Labor must labor for Middle East peace

Peace in the Middle East can still become a reality if the Labor parties win upcoming elections and form coalition governments.

Avi Gabbay, the new leader of Israel's centre-left Labor party, delivers his victory speech after winning the Labor party primary runoff, at an event in Tel Aviv (photo credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN)
Avi Gabbay, the new leader of Israel's centre-left Labor party, delivers his victory speech after winning the Labor party primary runoff, at an event in Tel Aviv
(photo credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN)
Israel’s Labor parties failed at reaching peace in the West Bank and Gaza, because they failed to nurture the Arab Jewish voters, thus pushing many of them to vote for right-leaning parties, as the Likud. This failure fueled the stunning 1977 victory of the Likud party, which has formed most governing coalitions since.
Peace in the Middle East can still become a reality if the Labor parties evolving from Mapai, as the peace-supporting Avoda and Meretz, win upcoming elections and form coalition governments. They can win such elections by catering to the needs of the same Jewish Arab voters that they alienated years earlier, honor their traditions and respect their ethnic values. To achieve this, the Labor parties must compromise some of their ultra-secular stances and be more accepting of the lessthan- lily-white-Ashkenazi voters who constitute their thinning base.
Israeli Arab Jews are people who were born in the Arab countries of the Middle East, such as Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Egypt and Morocco. In the 1950s, 750,000 of them migrated to the infant state of Israel. By 2018, they and their subsequent generations, make up about half of the six million voters that participate in a proportional representation system of more than 30 political parties.
In such a system, even a small party, or a small sway of votes from Right to Left can have a pivotal effect on war and peace.
Upon arrival in Israel, Arab Jews were treated as second-class citizens by the governing Mapai and other social liberal labor parties, as Achdut Haavodah and the Progressive Party of the Mapai coalition government.
They were sent by the government to populate rocky, virgin land in the peripheries, where there was absolutely nothing – no employment, schools, healthcare services, public transportation or even roads. Such policies assured that Arab Jews not only become the lower classes, but also move the whole political system farther to the populist right as a vote against Mapai, akin of what is happening now in European countries as Poland, Hungary and Italy. In Israel, such nationalistic parties hold negative attitudes toward the neighboring Arab countries and toward the Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
These Jews were called blacks, shvartsas (Yiddish for the N-word) to their faces by the European Jews of Israel, the Ashkenazim. Even the highly respected prime minister David Ben Gurion, had described them as savages, primitive, backward and less intelligent.
The question is what makes Arab Jewish voters support right-wing parties like Likud instead of the Labor parties? One explanation is that Arab Jewish Israelis feel that they had been humiliated and discriminated by the Labor parties governing the country in the 1950s, which doomed them to life of relative disadvantage.
Not voting for them had been plain common sense.
I lived in Israel in those days and can attest to this shabby treatment by the governing Labor coalition, including the sudden middle- of-the-night transfer of all 500 families of the Kfar Saba Transition Camp in which I was living then.
Another explanation is that Israeli Arab Jews and their children and grandchildren are by nature more traditional than the left-leaning, Ashkenazi population.
Therefore, the Labor parties of Israel have an opportunity to win more Arab Jewish voters, form a coalition government, and give peace a better chance by modifying their platform to appeal to Arab Jews. These parties and their bases should stop treating Arab Jews like primitives. They should also acknowledge and support by voice and action the pride of Arab Jews in their traditions, rich histories and contributions to Jewish life. This should include, for example, a change in school curricula to include material on Middle-Eastern Jews. (As a personal note, I – an Iraqi Jew – went to high school in Israel, studying Jewish-European and Jewish-American history and culture but nothing, not a word, about Middle- Eastern Jewish history, as if I came from nowhere.) Also, where possible, the Labor parties should scale back their ultra-liberal stances and qualify their support for divisive issues or transfer them to the local municipalities.
This requires a more welcoming mindset on the part of the leaders of such Labor parties, a genuine drive for inclusiveness and hard practical choices.
This order is akin to persuading some of the Trump supporters to vote Democratic, but the recent elections results in Alabama, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania suggest this is possible.
If this seems like a very tall order, it is because it is. But stranger things have happened.
The writer is Professor of Business at the Anderson School of Management at the University of New Mexico (retired), and former dean, College of Business, University of Texas. He has published five books, most recently his memoir, Finding Home: An Immigrant’s Journey, as well as Immigration Without Integration: Third World Jews in Israel. Both are available on Amazon.