The lack of an 'ethnic demon' in the Kadima race

From its outset, the party has sought to attract members from across the ethnic, religious and political spectrum.

mofaz new 224 88 aj (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
mofaz new 224 88 aj
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
"This is the moment we bury the ethnic demon in Israel," Amir Peretz declared in his victory speech after winning the Labor Party leadership race in November 2005. However, he was soon to find out that his heritage remained an issue throughout his relatively short tenure as Labor leader and failed defense minister. With Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz putting his hat in the ring for the post of Kadima leader, Sephardim are the closest they have ever been to representation atop the political ladder. Iranian-born Mofaz could become the first prime minister who doesn't have a European heritage. No Sephardi has ever had such a realistic hope of attaining the premiership. Mofaz has an impressive resume and has succeeded in many positions usually reserved for Ashkenazim. He became only the second non-European chief of General Staff, the first being Moshe Levy in 1983, a full 35 years after the founding of the state. Unlike many prominent Sephardi politicians, such as Peretz, David Levy and Aryeh Deri, Mofaz is not known for being concerned with social and economic affairs. He has only held the Transportation and Defense portfolios. As a result, although considered hawkish, Mofaz has not become identified with "Sephardi politics." We are not witnessing any backlash and cries of discrimination when Mofaz is attacked in the press and by fellow politicians the way we witnessed when Binyamin Ben-Eliezer and Amir Peretz ran for leadership of the Labor Party. Indeed, the "ethnic demon" has been the decisive factor in almost every election - from the riots in Haifa's Wadi Salib in the 1950s, the Black Panthers of the 1970s, and Dudu Topaz's "chachchachim" of the 1980s. Apart from receiving the blessing of Shas spiritual mentor Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, which is given to all who seek it, Mofaz has not sought, nor received much of the Sephardi vote. This is largely because Kadima members, who will decide the outcome of the race, do not appear to have much of an obvious Sephardi agenda. THE KADIMA race is being compared to the recent race for the Democratic presidential nomination, with Tzipi Livni as Hilary Clinton and Mofaz as Barack Obama. In the US campaign, Obama's campaign was clouded with references to his color. Whether wielding it as a weapon or a deflective measure, Obama has related to his ethnicity constantly on the campaign trail. In contrast, Mofaz's ethnicity has hardly been alluded to. There could be many factors for this. The simplest explanation could be that Israeli society has matured and is ready for an ethnic prime minister. However, recent barbs at Peretz and Ben-Eliezer prove that this is far from true. Ben-Eliezer was frequently pejoratively referred to as "Fuad," similar to those who include the middle-name Hussein when referring to Obama, suggesting to the listener or reader that the candidate is an outsider and casting aspersions on whether he is fit for such a high office. Recently, a television program aimed at dispelling the myth of ethnic equality in Israeli society. Don't Call Me Black recounted a history of discrimination against Sephardim and conducted various experiments to determine whether it still existed. Identical resumes were sent to potential employers, one with an Ashkenazi sounding name and the other with a distinctly Sephardi sounding name. Suffice to say the Ashkenazi was in far greater demand. The show's producers then conducted a similar experiment with Sephardi- and Ashkenazi-looking people trying to hitch a ride, enter a nightclub and similar situations. In all the scenarios, the Ashkenazi took precedence over the Sephardi. The nightclub scenario was actually replicated in reality when a dark-skinned lady was barred from entering a party while the lighter skinned freely entered. It seems that somewhere in the Israeli psyche, darker skin still connotes inferiority. But Mofaz appears not to have suffered thus far for his ethnicity or his skin tone. This may have more to do with the nature of Kadima than anything else. When Kadima was formed, the leadership learned the lesson of the almost exclusively secular, Ashkenazi Shinui, which lasted only one election. From the outset, Kadima attempted to be inclusive and attracted members from across ethnic, religious and political divides. Kadima's first Knesset list featured 11 women, 11 Sephardi candidates, six former generals, six immigrants from the former Soviet Union, four Orthodox candidates, seven academics and two residents of Judea and Samaria. However, in becoming the party for everyone, it became the party of no one. Kadima became a party without a well formulated identity. Its voters would be hard pressed to explain exactly what the party stands for, and although there may be many Sephardi Kadima members, they tend not to be from the lower socio-economic classes. Possibly the antagonism directed toward the likes of Peretz or Ben-Eliezer was because of the feeling that the Labor movement was formed and largely populated by Ashkenazim. Or because mistrust of the left wing is seen as a protest vote by Sephardim settling accounts, election after election, for the humiliation and insult they and their parents and their parent's parents suffered. Either way the history of the Labor Party has an effect on its current perceived identity. Mofaz is part of what researchers Michal Shamir and Asher Arian call the "dealignment" of the party system. This describes a general loosening of the ties between society and political society in response to social and political modernization. Thus, Kadima is at the forefront of a shift away from ethnic or identity politics that characterized much of the first few decades of the state. The Kadima member or supporter has sought this party because it is an attempt at a new way. Perhaps this clean slate has allowed a non-European like Mofaz to ascend to the top of the party and possibly the pinnacle of Israeli politics. The writer is an editor at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs for the Middle East Strategic Information project. This article first appeared in's "Sephardi Perspective" blog.