhak Aharonovitch has the Israeli Police as a prominent feature of his responsibilities. Deputy Foreign Minister Daniel Ayalon is a former career diplomat who has been doing at least as much of the heavy lifting with respect to foreign affairs as Lieberman.
Neither Aharonovitch nor Ayalon is a political dwarf, but neither may be able to mobilize Israel''s Russian speaking population like Lieberman.