David Levy and Israel's incomplete Mizrahi revolution - opinion

If Golda Meir broke gender glass ceilings – as, more recently, Amir Ohana has done for gays – in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, Levy was a role model for aspiring Mizrahi politicians.

 THEN-EDUCATION minister Naftali Bennett presents David Levy with the Israel Prize for his ‘special contribution to society and the community,’ at a ceremony in Jerusalem, in 2018.  (photo credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)
THEN-EDUCATION minister Naftali Bennett presents David Levy with the Israel Prize for his ‘special contribution to society and the community,’ at a ceremony in Jerusalem, in 2018.
(photo credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)

Last month, in Beit She’an, a man who changed Israeli politics, former deputy prime minister David Levy, marked his 85th birthday.

Like most parents, Levy is undoubtedly proud of his children, two of whom followed in their father’s footsteps and were elected to the Knesset: son Jackie and daughter Orly. Levy can also take pride in the social revolution he helped bring about. 

If Golda Meir broke gender glass ceilings – as, more recently, Amir Ohana has done for gays – in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, Levy was a role model for aspiring Mizrahi politicians.

Who was David Levy, glass ceiling breaker for Mizrahim in Israeli politics?

Levy was born in Rabat, Morocco, in 1937. He immigrated to the nine-year-old State of Israel in 1957 and, like many of the new arrivals of the period, was taken to a transit camp. 

Levy’s family was sent to Beit She’an, which later became a development town that absorbed newcomers from Iran, Iraq, Romania and North Africa. Many would eventually leave the impoverished border community for kinder pastures, but Beit She’an would remain Levy’s home and a permanent part of his political identity.

Beit She’an (credit: MEITAL SHARABI)Beit She’an (credit: MEITAL SHARABI)

Like the early Zionist pioneers, Levy started off in manual labor. He planted trees for the Jewish National Fund and picked cotton on a kibbutz. In an almost unique Israeli paradox, his kibbutznik employers – while theoretically committed to socialism and the proletariat – did not provide clean drinking water for the hired help, and Levy orchestrated his first strike.  

With work often intermittent, Levy suffered the pains of unemployment and was involved in a violent protest that saw him end up in jail. Ultimately, he found job security as a construction worker, where his natural leadership talents led to trade union activism. 

Originally, his union role had him associated with the Mapai labor party that reigned supreme in Israel during those years. But by the mid-1960s, Levy had found a political home in Menachem Begin’s opposition Herut party (the precursor of the Likud), where he was one of its leading “Blue and White” trade unionists. 

In 1965, Levy became Beit She’an’s deputy mayor. Four years later, he was elected to the Knesset, an authentic representative of Herut’s growing Mizrahi voting base. Levy would remain an MK for the next 36 years.

Begin’s 1977 electoral victory ended 30 years of the Labor Party’s hegemony and saw Levy appointed minister of immigrant absorption and later minister of housing and construction. By 1981, Levy was also deputy prime minister, a position he would hold non-consecutively for 12 years.

When Begin resigned the premiership in 1983, Levy stood for Likud leader but was defeated by the former Lehi underground commander Yitzhak Shamir. In 1990, Levy was appointed foreign minister (he was to be Israel’s chief diplomat on and off for five years). 

Levy stood for Likud leader a second time in February 1992, but again lost to Shamir. When the latter resigned in the aftermath of the Likud’s failure in the June 1992 Knesset elections, Levy ran for the top slot for a third time but was defeated by rising political star Benjamin Netanyahu.  

In 1995, Levy bolted Netanyahu’s Likud to establish his own Mizrachi political movement, Gesher. However, Levy formed a joint list with the Likud for the 1996 Knesset elections, only to break with it anew in 1998. Levy finally rejoined the Likud in 2001, then under Ariel Sharon’s leadership – but was never to return to front-line politics. In 2014 there was talk of a Levy candidacy for Israel’s president, but the idea never materialized. 

LEVY’S POLITICAL record was mixed. On the one hand, he led the Mizrahi revolution that saw immigrants of Middle Eastern origin enter key political roles which were previously the sole domain of Israel’s eastern European Ashkenazi founding establishment. 

In doing so, Levy was the harbinger of a generation of Mizrahi mayors from across Israel’s social periphery who went on to become national Likud politicians – men like Shaul Amor from Migdal Ha’emek, Moshe Katsav from Kiryat Malachi, David Magen from Kiryat Gat, and Meir Sheetrit from Yavne.

But Levy was also a political failure. Despite repeated attempts, he never became head of Likud – which, while receiving massive support from Mizrahim, has never elected a Mizrahi leader. (By contrast, Labor has had two – Avi Gabbay and Amir Peretz – though neither became prime minister.)  

Levy was also infamous for his political zigzags. During the 1982 First Lebanon War, he challenged defense minister Sharon’s stewardship of the campaign, a stance that earned him the respect of many moderates. 

Nonetheless, in 1989-90, together with Sharon and Yitzhak Moda’i, Levy was part of the political trio that attacked the ever-hawkish Shamir from the right. A decade later, Levy was to forge an electoral alliance with Labor’s Ehud Barak. All these oscillations generated criticism that Levy lacked a clear ideological compass. 

He was also accused of not using his senior government positions to advance the interests of the blue-collar Mizrahi community from which he stemmed, preferring the prestige of the Foreign Ministry over the socio-economic clout of the Finance Ministry.

Levy would correctly argue that compartmentalizing Mizrahi politicians to domestic affairs, away from the major national questions of war and peace, is in itself a form of discrimination. And throughout his career Levy was very much on the receiving end of prejudice; the butt of ethnic stereotypical jokes, he was repeatedly dismissed as a pretentious lightweight.  

In overcoming these and other obstacles, Levy’s political ascendancy was reflective of the upward mobility of countless Mizrahim whose families endured the squalor of the transit camps, but within a generation rose into the middle classes and beyond – a change manifested in Beit She’an’s current expansive private housing.

In 1954, Israel’s Polish-born first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, wrote that he hoped to see someone of Yemenite heritage attain the position of president or appointed IDF chief of staff – at the time an expression of a noble aspiration. But by 1978, Yitzhak Navon became Israel’s first Mizrahi president, and in 1983, Moshe Levi was appointed the first Mizrahi chief of staff. Since then, other Mizrahim have followed suit, but they unfortunately still remain the exception to the norm. 

Postscript: In the November 1, 2022 Knesset election, Beit She’an gave 48% of its votes to the Likud. Orthodox-Sephardi Shas came in second place with 25%. Labor, the party of the kibbutznik employers against whom Levy organized his protest for clean drinking water, received only 0.6% of the vote.  

The writer, formerly an adviser to the prime minister, is chair of the Abba Eban Institute for Diplomacy at Reichman University. Connect with him on LinkedIn, @Ambassador Mark Regev.