Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Playing the ethnic card in Israel no longer works

Israel's Moroccan-born defence minister Amir Peretz has been criticised for incompetence. Israel's president, Iranian-born Moshe Katsav, has been accused of sexual harassment - and worse. Is the real reason for their 'victimisation' anti-Mizrahi racism? Or is 'playing the ethnic card' itself losing its effect?

The journalist Gideon Levy certainly thinks that Peretz is being victimised on account of his Mizrahi origins. He argues in Haaretz:

"Indeed, let's call a spade a spade: The mockery of Peretz derives from racism. There is no other way to explain the systematic ridicule of his character: his English, his awkward pinning of ranks on the chief of staff, and the covered binoculars. This could happen to anyone, but we laugh at him. So let's remove the mask: Unlike many Mizrahim, Peretz remains a Moroccan who did not become Ashkenazi in his personality, mustache, mannerisms, diction or place of residence. Unfortunately, he discarded the mantle of the man of peace from Sderot, but he never switched the mantle of his ethnic origin. And he is paying for this now. The problem does not lie in his binoculars, but rather in our binoculars. The ethnic demon is still here, alive and kicking, this time at Amir Peretz."

Moshe Katsav, the state's president, has very publicly climbed on to the 'ethnic demon' bandwagon. David Green writes in Nextbook (with thanks Albert):

The latest contender is a bona fide heavyweight: the state's president, Moshe Katsav. Katsav, 61, has been under intense scrutiny since July, when suspicions surfaced that he had sexually harassed a onetime employee at his official residence in Jerusalem. Once this woman came forward with a rape complaint, another 10 women were reported to have lined up at the police station to claim that they, too, had been victims of Katsav's advances. Some of the accusations predate his six years as president. Yet, in spite of the grave accusations now directed at him, it is Katsav who insists that he is the wronged party, and in his defense he insinuates he's being persecuted because of his Mizrahi origins.

On January 24, the day after Attorney General Menachem Mazuz announced his intention to indict the president, Katsav delivered an address nearly an hour long, covered live by all local media. He categorically denied everything, and vowed that until "my dying breath" he would fight a "world war, if necessary" to establish his innocence. Most of his 50-minute performance consisted of a frontal attack on the media: an "elitist clique of bloated egos, born with silver spoons in their mouths," who, he claimed, had conspired with the police to frame him ever since his election to the presidency in 2000.

To observers overseas, Katsav's words may sound bizarre. He was speaking in code, but delivering a message every Israeli understands. A desperate man, he was playing a kind of "race card," or, as the Hebrew phrase has it, in translation, he was "letting the ethnic genie out of the bottle."(...)

In truth, Katsav could be seen as the embodiment of the Zionist dream, an Israeli version of a Horatio Alger character. His family arrived in the young state in 1951, when he was five, spending their first years in one of the makeshift transit camps used to house the many immigrants from Muslim lands whose arrival helped double the country's population during the 1950s. Kastina, their tent camp southeast of Tel Aviv, was flooded during their first winter, and Moshe's two-month-old brother died.

Defying the odds, the ambitious Katsav earned a bachelor's degree from the Hebrew University, and at age 24, returned to become mayor of Kiryat Malakhi, the town that had been built on the site of the Kastina camp. Eight years later, having worked his way up in the Likud, he was elected to the Knesset, and at 38, he became the youngest man ever appointed a government minister, in this case at the ministry of Labor and Welfare. Over the next two decades, Katsav went on to serve as minister of transportation under Yitzhak Shamir, and then under Benjamin Netanyahu, as both tourism minister and as deputy prime minister.

But Katsav's chief 'victimiser' is the attorney-general Menahem Mazuz. And Mazuz is himself a Mizrahi.

A cursory look at Mazuz's background provides a rejoinder to Katsav. Mazuz was born in Djerba, Tunisia, the son of a rabbi. In 1956, when he was one, his family arrived in Israel and was plunked down in Azata, another transit camp, which eventually became the development town of Netivot, the same town where Barak offered a mea culpa on behalf of Ashkenazim to his Mizrahi countrymen a decade ago. It is more remote than Kiryat Malakhi, and remains an impoverished, disadvantaged community. Now, Netivot's most famous son will determine the fate of the one-time pride of Kiryat Malakhi. It is hard to imagine Moshe Katsav is now much more than a source of embarrassment in his hometown, compounding his own misdeeds with a misguided attempt to transfer blame from himself to a faded bogeyman.

Isn't it time for politicians and journalists to stop playing the ethnic card in Israel? David Green continues:

"Israel's current crop of politicians are hardly morally superior to their predecessors, but ethnic demagoguery no longer has the same effect. That's why Amir Peretz, the Moroccan-born current chair of Labor, was able to defeat none other than Shimon Peres for the party leadership last year, even while very consciously refusing to make his background part of the campaign. When he became Labor's candidate for prime minister, in 2006, he declared, "Today we are euthanizing the ethnic genie."

A year later, the public has repudiated Peretz as defense minister and Labor is preparing to replace him as its head. Yet no one in his camp has the nerve to suggest that he is the victim of ethnic prejudice. He is the victim of his own incompetence and his refusal to acknowledge it.

Israel still has a permanent underclass, and it is largely Mizrahi in background. The gap between the affluent and the impoverished is growing, even as the country increasingly prospers. But these days, the source of the problem is social and economic, not ethnic, at least for the Jewish (as opposed to Arab) population.

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