Think About It: The radical left-wing Mizrahi voters

One of the many curious and fascinating phenomena of the current election campaign is the radical-left, secular, intellectual Mizrahi discourse.

Israeli election ballots [File] (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Israeli election ballots [File]
One of the many curious and fascinating phenomena of the current election campaign is the radical-left, secular, intellectual Mizrahi discourse, which has been receiving quite a bit of media attention.
Most of the individuals concerned are, or were, connected with Hakeshet Hademocratit Hamizrahit (The Democratic Mizrahi Rainbow), and the feminist organization Ahoti (My Sister).
The Keshet Hamizrahit is an extra-parliamentary non-partisan organization founded in 1996 by Mizrahi intellectuals to increase awareness of and to take action against the ongoing dominance of Ashkenazi culture in Israel, and discrimination against the Mizrahim and their culture, despite the fact that the Mizrahim allegedly constitute a majority of the Jewish population in Israel (the statistics are complicated by intermarriage between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim, and the difficulty of categorizing the immigrants from the Muslim republics of the former Soviet Union).
Ahoti, established in 1999, is made up of Mizrahi feminists, who feel that the predominantly Ashkenazi feminist movement in Israel does not represent them, and does not address the issues that Mizrahi and Arab women confront in the largely patriarchal Mizrahi and Arab communities.
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Left-wing Mizrahim admit that they are numerically a negligible group among the Mizrahim in Israel, and have never tried to establish a party, or run in elections on their own list, since even before the qualifying threshold was raised to 3.25 percent they didn’t stand a chance of passing it.
However, unlike previous elections in which this group of intellectual Mizrahim pondered the issue of how to vote among themselves, this time they are openly advocating two alternatives: Shas and the Joint (Arab) List, leaving out any predominantly Ashkenazi Zionist option.
The Shas and Joint List options were very articulately described on the London and Kirschenbaum program on Channel 10 last week by Ron Kachlili and Ravital Madar.
Kachlili is an artist who recently produced a three-chapter documentary for TV Channel 8 dealing with what he calls “the new Mizrahi elites,” and Madar is a radical anti-Ashkenazi feminist who writes a weekly column in the Friday edition of the Haaretz cultural magazine, Galeria.
Kachlili is one of those advocating voting for Shas, arguing that it is the only party which is completely Mizrahi, concerned with changing the status of the Mizrahim, and openly advocating a major change in policy toward the weaker sections of the population, which it refers to as “transparent.”
Though Shas is still basically a haredi (ultra-Orthodox) party, with no women candidates and with a spiritual leadership made up of rabbis, headed by Rabbi Shalom Cohen, who recently referred to the Hatikvah as a “dumb song” – Shas’s political leader, Arye Deri, is believed by Kachlili and his colleagues to be headed in a different direction. It is even believed that Deri himself does not object in principle to women being placed on the Shas list, though presently he feels that the time is not yet ripe for such a step, and has made do with an advisory “Women’s Council,” which includes Rabbi Ovadia Yossef’s impressive daughter, Adina Bar-Shalom, who heads the haredi academic college in Jerusalem.
Perhaps I am just dreaming, but wouldn’t it be inspiring if in the elections to the 21st Knesset, Shas adopted Ruth Colian – the fascinating founder and leader of the Ubezchutan women’s haredi list, who represents another unique and remarkable story in the current election campaign, even though her list doesn’t stand a chance of passing the qualifying threshold, and place her on its list? Certainly a cause worthy of any self-respecting Mizrahi feminist movement! Another factor in Shas’s favor in the eyes of radical-left Mizrahi intellectuals, is the fact that it does not exclude the Arabs when it speaks about changing the policy toward the weaker strata of the population. It is known that Shas has thousands of loyal Arab voters.
Ravital Madar is one of those advocating voting for the Joint List. While most of the Jews who are planning to vote for the Joint List are loyal Hadash voters (most of them Ashkenazim), Madar admits that she supports Balad. In other words, she is openly post-Zionist, and believes that the Mizrahim will gain their rightful place in the Israeli society if Israel becomes a “state of all its citizens.”
Of the many interesting monologues and dialogues that took place last Thursday on Channel 2 in the pre-election debate between the leaders of eight of the lists contesting the election was the appeal of the head of the Joint List, Ayman Odeh (who stood up bravely and elegantly against Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman’s poisonous, racist attack against Israeli Arabs in general, and himself in particular), to Deri.
Odeh expressed his total support for Shas’s “transparent citizens” campaign. “I represent the most transparent population in Israel,” he added, indicating that there is much room for cooperation between Shas and the Joint List at this level.
But are these really the only options for radical leftwing Mizrahim? Professor Yossi Yona offers a third option: the Labor Party. Since Yona, one of the founders of the Keshet Hamizrahit, is placed only in the 23rd slot on the Zionist Union list (marginal, though not unrealistic according to recent polls), it is not clear how many radical left-wing Mizrahim will be convinced to vote for the Zionist Union.
The Zionist Union has several impressive Mizrahi social activists on its list, including MKs Itzik Shmuli and Amir Peretz, and the new arrival Ravital Swaid. However, most of the radical left-wing Mizrahim are suspicious of the attitude of hard-core Laborites to the Mizrahim, pointing out that Amir Peretz wasn’t really given a fair chance after being elected chairman of the party in 2006.
I would make two comments to this observation.The first is that since Ehud Barak’s victory in 1999 Labor has been fast to oust leaders who have failed to win elections, Ashkenazi and Mizrahi alike. The second is that by taking the Defense Ministry rather than an economic or social ministry in Olmert’s 2006 government, Peretz showed poor judgment, and lost much of his credibility within the party.
And what about Meretz? Ideologically Meretz seems to be the most obvious option for radical left-wingers. Its great “sin” is that it is almost exclusively Ashkenazi. If the number of radical Mizrahi left-wingers was greater, they could try to take over Meretz using similar tactics to those used by Moshe Feiglin in the Likud, though in the final reckoning Feiglin failed because he was regarded as a Trojan horse, and most of his supporters in the Likud didn’t actually vote for the Likud.
Finally, there is the Kahlon option. Koolanu Party chairman Moshe Kahlon is undoubtedly a proud Mizrahi, concerned almost exclusively with the problem of socio-economic inequalities in Israeli society. However, among radical left-wing Mizrahim he is tainted due to his Likud origins, his avoidance of the alleged issue of anti-Mizrahi discrimination, and the fact that numbers two and three on the Koolanu list are Maj.-Gen. (res.) Yoav Galant and former ambassador to the US Michael Oren – both prominent Ashkenazi figures.
In the final reckoning the radical left-wing Mizrahim are a small group, while the majority of Mizrahim are inclined to be religious or traditional, and supporters of the Right. Most tend to hold middle class values and aspirations, are not concerned with revolting against the Ashkenazim, and even those not on the Right do not feel that the radical left-wingers speak for them, or express their feelings.
Nevertheless, if members of the radical group in future take their strategic thinking regarding the current elections in the direction of practical, everyday political activism, they might actually leave a mark on Israeli society and the country’s political scene.
The writer is a retired Knesset employee.