Ben-Simon warns ethnic divide will tear Labor apart

Former Labor MK says he has received countless complaints from Sephardi Labor activists on Yacimovich's behavior.

Daniel Ben Simon 370 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Daniel Ben Simon 370
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The Labor Party could disintegrate due to an irreparable rift on ethnic issues exacerbated by the behavior of chairwoman Shelly Yacimovich, former Labor MK Daniel Ben- Simon predicted Sunday.
Ben-Simon said he had received countless complaints from Sephardi Labor-party members on the periphery since a party activist named Danny Zamir insulted the crowd at Thursday’s Labor convention.
Zamir spoke in favor of Yacimovich, and at the event called the crowd “arsim” – a perjorative term for a low socioeconomic stereotype that often carries ethnic connotations.
Yacimovich apologized for Zamir’s language, but defended him personally at the event in the weekly email address to her supporters that she sent out Saturday night. Ben- Simon blamed Yacimovich for creating an atmosphere that he suggested led to the departure from the party of top Sephardi figures like Environmental Protection Minister Amir Peretz and himself.
“It is so sad for me as a member of Labor that the main dividing line inside the party is not the peace process, education policies or how to reach equality, but an ethnic line,” Ben-Simon said. “The more I think about it, the more hopeless I am that Labor can overcome this issue. I cannot understand why Labor continues to fail to integrate people who do not belong to the families of the founders of the country.”
Ben-Simon recalled Labor’s painful history with ethnic issues. The party lost the 1981 election after the late entertainer Dudu Topaz in a speech at a Labor rally called Sephardim chah-chahim, a derogatory slang term for Israeli Jews of Middle Eastern background.
In 1998, Labor MK Ori Orr caused a controversy when he blamed Morrocan Jews for problems in Labor and the country. Orr made the comments in an interview with then-journalist Ben-Simon.
“A woman who was lived in Beersheba like Yacimovich should understand better than anyone else the fragile composition of Israeli society, but she is failing the same way that Shimon Peres, Ehud Barak, and Ori Orr did before her,” Ben- Simon lamented.
“She is on the verge of dividing Labor, not on ideology but along ethnic lines. She will go into history as a woman elected with hope, but who broke up the party on ethnic lines, and people will not be able to forgive her for this.”
Labor’s secretary-general, MK Hilik Bar, who like Ben-Simon is of Sephardi descent, said that their rise to prominence and influence was proof that Ben- Simon was incorrect.
“This issue is very delicate and Mr. Ben-Simon sadly took it in the wrong direction,” Bar said. “Labor is a home for people from all over Israel: cities, kibbutzim, men, women, youths and seniors, and of course [for those] from all the different religious and ethnic groups, who are at all levels of leadership within the party. I truly hope that Labor’s leaders and activists will choose to focus on our two main banners, social justice and peace, rather than resort to racial or ethnical debates whose relevancy passed years ago.”
Labor officials noted that Ben- Simon himself had embarrassed the party in January 2012 when he told a Knesset conference that Yisrael Beytenu MKs “poisoned and polluted” the Knesset and called for them to join the conference in order to “learn what they were not taught in school in Saint Petersburg.”
Ben-Simon apologized for those remarks the following day.
Zamir told Army Radio Sunday morning that he had not intended to use the term arsim and that he regretted it.
“If I knew it would cause such a storm, of course I would never have used that term,” Zamir said. “It was a mistake to use the term ‘arsim’ in a public place that is so tense, like a Labor convention. It was not intended to be ethnic. Labor is as multi-ethnic as it gets.”