Falsely turning Yoaz Hendel into Dudu Topaz – analysis

Come election years, the “ethnic genie” always manages to jump from the back seat into the front.

Yoaz Hendel on his former boss Benjamin Netanyahu: His weaknesses overcame his abilities and made him a prime minister who is no longer good.  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Yoaz Hendel on his former boss Benjamin Netanyahu: His weaknesses overcame his abilities and made him a prime minister who is no longer good.
Had you walked the streets of the country in the late 1960s and 70s and asked people what they thought was the main social/domestic issue threatening to tear the state apart, the answer would have been simple: the Ashkenazi-Sephardi rift.
Not the ultra-Orthodox vs the secular, as many might answer today, but rather Ashkenazi vs Sephardi.
This was the time of Mapai hegemony, of Jews from North African ancestry feeling looked down upon and discriminated against, of Charlie Biton and the Black Panthers, and of an Israel being ruled by what were known at the time as WASPS – white Ashkenazi Sabras with protexzia (connections).
Fast-forward 50 years, and this issue – though it has not disappeared – has taken a back seat. It has taken a back seat due to greater economic mobility and equality, and – above all – due to “mixed” marriages between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim (Sephardim).
Except during election cycles.
Come election years, the “ethnic genie” always manages to jump from the back seat into the front. And it did so this election cycle with an interview Friday that Blue and White MK Yoaz Hendel gave to Haaretz.
Among the Jews who immigrated to Israel to create the state, Hendel said, “Some came here with a mentality of Vienna concerts, and some came with a mentality of darbukas [Arabic-style drums]."
And that's all it took.
Instantly Hendel, a former communications director for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and radio presenter who is media savvy, was slammed by voices across the political spectrum, including from within his own party, and cast as an elitist Ashkenazi elevating the culture of the Ashkenazim while disparaging that of the Mizrahim.
Forget the context of what he said, which in no way could be understood as putting down Mizrahim or Mizrahi culture. Forget that anyone who knows Hendel knows that he is an upright man with principles who in no way feels superior towards Mizrahim.
Forget all that, because in an election year all that becomes irrelevant.  This sentence was isolated, taken out of context and immediately pounced upon by Hendel’s political rivals as yet another example of Ashkenazi haughtiness and arrogance.
The Likud tweeted that Hendel was the Yair Garbuz of 2020, referring to the leftist artist who at a Tel Aviv rally just prior to the 2015 elections called Likud supporters “amulet kissers, idol worshipers” and people who “bow down to the graves of the dead.”
Hendel, the Likud tweet read, “relates to Likud voters as those who have a darbuka mentality. That's how he relates to those who returned home, to Eretz Yisrael, with a rich and beautiful culture. He should be ashamed.” This tweet was retweeted by Netanyahu.
Hendel can explain the true meaning of his words until he is blue in the face – and he did try to do so in successive posts on Facebook and Twitter, and by releasing a taped section of the interview where he preached unity over highlighting ethnic difference -- but it was too late.
His words were already manipulated and used by Likud, and by Shas, to fire up their bases.
The Garbuz quote was used, not without success in 2015, in stirring up passion in an effort to get people out to vote. Similar attempts at this were made before the March 2019 elections when former Mossad head Shabtai Shavit also spoke of Likud voters with great contempt, saying that the prime minister's political base is “ignorant,” has “no understanding,” and “whose normative threshold is at the level of grass.”
The most famous example of someone's contemptuous words for Mizrahim boomeranging was in 1981, when entertainer Dudu Topaz called Likud supporters chakchakim (riff-raff), an expression that Menachem Begin used brilliantly to his advantage in winning over Mizrahi votes and edging out Shimon Peres by one seat in the 1981 elections.
With the polls this time showing little or no change to the stalemated results that followed the last two elections this year, a key element this time will be voter turnout, with the Likud needing to bring out its base in much larger numbers than it was able to do in September or April.
As Channel 12's political correspondent Amit Segal wrote on Friday, “The Likud still has not found the way to awaken the cities of the periphery, where voter turnout in September parachuted below even the rate among some Arab communities.”
Segal pointed out that the only year in the last generation that voter turnout among the Likud equaled that of the rest of the nation was in 2015. Coincidentally, or not, that was also the year of the Garbuz comment.
So how to awaken the slumbering voters of the periphery?
Up until now, Netanyahu has been trying to motivate his base by dangling the idea of annexation: saying that if he would be voted into office again, then he will annex the Jordan valley and the settlements in Judea and Samaria.
But now Hendel's words have been twisted around in an effort to give the Likud another way to fire up the base: by playing the  ethnic card and appealing to the sense many have of having been unfairly treated, or looked down upon.
On Friday Hendel made his innocent comment. By Saturday, they became the newest weapon in the Likud's arsenal to get out its voters, with the party – and Shas – disingenuously trying to morph Hendel into Shavit, Garbuz and Topaz.