How can Israel’s left-wing parties win more Mizrahi votes?

These leaders should open the dialogue with a simple but sincere message: “I’m sorry.”

Left wing Israelis hold sign stated "we want a democratic Israel" at a rally against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and in support of the Supreme Court in Tel Aviv, May 25, 2019 (photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/ MAARIV)
Left wing Israelis hold sign stated "we want a democratic Israel" at a rally against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and in support of the Supreme Court in Tel Aviv, May 25, 2019
(photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/ MAARIV)
Many Mizrahim – descendants of Jewish communities in the Middle East and North Africa – do not vote for left-leaning Israeli parties because of the way such parties treated them. As my sister, an immigrant from Iraq like me, told me recently, “I cannot bring myself to vote for any Left party, whether it’s Mapai and HaAvodah in the past, or Blue and White and others, because they treated the likes of me like dirt when they were the governing parties.”
To win more seats and better standing in the Knesset, leaders of left-leaning parties, like Benny Gantz of Blue and White, must appeal to my sister and thousands like her. These leaders should open the dialogue with a simple but sincere message: “I’m sorry.”
From 1949 to 1952, about 750,000 Jews from Middle Eastern Arab countries like Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Egypt were flown by the Jewish Agency in cargo planes to the fledgling State of Israel, thus doubling its population. They are called Mizrahim, Orientals, Levantines, blacks and – behind their backs – schwartzes, or worse. The agency negotiated with the governments of those Arab countries to let their Jews leave in exchange for all their assets.
Most, including my father, did not want to leave. To spur the reluctant, the agency sent messengers to set Jewish businesses and synagogues on fire. These tactics were carefully designed to scare rather than cause much harm to life and property, and convinced most Middle Eastern Jews to move to the land of milk and honey, leaving most of their assets behind. The agency is likely to provide another, more self-serving, explanation of those events.
This way, the newcomers became Israel’s captive population, housed in hundreds of makeshift tent camps, ma’abarot, and later sent to populate Israel’s long, hostile borders.
My family was sent to the ma’abara of Kfar Saba, three miles east of the all-Ashkenazi city of Kfar Saba and less than a mile from the border with Jordan. But on Sunday, February 15, 1953, in the middle of the night, the Israeli government executed a secret and sudden mission to dismantle our Kfar Saba ma’abara and transport its 6,000 residents to other places without any advance notice. So secret was the mission, the government did not leave any record it had ever happened, were it not for Mordecai Surkiss, Kfar Saba’s mayor, whose record of the event is now housed in the city museum.
THAT NIGHT, soldiers stormed our camp, shielded by darkness, with rifles and flashlights and loudspeakers in their hands. Their blaring speakers said it was not safe for us to be in the camp any longer for “security reasons,” but the only threat came from the rifles and the blinding flashlights the soldiers pointed at us, herding us like cattle into lorries.
“Get on the truck,” they said, and shoved old and young toward the lorries waiting in the dark for their cargo, engines revved. They were soldiers doing their job, hauling frightened human cargo as told. We were nobodies, scared and stripped off all human dignities and anything normal. We did not even speak the language.
I was nine-years old back then, my sister was seven. In all, we were nine children and two parents. The dismantling of our ma’abara life was but one extreme abuse we experienced. Most Mizrahim like us were treated as less than human beings, raw material to populate Israel’s borders and serve as the first line of defense against the bordering Arab states.  
This unimaginably humiliating treatment came from the top leaders. For example, Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, called us blacks, animals and monkeys, according to written memoranda quoted in a recent biography of Ben-Gurion by respected Israeli author Tom Segev. Most policymakers, all Ashkenazi, shared Ben-Gurion’s opinion. The resulting policies reflected this view. We – the blacks, animals and monkeys – were sent to barren land rich in boulders and sand, but little else. We had nothing to do: no work, no schools, no medical clinics, no public transportation and no life to speak of. Resentment and mistrust simmered.
Is it any surprise that as a result of this treatment most Mizrahi voters now vote for right-wing parties, for the likes of Benjamin Netanyahu? Many do not do so because they love Bibi, but because they still remember how they were deeply insulted by the ancestors of Blue and White and of other left-wing parties.
Israel’s left-wing parties have much healing work to do to win more Mizrahi votes in upcoming elections. Such work should start by taking responsibility for past injustices. It must include a formal apology, not just passive acknowledgments that “mistakes were made,” as if they were made by unknowns. If there is something Mizrahim really dislike, it is an insincere apology. I should know. This, of course, should be followed by policies which treat Mizrahim as equal partners.
Prof. Avraham Shama was born in Iraq and grew up in Israel. He is a writer and a retired university professor living in the Southwestern US. He can be reached at [email protected]