Thursday, November 01, 2012

Playing the ethnic card in Israel's politics

There were two Moroccans and one Tunisian.... no, this is not the start of a joke, but how the the Shas Sephardi orthodox party leadership was recently introduced to the press. Dan Laor writing in Haaretz finds it outrageous that politicians should still identify themselves by their ethnic origins - especially since integration in the melting pot, despite attempts to vilify it, has been one of Israel's great success stories.

Background: An ark in a synagogue covered by an embroidered velvet curtain. 

Foreground: Three Shas party bigwigs – Interior Minister Eli Yishai, Aryeh Deri and Housing Minister Ariel Atias – wearing suits and ties, after signing a power-sharing agreement under the guidance of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef to determine party leadership. In a moment of good-heartedness, the three men get up from their seats, shake each other's hands, and smile broadly as Atias introduces them to the press, in what appeared to be a moment of light-hearted amusement, as "two Moroccans and a Tunisian." 

So an Israeli government minister and senior party politician identifies himself and his colleagues in terms of their ethnic origin: This one is Moroccan and that one is Tunisian. Could it be true? 

What if Labor Party leader Shelly Yacimovich, when introducing party primary contenders Itzik Shmuli and Miki Rosenthal, felt the need to specify their ethnicity or if Kadima party chairman Shaul Mofaz, when he  conveyed hope that former Israeli military chief-of-staff Gabi Ashkenazi would join Kadima, did the same? What if Yesh Atid party head Yair Lapid, at the moment he uttered the name of new party candidate Jacob Perry, singled him out by his ethnic heritage? 

Almost 65 years after the establishment of the State of Israel, Jews of Middle Eastern origins, known as Mizrahim, are an integral part of Israeli society. They're well represented in the Knesset, government ministries, the rest of the public sector, the IDF and all the other parts of the government. The presence of the Mizrahim is felt even more in the education system and the cultural establishment – among teachers, actors, filmmakers, artists and writers. Mizrahi music has already been a part of mainstream Israeli music for some time now. It almost goes without saying that intra-communal marriage between Jewish Israelis is an unremarkable occurrence. 

True, statistics show that not everything is rosy. There are still areas with social gaps and inequality. We must continue to be vigilant, in some cases even considering affirmative action policies. 

Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the same melting pot that has been vilified is actually a great success story, more than we are willing to admit. Jewish-Israeli society became an open society that assimilates newcomers in numbers and to a degree that are quite exceptional compared to other immigration-based societies around the world. Recognition of the need to preserve cultural pluralism in Israel has strengthened – a sign of the tolerance, persistence and desire to build a shared life. 

And here comes Atias to remind us that, excuse us, he is a Tunisian and his colleagues are Moroccans. In an instant the bogeyman of ethnic identity politics has woken from his slumber. Not, God forbid, from someone who would seek to harm the status of Mizrahim, but rather from someone who thinks of himself as their authentic representative. And this occurs just as the Zionist enterprise clearly moves in the direction of integration, as Israel's founding father David Ben-Gurion predicted. 

 Two Moroccans and a Tunisian agree the Shas party leadership, as featured on Israel's Channel 1  (with thanks: Noam)

Read article in full

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It's always great to see a hypocritical defense of the unity of the Israeli society from the leading class-warfare, racially-divisive, pro-palestinian "Israeli" rag.

I have no problem with Jews being proud of their heritage while being an integral and productive part of the Israeli society. Those who read haaretz believe that our "culture" begins and ends with Amoz Oz, Shlomo Artzi and Noam Chosmky. But those who identify as Yemeni Jews keep the beautiful poetry of Shalom Shabazi in the mainstream, the Syrian Jews bring the recitations of Baqashot and keep the wonderful medieval Sephardic poetry alive... and the same could be said about pretty much all other ethnic groups.

How desperate must the post-Zionist, far-left be to criticize someone for not being Israeli enough...